THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Open Thread 103.5

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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454 Responses to Open Thread 103.5

  1. Zad says:

    Wanted to share this recent post I wrote about whether study funding matters for outcomes and whether we should dismiss studies based on the source of funding.

    https://www.lesslikely.com/science/funding-bias/

  2. eterevsky says:

    I wrote a semi-article, semi-story about what the Singularity would feel to a person, if it actually happened. Will appreciate any feedback: https://medium.com/@eterevsky/how-would-singularity-feel-like-cdcbbe3740b6

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      How is the general voting population going to react? By 2025, when it’s abundantly clear how powerful neural networks have become in conjunction with the host of other techniques?

      You would have thought the average person would pay attention at WATSON, which I still consider the greatest achievement since Fire and equal to the nuke. But it never seems to qualify as intelligence due to infinite goalpost moving.

      • Iain says:

        Watson, while an impressive feat of engineering, is less groundbreaking than you believe. IBM has a very good marketing department, but at the end of the day Watson itself (as opposed to the tangentially related brand IBM has built up with the same name) was just a pile of well-designed natural language processing and search algorithms, applied to a constrained problem space. Since winning Jeopardy, Watson’s track record has been patchy at best.

        • cassander says:

          I wouldn’t say that the brand is tangentially related, international business machines is a company that no longer makes business machines anymore, and Watson was really a symbol of, or halo product for, their transition from a hardware company to whatever you want to call them now (software company definitely isn’t right).

          • Iain says:

            You misread me. I’m saying that Watson-as-a-brand is only tangentially related to Watson-as-a-Jeopardy-contestant.

            PS: IBM’s shift from being a hardware company to being a consulting company happened in the 1990s under Gerstner, and had nothing to do with Watson. Watson represents a change in marketing much more than a change in strategy.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Related to what Iain said, Watson was a bit oversold.

        I can’t speak to the AI side, because I have only slightly more understanding of that than the average cro magnon, but I’ve heard from friends formerly working at IBM that Watson is in trouble.

        There’s a lot of stuff in modern medicine which is desperately crying out for automation. One good example is pathology in cancer diagnosis: image recognition which can look at a tissue section stained with H&E and classify it would save a huge amount of work and probably quite a few lives. Watson was supposed to be able to handle that sort of problem.

        But apparently they’re having a lot of trouble getting clients and had to cut a ton of staff recently. I don’t know whether they over-promised or under-delivered but either way they shouldn’t be having trouble selling this product if it’s even halfway working.

        • quaelegit says:

          >There’s a lot of stuff in modern medicine which is desperately crying out for automation. One good example is pathology in cancer diagnosis: image recognition which can look at a tissue section stained with H&E and classify it would save a huge amount of work and probably quite a few lives

          Hey, my mom worked for a company that was doing this in the late 90s! They’re algorithm wasn’t good… it gave the opposite diagnosis if you flipped the picture upside down. It’s been 20 years though so hopefully things have improved a lot.

          • Chalid says:

            I have a doctor acquaintance in a closely related field, who, a couple years ago, said that the state-of-the-art algorithms had just gotten as good as a well-trained human. Partly because of that, he was working on switching to to a new field. (A few years prior to that, he’d thought computers would take decades to replace him…)

        • Iain says:

          There’s a lot of stuff in modern medicine which is desperately crying out for automation. One good example is pathology in cancer diagnosis: image recognition which can look at a tissue section stained with H&E and classify it would save a huge amount of work and probably quite a few lives. Watson was supposed to be able to handle that sort of problem.

          The fact that you associate this task with Watson is a good example of IBM Marketing’s effectiveness.

          Watson-as-a-Jeopardy-contestant was a system that took natural-language English input, searched through an enormous database of information, and returned what it thought was the most relevant answer. If you squint, although the details are different, the basic problem statement looks similar to Google Search.

          Image recognition is an unrelated problem. Some of the same tools might be applicable — neural networks are used for nearly everything these days — but I’m not aware of any innovations in Watson-from-Jeopardy that advanced the state of the art for image recognition. IBM might have done work on image recognition under the Watson umbrella, but that’s almost certainly just Watson-as-a-brand. I’d be surprised if there was much technology shared between Jeopardy and image recognition.

          At one point, IBM suggested that the Watson-from-Jeopardy technology could be used for literature reviews in law and medicine. That would be genuinely useful; unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything about it in a while, which makes me suspect it didn’t work out.

          Most other uses of the Watson name are Watson-as-a-brand. Basically, anything IBM sells that is vaguely AI-related got “Watson” slapped on it. The quality of those products is unrelated to the original Jeopardy technology.

    • maintain says:

      *their knowledge

      Why would the computer ask him to solve sudoku by brute force? Can’t computers can do that already? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the computer to ask him to find a more efficient sudoku algorithm?

  3. johan_larson says:

    One week from today, in the OT appearing on Sunday, June 17, the SSC SF Book Club will begin discussing the selection for June, Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Spin. We had originally planned to start on the 13th, but someone who shall remain nameless has not kept up with the reading and needs a few more days to finish the book.

    • J Mann says:

      I am not the nameless person, but also need that time! Thanks for the reminder.

      • quaelegit says:

        Hah, slowpokes! I finished it yesterday. 😛

        (All I’ll say for now is it was better than I remembered, so thanks for getting me to re-read it, johan_larson!)

  4. Sniffnoy says:

    As the off-weekend thread, this is culture-war-free, so please try to avoid overly controversial topics.

    ?

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      It’s according to pattern. Why the confusion?

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Oh I see, “off-weekend” as in, this is the off weekend (in a cycle of every other week), not as in, this is off the weekend (one of the midweekly ones).

        I don’t go into the open threads too much so am not familiar with the pattern and the wording confused me…

  5. bean says:

    Naval Gazing retunrs to the Falklands War, looking at the logistics around Ascension Island.

  6. The Pachyderminator says:

    Anyone with experience in print-on-demand services: any companies you recommend or disrecommend, interesting experiences, tips on using the service effectively, etc.?

    I recently completed a print version of Unsong and received my proof copy from Lulu.com. (6″ by 9″ perfect-bound paperback, 60# paper, glossy cover.) On the whole, it looks nice. Besides a couple of cosmetic problems that are my fault and should be easily fixable, though, I’m concerned about a flaw in the binding that causes the first hundred-some pages to be slightly misaligned with the rest. Doesn’t affect readability, but it looks bad. I’m sure Lulu would replace it if I asked, but if this kind of defect occurs frequently, it will adversely affect sending copies to others.

    I’m not selling Unsong, of course, just giving copies as gifts to a few friends who I think will appreciate it. But I’m developing plans to actually sell books via POD in the near future, and in that case quality control would be an even greater concern.

  7. James says:

    Poetry thread!

    What are the most musical i) poets ii) individual poems in the language, in your view? There’s a certain kind of sound-over-sense musicality that I can sometimes–very very seldom–find, that just drives me wild.

    The poets I always think of for this are Poe (I, II) and Swinburne (I, II (especially the end), III (starting, for instance, at “Ah, ah, thy beauty….”) But there must be more! What are your favourites?

    • phisheep says:

      For pure sound washing over me, I’m rather fond of Edith Sitwell. Rhythmically interesting, with lots of subtle vowel variations in half-assonances.

      Mind you, I can’t stand her own performances, or Walton’s settings of them – so I read them to myself, and slowly.

    • hexbienium says:

      Auden!

      Look, stranger, at this island now
      The leaping light for your delight discovers,
      Stand stable here
      And silent be,
      That through the channels of the ear
      May wander like a river
      The swaying sound of the sea.

      (in full). And Gerard Manley Hopkins:

      I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
      dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
      High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
      In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
      Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

      (in full).

      • Hopkins and Dylan Thomas–who I like to describe as Hopkins drunk–are strong candidates.

        • hexbienium says:

          Good description. He’s often too much for me, but I like the “Prologue” from his Collected Poems:

          This day winding down now
          At God speeded summer’s end
          In the torrent salmon sun,
          In my seashaken house
          On a breakneck of rocks
          Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
          Froth, flute, fin, and quill
          At a wood’s dancing hoof,
          By scummed, starfish sands
          With their fishwife cross…

      • James says:

        Ah, how could I forget Hopkins! Yes, he’s just the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’ll try to spend a bit more time with him.

        I read some Auden for my bachelor’s degree, before I really liked or understood poetry, but I haven’t really looked at him since I really got into poetry. Will have a look.

    • SamChevre says:

      My first example would be Kipling The Sea and the Hills

      WHO hath desired the Sea? – the sight of salt water unbounded –
      The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?
      The sleek-barrelled swell before storm, grey, foamless, enormous, and growing
      Stark calm on the lap of the Line or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing –
      His Sea in no showing the same – his Sea and the same ‘neath each showing:

    • quaelegit says:

      Well I haven’t read much poetry (pretty much only what was assigned reading in high school) but I also immediately though of Poe (specifically Annabell Lee). The other one that came to mind is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.

      Also this is probably not what you’re asking about, but the orchestration* “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” is the only thing I really liked in the Hobbit movies. (I mean, still way out of tone for the book, but I do like the song itself.)

      I’m probably revealing myself as poetically tone-deaf here, but I really don’t “hear” the musicality of any of the excerpts posted…

      *or whatever you call it for choral compositions.

  8. Aapje says:

    Westworld apologetics/explainer FAQ

    Interview of David Brooks by Tyler Cowen (audio and transcript) with some great bits

    Why do men exist?: do mobile species benefit from diphormism/competition?

    Dragon Army Retrospective

    • John Schilling says:

      Westworld: Haven’t been watching this season, but it looks like at least part of the answer is that it’s a “covert” AI research and development effort. In which case, I’m calling BS. The park’s cover story is, as noted, transparently implausible on basic economic grounds and always has been. If the park is thirty years old, that’s thirty years of basically every intelligent and knowledgeable person with a passing interest asking the obvious question and wondering what’s really going on. Some of them won’t settle for wondering. Particularly the authorities charged with enforcing the supposed ban on AI research.

      And, no matter how crappy the animatronic hosts were thirty years ago, at least a subset of the guests will notice that the AI being paraded before them every day of their visit isn’t that crappy any more.

      The offered apology is a second-order idiot plot, one that can only work if everyone in the world the story is set in is a complete idiot.

      Also a first-order idiot plot, in that Delos’s security makes the dinosaur-wranglers in Jurassic Park look competent and well-prepared.

      Not buying it, and confirmed in my decision to stop watching.

      • Michael Handy says:

        The false-cover that was hinted at is it’s the 1930’s Mass-observation experiments on steroids, with the data being used for marketing and R&D, or sold onwards.

      • INH5 says:

        I haven’t watched the show and have no stake in this debate, but:

        And, no matter how crappy the animatronic hosts were thirty years ago, at least a subset of the guests will notice that the AI being paraded before them every day of their visit isn’t that crappy any more.

        It seems like it would be easy to write off a lot of improvements as a combination of developers continually programming in new responses to guests doing unexpected things, the “game masters” getting more experience, and early 21st century level machine learning being applied to 30 years of guest and tester behavior data. If there really is a global ban on AI research, then yes, the government not keeping an eye on this is still quite a stretch, but as someone who has helped make a few video games myself I don’t find it hard to believe that most of the guests wouldn’t ask too many questions, and the few that would would mostly come to suspect other things than “this is a front for a secret illegal AI research project.”

        Personally, my first suspicion would be that the human operators of the park were a lot more hands-on than they claimed to be.

    • Aapje says:

      One more link:

      Data visualizations (not all are good, but some are very nice).

    • Anon. says:

      Those Westworld explanations are a bit…strained.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Re: “Why do men exist”

      The first caveat is any single explanation is clearly going to have holes as there are species of plants with male and female members, and animal hermaphrodites so any single cause is clearly not going to be definitive. The second caveat is that talking animal/plant distinctions misses 4 kingdoms of life, but what can you do (besides be smarter than me, I’ve tried that but am not very good at it).

      The most important observation to start with is that little complex life uses straight cloning to reproduce itself. Even plants that self fertilize aren’t cloning themselves and plants that do use cloning often use it as one of several reproductive strategies. This is despite the fact that almost all (all?) life uses cloning to maintain individual survival. So every organism has access to effective cloning yet almost none use it as a primary strategy.

      The straightforward explanation for this is that variation is good, especially combinations of known successful traits. Mutations are generally neutral or negative for fitness, having a mechanism for variation that pushes toward variation being positive is a huge advantage.

      When you take the differences between plants an animals one major observation is that animals tend to have more behaviors than plants, this is probably rooted in (pi) the fact that one group is far more mobile than the other. The splitting of sexes can be seen as increasing the number of potential strategies that are available which has value in what amounts to blind, or semi blind, trails without prediction.

      An example. Many female birds choose mates based on their nest building abilities, males build nests and then advertise them to perspective mates. This allows for a division of labor that would be more complicated with hermaphrodites. If every bird made their own nest, went out and found a partner to fertilize and to be fertilized by in return then they would individually have less energy for laying and protecting the eggs. Splitting the responsibilities allows for one gender to specialize in nest building and one in egg laying and basic economics has taught us that specialization and trade can be hugely productive. It does not seem easy for immobile organisms to arrange these types of cooperation.

      • albatross11 says:

        One idea I’ve seen floated for this [Note: I’m an interested amateur] is that species that can do sexual reproduction can evolve / get variability a lot more quickly than species that don’t. Now, natural selection doesn’t have any kind of lookahead, so it’s not like there’s an immediate selection for the ability to evolve more quickly. But faster-evolving species probably are more likely to stick around long enough for biologists to arrive on the scene and build theories about them–it’s basically survivorship bias as a force in evolution.

        • Nornagest says:

          Species that have more natural variation are more likely to have members that can thrive in changing environmental conditions. If a comet hits the Earth and the dust blocks out the sun for a month, and 10 members of species A have a phenotype that lets them store enough calories to live that long, and 100 members of a faster-evolving species B have a similar phenotype, then species B is a lot more likely to have a viable breeding population once the sky clears. Typically the forces acting on species won’t be this dramatic, but you get the idea.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Survivorship bias is natural selection. They’re the same thing.

            Correct.

            Species that have more natural variation are more likely to have members that can thrive in changing environmental conditions.

            Its not about more, its about some. Even without a changing environments variation is necessary unless you are perfectly adapted to the environment. To much variation can be as bad as to little though, which is why we end up with constrained variation which is what sexual reproduction gives us. New combinations of old concepts toes this line well.

          • albatross11 says:

            By “selection,” I’m specifically thinking of the way a gene with a higher average fitness tends to increase as a portion of genes in the population. (Alongside neutral drift and mutation and population flows, I think that lets you get a picture of gene frequencies within a population.)

            I’m talking about a different idea. Among species, why do some species stick around and others vanish? I suspect a part of this is the added variability given by sexual reproduction. I think some species’ gene frequencies hill-climb into a place from which they can’t adapt very well to changes in the environment, and then the changes come and they go extinct. The species we see at any given time will be the ones that didn’t hill-climb into a dead-end and then die off.

            Nothing in evolution has any kind of lookahead–it’s all blind hill-climbing. But survivorship bias at the levels of species or populations gives you something that looks kind-of like lookahead–the species that evolved into dead-ends died off, so the ones you see will overwhelmingly be the ones that haven’t evolved into dead-ends.

            ETA: That is, even though nothing in evolution can look ahead to see whether it’s making bad future decisions, the fact that we only see the long-term survivors in nature means that a lot of stuff that would have been bad long-term decisions for the species doesn’t appear.

          • Aapje says:

            @albatross11

            Perhaps a very stable environment causes overfitting, as they call it in machine learning.

            So it may be optimal for long term survival to have enough change in the environment to keep the species nimble.

      • pontifex says:

        In “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory,” Stephen Jay Gould made the point that lineages which stop having sex (because they start cloning themselves) always die out quickly (well… quickly in terms of deep time). The one exception was the Bdelloid rotifers, which somehow managed to survive without males for millions of years.

      • J Mann says:

        In the link, Hanson’s question isn’t why is there sexual reproduction, it’s why do many animal species have distinct male and female members. The first one is definitely easier.

        • baconbits9 says:

          My answer is that it is an extension of the answer to why is there sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction opens up new combinations of the same genes, distinct genders opens up new combinations of the same behaviors.

          • albatross11 says:

            As an aside, plants and animals have relatively simple sexual reproduction, but I think some species of fungi have surprisingly complex systems. It might be interesting to look at this to understand what sexual reproduction does for evolution.

            Another place to look is in bacteria, which both sometimes send genetic material back and forth and also sometimes have defenses against foreign genetic material. There are no sexual differences there, but there’s still the same underlying idea of sharing genes from multiple organisms.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            So why are two sexes enough?

          • Randy M says:

            So why are two sexes enough?

            Well, the more sexes required, the less likely it is for all the requisite members to be fertile and in one place at the same time.
            Maybe not a problem for social animals like primates, but others like sparse predators would have a hard time mating.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            “Sexes” may not have been quite the word I wanted– you can have more physical/behavior types than sexes– some lizards are like that.

          • Aapje says:

            We have humans with very different behavior.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think there are a few higher organisms that have two sexes plus the ability to reproduce by cloning. I guess the payoff there is that if you’re isolated, you can keep going; the bad news is, there’s going to be selection for you to go to just cloning, since that’s better for individual gene frequencies, but then you lose the benefits of sexual reproduction.

            This blog post gives an idea of how sexual reproduction works in fungi. Basically, it’s a whole different system that looks kinda like the animal/plant worlds in some cases, but often looks wildly different. So it seems like there are at least three ways we get sexual-ish reproduction on Earth: bacterial conjugation, fungus sex with mating types, and male/female[1]. But I’m sure professional biologists know of more than this, and I’m sure there’s weird stuff nobody’s even thought of yet that’s hiding out in some weird hole somewhere.

            [1] And maybe the ants/bees/wasps should get their own category–they’re almost always social insects, but the males are haploid (only one copy of each chromosome) and develop from unfertilized eggs, while the females are diploid (two copies of each chromosome) and develop from fertilized eggs.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Nancy,

            If we are talking behavior you could argue that animals have 3 sexes (genders, insert preferred word here), a fair number of social animals have evolved male, female, and female but not sexually active. Ant colonies are filled with females that will never reproduce, human females go through menopause but can still contribute after that, and there are other social mammals where only the top female will get pregnant. If you look at roles within the not sexually active groups you could split still further.

          • albatross11 says:

            One thing that strikes me is that whenever there’s a difference in roles or developmental stages or whatever, evolution can use that to get some interesting differentiation of roles. Along with some species being sexually dimorphic (like colorful males and bland females in birds), you also get insects where the larva has a completely different lifestyle and lives in an entirely different niche than the adult insects. And again, probably a gazillion variations I’ve never heard of.

    • Aftagley says:

      Dragon Army Retrospective

      Not meaning this from a critical perspective, but it seems like most of the problems he talks about all reduce down to poor leadership. He had difficulty setting/enforcing standards, had difficulty getting/keeping buy in from the others and didn’t plan well enough to compensate for these challenges. Reading through his post, it looks like he struggled with being both the visionary leader and the leader responsible for meting out discipline and dealing with personal dynamics; this is a common leadership trap and (referencing the military here) is the reason your unit is going to have both an officer and a senior enlisted member.

      So, is the story here “bad idea is revealed to be bad” or is there still some worth in the concept, just with better oversight?

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Bad leadership and bad concept are different things.

        I’m inclined to think that group of people committed to ambitious self-improvement isn’t the same thing as everyone has to be onboard with the program, though there’s obvious overlap. If nothing else, there didn’t seem to be a concept of handling “life happens” gracefully.

        Are there examples of real world groups that do difficult things without external institutional support?

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m not much more impressed with the concept after reading this than I was before. I’m out of the loop on the Bay Area Less Wrong scene and don’t actually know any Dragons that I’m aware of, but this postmortem smells strongly of a failure mode I’ve seen elsewhere, which is coming up with this grand high-concept vision that demands enormous buy-in from participants and then concluding when it inevitably fails that the problem was not hitting the high concept hard enough.

        I’m especially unimpressed with this idea that engineering more little rituals, jargon, and culture-building minutiae was called for. You can’t force a meme; you can’t engineer culture. You can propose a new ritual or a new piece of jargon and see if it becomes a tradition, but if you try to create a culture wholesale it’ll always end up looking clunky and tone-deaf, as anyone that’s been to a public school should know. Even the most ambitious secular culture-building efforts out there (the military, the Boy Scouts, the Freemasons) have evolved their traditions more than they’ve been imposed on them, and they’ve had a lot more time and brainpower to work with than one guy with a big idea for a paramilitary nerd brigade.

        The commander/XO thing is a good insight, though.

        • Aapje says:

          One of the conclusions was “Fewer things better done.”

          That is more sophisticated than just having to try harder.

          • Nornagest says:

            That’s one. There’s also the culture stuff I just mentioned, as well as “give more orders”, “start responsibilities earlier”, “enforce time requirements”, and a bunch of retrospectives about problem characters that mostly boil down to “here’s a bunch of ways people can act uncommitted; they’re all bad and we need to get rid of them through an unspecified mechanism”. (The White Knight being the exception.)

            “Fewer things better done” is a good thought, but it’s not enough to erase my overall impression.

          • Aapje says:

            Well, if you are going to be special, you do need to do something special or people are just going to do the basic old power plays.

            If anything, I think that Duncan was hoping to get evolving traditions too much and because of this, he didn’t provide enough structure to give the other people confidence that they knew the goals and basic setup.

            I think that it’s best to start with something with limited appeal, but high buy-in from a small group and then evolve to increase the appeal, then to want to appeal to everyone right away.

          • Nornagest says:

            The basic problem as I see it is that the harder you push structure as a selling point, the more you’re selecting for people who need structure. These are not usually the same people that are good at creating structure. It’s a hard needle to thread. I’m not sure it’s even possible unless you’re selling something else too, but if it is, the hardest part will be getting it started: that’s when you’ll have the fewest people qualified to help you.

            Trying to gin up some fake traditions isn’t going to help with that. Being clearer about expectations and responsibilities isn’t going to help either, unless you’re capable of enforcing them consistently, and from Duncan’s comments about burning out it sounds like he wasn’t. Narrowing the scope will help, but only at the cost of limiting your ability to actually change people’s lives. (It’s probably still a good idea in context, though.)

            It’s hard enough to be one person’s combination guidance counselor and den mother and drill sergeant, especially if they don’t basically have their shit together already. Doing that for a house full of people, without any institutional support other than what you build for yourself, is probably two or three full-time jobs. The most important thing I’m not seeing anywhere in this postmortem is the need to start small, and then scale it up only when you’ve got people that can be your deputies.

      • johan_larson says:

        From the Dragon Army: Theory & Charter:

        Statement of purpose:
        Dragon Army Barracks is a group housing and intentional community project which exists to support its members socially, emotionally, intellectually, and materially as they endeavor to improve themselves, complete worthwhile projects, and develop new and useful culture, in that order.

        That sounds like an incredibly loose and fuzzy goal. General self improvement might be a workable goal, but I think Dragon Army would have been better off setting more specific goals to that end, and they should have committed to those goals as a group, rather than as individuals.

        Self improvement? OK, what sort? Do you want to be able to be able to run 3 miles in 20 minutes, read Caesar in the original, or butcher a hog? Decide, and do it together.

        • toastengineer says:

          Yeah, the guy’s trying to replicate the social structure of a military unit, but the most defining feature of an army is, yanno, the war, and the enemy. I’m not sure you absolutely NEED to have people trying to kill you that you have to band together to survive to get the kind of dynamic he’s going for but it’d probably help.

          • Eric Rall says:

            I wonder if he might be better off using monastic orders as a model rather than military units. Monasteries are organized around a primary goal of the spiritual betterment of their members, and secondary goals of performing the work necessary to keep the monastery going and doing good works for the larger community.

            There’s also the better part of two millennia worth of accumulated knowledge about how to run a monastery in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, plus centuries or millennia worth of accumulated knowledge from other traditions (Buddhism, etc) that have similar institutions. I seem to recall that Orthodox monasticism in particular has a tradition of having varying degrees of commitment to and involvement with the monastery, so it might be better than other traditions as an inspiration for an organization whose members work and have social lives outside the “monastery”.

            Where I’d expect designing a Rationalist monastery to be difficult is defining what “spiritual betterment” and “good works for the larger community” would mean in this context. In a Catholic, Buddhist, etc monastery, those are well-defined by tradition, but a Rationalist monastery would need to figure out what could be trivially adapted from the traditions it’s modelling itself off of, and what would need to be significantly reworked or invented from scratch.

          • johan_larson says:

            Perhaps a useful way to start would be to organize for specific projects. Find a set of people who work well together on something small, and evolve the group and its practices toward larger projects and possibly eventually a shared way of life.

          • Nornagest says:

            I wonder if he might be better off using monastic orders as a model rather than military units.

            Somewhere, Neal Stephenson just got all hot and bothered and he doesn’t know why.

    • cassander says:

      I prefer Megan Mcardle’s explanation of Westworld. The trouble isn’t the premise being easy to poke full of holes, the trouble is the storytelling isn’t compelling enough to make you forget about them.

  9. Jeremiah says:

    (Cross-posted from subreddit)

    I’ve been thinking about the homeless situation recently.

    (Link is to post where I reach no certain conclusions, though it does start with the story of a daring crime.)

    Why are the number of homeless people still so high, and probably increasing nine years into an economic expansion, when apparently there are more job openings than job seekers for the first time since at least 2000?

    I’m sure it’s an example of increasing inequality, and the opioid epidemic, with some amount of help from smaller, less tight families and communities, but none of those explanations, even when combined seem sufficient to account for the scope of the problem.

    Other theories?

    • johan_larson says:

      The usual answers are
      – a reluctance on our part to institutionalize the mentally ill, who end up on the street if not in prison
      – dramatic restrictions on housing construction and use, which reduce the supply of homes particularly in big cities, which means the poorest sometimes end up without
      – a proliferation of credentials required by employers, even for work that doesn’t actually require any specific knowledge

      • Jeremiah says:

        -the mental health institutionalization problem is pretty old, I can understand it being part of the problem but unless the overall mental health of everyone is getting worse, I can see why that would cause the continued increase.
        -This was brought up a lot in the subreddit discussion, but we have a housing problem in SLC and in Vegas, two areas not know for restrictions on housing (There are thousands of new apartments within walking distance of me.)
        -Also probably part of it, but to take NYC as an example (they have the best numbers) it doesn’t come close to explaining a 2x increase since 2012…

        • johan_larson says:

          Could the opioid crisis have something to do with the rise? A serious drug addiction seems like a good way to end up on the street.

        • Brad says:

          When you look at NYC housing statistics, keep in mind that what they call homelessness is not what most people think of as homeless. The term for the latter is sometimes “unsheltered homeless” which to me sounds like a great demonstration of the euphemism treadmill effect.

          • albatross11 says:

            ISTM that when we talk about the homelessness problem, we’re talking about the visible consequences of homelessness. Specifically, I guess the SF area has a big visible homeless population that causes a lot of problems with sanitation and crime and such, which they can’t address for whatever political reason.

          • Brad says:

            Right. Visible homeless, unsheltered homeless, whatever you want to call it, most people would not include someone living—possibly for years—with a relative in an “overcrowded” apartment. But per official statistics that person is homeless.

            That seems to me to be a very different issue, if it’s an issue at all.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, the problem that there’s not a lot of housing cheap enough for people working crappy bottom-tier jobs to have their own apartment is a real one we should care about, but I don’t think it has much to do with the problem that there are crazy people living on (and crapping in) the streets. Solutions to the first problem won’t have much impact on the second, and vice versa.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      It’s generally accepted that the economic recovery has been very uneven.

      According to US News and World Report, chosen on the extremely scientific grounds that it was the first search result I saw, the majority of new jobs are low-paying retail jobs while jobs lost in fields like construction and manufacturing haven’t returned even a decade later. The article also hints that most of the recovery is due to the next generation of workers entering the labor market rather than unemployed workers re-entering it, although it’s less specific there.

      If that’s an accurate picture, and that is how it looks from my grounds-eye view, then you have a large number of guys who lost their livelihoods a decade ago and have been out of work since then. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them ended up losing their homes.

      • Jeremiah says:

        So your argument would be that there is a lag time for someone to become homeless? That someone could have spent the last 10 years burning through both normal capital and social capital and only now be ending up on the streets?

        That’s an interesting idea…

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          Did the problem suddenly get more accute in the last few years? If so, I wasn’t aware of that.

          I thought that we were talking about the general rise in homeless. My mechanism could explain that but not a sudden increase.

          • Aapje says:

            I would expect men to become homeless far more easily, due to them getting less help/charity. So perhaps men have been hit harder by the last recession? There is a consistent pattern of men’s unemployment rising faster than women’s unemployment during recessions. It seems that this effect was larger than ever during the last recession. However, the gap has closed again.

            Perhaps the unemployment statistics are bogus and many men are simply not counted anymore, because they gave up looking for work? Perhaps the recovery happened to give more jobs to people are not prone to getting homeless anyway, while those who are, were left out? Perhaps the jobs mostly resulted in people going from single to double income families, not zero income to single income?

    • The Nybbler says:

      Aside from the mental health issue: If you subsidize something, you get more of it. Homelessness is high in cities with lots of services for the homeless and little punishment for homeless misbehavior.

      • David Speyer says:

        When I lived in Berkeley (15 years ago), I remember reading that something like 50% of Berkeley’s homeless population were from other counties. It would be useful to find a way to distinguish between (1) already homeless people travel to places with pleasant policies/people/weather and (2) pleasant policies/people/weather lead to people being homeless who otherwise wouldn’t.

      • Garrett says:

        Once upon a time, the police would “deal” with these folks through casual application of beatings. Over the past decades and the greater emphasis on civil rights, that sort of thing is actively restrained. So we’re left with people who are unwilling or unable to act in a polite way, and we’re left with only high-cost solutions to remedy them (such as imprisonment or civil commitment).

        • Alphonse says:

          Having been (credibly, I think) threatened with physical violence by these sorts of people while walking through my neighborhood, my hesitation about the police reverting to those older tactics has waned quite a bit over the last few years, even if it would not be my preferred solution.

          I wonder to what extent there is a quiet consensus among most people subjected to this kind of noxious behavior that the authorities should resolve this issue — even if that entails unpleasant means — but no one wants to say it publicly or have their city deal with the resulting bad press. I certainly don’t openly say I support removing homeless people from my neighborhood even if that involves unpleasant steps for them. But I’d be happy with any local politician who shifted policies in that direction.

    • John Schilling says:

      In addition to what others have already said,

      1. Njobs > Nseekers does not mean Njobs > Npeople, or even Njobs > Nadults. The reasons why an adult might neither have nor be looking for a job, e.g. disability, have I believe been discussed at length here before.

      2. Njobs > Nseekers does not even mean that anyone who wants a job can have one tomorrow. Jobs are very definitely not fungible, with long search times and high transaction costs.

      3. A particular seeker obtaining a job does not mean that they immediately cease to be homeless. Minimum-wage jobs pay enough for cheap apartments in the long run, but you can’t rent apartments by the day and hotels are much more expensive than equivalent apartments.

      4, and this is critical: The HUD definition of “homeless” includes non-central examples that do not involve sleeping under bridges or in parks. A quick look at the cited HUD statistics suggests that at least 2/3rds of the HUD’s homeless are living in at least emergency or transitional shelters, and an unknown number beyond that are living out of cars.

      Add these together, and you’ll find a great many people will settle for living in emergency/transitional housing indefinitely rather than looking for a job that might be e.g. physically painful for them to do, and many more are at any time in the process of living in transitional housing etc while first looking for a job that is better than the very first, crappiest job they could hypothetically find and then saving enough money for the deposit on an apartment.

      Why these numbers might have increased is hard to determine, but the cited surveys and reports don’t seem to have anyone even trying to answer that question, just settling for “more jobs, more homeless, what gives?”

      • rlms says:

        As your third point suggests, there are also many people who have some sort of job but remain homeless — the WP claims that (as of 2002) 45% of homeless adults had worked in the past 30 days, in comparison to 59% for the general population.

        • Garrett says:

          I’m not sure that statistic is helpful, though.
          Compare a married couple where one spouse works a reliable, professional job (accountant, software developer, etc.) and the other stays at home, to someone who is able to get work only as a day laborer.

          The married couple would likely be secure in their domicile, yet only be 50% working. Whereas the day laborer would be insecure in their finances, possibly in their housing, despite having “worked” in the past month.

          • rlms says:

            Indeed, my point is that having work (intermittent low-paid work counts as a job just as much e.g. intermittent well-paid freelance software development) is no guarantee of having a home, so “there aren’t enough jobs” is at best a partial explanation for homelessness.

    • Zephalinda says:

      Homelessness seems like a condition not just of economic distress, but also of a kind of non-integration into the social network: no friends’ couches to crash on, estranged from family, quarrel with landlord, present as too scary/antisocial/GRAAR to attract sustained charitable efforts from strangers, etc.

      Given that, I’d expect conversely that strong social/community structures– nuclear families, extended families, church, neighborhood, other affiliations– should have a strong protective effect. That could happen either of two ways: most obviously, such structures provide an immediate safety net for people falling on hard times (or struggling with mental illness, etc.). But it also seems plausible that experiencing structure and community in childhood/early adulthood could work to socialize individuals in ways that would then help them maintain and/or create community ties in after life (or, conversely, that the experience of social or family instability early in life would produce individuals with reactive socialization issues on top of whatever other economic/mental health difficulties they had to face, and thus more vulnerable to becoming homeless in tough times like post-2009 America).

      Although you kind of wave off the contribution of “smaller, less tight families and communities,” then, I’d want to see more data before dismissing greater social isolation/ generally poorer left-tail socialization as a factor. (Also, “smaller and less tight” seems like a pretty huge understatement, given the actual shifts in family structures among vulnerable populations over the past few decades). That’s especially the case if, as John Shilling argues, statistics on homelessness include people now stuck living in shelters/ living in their cars, who might in an earlier era have relied on extended family or community ties.

    • SamChevre says:

      Another factor–not new, but continuing to increase–is the deliberate effort to raise the bottom of the housing market. In my neighborhood a decade ago, there was still one flophouse (where you could rent a bed for the night for $20 or so); but 30 years ago, there were a dozen or so. Think of the song “King of the Road”: “Four hours of pushing broom, buys an eight by twelve, four-bed room”; that type of housing isn’t on the market any more.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Some basic thoughts: There might be a correlation between high crime rates and low homeless rates, the homeless are very vulnerable and periods of crime, especially violent crime might make it significantly worse to be homeless. This might make people willing to do basically anything to avoid being homeless, which might even increase the crime rate. If the choice is between robbing someone and being evicted and ending up homeless a greater fear of being homeless would make more people choose the former.

    • mdet says:

      Michael R. Strain at Bloomberg argues that income inequality in the US hasn’t grown since 2007. That time period directly captures the Great Recession, so I’m a little thrown

      • Nornagest says:

        I haven’t looked at the CBO report in detail, but I think I’d expect the Great Recession to hit wealth inequality more than income inequality — the worst disruption was in the housing market.

  10. sandoratthezoo says:

    Anyone with access to YouTube Red who isn’t allergic to the itemise of Impulse should check it out. I thought it was shockingly good, much better than the trailers made it out to be.

    If you don’t have access to YouTube Red, I think the first episode is free.

    • Randy M says:

      Thanks for the recommendation. Cobra Kai was surprisingly watchable, so I’ve got a couple weeks of youtube red left was wondering if there was any more interesting exclusive content.
      What do you mean by the “itemise” of it?

      • Nick says:

        I think he meant “premise” and either made a typo or his autocorrect is really aggressive.

        • Randy M says:

          Ah, thanks. I don’t try to point out typos, but I thought it was a reference to some kind of distribution format, micro episodes or something.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Nick is correct, it was intended to be “premise.” I was writing from my phone and, well, I just suck.

    • J Mann says:

      Thanks! Impulse is Jumper, Book 3? I hadn’t realized Gould was still writing Jumper books.

      Does anyone recommend the book, and if so, which order should I use for the book and the show?

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        I have not read Impulse the book, but I’m like 99.99% confident that the only relation between Impulse the book and Impulse the show is that they concern characters capable of teleportation and the title.

  11. toastengineer says:

    So I intend to start a company someday, and that’s gotten me thinking about the design of institutions.

    Basically; how much value drift should we try to deliberately engineer in to our institutions? Or at least to allow for, in the way that a building you want to be absolutely rigid still has to give to the wind a little bit in order to not be snapped in half by it?

    On one hand, it seems pretty obvious that if our predecessors had hard-disallowed change of values, or even just written values (you know, like written rules) that’d be, like… bad. There’s plenty of things nearly everyone thought were obviously the right thing to do not seventy years ago, that we now think are overwhelmingly horrible, and it’d suck if we couldn’t change the rules every now and then.

    But… if we’re designing an institution to accomplish a goal, it’s also blatantly obvious that you don’t want the institution changing its own goals once you’ve made it too powerful to shut down or control – that’s, like, the best way to fail to achieve your goals, is to not have them as goals anymore. Someone in the future will believe something you find abhorrent – indeed, there’s still people out there who believe those very things we’re so proud of having changed the rules away from, what if they take control?

    It seems like value drift is great for everyone all the time, right up until we exist and then after that it’s mathematically speaking the worst thing that can possibly be. Arc of history bends towards modernity and all that. That’s an awfully unsatisfying answer, and one that puts us in an inevitable eternal cold war with our own children, which seems like something we should try to avoid.

    Preventing it is for one impossible and for another leads to your institution just being destroyed after a while, and it seems a little odd for something to be completely unconscionable for anyone to do unless that person is you.

    So… just what the heck do you do? I can’t think of a satisfying answer.

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      One obvious part of the answer is that you should build in as much capacity as possible for drift of instrumental values – if people later on have different ideas about how to accomplish the same goals, they’re likely to be better than current ones. So this problem only really arises for terminal values. And I suspect that a lot of those are so abstract and at so many removes that encoding them into an institution would be really hard.

    • Colonel Hapablap says:

      Values come from the top. An employee asks the manager, or the manager asks the CEO for a decision on a values question, and the result becomes the norm:

      “We had a scheduling screw up and we have to push back the delivery date for one of these two customers. Which customer do we screw over, and what do we tell them? Do we admit fault? Offer compensation? Don’t offer compensation but if they ask, compensate? Or blame an act of God and refuse to compensate?”

      “One of our agents is asking for a higher commission. This particular agent provides a lot of business to us but their values aren’t in line with our company, not providing good customer service to the end user and using deceptive sales tactics. Do we continue to accept their business?”

      “Do we invest in employee satisfaction to keep valuable employees from leaving, or do we accept a higher level of turnover with lower average compensation?”

      “How do we deal with an employee making mistakes?”

      The mission statement can guide values like these, but really it is the CEO that makes the decisions that create the culture.

    • Michael Handy says:

      The Catholic Church seems to have established a happy medium.

    • AKL says:

      Mission, Vision, and Values” statements are ubiquitous in the corporate world.

      • johan_larson says:

        And usually so bland as to be completely useless. Just once I’d like a see a values statement that drew some clear lines in the sand.

        • AKL says:

          Strong disagree.

          Writing a mission or values statement requires you to… understand and articulate your mission or values. I suspect anyone who has successfully created an organization would argue that the founders’ understanding of the organization’s mission is critical and totally non-trivial.

          Look at e.g. the founding of Facebook. Facebook’s early rollout made clear that Zuckerberg’s mission was, from the beginning, much larger than Harvard, or Ivy League students, or college students. On the other hand, the Winklevoss twins wanted to build “The Harvard Connection.” It is inconceivable that they would have ever built facebook as we know it not because they couldn’t find engineering talent, but because it wasn’t their mission.

          Did you ever have a teacher who allowed you to bring one page of notes into an exam? Almost none of the value from those notes came during the test, the value was in effort you put into creating them. Just so, a mission or values statement isn’t like an algorithm where you input a scenario and it spits out the correct course of action; rather they are the tangible manifestation of the founders’ forethought and consideration.

          Which of these companies is more likely to be involved in a fatal accident:

          [Blank]’s mission is to bring transportation — for everyone, everywhere.

          Today, we’re an independent self-driving technology company with a mission to make it safe and easy for everyone to get around—without the need for anyone in the driver’s seat.

          Our goal when we created [Blank] a decade ago was the same as it is today: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.

          Obviously I am not claiming that one company has a better safety record because of it’s mission statement. Instead I’m arguing that one group of founders cared about safety as a core mission and others didn’t; both mission statements and actual results reflect that reality.

          So I suggest that if toastengineer is concerned about how their organization’s values will evolve, their first step should be to consider and then articulate what those values are.

          • Nornagest says:

            Which of these companies is more likely to be involved in a fatal accident

            I don’t know, and neither do you. Press-release language means almost exactly nothing to the operational questions around QA, engineering practice, functional priorities, release schedules, and general propensity for corner-cutting that actually determine accident rates; the people writing that copy might not even have met the people doing the engineering work. They’re both responding to the same set of high-level priorities, but those priorities are unwritten and unarticulated and are mostly implicit in executives’ actions. All that “safe” in the press release tells you is that one particular PR minion thought it would be a good word to include at one particular time, and that one particular executive okayed it.

          • Eric Rall says:

            I just googled which company went with which statement, and all three were the companies I expected them to be. Which is another point in favor of value and mission statements being meaningful.

          • Nornagest says:

            Which is another point in favor of value and mission statements being meaningful.

            Or that you’ve picked up a feel for each company’s public relations style. They’re all large, prominent companies, so that sounds pretty plausible to me.

          • AKL says:

            Press-release language means almost exactly nothing to the operational questions around QA, engineering practice, functional priorities, release schedules, and general propensity for corner-cutting that actually determine accident rates

            You’re missing my point. The marketing language doesn’t impact the safety record. The marketing language and the safety record are both a function of organizational priorities. One company chooses to be more conservative about roll out, pay more for increased safety, and talk about safety as a highest priority. I can’t tell you anything about the QA practices or operational details of these companies, but one company says “safety is our highest priority” and they haven’t killed anyone. Their competitors don’t talk about safety as one of their highest priorities and… they have killed people. It seems pretty reasonable to conclude that safety is in fact more important to one of those companies than the others.

            Specifically, one of those companies, going against industry standards, elected to remove the second worker from their test vehicles and instruct the driver to make electronic notes while driving. One of those companies released “semi-autonomous” technology and told people to keep their hands on the wheel (wink). And one of those companies has not killed anyone. And of course you don’t need any citations to know which one is which.

            Edit:
            I was too quick to respond and missed this:

            They’re both responding to the same set of high-level priorities, but those priorities are unwritten and unarticulated and are mostly implicit in executives’ actions.

            My whole point is that those priorities are written. I literally quoted them. They are “everyone, everywhere” “safe and easy” and “as soon as possible.” And that is how everyone in each organization, from PR to QA – even if they don’t talk to each other – actually acts.

          • Nornagest says:

            My whole point is that those priorities are written. I literally quoted them. They are “everyone, everywhere” “safe and easy” and “as soon as possible.” And that is how everyone in each organization, from PR to QA – even if they don’t talk to each other – actually acts.

            You quoted a press release. Press-release material is what a company — more specifically, writers in its PR organs — wants to signal to the outside world. That has some relationship with its internal culture in that it affects the kind of people that join it and the kinds of moves it can be seen to make, but it’s incredibly naive to equate the two. Even worse than taking what a person says about themselves at face value, because a person at least has a decent idea of everything they’ve done and no single person in a company can say the same about it.

            If you think everyone in a company always acts in accordance with every widely circulated slogan, I have a hard time believing you’ve ever been a part of one.

          • AKL says:

            Probably doesn’t address your point, but my sources were:
            Tesla, Waymo, and Uber. I found these by googling “[Company] Mission Statement” and going to the first hit in each case.

            I’m actually really surprised at the extent to which the mission statements align with the companies’ actual priorities. Of course a company could have a mission to “build fully autonomous cars that are safer, more reliable, higher performance, lower cost, and first to market” but none of these companies play that game. Uber says it wants everyone everywhere and it has by far the biggest market penetration. Tesla says it wants “as soon as possible” and it has launched autopilot even though it’s arguably not ready. And google says it wants “safe and easy” and it has a better safety record.

            Do you think it’s just a coincidence that the companies’ mission statements reflect their demonstrated priorities? Or do you think I’m wrong to claim that the companies “act like” their mission statements?

          • Nornagest says:

            Well, first of all, Tesla is an unusually cohesive organization — I’d estimate it’s 95th percentile at least in terms of the vision thing, mainly because it largely functions as Elon Musk’s personality cult.

            That’s not as true for Alphabet or Uber. Both are relatively young companies, they haven’t fully developed the kind of factionalism and sclerosis that, say, IBM has, and so I wouldn’t interpret their mission statements as totally content-free duckspeak, but I’d take them with more salt than Tesla’s. (Except, perhaps, as regards timelines.) On the other hand, there are a lot of companies I’d trust even less.

            Finally, recall that the specific claim I objected to was that you could tell which would be more likely to be involved in a fatal accident. That’s especially far removed from the sort of claims that I’d find credible in a mission statement, because it depends so much on details of process, and because those are some of the hardest things to change once ingrained. Analogously, Chevrolet could say that it aspires to make the most reliable cars in the world (reliability being a similar kind of thing), and I might even believe that they’re trying at a high level, but that doesn’t mean the specific Chevy I buy tomorrow is any less likely to die on me.

          • AKL says:

            because those are some of the hardest things to change once ingrained

            Totally agree with you. If Chevy changed their mission statement (or wrote one?) to say “we make the worlds most reliable cars,” I don’t think that would actually have any impact on the reliability of their cars.

            But I never made the claim that it would.

            If Chevy’s board thought what they needed to do was build the worlds most reliable cars and brought on an entirely new management team selected explicitly for their ability to drive that change, it might increase reliability on the margin in the short term, but wouldn’t have a big effect certainly for a long time, and maybe ever, precisely because Chevy didn’t have an ingrained culture and set of practices that prioritized reliability in the first place.

            If a (talented) executive at Chevy felt like there was an untapped market for more reliable cars and somehow went out and built an entirely new auto manufacturer with the thesis “reliability above all else will win” I bet their hypothetical cars really would be more reliable than all their competitors.

            So going back to Uber/Tesla/Waymo, I of course can’t know this for sure but I bet, once it seemed plausible that self-driving cars might be feasible:
            – Waymo execs had a corporate retreat or something and decided that the way to win was full autonomy (easy) and “perfect” performance (safety).
            – Elon Musk and Tesla execs (?) decided the way to win was to be first to market
            – Uber… actually I don’t think Uber has any well thought out strategy in self driving cars at all. See here, e.g.

            Those decisions guide the entire future of those companies. They determine organization structures, lines of reporting, investments and acquisitions, incentives, strategic decisions… everything. The wording of the mission statement is literally the most trivial manifestation of what actually matters. But at least in those examples, the mission statements actually do reflect the management teams’ priorities. And those priorities are reflected in real life outcomes. So the claim I will stand behind is that in the self driving car industry, corporate mission statements contain real information about the priorities and practices of the companies involved.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Perhaps in theory a company’s mission statement affects the way the firm behaves. But I’ve worked for lots of companies and I’ve never been anywhere where the mission statement drove anything. At best, the mission statement correlates with the actual operations, because the folks writing the statement are part of the same culture as the ones handling the operations, so they might have some agreement. But that doesn’t mean the mission statement has any causative properties.

            And 90% of the time, mission statements are BS made up by the CEO or his flunkies and have nothing to do with reality at the firm.

  12. splenda_chimera says:

    I am currently a 23 year old American software engineer about to go to graduate school, but I lately have been thinking about entering medical school to become a psychiatrist. Given the cost in money and time to do this in America, it looks like going to Europe is a good route. Does anyone have any general advice? Has anyone else done this? I’m hoping Scott sees this and responds with some advice

  13. pontifex says:

    There was a recent thread on SSC where people talked about how Woodrow Wilson has gone from being considered a hero for most, to being a villain. That got me to thinking. I wonder if John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon will be similarly re-evaluated in the future.

    People idolized JFK while he was alive, and mourned his assassination. But he presided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Cuban Missle Crisis which almost led to WWIII. His secretary of defense also ordered a big expansion of the US’s chemical weapons program, project 112. According to the JFK files, JFK and his advisors apparently discussed using chemical weapons in Cuba. Not a great look.

    Of course, Nixon was (rightly) disgraced by Watergate. But he also presided over a lot of stuff that… seems pretty good? He unilaterally renounced the US biological warfare program, and signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972. In addition, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act which created the EPA, and enthusiastically championed it. Nixon ended the war in Vietnam, started the War on Cancer, and presided over the Apollo 11 moon landing. Nixon famously went to China and drove a wedge between it and the USSR.

    And Nixon tried to enact universal health care.

    Yes, you heard that right.

    Few people today would dare call President Richard Nixon a radical liberal. But 44 years ago, he proposed a health plan that went far beyond what today’s Affordable Care Act includes. After the first plan failed, he did it again three years later.

    • skef says:

      How are you imagining a ” ‘Kennedy: Boo!, Nixon: Yay’? ” discussion would go so as to be culture-war-neutral?

      • pontifex says:

        Maybe I was being naive, but I was hoping we could pull it off by focusing on the historical and policy debate aspects, rather than the Red Tribe versus Blue Tribe aspect.

        If you have something interesting but CW-related to say about it, I guess repost in the next CW thread.

    • Brad says:

      Nixon ended the war in Vietnam

      He took his time doing it. Another 20,000 soldiers died in combat after he took office. (BTW one could, and should, say the same thing about Obama and the wars he inherited.)

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        It’s probably reckless to end combat operations on Inauguration Day if you oppose the war you’re inheriting. So we should blame LBJ for a certain “base rate”, albeit less than 1,000 of said dead soldiers.

        • Nornagest says:

          Most politicians that campaigned on “getting us out of war” are going to be looking to Art of the Deal themselves, at minimum, into a position where a tenuous peace holds for long enough that they can blame somebody else when it collapses. (Nixon actually failed at this, but it’s what he was going for — Henry Kissinger’s famous Nobel Prize is for arranging said tenuous peace.) That takes a lot of time — potentially years — and a lot of dead soldiers during that time.

          It would be nice if politicians were willing to accept a little premature humiliation to get us out of a situation that’s clearly going to cost more blood and treasure than it’s worth, but it’d also be nice if pigs produced self-frying bacon. You have to be realistic about these things.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I doubt that historical impressions of presidents will change based on what they failed to do. Kennedy risking, but averting (or lucking out), WW3 is a much smaller strike than Wilson’s actions actually contributing to WW2. Likewise Nixon not implementing universal health care isn’t going to trump the things that actually happened.

      • pontifex says:

        If universal health care was actually implemented in the 1970s, though, it would have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people by now. Several sources state that Watergate is the reason this didn’t happen. I’m not sure I completely agree (Congress did reject the legislation twice, after all.) But if you assume, arguendo, that it’s true, it would be a classic philosophical dilemma. Cover up this bad guy’s crime, or remove health insurance from hundreds of millions of people in the next few decades. Which will it be?

        Oh, also, Nixon signed the legislation that helped (mostly) ban lead paint.

        President Richard Nixon signed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which restricted the lead content in paint used in housing built with federal dollars and provided funds for states to reduce the amount of lead in paint.

        • If universal health care was actually implemented in the 1970s, though, it would have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people by now.

          Or worsened them. Arguments about which gets us into the culture war we are supposed to be avoiding in this thread.

    • bean says:

      I’m with you on Kennedy, although I’d say you don’t go far enough. McNamara was a complete disaster. Project 112 is nowhere near my top 20 of his bad decisions. He landed us in Vietnam, then made it impossible for us to win, and messed up procurement so badly that we’re still dealing with the fallout 50 years after he left the Pentagon. And possibly extended the Cold War a decade or so.
      (Figuring out how to blame current problems in defense on McNamara/Kennedy would be a fun party game, actually.)

      and presided over the Apollo 11 moon landing

      This one doesn’t go to Nixon’s credit. It was Kennedy’s program, which Nixon inherited.

      • pontifex says:

        Yeah, the previous presidents (including JFK) had much more to do with Apollo 11’s success.

        Actually, I’m curious how much JFK alone can be credited with Apollo 11. NASA’s website says that JFK “backed up this decision [to go to the moon] with remarkable financial commitments. In the immediate aftermath of his speech, NASA’s budget was increased by 89 percent, and by another 101 percent the following year.”

        Also, JFK apparently asked Khrushchev if the USSR wanted to make a joint landing on the moon with the US!

        At his June 3-4, 1961 summit meeting in Vienna with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy suggested, “Why don’t we do it together?” After first responding positively, the next day Khrushchev reportedly said “no,” on the grounds that an agreement on disarmament must come first.

        Apparently after he was assassinated, no future president ever brought up the idea again. I wonder if there was ever any real possibility of the Russians cooperating on this. Probably not, but it’s really weird to imagine an alternate history where they did (a la Mir)

        • John Schilling says:

          Actually, I’m curious how much JFK alone can be credited with Apollo 11. NASA’s website says that JFK “backed up this decision [to go to the moon] with remarkable financial commitments. In the immediate aftermath of his speech, NASA’s budget was increased by 89 percent, and by another 101 percent the following year.”

          The cynical take is that Kennedy tragically died just after putting enough money into NASA/Apollo that any successor who didn’t follow through would have been seen as trampling on the legacy of the mythically perfect Kennedy. Nixon could go to China, but he couldn’t not go to the Moon. Only JFK could have gotten away with that, and he was somewhat indisposed.

        • Michael Handy says:

          I remember reading a biography of one of the early US astronauts and a Russian cosmonait he became friends with (Leonov I think.)

          He made it clear that it was Eisenhower who did most of the space program heavy lifting politically, and was heavily pro human presence in space, while Kennedy was more concered about the optics and showing up the Soviets.

          • bean says:

            I’m pretty sure that was Dave Scott’s autobiography. It’s on my Amazon list, but I haven’t gotten a copy yet, and I can’t speak that much to the politics going on in the late 50s.

        • bean says:

          Actually, I’m curious how much JFK alone can be credited with Apollo 11.

          I’m not really sure. John makes an excellent point about his legacy protecting it, but he is the one who stood up and said “We’re going to the moon” publicly, and got it into everyone’s heads that this was happening. Not crediting him with at least a big chunk of it is hard, although it’s possible that LBJ could have cancelled it. By the time Nixon was inaugurated, we’d already put men around the moon, so any cancellation would have been a terrible waste of both money and potential.

          • cassander says:

            If I remember my Caro correctly, convincing Kennedy to go to the moon was one of the very few things LBJ was able to achieve as VP. He believed in it.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Even if Kennedy was mostly responsible for the Cuban Missile Crisis, he handled the situation competently. It very easily could have been worse.

    • Aapje says:

      @pontifex

      It’s normal for the approval ratings of presidents to decline as they are in office longer and people’s unrealistic expectations get to face reality. In general, people can only live on ‘hope’ so long before they actually want ‘change.’ JFK was killed while his approval ratings were still high and most on the left were still content with hope. JFK’s ratings were about the same as George W Bush’s rating after the same number of days in office.

      So any president that is assassinated early in his presidency is likely to be severely overrated.

      It’s also hard to reevaluate a president who has only been in office for so little time. It’s easy for his supporters to solve cognitive dissonance by attributing the good things that happened to him and the bad things to his predecessor and successor.

    • cassander says:

      Kennedy will forever be looked at with rose colored glasses because he died tragically right before a bunch of bad things happened, which means that people will always be able to project onto him their preferred response to those things. See, for example, all the people who, against all evidence of his character, insist that Kennedy wouldn’t have sent troops to Vietnam on the basis of one or two memos.

    • quaelegit says:

      Based on my high school US History textbook (published in 2006), I think re-habilitation of Nixon is already happening somewhat. I mean, no one was trying to excuse or justify Watergate, but the lesson I drew from the section on his first term was “wow, Nixon actually passed/continued a lot of things the public really likes today” (in addition to the stuff pontifex mentions, I remember my textbook emphasizing expansion of child support services or something?)

      Or possibly my textbook was written by Nixon apoligists.

      The other thing that stuck out from that time period was that whoever wrote the section on the late 70s seemed to have a personal animus against Carter…

      [Edit: for Kennedy, what I remember is that it emphasized his (administration’s?) skill with presenting the best face to the media — selling people on “Camelot” even though he had lots of health issues, for example.]

    • Lillian says:

      There was a recent thread on SSC where people talked about how Woodrow Wilson has gone from being considered a hero for most, to being a villain.

      We weren’t keeping track of approval ratings back then, but in 1919-1920 Wilson was easily one of the most hated Presidents in the history of the nation. Though he did not personally stand for re-election the Democrats still paid dearly for it in the 1920 election. James M. Cox, the Democratic presidential candidate, got only 34% of the vote, compared to Republican Warren G. Harding’s 60%, still the largest Presidential popular vote margin in American history.

      In that same election the Republicans obtained in both Houses what is by far their largest Congressional majority since the 19th century. At no point in the last hundred years have the Democrats been as shut out of the Federal government as they were after 1920, and the fault for that lands squarely on Wilson’s shoulders. Frankly, if not for the Civil War hangover continuing to make the South into a night-impregnable anti-Republican stronghold, i expect the Congressional margins would have been New Deal Democrats huge.

      So Wilson’s actual path is from thoroughly loathed in the aftermath of the First World War, to his reputation being rescued in the aftermath of the Second World War, to lately people turning round on him again and realizing that we had right the first time, and he was in fact a terrible President.

      • Eric Rall says:

        Do you know why he was so loathed in the immediate aftermath of WW1? I can think of a few hypotheses, but I’d prefer something more concrete than my speculation if it’s available.

        My guesses are:
        1. Resentment over joining the Great War a little over a year after getting reelected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”. I consider this unlikely, since was was declared over issues that came up after the election and which presented a pretty clear CB, and since American participation in the war was victorious and relatively short.

        2. Resentment of wartime measures, such as the tax increase to pay for the war and the censorship provisions of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Especially when many of those measures stayed in place after the fighting was over.

        3. Wilson’s mismanagement of the domestic politics aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, especially the split with the Senate over the League of Nations.

        If I had to guess, I’d figure mostly #2, given Harding’s slogan, “A Return to Normalcy”, sounds like he was specifically campaigning against #2.

        • cassander says:

          It’s worth mentioning that 100,000 people died out of a population of ~100 million. That’s a lot, more than vietnam and korean combined, and in only about one year of actual combat.

        • quaelegit says:

          @cassander — woah, 100k seemed really high to me, until I remembered the influenza epidemic of 1918.

          @Eric Rall and Lillian — the question for me is more, “why did Wilson get re-habilitated after WWII?” The only thing I’ve thought of is his championing of re-segregation (in which case why is the tide turning now and not 40 years ago?) or FDR’s popularity rubbing off on him (was FDR still popular after WWII?)

          • BBA says:

            Isolationism became a lot less popular after WW2. Wilson was among the first to argue for permanent international organizations to solve problems through jaw-jaw instead of war-war, so when the UN and GATT and NATO and such were getting set up he was hailed as a visionary. His abject failure to accomplish any of that stuff and the utter loathsomeness of the rest of his agenda got swept under the rug.

            Now the UN and WTO aren’t looking so hot and people are looking under the rug and not liking what they’re seeing.

          • quaelegit says:

            Oh, that makes a lot more sense. Thanks!

            (Although is the UN particularly unpopular recently? This gallup chart suggests it’s popularity has been low since GWB’s time. I guess it takes a while for historical opinions to percolate though.)

        • Lillian says:

          It’s all three reasons, the first of which you are greatly underestimating. Despite the clear casus belli, the war was still very unpopular with large segments of the American population. Many people felt that the correct way to deal with Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare was to just stay out of the war zone and wait for the war to end. Doing that was, after all, little different than complying with the equally burdensome British blockade of German ports. Many also felt that the Zimmerman telegram amounted to basically nothing and wasn’t worth more than a strongly worded letter. The Wilson administration was not just jumping at shadows when they enacted draconian measures to suppress opposition to the war, it was in fact genuinely widespread enough that it could have conceivably derailed the whole effort. Not that this excuses their actions.

          Also worth noting at the time the German-American community was about as large as the Hispanic community is now, except every one of them was a legal immigrant, and assimilating much more slowly than Hispanics are to boot. Needless to say they were very much against America intervening in the war, and doubly so about intervening on the side of the Entente. You can imagine how upset they were at not just Wilson declaring war on Germany, but also at the subsequent widespread anti-German hysteria and persecution they were subjected to.

  14. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    People here, and in general, talk a lot about index funds as a smart way to invest in stock as a regular person. But I’m wondering if anyone has experience in index funds which hold bonds.

    I’ve been reading The Intelligent Investor by Warren Buffett’s mentor Benjamin Graham. It’s very interesting reading, with some of it very prescient, but at this point even the commentary added after his death in my edition is nearly twenty years old.

    One thing he strongly suggests is to not invest 100% in stocks, but to keep a minimum of 25% in bonds. Ideally treasury bonds or other bonds guaranteed by the US federal government. It seems like this is half about diversification and half a psychological trick to stop the investor from getting caught up in the ups and downs of the market. That said, without a finance background it’s a bit hard to follow his reasoning.

    Does it make any sense to split ones investment between, for example, two Vanguard index funds: one of S&P 500 stock and the other one of their bond index funds?

    • Nornagest says:

      I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I have a percentage invested in Vanguard’s total bond market fund, for pretty much the reasons you cite for Graham.

    • Eric Rall says:

      Another part of the benefit of portfolio asset allocations is that the re-balancing process (shifting investments between asset classes to keep your desired allocation) improves your returns by taking advantage of market volatility, through a mechanism similar to dollar cost averaging.

    • Eric Rall says:

      Ideally treasury bonds or other bonds guaranteed by the US federal government.

      I am very skeptical of this part of the advice. A big portion of the market for T Bonds in particular and AAA-rated securities in general are regulated institutional investors (banks, etc) which are required to keep a certain amount of money in reserve as cash or AAA-rated securities. This seems like it would create a price premium for AAA-rated securities over AA-rated and lower securities beyond what’s justified by the increased risk. As an individual investor who’s free to pick your portfolio allocation, it seems like it would be to your benefit to take advantage of your right to buy slightly riskier bonds at a discount that institutional investors can’t fully take advantage of.

      Vanguard’s current SEC yield for long-term treasury bond fund (VUSTX) is 2.85%, and for the equivalent corporate bond fund (VWESX) is 4.09%. The default risk is lower for the former, but I have a hard time imagining it’s that much lower as to justify a 1.24% yield spread.

      • add_lhr says:

        This seems right – VWESX is an investment-grade bond fund (BBB, A, AA, and AAA are the “investment grade” ratings, as opposed to BB and below, which are “high-yield” or “junk” bonds). If you look at the latest S&P Corporate Defaults study you can see on page 5 that there has been only 1 investment-grade default since 2010, for an average annual default rate of well under 0.2% over the past 20 years, i.e. an implied excess spread of over 1% given the numbers Eric is quoting. Even during the crisis, 1-year IG defaults only hit 0.4%.

        Actual annual defaults by grade are on page 10-11 and page 33, if you want to construct a weighted average observed default rate given the specific breakdown of a given bond fund’s holdings.

        Edited to add: Of course, the bonds in a given bond fund can lose value in ways that stop short of a default, for example by being downgraded due to declining health of their issuer. If a bond is downgraded from e.g. A to BB, all of a sudden its current yield doesn’t look so impressive given its credit risk and its price must therefore fall to compensate. You can get a sense of the risk of this happening by looking at the 1-, 3-, and 5-year transition matrices in the same S&P report – you can see how likely a bond is to fall from a given investment grade to a junk / speculative grade over a short and medium time horizon.

    • Another Throw says:

      I am by no means an expert, but my impression on the arguments in favor boil down to:

      1. The whole point of having investments is to have money when you need it. Stocks provide the greatest returns over sufficiently long time horizons. Because they also happen to have high volatility, those higher theoretical returns wont do you a damn lick of good if you happen to need the money at the wrong time. While bonds have lower returns, they also have have lower volatility which helps you have something when you need it.

      2. The returns on stocks and the returns on bonds have a fairly strong negative correlation. Generally speaking, when stocks are going like gangbusters, bonds will have anemic returns; when stocks are taking a bath, bonds will have higher returns. This is not always the case. I seem to recall seeing a headline recently about that very subject, actually. I think returns on stocks and bonds were both going down at some point during the recent bout of volatility, or something like that.

      3. US Federal bonds, in particular, are generally considered to be “risk free” because they are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. Since the US government going bankrupt (or just refusing to pay bondholders) would be a cataclysm of epic proportions, it is unthinkable. And, honestly, if that were to ever happen you would have way bigger problems that your bank account.

      In a naive, two fund, stock-bond portfolio, the balance between the two should be driven by your risk tolerance. A rule of thumb I have heard, but which I lack sufficient expertise to evaluate, is that the percent of your (retirement) portfolio in bonds should track your age; i.e, 35 years old ~= 35% bonds. When your young and have time to bounce back, invest more aggressively in stocks, and as you get older and closer to actually needing your money, invest more in bonds to insulate yourself from volatility risk.

      I have had someone try explaining to me how, given your risk tolerance, to calculate the ratio more accurately, but I didn’t really pay attention. I seem to remember that a different method of calculating the ratio was a homework assignment in my linear algebra class, but that was a long time ago and I definitely didn’t pay any attention there.

      Investment advise, something something, consult a professional, something.

      • Wrong Species says:

        If you’re putting money in to a retirement account, especially a 401k, you’re pretty much only thinking about long time periods. If you’re more than 10-15 years away from retirement, why put any of it in bonds?

        • Another Throw says:

          This is premised on a bad assumption.

          Over 1 in 4 households with a retirement accounts make non-retirement withdrawals at some point.

          If you end up having to make a non-retirement withdrawals—which is fairly common—and if the reason for that withdrawal is correlated with stock market performance—which is not unreasonable—you are basically screwed.

          And since non-retirement withdrawals are most common in your 40’s, which is way to late to recover from being screwed, it makes some sense to start diversifying well in advance.

          I reiterate, the purpose of saving is to have money whenever and for whatever you need it. Retirement is just one such need, albeit a large one.

          I am personally of the opinion that an excessive focus on retirement savings results in a neglect of short to medium term saving, to the detriment of the savers so misfocused. The fact that public policy encourages that misfocus is why American’s do not have non-retirement savings. They aren’t stupid, they are responding to bad incentives. But that’s a different discussion.

          • cassander says:

            If you end up having to make a non-retirement withdrawals—which is fairly common—and if the reason for that withdrawal is correlated with stock market performance—which is not unreasonable—you are basically screwed.

            Not necessarily. Depending on how long you’ve had your money in, you might still come out ahead. The S&P very briefly fell to 50% of it’s pre-2008 high in 2009, but that high was up almost 100% from 2002. the S&P’s average annual return is something like 10%. If your bond fund is getting 3%, then after 8 or 9 years index funds are still ahead after a 50% loss.

          • Eric Rall says:

            The 1 in 4 households that make non-retirement withdrawals are not randomly distributed. You’re much more likely to “breach” your retirement account if you’re lower income, don’t have adequate emergency savings, or have significant consumer debt.
            (PDF link)

            Rather than planning to breach your retirement account, it seems better to cut your retirement contributions a bit and use the remainder to pay down debts and to build up an emergency fund. Especially if you’re in the higher income brackets or on a career path that’s likely to get you there by your peak earning years.

        • Alphonse says:

          Cassander makes an excellent point, and I think people often overestimate the value of decreasing volatility (at least for committed buy-and-hold investors).

          Retirement is likely decades away for me, which makes me feel perfectly comfortable with a 100% stock allocation. I’m sure it will be a volatile ride, but if the future is even remotely similar to the past, then 100% stocks looks like a far better bet for me than shifting any money to bonds at this point. If the value of my (small) holdings drops 50% next year, I’ll be celebrating that I get to buy stocks half off (so long as I’m employed. And if I lose my job, having a slightly larger balance in my largely inaccessible IRA wouldn’t be of much value).

          For retirement, I think rising equity glidepaths present a useful way of employing bonds to decrease sequence of returns risk. I intend to review that research years down the road when it’s more personally relevant to me, and I think anyone approaching retirement now would be well-served by at least checking out those approaches.

          On a related note, I think emergency funds are seriously overrated, at least for many high-earners with stable jobs. See, e.g., Source.

        • the_the says:

          @ Wrong Species

          A compelling answer (to me) is the psychological impact: how would you react to seeing your portfolio decline in value by 30% or more in a very short period of time?

          Some people react intensely to such a market crash; they lose sleep, suffer anxiety/stress, etc. Others are more resilient.

          But I think it’s difficult to know which kind of person you are until it actually happens. Maintaining a portion in bonds can soften this blow.

          So, if someone experienced such a hit, say during ~2000 or 2007-2008, they may be confident in their risk tolerance, and perhaps ~100% stock makes sense.

          But as someone who didn’t have much invested during the last crash, I don’t trust myself to gauge how I would react. And my guess is that many new investors, who have benefited from the last bull market, don’t have an accurate measure of their risk tolerance either.

      • Anon. says:

        In a naive, two fund, stock-bond portfolio, the balance between the two should be driven by your risk tolerance.

        The balance should be driven by finding the portfolio that maximizes risk-adjusted returns (which is the same for everybody) and then levering that up/down to match your risk tolerance

        • Another Throw says:

          You’re right of course. I was presupposing the maximum risk adjusted returns was precomputed. It is the same for everybody, after all.

    • Erusian says:

      Standard disclaimer: I am not an advisor, you take account of anything I say at your own risk, if you lose your shirt it’s your own damn fault. You agree not to sue me by reading this.

      The bond market is a rather diverse market, but 99% of what people hear about are relatively stable bonds in the AA and above category. Basically a few large stable corporations and several large governments, like the US. These are what a friend of mine called ‘apocalypse bets’. In other words, if those bonds go bad, it’s because the world ending. He was only slightly exaggerating.

      Bonds have three main advantages from the average person’s perspective. Firstly, they’re countercyclical. Bonds usually become worth more when the stock market falls. This decreases overall volatility which is advantageous both for psychological reasons and because having money on hand allows you to take advantage of time-sensitive deals. For example, if you just rode out the financial crisis, you’d have done well eventually. If you had bonds, though, you could have sold them when they were worth a lot (because the market was in freefall), then bought up a bunch of cheap stocks, and eventually made a lot of money.

      Secondly, they’re just less volatile period. This is why people often shift into bonds as they get older. The idea is that you want to consume more of your retirement income rather than growing it anymore. And more importantly, you don’t want to lose your retirement to 2008. While you could just ride out a 2008, most people don’t want to delay their retirement (or any major decision) by five to ten years because of the stock market.

      Thirdly, because bonds are more stable, people are more willing to accept them as assets. It’s easier to get asset depletion style financing off of bonds than stocks unless you have a lot of the stocks. A strong bond portfolio is similar to a house in that you can use it for other financial instruments to a much greater degree than a stock portfolio. There are bond depletion annuities the same way there are reverse mortgages, while I’ve never heard of a stock depletion annuity.

      Whether splitting makes sense really depends on you. But it’s an excellent idea if you’re looking to have two funds which run counter to each other, so when one goes up the other goes down. It’s also the standard advice for someone heading to eventual retirement. And you should slowly shift into bonds as you get older. If you’re just looking for pure long-run growth and want to be a passive investor, there’s little reason not to just go with the index. It will almost certainly earn more in the long run. But that long run might well be a decade. If you’re looking for pure long-run growth and are willing to be a bit more active, then having bonds will actually improve your yield per the process Eric Rall brought up.

    • Chalid says:

      Just a note that most of the comments to the effect of “index funds are best” are based on research on the US stock market and don’t necessarily generalize to other asset classes; I’m not sure how well they generalize to non-US stock markets either for that matter.

      In corporate bonds in particular my impression is that active management is superior, though I’ve never really dug into the question. Bond indicies aren’t easily tracked by index funds, index funds don’t buy bonds when they’re issued (on average, bonds tend to go up immediately after they’re issued, so this is a drag on index fund performance), and about half of the bond market consists of non-economic or heavily constrained actors.

    • Brad says:

      There’s a somewhat subtle difference between an equity index fund and (most) bond index funds. An equity fund is essentially the same as going out and buying the marketed weighted number of shares of each stock in the index. A bond fund, on the other hand, is a different investment then going out a buying a bunch of bonds because most bond funds maintain a fixed maturity range. That means they are constantly changing their holdings.

    • broblawsky says:

      If you had bought a 20-year T-bill back in 1998, you could have made a net profit compared to an equivalent investment in the stock market in the same time frame (depending on what you invested in).

      • Alphonse says:

        The “depending on what you invested in” is quite a caveat, so I thought I’d check this out. As is fairly standard (and convenient), I compared the T-bill performance to S&P 500 returns.

        Per this calculator, the annualized S&P 500 return for January 1998 to January 2018 was 5.46%, and 7.413% with dividends reinvested.

        Per the equivalent calculator, the annualized return for a 10-year T-bill (with coupon payment reinvestment) was 3.857%.

        With payments/dividends reinvested for both, the S&P 500 crushes the 10-year T-bill with nearly double the annualized rate of return and 2.8 times the final value.

        Now, you referred to 20-year T-bills, not 10-year T-bills, which is obviously a distinction. Absent a principled reason, that feels like a bit of a retrospective gotcha: of course there may be individual assets which will outperform the stock market if you have future knowledge (imagine what Apple stock would look like!).

        But even taking it on face value, the 20-year T-bill paid 5.88% in 1998 (source). I didn’t see a convenient calculator to determine the returns with payments reinvested, but that website provides enough info to calculate the annualized returns if you continued to reinvest the payments into additional 20-year T-bills. I suppose it’s possible that could push the 20-year T-bill over the stocks for 2018, but the current lower rates for the rolling investments are going to make any outperformance pretty challenging to sustain into the future (although who knows, maybe the US stock market will copy Japan or something; that’s always a risk).

        • Eric Rall says:

          For long-term T Bonds during that period, a big chunk of the gains comes from appreciation. The coupon of a bond is typically fixed when it’s issued, so the price of the bond goes up if market interest rates go down, since the bond is giving a richer cash flow than a newly-issued bond of the same denomination and maturity date. The initial set of 20-year bonds purchased in 1998 don’t benefit from this, since they mature this year and just pay back their principal amount, but there’s a whole ladder of newer 20-year bonds that you bought when you reinvested your interest payments over the years. All but the last six years worth of these have higher coupon rates, and mostly much higher coupon rates, than current new-issue bonds.

          This aspect of upside potential for bonds has a ceiling, though, and we’re moderately close to it. For a newly-issued 20 year T Bond with a 3% yield, the price could potentially go up to face value plus 60% if nominal long-term interest rates went all the way to zero (assuming I’m calculating correctly: I calculated the NPV of a 20-year bond with a 3% annual coupon, using the hypothetical new market interest rate as the discount rate). The question is how close to zero you think long-term bond prices can get, and how likely an extended secular decline in nominal interest rates is, compared to interest rates to leveling off in the current range (so you get the 3% interest payments and little change in bond prices) or for interest rates to go up significantly (so you’re stuck with a bond that pays a lower interest rate than newer bonds and nobody wants to buy it from you except at a significant discount).

          It’s price-and-yield changes that make bond investing somewhat risky. If you’ve got a specific expense you’re planning for at a specific date, you can tailor your bond portfolio’s maturity date to match so you’re never in a position where you need to sell your bonds at a loss and you’re only out the opportunity cost of an in-hindsight better investment if rates go up (you can do this manually, through a target maturity date bond fund, or by buying a CD from a bank instead of traditional bond). But if you’re holding a rotating portfolio of bonds long-term, either directly or through a traditional bond fund, you’re exposed to some risk to your principal balance if rates are up when you want to cash out.

          • Alphonse says:

            I don’t have anything to add, but I appreciate the lengthy explanation. I’m not as familiar with the inner workings of bonds / bond funds as I am with stocks, so it’s always nice to read and think more about them.

    • Anon. says:

      Diversification is a free lunch, possibly the only one in economics. It definitely makes sense to own both equity and bond funds. I’d recommend also diversifying equities beyond the S&P500, there’s a whole world out there. There’s a thing called the Home Equity Bias where people overinvest in equities of their own country, it’s generally a bad thing.

      • Eric Rall says:

        The big benefits of concentrating on equities in your home country are reducing your exposure to currency risk and regime risk.

        You’re less exposed to currency risk by investing in domestic equities in your home country because (presumably) your planned future consumption is going to be in the same currency as your investments.

        You’re definitely exposed to regime risk of your home country, but you’re exposed whether you’re invested overseas or not. Just living in a country and holding citizenship in it combine to come close to saturating your exposure to its regime risk, so you may as well get your money’s worth by investing domestically as well. If you invest overseas, you’re exposing yourself to regime risk in other countries as well.

        This is written for a US perspective, though, which is a large, rich country with a relatively diverse domestic market, stable domestic institutions, a lot of insulation against “exported” regime risk, and with few good international investment markets denominated in the same currency. It doesn’t apply as well to someone in, say, Belgium, which is fairly rich per-capita, but is quite small, is part of a much larger currency zone, and which is highly exposed to regime risk in, say, France or Germany. The argument for a Belgian investor diversifying throughout the Eurozone is much stronger than the corresponding argument for an American diversifying overseas.

        • Chalid says:

          On the other hand, your income is likely more correlated to your home country’s stock market than it is to foreign stock markets, which boosts the benefit of investing abroad.

          • Eric Rall says:

            There is that. And if that’s why you’re seeking international diversification, your need for it should decline steeply as you approach retirement and your future wages become a smaller portion of your discounted future income stream.

      • Colonel Hapablap says:

        Can you elaborate on why diversification is a free lunch? I’ve read that before which left me confused.

        • Brad says:

          By diversifying you reduce risk without reducing expected reward. You do so by reducing exposure to concentrated unknown idiosyncratic risks. In an efficient markets it’s the only way to get such costless risk reduction.

    • J Mann says:

      I really like Vanguard’s timed funds, which allocate into stocks and bonds based on when you think you will need the money, and also diversify somewhat into indexes of US and non-US assets.

      For example, the 2040 fund is currently made up of a mix of about 50% Vanguard’s total US stock market index fund, 35% Vanguard’s total international stock index fund, 10% Vanguard’s total US bond index fund, and 5% V’s total international bond index fund.

      As we approach 2040, Vanguard will adjust the split to be more bonds and less equities. Vanguard’s 2020 fund is now 32% us stock index, 29% us bond index, 22% international stock index, 12% international bond index, and 5% Vanguard’s inflation-protected securities index.

    • the_the says:

      If you haven’t already, I suggest checking out the Bogleheads website. In their forum (a good place to ask such questions, I think), there have been more than a few threads on 100% equities vs a trade-off with bonds that address this issue; there is also their wiki on the 2-fund or 3-fund portfolio.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I have 99% of my investments in equities. Whenever I’ve looked into bonds, all I see is a much lower return and a slightly lower volatility. I haven’t looked into this recently, but as I recall, the correlation of bond return and stock return is pretty high too, so I don’t think that adds much.

      Once I retire and expect to start withdrawing instead of investing, I may move a few years of withdrawals into bonds, in case there is a big stock crash just before I need funds. But I need to investigate further about this. After all, bonds have crashes too. They seem to be very susceptible to interest rate increases.

      Edit: I do try to add diversity with funds in large stocks, small stocks, and foreign stocks. I think that adds as much diversity as does bonds.

      • the_the says:

        @ Mark V Anderson

        “Whenever I’ve looked into bonds, all I see is a much lower return and a slightly lower volatility.”

        This observation seems odd to me. If you compare (using Google Finance) two index funds:

        VBMFX: Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund
        VTSAX: Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund

        and take a maximum view from ~2002 to present, the difference in volatility is stark. VBMFX is nearly a line (with possibly a slight positive slope) whereas VTSAX resembles a sawtooth.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I don’t understand how to use Google Finance to find those funds, so I just went to Vanguard. It had graphs of those two funds from 2008 to 2018.

          Yeah, I guess there was quite a bit more volatility of the stock fund, at least in 2008/2009, where it dropped by about half. But other than that period, it has been a pretty steady movement upward. I haven’t looked at this for a number of years, so maybe I didn’t include a major recession in the history I looked at.

          Of course the return is tremendously better for the stocks. The bond fund went up about 40% in those 10 years, and the stock fund up about 250%. And that 250% included the 2008/2009 period when it dropped by half. So even including a major recession, stocks way out-performed bonds in the last 10 years. Stocks may be dangerous over the period of a couple of years, but almost always better over any longer period of time.

          • the_the says:

            It had graphs of those two funds from 2008 to 2018.

            You’d need to zoom out further to see the behavior I described.
            If you type VBMFX into google, then the top result should show a plot. You can select (at the bottom) to compare against other funds.

            Of course the return is tremendously better for the stocks.

            Yup, no argument there.

            Stocks may be dangerous over the period of a couple of years, but almost always better over any longer period of time.

            I posted above about this wrt to psychological/emotional impact. If you are the type of individual who can withstand that volatility (perhaps you’ve been through a market crash), then a portfolio weighted towards mostly stocks seems reasonable (or so I’ve read over at Bogleheads). But I suspect there are many people (this includes me) who don’t have a good grip on their risk tolerance and might react badly to a large, sudden decline in portfolio value (i.e. lose sleep, suffer anxiety/depression, etc. in addition to making poor financial decisions as a reaction). Having bonds can mitigate things.

    • arlie says:

      Personally, I’m in 4 index funds. Domestic stocks, foreign stocks, domestic bonds, foreign bonds. (Domestic = US in this case.) I’m slightly overweighted in foreign, as I’m bearish on the US overall, and might well retire elsewhere. I considered using a target retirement date fund, which is supposed to handle all that, and change ratios automatically as time passes, but decided the higher fund expenses and lack of finer grained control outweighed the minor nuisance of doing my own rebalancing.

  15. Levantine says:

    The financial world and its workings look like an endless source of puzzlement, at least sometimes.
    On Russian tycoons, June 2018, I read: “They became victims of margin calls […] their collateral value plummeted”

    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRFbY4uPqiw)

    After reading what those terms mean, I’m left wondering: why would billionaires borrow money for investments.

    • Eric Rall says:

      Three reasons: leverage, arbitrage, and liquidity.

      Leverage is the reverse of the asset allocation strategy Nabil ad Dajjal just mentioned: where a conservative investor might reduce the risk (and return) of their stock investments by mixing them with bond investment, an aggressive investor might increase the return (and risk) of their stock investments by investing borrowed money.

      Arbitrage is taking advantage of price differences of the same (or equivalent) assets in different markets. The classic example is buying a stock New York while simultaneously selling the same stock in Chicago to take advantage of the New York and Chicago markets having slightly different prices. That’s mostly gone away as public stock markets have centralized and computerized trading systems have gotten really good at quickly taking advantage of arbitrage opportunities when the do happen, but bigger arbitrage opportunities still exist with more exotic investments and especially with less publicly-traded markets. The problem comes when assets you think are equivalent aren’t 100% equivalent, you can get left holding a very large bag if you’re short one asset and long the other when their prices radically diverge. An example of this from recent US markets is one facet of the 2008 mortgage crisis: in theory, the AAA-rate tranche of a mortgage-backed security was pretty much equivalent to a AAA-rated treasury bond with the same term (a AAA government bond is a AAA government bond), but the former had a slightly higher yield, so it made sense to go short T-bonds and long agency bonds. Right up until the AAA ratings on the MBSes turned out to be overly optimistic, and the implicit government guarantee that every “knew” backed agency bonds started looking questionable.

      Liquidity is if you’ve got money tied up in assets you can’t quickly sell for their full value, but you still want to make new investments, so you borrow against your illiquid assets to make the investment now rather than waiting until you can sell the assets or save up cash from your income streams. For a regular individual investor, an example of this might be taking out a second mortgage on your house in order to exercise some in-the-money stock options (options to but a stock for less than its current market price) before they expire. For a Russian tycoon billionaire, the assets might be mines, oil wells, or factories. This can blur into leverage, depending on how long you take to pay off the loan relative to the life of the investment.

    • massivefocusedinaction says:

      Also taxes, borrowing money isn’t a tax event.

  16. J Mann says:

    I’d be interested in a TV channel recommendation. I signed up for a Spectrum streaming package that has broadcast channels + 10 cable channels (not including “premium” channels like HBO or Showtime), and have one channel left to pick. There aren’t any channels left with anything I watch, but which channel is most likely to have something I would like in the future? Looking at the list below, it looks like I basically watch unchallenging SFF. 🙂

    My guess is that in the next year or two, I’ll switch to some streaming service of the future, but for now, Spectrum is winning on price, and I don’t think I actually need that many channels.

    Here’s what I have so far (with stuff I watched this year in parentheses)

    Broadcast channels (news for breaking events, Legends of Tomorrow, iZombie)
    SyFy (12 Monkeys, The Magicians, Expanse (for now), Z Nation, KillJoys)
    AMC (Preacher, Into the Badlands)
    Cartoon Network/Adult Swim (Saturday night anime block, Samurai Jack)
    I sign up for HBO while Game of Thrones is in season, and am hoping to watch all of Westworld during GOT Season 8.

    I previously enjoyed Justified on FX and Star Wars: Rebels on Disney HD. I liked Sherlock and Dr. Who, but am starting to lose interest in both. Any recommendations on which channel is my best bet going forward?

    • Don P. says:

      BBC America has been known to have other non-Doctor-Who genre originals. You might also look at Freeform, which runs to young-adult-targeted scifi/fantasy when it does genre; Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger just premiered last week, and they recently had something called Sirens, apparently a rather dark take on mermaids. I haven’t seen either myself.

  17. Nancy Lebovitz says:
    • Aapje says:

      More child labor, less school!

      😛

      • SamChevre says:

        I’m for it.

        (Seriously–I grew up with about equal amounts work and school -4 hours each – on school days, and school only 150 days a year; I think it was ideal.)

        • Sounds interesting. When and where and how?

        • SamChevre says:

          Remember, I grew up Amish-Mennonite.

          So, US, 1980’s. My family were dairy farmers, so my typical school day was chores 4:30-6:30 AM, school 8:00 AM-12:00, chores 4:00-6:30 PM. I usually took an hour or so nap in the afternoon, and sometimes did work that wasn’t chores or sometimes didn’t have work to do.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      They make some good points in the article. Little kids usually do more harm than good when they offer to help. But rather than grumpily sending them away, it is usually a good idea for parents to let them help, for two reasons: 1) it gives the kids a sense of self worth, and 2) it does get the kids in the habit of doing chores, which is very helpful in their older years.

      But it way over-states how well this works. Kids want to help out because it looks like fun. Usually it stops being fun after about ten minutes. It is also not as much fun to wash dishes carefully, or mow the lawn neatly, so kids often do a slap-dash job. You shouldn’t expect a significant amount of work from kids without quite a bit of nagging.

      In the poor traditional communities that are profiled in the article, all the kids in the community are doing these same chores, so it is expected that kids will give significant help. Note that Sam C comments below that he helped a lot, but he was part of a traditional community too. If you can get your entire community to start requiring kids to work, that might well work. But you aren’t going to get lots of child labor out of your kids if their friends aren’t doing the same thing.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I think you haven’t gotten the idea of investment– a toddler can’t do useful work, but you can build loyalty by being friendly at that stage.

        If the article is accurate, the result is a seven year old who is on your side and wants to help you, and has the capability to do some useful work.

      • Aapje says:

        Something that may be crucial here is to have older children teach the smaller children & having little ambition for the younger kids beyond learning to do household tasks.

        Nowadays in the West, the little prince(ss) needs to do organized sports, learn to play an instrument & go to school, while the parents both work. There is less and less opportunity to enlist other children and to have the parents spend more time with the child means giving up certain ambitions.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          The article doesn’t mention older children teaching younger children, though I’m sure that happens.

          The point is about the mother maintaining the relationship with the child instead of having an attitude of go away kid, ya bother me.

          It’s possible that both letting toddlers help in the developmental window when they want to help and shooing them away because they can’t actually help are fairly stable equilibria.

          A parent (actually, I think the article just mentions mothers and daughters) who’s getting help from older children and is from a tradition of being patient with toddlers is presumably less harried. A parent who’s only experience is of resenting chores and dealing with children who resent chores is going to just want to get the work done.

          “It is also not as much fun to wash dishes carefully, or mow the lawn neatly, so kids often do a slap-dash job.”

          Note that part of the situation is doing chores together– when both people like each other, this makes work more pleasant. Also, when there is mutual trust, the jobs are going to be scaled to what the child can do.

          • Aapje says:

            My point is that most well-educated Western parents have high ambitions, for themselves and their children. They have to abandon some of these ambitions to do chores together, because doing that takes a lot more time.

            The article makes it seem like this is something that is cost-free and only has upsides (which is typical for these kind of articles), but that is false.

            PS. Looking at the pictures, I also doubt whether these Mexican families have TVs, computers and nice toys. Perhaps the kids are simply bored out of their skulls.

      • baconbits9 says:

        My kids (3 and 5) have been cutting up soft vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes) for salads for a long time now. I was hesitant with the older one, waiting until he was 3 and hovered over him for a while before letting him use a sharp knife on his own, the younger one started about 6 months after, making her a year younger when she started and I barely hovered. The 5 year old has moved onto being able to cut carrots and use the vegetable peeler.

        One of the major reasons it works is because I learned what the kids can do and also not to worry about the minor issues. I have limited my kids ability to be hand models as they have each landed small scars fro nicking their fingers, but as long as they are far enough apart that a random eye gouge isn’t going to happen they are mostly safe from significant injury. This helped me tone down the “you can’t do that, you will get hurt” to “will this hurt be a big deal in the long run”, somethings I keep them away from (the oven!) but that toning down opened up a lot. My kids will get the milk out and pour it for themselves without making a mess most of the time which is nice, but they also have a good idea of when the jug is to full for them to handle.

        I think a lot of parents fail to have appropriate confidence in their kids, and end up limiting their actions because if it which is a major source of discord for families. The kids feel constrained and the parents perpetually worry and feel like they don’t have any down time.

        • SamChevre says:

          We did roughly the same thing. Here’s an article my wife wrote years ago on the topic. And we had the same philosophy–give the a peeler or grater–they can’t injure themselves permanently–and let them learn.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I think new parents underestimate two things, first the capability of children and secondly how annoying it is to wait hand and foot on them. Watching parents with 4 and 5 year olds struggling to get them out of diapers highlights how beneficial it was to get mine out by 2.5, even if the number of post diaper accidents were higher for me. Likewise having children who are capable of getting dressed on their own (even if not always, and with frequent reminders) makes the start to many days better.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Thanks. Both articles say that children can identify make-work. How might they be able to do that?

          • Nornagest says:

            Thanks. Both articles say that children can identify make-work. How might they be able to do that?

            Body language and tone of voice might be making a difference. I imagine you act and sound different when you just want your kids out of your hair for an hour or two than when you actually want them to do something for you.

          • Aapje says:

            If the parent doesn’t shout or do it himself when the kid doesn’t do it, it’s make-work.

  18. Akaled says:

    Can anyone recommend a good book about the end of prohibition in the US, with a focus on the business strategies of the alcohol companies that grew out of it? I’m sure there must be a business studies or history book on this topic but there’s so many books about the period of prohibition itself that I can’t find anything relevant about what happened after prohibition was repealed.

    • cassander says:

      Tyler Cowen has a podcast about the damage that prohibition did to the american restaurant scene. He might have some sources that are relevant.

      http://freakonomics.com/2011/12/15/prohibition-and-the-transformation-of-american-food/

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        That link is dead, and searching just goes back to the same dead link.

        • Aapje says:

          This is the transcript.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Thanks.

            Anyone care to take a crack at the effect of Prohibition and subsequent laws about alcohol on music?

            I’ve noticed that a lot of earlier musicians say that they started their musical education by listening to live music in bars. This is no longer possible in the US. Might it make a difference?

          • Aapje says:

            I’ve noticed that a lot of earlier musicians say that they started their musical education by listening to live music in bars. This is no longer possible in the US.

            Isn’t it?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            How many of the bars permit minors?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            In re Cowen and American food: I don’t know what he means by bad food. Food that people like, but they shouldn’t?

          • Aapje says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            Oh, that’s what you meant. I was confused.

    • quaelegit says:

      I don’t have any specific recommendations for you, but if you want more suggestions my go-to place to ask it the AskHistorians subreddit. (www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians)

    • Well... says:

      Just curious: are you interested in this topic because you want some data on what might potentially happen if drugs were to be legalized? Because I don’t think the two scenarios are very comparable.

      • Akaled says:

        Yes, originally I was curious about this because I thought the end of prohibition might be a guide for what to expect with cannabis legalisation in Canada. There definitely are parallels. Both alcohol and cannabis were formally banned but used widely nonetheless (I think technically mere possession of alcohol wasn’t illegal during prohibition, just producing or selling it). There were also medical exemptions for alcohol throughout prohibition and a lot of propaganda on both sides regarding the dangers/benefits of alcohol as medicine. A lot of the drug wars debate seems to be a rehash of the wet vs. dry prohibition debate (I’m actually surprised Americans are so resistant to the idea of regulating and taxing drugs since prohibition seems to be an object lesson in why this is a better approach than trying to heavily police substance use).

        The small amount of research I’ve done does suggest that the differences are too big for the two cases to be compared however. Unlike cannabis, mature, legal, alcohol businesses existed before prohibition and survived by becoming industrial chemical producers. After prohibition, there was this weird quota process where the amount of alcohol you were allowed to produce was dependent on how much pre-prohibition whisky you had stockpiled. I think this means there was probably too little supply once alcohol was legalised whereas I imagine there’s going to be a glut of cannabis upon legalisation in Canada (due to over-investment in production, similar to gluts in Colorado). Also, Canadian distillers had existed for the whole of prohibition and were able to quickly move in to the American market upon the end of prohibition (after paying fines to make up for all the duties they didn’t pay on alcohol smuggled across the border during prohibition). There’s no mature external supplier of cannabis that can quickly enter the Canadian market though, in fact, I think Canadian producers will probably repeat the alcohol experience and be the first to sell into foreign markets when other Western countries legalise. Alcohol businesses seemed to have done fine after prohibition ended, but WWII really supercharged their profitability as they were able to provide chemicals that were useful in explosives and other war efforts. Again, I don’t think the processes of Cannabis production lend themselves to adaptation the same way alcohol production and distillation did. However, perhaps the Cannabis industry will invest in greenhouse technology that will become useful as water becomes a more precious resource (this is obviously completely speculative).

        • Well... says:

          There are other factors that further decrease the ability to make useful comparisons. Here are just a few off the top of my head:

          – Marketing technologies and strategies are very different now than they used to be
          – The culture around cannabis/alcohol use and its standing in relation to broader mainstream culture has changed significantly (e.g. a popular musician could safely sing openly about smoking pot these days, whereas in the early 20th century it’s not likely)
          – The effects of the internet on the above
          – Demographic shifts, not just in who uses what but in the country as a whole (I’m talking about the US since that’s what I know about, but it probably applies in Canada too)

          • SamChevre says:

            Nitpick: pot was mostly legal in most of the US until 1937. So there are a fair number of references to it in 1920/1930’s popular music. Here are one two three.

          • Akaled says:

            You seem to be arguing that alcohol consumption patterns won’t parallel cannabis ones, which I agree with. But I’m more interested in the business aspects of cannabis legalisation. From this perspective I don’t think the changes in marketing are that important. Obviously you would want modern tactics that will look a lot different to the tactics of post-prohibition distillers, but your overall strategy is to attract more attention/desire to your brand than anyone else’s, just like it was at the end of prohibition.

            Your second point seems a little bit confused. The correct analogy would be to compare popular culture references to alcohol during prohibition to popular culture references to pot in modern times. You seem to be saying it was more taboo to reference pot during prohibition (which I think is true) but I think this is the wrong comparison.

  19. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csxgn3

    Teaching critical thinking in schools– A big formal study in Uganda of teaching children to check health claims.

    Very carefully done (like developing comic books for children who’d never seen a comic before (base it on Tintin drawings, not fancy dynamic art), and with an intervention arm and a non-intervention arm.

    The effect of the nine-week course was checked by testing children and teachers on the ideas– both did better if they had the classes. (The material about the Ugandan study is the first half hour of the podcast, the outcome is at the end.) There’s also a few children interviewed who seem to be more thoughtful about information they were given.

    There was a class in California on how to dig into websites to see whether ads were masquerading as news, and also a class on “who sank the Maine?” with looking at various sources on the subject with different biases.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Interesting, I was just thinking about this issue of teaching kids to do a better job of judging information on the Internet or other places, because there was an opinion piece in my local paper that suggest kids should be taught this in school.

      The problem with teaching this in school is that most teachers aren’t any better than the general public in making these judgments, so how would they be able to teach the kids. ( I am thinking high school) I think if we actually had some schools attempt to do this, we’d end up with classes where the teachers taught the kids their own prejudices instead of how to think for themselves. We’d be worse off than when we started.

      I was thinking of writing up some kind of curriculum myself for teaching kids these things. It is perhaps arrogant of me to think I can do this, after writing off most of the school teachers in America, but there it is. I was thinking of putting each main subject here on SSC to get all the criticism it deserves (hopefully not ignored). I don’t know if I’ll get to this. I think it is a very good idea to teach kids to think about what they hear or read, but I can see it becoming a propaganda machine.

      The study itself looked like it worked pretty well, by teaching kids just a subset of thinking for themselves, by teaching them about healthcare only. That may be a worthwhile method. I liked the bullet points they had.

      • SamChevre says:

        Long ago, there was a set of pages designed to teach the basics of identifying fake information on the internet. Here’s a good entry point.

      • rlms says:

        It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if teachers only had average ability if you think they could improve the critical thinking abilities of below-average students whilst not harming those of the above-average.

        • The problem is that a key part of figuring out what to believe or not to believe online is starting out by not trusting anyone–it’s an open medium, so all sources of information have to be tested by whatever means are available before being believed.

          But the standard K-12 model is based on giving the student one or possibly two sources of information–teacher and possibly textbook–and expecting him to believe them. There are teachers who break that model, who encourage students to disagree with them and support their disagreement, but they are the exception.

          Which is why I have long argued that the standard model anti-teaches the relevant skills.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            The project in Uganda seemed to focus on teaching children to check on claims from people who don’t have credentials.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Then that just sounds like “TRUST YOUR BETTERS” indoctrination.

          • brmic says:

            @ DavidFriedman#
            I submit that your model of the relevant skills and the process is wrong. In nuce, for anything where you can’t run the relevant experiments yourself or directly observe yourself, you’ll in practice fare best with some combination of (a) trusted sources, (b) critical thinking skills and (c) a sense of when it’s possible and worthwhile to dig deeper. The interplay between these three is iterative: your critical thinking informs your evaluation of sources and repeated deep dives both broaden your critical thinking skill and your sense of when it’s worthwhile/possible to strongly question your trusted sources.

            Under that model, teachers can easily supply trusted sources, critical thinking basics can be taught on obvious toy examples and for prioritization a few simple rules of thumb will in turn be enough to jumpstart the iterative process.

            @ Conrad Honcho
            What’s wrong with that?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Conrad Honcho, it is trust your betters indoctrination, but it’s also a start. I do wonder how these kids (possibly when they’re older) will take it when they find out about the replication crisis.

            The challenge is that sometimes the authorities are right, and sometimes trusting them is a matter of life and death.

    • quaelegit says:

      I heard short version of this report on the radio last week, so thanks for posting this so I can read/hear the rest!

      The “who sank the Maine” assignment sounds pretty similar to some assignments I did in middle and high school (mid 2000s to early 2010s) — although the Skill Being Taught was “evaluating primary and secondary sources”, not tied to the internet at all.

      (I’m pretty sure the only advice we got on internet information was “Don’t use wikipedia as a source!”)

    • honoredb says:

      I think it could be useful to have a class that teaches Flat Earth theory as persuasively as it possibly can. Show videos posted on https://www.reddit.com/r/theworldisflat/, have the teacher mock students who argue, have required reading of well-written essays (with tests, naturally, to prove that you read them). Writing essays rebutting the week’s lesson gives you extra credit, but no in-class recognition until the end of the course.

      I don’t know, it could backfire horribly in a number of ways, but it’d be entertaining.

      • My old idea along those lines was to take some controversy with a fair number of people on each side—”is overpopulation a serious problem that requires strong action to deal with” or something similar for climate. Have two teachers, one on each side. Each is allowed to indoctrinate his class as best he can. Half way through the quarter the teachers switch classes. Students are encouraged to argue with the teacher, at least in papers and to the extent it is practical in person, during both halves.

        One could do it for evolution vs creationism, but I think it would be better to do it on a more balanced controversy.

  20. bugsbycarlin says:

    From the HPPD essay:

    But this could just be the same kind of brain plasticity that eventually lets people recover from strokes that kill off whole brain regions.

    Is there anyone who can elaborate on this sort of stroke recovery in some detail?

  21. johan_larson says:

    Imma let you finish, but “The Crown” is the finest television show since the first season of Game of Thrones.

    Tommy Lascelles, the queen’s private secretary, is an awesome character.

    Incidentally, how hard is it to get into Eton? It’s not just expensive, right? Daddy needs to be a big-shot.

    • Erusian says:

      Really? I found it to be extremely pandering and myopic, basically meant to exploit women’s fantasies. That’s fine, but it’s not prestige work. And it is trying to pretend it’s prestige work rather than what it is: a very popular, safe type of show.

      It’s also horribly, horribly shallow. Their treatment of anything political is to make it a personal issue and one that is all about the Queen.

      • johan_larson says:

        My take is that the genre is family drama like Dallas, but based on a real person. That’s why it spends so much time on relationships, marriages, infidelity, and children. It’s not a political drama like House of Cards, so trying to watch it as one is bound to be unsatisfying.

        • Erusian says:

          Queen Elizabeth is a head of state and the show goes out of its way to deal with this. It has repeated scenes of the Cabinet meeting and makes the Queen’s visits with the PM a regular occurrence. Several of the dramas are political issues and outright fabrications are created to make them personal dramas about the Queen rather than what they really were.

          I admittedly haven’t watched the whole of Dallas, but board meetings were not a central part of the show. There were not frequent references to the CEO or the Board. The head of the family didn’t frequently have scenes where the CEO updated him on the state of the company. It was a family drama so it abstracted those details away. The same is true of, for example, Arrested Development. The Crown doesn’t do that though. It decides to engage with it and then does so poorly.

          It also does the family drama poorly, though, because it’s allergic to anything that portrays the royal family poorly or as having serious conflicts. If you’re going to argue it’s Dallas, then where are the illegitimate children, the affairs? It barely hints at Phillip ever doing anything and we never meet any of the suspect paramours. Outsourcing it to people around the family is anodyne unless the show is actually about them.

          And it’s not as if politics necessarily destroy a family drama or make something into House of Cards. Empire is a family drama that actually takes its corporate politics seriously.

          The appeal of the Crown is the appeal of inserting yourself into being the Queen, or maybe Margaret, or some other well-to-do, Twilight style. You are, as everyone around you agrees, the most important person ever. Your day consists of doing whatever you please, except when important men have to come and bow to you. Whenever you go out, you get a literal runway where a world-famous fashion designer makes your outfits. You get to go on regular tours of exotic locations with cheering crowds. You have an incredible amount of money and estates. Legions of people adore you and will fall on the sword for you and even punch people who insult you. And all without the vulgarity of being a celebrity parvenue. No, you’re from an ancient respected family and had it handed to you by birth. And most importantly, it flatters that little narcissistic voice we all have that insists everything is about you.

          You can see this in all sorts of creative decisions. This is why the seduction of Princess Margaret is lingered on. Because it’s sexy, it’s appealing to the target audience to insert themselves. But the potential scandal of her marrying someone like him or being linked with a cad is just passed over because consequences aren’t fun. This is why the Queen’s fashion is lingered on and why they have multiple runway scenes. It’s why they start with her getting married and going to exotic honeymoon locations. This is why Gambia’s change in government becomes all about her. I could go on.

          And that’s fine. It is what it is. It conforms to its nature very well. But I do not understand why people heap praise on it as anything more.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      Incidentally, how hard is it to get into Eton? It’s not just expensive, right? Daddy needs to be a big-shot.

      Disclosure: I did not go to Eton, but did go to another major public school and have friends who went to Eton.

      It’s complicated, and has changed hugely between when The Crown is set and now. Eton, like many similar schools, was founded to educate 70 “poor scholars” and still does. Being from a famous family or one with a history of going there probably helps, but officially Eton selects its students on academic ability based on a combination of exam performance* and interview. And if you’re good enough- which means more than just being good enough to get in if your parents were able to pay the full fees- you get a bursary so you can afford to go. It’s a popular claim by many in Britain, particularly on the left, that the public schools select only on wealth- this is not the case, and has never been entirely the case (though it was more so in the past).

      One recent development is the decoupling of bursaries (reductions in fees based on need for very academically able pupils) from scholarships (awarded only on academic ability, come with certain ceremonial privileges, at many public schools including Eton those with scholarships form their own House)- it used to be that scholarships came with, and were the only way to get, a significant fee reduction. This meant that people who didn’t need the reduction would get it, and those who did sometimes wouldn’t (as there is a fixed number of scholarships).

      *actually two exams- there is the Common Entrance exam which is just to get in, and a more difficult scholarship exam where the best performers are awarded scholarships, and others are given places without scholarships. The scholarship exam is earlier, so those who fail it (rare) do Common Entrance- called Common because it is a shared exam between many different schools.

      • DavidS says:

        Is forming your own house a ‘privilege’? I have heard rumours of ‘scholarship boys’ being treated more as second hand citizens than the celebrated elite, so I’m not sure segregating them would be entirely for their benefit.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          When I was at school (early 2000s) they were considered an elite, and some of the other privileges they get confirm this- for instance at my school the Head Boy was always chosen from the scholars.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            Expanding somewhat on this as edit window has closed: at the schools I am aware of, which include both Eton and the school I attended, scholarships (as opposed to bursaries) in the last several decades to a century have only ever been awarded on academic ability. So while some scholars are from poorer families, a great many are not (Boris Johnson or Harold Macmillan, for instance).

    • Tarpitz says:

      I’d say rather that it’s easier to get into Eton if daddy’s a big shot (or indeed just an old Etonian). It might, for example, persuade them to relax their standards for academic selection. But I think the reasonably bright rich can generally get in if they want to, and the extremely bright might have to pay much less – the extremely bright and quite poor potentially nothing at all. What proportion of parents or teachers of extremely bright poor children are aware of this, on the other hand…

      • oldman says:

        I went to Eton for two weeks as part of some charitable outreach they did*. I certainly got the impression that the Princes were not passing any exams to get in.

        I did ask a teacher if he’d ever taught any of the Princes and he responded “No, I don’t teach bottom set”

        • Tarpitz says:

          Oh, yes. I mean, the degree of easier depends on the size of shot Daddy is, and for these particular purposes senior royalty must presumably constitute the biggest shots of all.

          NB. My relationship with Eton is similar to that of Alphagamma (whose comment was posted between me loading the page and writing mine). My prep school sent a lot of pupils there, I have friends from both prep school and university who went there, and in fact my parents and teachers were keen that I should go there, not least because they thought I was likely to get the top scholarship. I ultimately decided to go to an academically excellent but less celebrated (and far cheaper) private day school, more because I preferred the atmosphere/people when I looked round than because I didn’t want to board.

        • DavidS says:

          I have it on moderately good authority (friend of trusted colleague) that the Princes were outright helped on coursework etc.] And of course their father got into Cambridge with two A levels at B and C (at the moment there’s a big row over whether Oxford and Cambridge should use ‘contextual admissions to let you in with less than AAA if your background means AAB is really impressive. I have mixed feelings (basically it depends on subject as e.g. Maths requires you to have a pretty firm foundation, and ‘background’ can’t be just ‘on average black people are poorer and do worse so we’ll relax standards for a black Etonian’) but claims that doing this is impossible are somewhat hampered by Prince Charles. Surprised it doesn’t get brought up more tbh.

          I don’t think saying this breaks any treason laws, but if I never post again, look for me in the Tower.

          • rlms says:

            To be fair, BC at A-level back then was probably worth more than it is now.

            My impression is that the system used to be very corrupt (for instance colleges used to have closed scholarships that only students from certain schools could apply to). Personally, I don’t think explicit contextual admissions as described would be wise; even if you performed well relative to your school you might lack the absolute knowledge/skills needed to do well on the course you’ve applied for. I like the recent proposals for foundation years better.

          • My impression is that the system used to be very corrupt (for instance colleges used to have closed scholarships that only students from certain schools could apply to).

            How is that corrupt if the scholarship is money that somebody donated for that purpose–possibly someone who had gone to that school?

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            A liberal social democracy allows individuals to discriminate, but not the government; as the government is responsible for establishing a minimum level of welfare.

            If the government facilitates discrimination by individuals, it corrupts their purpose.

            However, I’m wondering whether rlms is incorrect and those closed scholarships were actually paid for directly by third parties. That seems more logical.

          • rlms says:

            @DavidFriedman
            The corruption isn’t the money; my understanding is that some places each year would be reserved for students on closed scholarships, so better applicants from the wrong schools wouldn’t get in.

    • Well... says:

      “The Crown” is the finest television show since the first season of Game of Thrones.

      Then it must not be very good, since GoT is a trashy soap opera, with terrible writing and very spotty acting, veiled behind otherwise high production values.

      • Montfort says:

        If you’re going to disqualify recommendations on the basis of the recommender liking something you don’t, you’re not going to end up with many recommendations at the end of the day. Worse, if you actually reverse recommendations for that reason (as you do here), soon you’ll have no media choices at all – unless you stop reading recommendations.

        Even if it’s just for GoT, let me tell you as someone who doesn’t watch the show – a lot of people like it. Probably even people who like other TV shows you like.

        • The Nybbler says:

          It seems to me that this is valid reasoning. If among the shows I have watched and a recommender has recommended, I do not like most of them, I would expect that among the shows the recommender has recommended that I have not watched, I would not like most of them either.

          • Montfort says:

            Obviously you should prefer recommendations from people with similar tastes. But concluding that any show liked by someone who likes one show you don’t “must” be bad is updating too much. People can like shows for different reasons.

  22. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    https://medium.com/s/trustissues/the-lifespan-of-a-lie-d869212b1f62

    Zimbardo mischaracterized his experiment a *lot*– for example, coaching the guards on how to behave, and lying to the prisoners about how they could leave.

    • If that story is accurate, Zimbardo is not only a fraud, he is an irresponsible fraud. His final defense of the experiment is its longevity–it continues to be cited long after it was done. But if it was fraudulent, as is claimed, then its longevity is not a virtue, it is a fault. A lie that people continue to believe is worse than one that everyone forgets.

      It reminds me of the controversy over Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa.

      • albatross11 says:

        +1

        If the story is true, this is about the worst thing a scientist can do. How many people believed the story of this experiment, and shaped policies or court decisions or classroom lectures or fiction based on the story?

    • quaelegit says:

      Wow, I’d heard for a long time that there were experimental design problems with SEP, but not on this scale (or about the subsequent lying)!

    • Jaskologist says:

      Similarly, Robber’s Cave was run a few times before they got the desired results to go public with.

      • quaelegit says:

        Ok, the rule “just ignore famous psych results” is looking pretty good right now.

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      Finally one of them admit to it.

      Wasn’t it obvious the whole time? I was so annoyed at hearing this study.

      How was society supposed to extrapolate off a bunch of poor Stanford students (both plus 1 sd in both intelligence and consctiousness) knew nothing could actually go wrong, they were paid to be there.

      Of course it was acting.

      This was social posturing. Liking this “study” is being against police brutality and being against the conditions that lead to genocides, as an educated compassionate person who knows the whims of man and his arbitrary nature as a social being.

      • albatross11 says:

        I don’t quite agree with your take on this. I think it *is* possible to do good psychological research, even on pretty hard stuff, even with the constraint that most of your participants are college students. That’s not perfect, and you should definitely look for ways to check the results against other groups, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. For example, I believe the Milgram experiments have been replicated several times. (Though since they probably can’t get through an IRB now, I don’t know how much faith to put in them.)

        The problem we have now is that the quality control on psych experiments in the past was so low that we can’t know which ones should be taken seriously and which ones were just the result of researchers not understanding their stat package, or explicit p-value-hacking, or even fraud. Andrew Gellman proposed that we should draw a line somewhere (I think around 2012) and say that anything published in social psychology before that should be considered as an intriguing hypothesis, but not as science. And I’m not sure what year that line needs to be drawn, but it probably does need to be drawn somewhere.

        Millions of smart college students and laymen studied these results–the Stanford prison experiment, the stuff on bystander effect, stereotype threat, pygmalion in the classroom, implicit association tests, power poses, priming, etc. We believed these results were telling us something important about human nature. We shaped corporate and government policies and court decisions and organizational design and all sorts of personal decisions to some extent around them.

        Some of them were overt fraud–perhaps sometimes an attempt at a “noble lie,” other times just because some jackass wanted tenure and didn’t have any ethics. Others were errors that didn’t get corrected because they told the right kind of story.

        My understanding is that results on IQ and heredity have fared a whole lot better. And I have a pretty good idea why: results that told a story that people in the field wanted to hear, and that encouraged the right sorts of policies, they got a lot less pushback. The IQ and heritability-of-everything guys probably had to face a lot more skepticism and hostility, because they were telling the wrong kinds of stories. So they probably had to be a lot more careful to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Old studies from when experimental ethics were “it’s OK to beat undergraduates with coathangers as long as you don’t kill them” were often rigged, and if studies now aren’t rigged, they’re still kept from studying humans under high stress, because it’s unethical.

      I guess we can fall back on case studies? We’ve got plenty of case studies told that people are horrible to other people when given orders, in a context where they expect they should follow those orders, when they have a reason to dislike the victims, etc.

      (Which, I suppose, the Stanford Prison experiments do prove – the guards were coached, which is like giving orders – but whenever I’ve seen it cited, it’s presented as “people will be spontaneously nasty to each other without much of a reason or justification”)

      • quanta413 says:

        I think that’s correct. It’s not clear to me what an obviously poorly executed experiment like the Stanford Prison experiment has to offer over case studies or studying history. The guards in the prison experiment aren’t notably nastier than children can be to other children. And it still ends up being orders of magnitude from really bad human behavior.

        Maybe something somewhat more rigorous like Harry Harlow’s monkey torturing experiments taught us something more concrete about social needs, isolation, how badly you can mess up an animal by severe social deprivation etc. But for most people, I think Harlow’s experiments count as going over the line of acceptable experimentation.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Can they still do that to monkeys nowadays? I don’t think they would be able to justify doing it to undergrads looking for beer money at any time, though. Even if some profs want to.

          • quanta413 says:

            My impression is that it’s at least a lot harder if not impossible to do stuff like that to monkeys nowadays. But maybe some scientists perform experiments like that, but the norms have changed in the direction of keeping quieter and trying harder to weed out scientists who would use terms like “pit of despair” or “rape rack” for their experiments.

            The wire mother with milk vs cloth mother experiment is an interesting though, and the results are interesting. I dunno if it was ever replicated. Maybe in a less cruel form?

  23. helloo says:

    Near Pascal’s wagers

    A Pascal’s wager can be considered where a bet has the reward/punishment be basically infinite so for any finite cost, you should accept it.
    However what about for wagers where that’s “almost” true?

    Ie. For a one time wager of low but finite odds to get immortality or cure cancer/aging or cheap free energy, how much are you willing to spend on it?
    How does this change if it’s a nation/society/humanity that pays for it? If the payoff is negative rather than positive? If it’s repeatable yearly?

    Of course the mathematical answer doesn’t need to match people’s decisions (ie. St. Petersburg paradox), but unlike most other of these puzzles, these decisions occur all the time and I thought there’d be a rich history of studies/attempts/literature regarding them as a whole (probably still is and I’m just not finding it). Discussion regarding individual examples such as Biden’s cancer moonshot or AI risk, are a ever continuing thing. And often the differences between two groups is not “is it something we should do” but “how much we should dedicate to doing it”.

    Edit: rethinking it, the below probably doesn’t apply all that well.
    Another approach is to see how other large “life changing” lotteries whose payouts are hardly near infinite, but closest we have where there’s plenty of data and winners (also introduces ideas like “partial wins”). I suspect they share mechanics with the above, and explains how it’s actually fairly reasonable for certain groups (more than just people are bad at estimates), though not mathematically logical, to value such a bet to be worth more than the expected payout which is why lotteries of all types are so profitable.

    • albatross11 says:

      I think it’s pretty common for people to be subject to an effective Pascal’s Wager based on overflow/underflow errors in their brains. For most people, 10^9 and 10^{20} are both just positive infinity, and 10^{-6} and 10^{-50} are both just “not gonna happen.” I recall reading about some financial scams where it was clear this was the vulnerability being used[1].

      To steal a line from Simon and Garfunkel, when you think back on how our brains evolved, it’s a wonder we can think at all. Most people don’t have a lot of intuition for probabilities, and even people who do can fool themselves really easily.

      [1] Because everyone’s running legacy brain hardware that hasn’t gotten a patch in several million years. The software workarounds installed by your culture can only help so much….

      • helloo says:

        Even then, the issue is then that 1/infinity times infinity is indeterminate.

        And while individuals might be bad at doing these estimates and have the possibility of being scammed/hurt from doing so, larger organizations and policies might be better equipped to develop calculations and heuristics to navigate these decisions.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        To steal a line from Simon and Garfunkel, when you think back on how our brains evolved, it’s a wonder we can think at all

        Technically just Simon, unless you count later reunion gigs.

  24. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/11/health/men-y-chromosome.html

    Biology is being weird, as usual.

    There’s plenty in the article about y chromosomes, but the thing that caught my eye is that as part of aging, men’s cells start getting rid of y chromosomes.

  25. Atlas says:

    What do folks think about Cyberpunk 2077 in the wake of the new trailer at E3?

    I have to say: personally, I could not be more excited.

    Also, do any of our resident tabletop gamers know/have thoughts about the source material?

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Still no gameplay footage. I’m a huge Witcher / CD PROJEKT RED fan, so I’m hoping it’s good, but I would still like to see some actual gameplay.

    • Montfort says:

      It looked good (my most anticipated game of the few I saw announced), but as Conrad said, it would be nice to get a few more details on what playing the game is actually like.

      I have a set of the rules for Cyberpunk 2020 but haven’t played it. If you imagine Shadowrun with more role protection and no metahumans or magic you’re not all that far off (Cyberpunk technically published first, but I don’t have first edition of either to speak to who copied whom). It’s definitely old fashioned, and there are a few rules that look less than ideal, but you could probably have a good time as long as no one is bitter about not getting to play an elven mage.

    • J Mann says:

      My recollection of the RPG was that it was heavily influenced by Gibson’s Neuromancer. Some of the tech and roles were fun, but hacking was often unrealistic and unrelated to the rest of the action, and the general grimdark world meant that almost every NPC was bound to betray you sooner or later, usually sooner, and that any good NPCs would often get fridged to raise the stakes. Maybe that was more my GM that necessary in the rules, though. (I’m also biased because I thought Walter Jon Williams’ cyberpunk was much more fun than Gibson’s.)

      The game looks cool.

  26. Atlas says:

    What do people, particularly military history buff types, think about this article by Ron Unz defending Suvorov’s “Icebreaker” hypothesis and criticizing English language media and academia for not discussing it? (I have quite a few thoughts of my own that I’ll try to elaborate in a semi-coherent fashion later when I have the time, but I want to just leave this here to hopefully start a discussion before then.)

    • Protagoras says:

      Interesting, but a little exaggeration and a little cherry-picking can make almost any thesis look good. The discussion of the IL-2 looks extremely dubious to me. Reading up on the IL-2, it looks like the gunner was removed because of serious performance issues, and reintroduced when they had an upgraded design with a more powerful engine to counteract the performance loss. In general, defensive armament on bombers does not seem to have been incredibly effective in WWII, so I don’t think that particular sequence of design decisions tells us very much at all. And while I know less about some of the other points, as usual when I detect that one point has been significantly oversold/exaggerated, it makes me concerned about the other points I know less about. Though I’m very curious what the various military experts around here think.

    • John Schilling says:

      I’ve read most of Suvorov, but have somehow missed “Icebreaker”. From the description, I don’t find it as credible as his other works.

      First, Stalin’s behavior is more consistent with that of an opportunistic conqueror than someone with a secret master plan for world conquest. And really, secret master plans for world conquest belong to the realm of cheap fiction, because even much more constrained military plans almost always go off the rails fairly early. I’d have a hard time thinking of any successful conqueror whose plans went much beyond an alternating “I should build the most powerful army I can, because something will surely come up where I’m glad to have it” and “Something has just come up where I can use my powerful army for immediate gains in wealth/territory/power”. The Stalin who e.g. invaded Finland clearly fits that mold, and if Suvorov has an explanation of how the Winter War furthers a master plan for world conquest I’m morbidly curious.

      Second, the absolutely dismal performance of the overwhelmingly powerful Soviet army in that Winter War. If the theory is that the dismal performance of the Soviet Army during Barbarossa was due to it’s having been caught by surprise when deployed for offensive rather than defensive operations, the Winter War shows us what happens when that same army conducts an offensive in exactly the time, place, and manner of its own choosing. The only thing Stalin was going to accomplish by attacking Germany in 1941 was an even more humiliating defeat than the Finns had handed him.

      Opportunistically attacking Germany in 1944, with the new generation of post-purge officers settled in to their roles, modern weapons debugged and integrated into the force, and most importantly with the bulk of the German army engaged in the West, might have been a different matter.

      • dndnrsn says:

        @John Schilling

        Leaving aside the question of how the war would go without Hitler attacking the USSR (which was, after all, his long-term strategic objective), would the Soviets have learned the lessons of 1941-42 without suffering the disasters of 1941-42?

        • John Schilling says:

          The disaster of 1940 should have sufficed, along with their successes against Japan in 1939. The necessary reforms were I believe in work when Hitler attacked, but it takes time to rebuild your officer corps after a purge even if you do know what needs to be done.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Weren’t some of the changes, like loosening the control of the political officers, directly in response to disasters in summer ’41?

          • Eric Rall says:

            Why was the Soviet officer corps capable of success in 1939 but not in 1940? Were the Far East armies more lightly purged than those facing Europe and Scandinavia, or was it just a combination of luck and different opponents?

          • cassander says:

            @Eric Rall

            That’s a very good question, actually. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a direct comparison of the two conflicts, and it sounds like something worth studying.

            Off my head, I’d say that the swedes were very good, and they were working with relatively limited tactical objectives on the defensive. The Japanese were very far from their bases, were a lot less good than they thought they were, and were on the attack with far more ambitious (and ill defined) objectives. Also, it must be remembered that while the swedes dished out more than they took, they still took very heavy losses in a conflict that really felt like it might be about national survival. Khalkhin Gol was fought by the Kwantung Army operating largely own.

          • bean says:

            @cassander
            I don’t think that the Kwantung Army was around at the time of the Great Northern War.

          • Lillian says:

            Why was the Soviet officer corps capable of success in 1939 but not in 1940? Were the Far East armies more lightly purged than those facing Europe and Scandinavia, or was it just a combination of luck and different opponents?

            Not only were the Far East armies more lightly purged than those in the West, but many capable officers were posted to the Far East in lieu of purging. One of the main corps commanders at the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol was one Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov. You’ve probably heard of him.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Not only were the Far East armies more lightly purged than those in the West, but many capable officers were posted to the Far East in lieu of purging.

            That makes a lot of sense. After posting, it occurred to me that in Stalin’s position, I’d be much less worried about a force of ~100k soldiers stationed thousands of miles across bad terrain from my capital than the main body of my army, consisting something like 20x as many soldiers stationed all around the heartland of my country.

          • Off my head, I’d say that the swedes were very good

            Finns.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Several thousand Swedish volunteers served in the Finnish army during the Winter War, but that’s probably not what cassander was thinking of.

    • cassander says:

      I’d agree entirely with John Schilling. As near as we can tell, Stalin was quite sure that war among the capitalist powers was inevitable. His goals were to make sure they didn’t all align against him and be ready to pick up the pieces once the capitalists fell out amongst themselves. He was hurry to start a war, he was getting everything he wanted from his treaty with germany, and had no good reason to violate it, especially with the Japanese getting antsy in the east, a factor usually under appreciated in european centric accounts of the 1930s. stalin certainly planned to move west eventually (in the sense that eventually the time would e right, not a specific date in mind) but almost certainly not in 1941.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Agreed. Stalin was playing the long game. He even dissolved the Comintern rather than following the Trotskist plan for maximum subversion of capitalist states all the time.
        Germany and Japan were both his neighbors, so I think he preferred to keep them both allies. Having a pact with Britain against Germany could have gotten him in trouble with Japan.

    • sfoil says:

      I’ve never read the book, but I’m familiar with the thesis. I think the lack of Anglophone interest in Icebreaker reflects a general lack of interest about the Eastern Front rather than some sort of concerted effort or conspiracy, as Unz insinuates.

      Both Germany and Russia had good reason to be suspicious of each other. Leaving your border with Hitler undefended wasn’t any less obviously a bad idea in 1939 than it is now; stationing troops there is a given, and the border’s long so it required a lot of troops. Otherwise, Suvorov’s thesis hinges too much on Stalin’s omniscience and the competence of the Soviet armed forces. There’s no way the Red Army could have successfully invaded Germany in 1941; they were too disorganized and ill-trained, and what’s more is that Stalin and the high command knew that, and even if they didn’t the war with Finland would have made it obvious.

      The technical points Unz highlights are irrelevant. Tanks were still highly experimental machines in the 1930s, and they evolved very quickly into and through WW2. Having tanks drive on wheels on-road and swap to tracks for cross-country was basically a dumb fad, like making everything fire 3-round bursts in the 1980s. German tanks were also quantitatively worse than the French, were the French planning to invade Germany too? And no, amphibious armored vehicles aren’t for crossing the English Channel. Everything Suvorov/Unz brings up has another explanation that better accounts for what actually happened, starting with just how flat-footed the Soviet response to Barbarossa was.

      Europe was pretty clearly headed for war in 1939. That alone justified an acceleration of the Soviet buildup; everything was about to be up for grabs, and Stalin wasn’t going to be caught flat footed when he might be able to do some grabbing of his own. That doesn’t mean he intended to make the first move on Germany in 1941-2.

      • quaelegit says:

        >German tanks were also quantitatively worse than the French, were the French planning to invade Germany too?

        Weren’t they? I thought France and the UK had a joint invasion in the works, but were waiting to finish mobilization and modernization of their forces. (I think I read this somewhere in A Blunted Sickle, but not sure how to search for it.)

        This doesn’t have any bearing on the analysis of Stalin though.

    • bean says:

      I can only describe Unz as a Russian propaganda site. One of my proudest moments in doing Naval Gazing was when someone there linked to me, and I got called a “butthurt fanboy” for doubting the words of the Great Putin when he said he was developing new and wonderful strategic weapons.

      But this is an old and generally-discredited thesis, and while Suvorov is a good writer, he’s not very good at reporting the facts. I have no interest in

      Nitpicking:
      Who the heck is the “Naval Academy Press”? There is a prestigious publisher in Annapolis, but they’re the Naval Institute Press. The Naval Academy Press isn’t a thing, and USNI publishes a lot of textbooks for USNA. I know because I have several, and the Naval Institute Press is by far the leading publisher on my shelves.

      Many years ago, while in Junior High, I became an avid war-gamer with a strong interest in military history

      And now we see the problem. Wargames should not be taken as evidence without very careful validation, which basically never happens in the sort of games someone in junior high is going to be playing.

      For the BT-7, Christie suspension was not developed by the Soviets, and had benefits offroad, too.

      Although Stalin’s vast USSR was entirely a land-power, he pioneered the world’s only series of fully amphibious light tanks, able to successfully cross large rivers, lakes, and even that notoriously wide moat last successfully traversed by William the Conqueror in 1066.

      Hahahahahaha! That’s a good one.
      Wait. You’re serious? This is one of the most insane things I’ve ever heard. Amphibious tanks are useful for crossing rivers and lakes, where there are either no naval vessels or only very small ones. They are terrible when you’re trying to cross a body of water in the face of proper warships. Or were they supposed to pepper battleships to death with their 45 mm guns?

      John’s done a good job of debunking the central thesis, but the entire thing is just madness. Stalin was a lunatic, but not that kind of lunatic, and it’s rightly dismissed.

      • albatross11 says:

        Sailer’s blog is on unz and is pretty worthwhile. Otherwise, there’s just not much there worth reading.

        • bean says:

          I haven’t really read anything of his before, although I just glanced through some of his stuff. I’m not blown away, but it’s a major step up from the abuse of history and logic that is the rest of unz.

      • John Schilling says:

        Yeah, I missed the “amphibious tanks” thing, but note that when the allies crossed the channel going the other direction they had amphibious tanks. Which were carried to within two miles of the beaches by proper landing craft because the idea of crossing twenty-plus miles of ocean in an amphib under combat conditions was absolutely ludicrous, and even those two miles saw an atrocious casualty rate.

        Almost certainly Stalin planned to use his amphibious tanks in local operations. The ability to maneuver across the Pripet Marshes, in particular, would have weighed heavily on his mind even if his plans were entirely defensive. And quite likely the plans extended to offensive use as well, but they cannot realistically have extended to the far side of the English Channel. Someone is just plain nuts here, and I’m guessing it’s more likely to be the someone who liked playing wargames or maybe the someone who writes books rather than the someone who actually lead his country to decisive victory in war.

        • bean says:

          but note that when the allies crossed the channel going the other direction they had amphibious tanks.

          I thought about pointing that out, but decided not to. In slight fairness, the DD Shermans were less amphibious than a proper amphibious tank, but it’s still the sort of interpretation of the evidence that would only be made by someone who is letting contrarianism take over his reasoning.

      • cassander says:

        I can only describe Unz as a Russian propaganda site. One of my proudest moments in doing Naval Gazing was when someone there linked to me, and I got called a “butthurt fanboy” for doubting the words of the Great Putin when he said he was developing new and wonderful strategic weapons.

        I’m stupidly proud of having one of my reddit accounts banned from r/pyongyang without ever having posted there.

      • sfoil says:

        I guilt-read The Saker because he more or less coherently represents the “vatnik” viewpoint in English.

      • Lillian says:

        Forget about amphibious tanks crossing a body of water in the face of proper warships, they would struggle to get across even if the entire Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce took a lengthy vacation to the Bahamas. Making a armoured amphibious vehicles that can handle surf and sea is not a trivial engineering problem, and the T-37, T-38, and T-40 were clearly not intended for the role. Just take a look at them, they may be perfectly adequate for crossing lakes and rivers, but they will clearly founder in the face of even the mildest of weather conditions present in the Channel, let alone the prevailing ones.

        Also, this is pure nitpicking, but Louis VIII of France and William of Orange would both like to lodge a complaint against the claim that the English moat was last successfully traversed by William the Conqueror in 1066.

        • Eric Rall says:

          Also, this is pure nitpicking, but Louis VIII of France and William of Orange would both like to lodge a complaint against the claim that the English moat was last successfully traversed by William the Conqueror in 1066.

          Not to mention Henry Bolingbroke, Edward of York, and Henry Tudor.

          Of course, all three of them, plus Louis and William, had significant backing from within England, which I believe is the main reason that they’re typically not counted as cross-channel invasions.

    • dndnrsn says:

      I don’t know how much of this is the book, and how much of this the article, but either way: kinda bonkers

      The “Suvorov Hypothesis” claimed that during the summer of 1941 Stalin was on the very verge of mounting a massive invasion and conquest of Europe, while Hitler’s sudden attack on June 22nd of that year was intended to forestall that looming blow.

      Given that the Germans had set up a false-flag to provide a rationale for the invasion of Poland, and had throughout their expansions in Central/Eastern Europe in the 30s had taken as a rationale stuff like oppression of ethnic Germans… Surely if they for real were attacking preemptively in a literal sense, they would have shouted that to the rooftops. Instead, didn’t their propaganda present it as a more metaphorical preemptive attack – in the notion of racial struggle National Socialism was based around; with WWII only the first step in a program expected to take decades or a century?

      His accounts of the comparative strengths of the Germans and the Red Army are more than a bit off. Clearly the Germans had some advantage over the Red Army beyond the latter’s bad position in June 1941 – because the Germans achieved significant wins after Barbarossa, and were able to win tactical victories even when they were getting it handed to them strategically.

      His statement that Soviet tanks were generically superior to German tanks is false. The bulk of the tanks that the Soviet forces defeated by the Germans in June-July ’41 were not T-34s, the T-34 was not as great as some portray it (for much of the war it had a 2-man turret, requiring the commander to do two men’s jobs). He says the T-28 was superior to German tanks, which is false, nor was it anywhere near to being the bulk of the Soviet forces. He may be confusing it with the T-26, which was a light tank, and was also not superior to German tanks. The BT-7 wasn’t great either. Plus, as Bean notes, the idea of tanks fording the English channel is pure fantasy.

      There is also little evidence that the quality of Soviet officers or military doctrine fell short. Indeed, we often forget that history’s first successful example of a “blitzkrieg” in modern warfare was the crushing August 1939 defeat that Stalin inflicted upon the Japanese 6th Army in Outer Mongolia, relying upon a massive surprise attack of tanks, bombers, and mobile infantry. And Stalin apparently thought so highly of many of his top military strategists in 1941, that despite his huge initial losses, many of them remained in command and were eventually promoted to the highest ranks of the Soviet military establishment by the end of the war.

      There’s plenty of evidence that Soviet officers and military doctrine fell short. German officers were, generically, better-trained, and had superior doctrine, enabled by more radios. At the lower levels, a German lieutenant or captain or whatever was better at his job than his Soviet counterpart, had a more nimble command structure, etc. At the higher levels, while the Soviets had some excellent generals, the Germans had more generals of that calibre, and the average German general was better and had a better staff. Some of the generals in the field in 1941 were good or great, some were bad or terrible. Stalin liking someone was not based entirely on their military skills. Soviet doctrine in 1941 was not great, and the Red Army started performing a lot better when the authority of political officers was reduced, when they started using doctrine that had been discredited due to being thought up by guys who had been shot for no good reason in the 30s, etc.

      We have good evidence to think that the German invasion plans were not a last-minute thing, and that they had seriously underestimated the Soviets. What we know from German records backs this up.

      Overall, this reads like some weird reverse-Wehraboo stuff.

    • Lillian says:

      Suvorov is full of shit, as is wont to happens with defectors who’ve run out of genuine material to share, but find they still have bills to pay. Put simply, moving even a single army division generates huge amounts of paperwork. We’re talking about coordinating the movements and dispositions of thousands of men and hundreds of vehicles, as well as the supplies to keep them all going and in fighting condition. Think about how much paperwork is involved in running a corporate enterprise with those kinds of numbers, and then realize the corporation doesn’t have to worry about housing, feeding, or clothing its employees. You simply can’t deploy a large military unit without leaving a sizeable paper trail.

      Now imagine how much paperwork would be generated by putting the entire Soviet military in offensive positions in preparation to attack Germany. Then ask yourself one question: Where is it? Where are operational plans? Where are the logistical preparations? Where are the marching orders? The old Soviet archives are open to researches, you can in fact look up the orders and dispositions of Soviet units in the 1940s. Yet somehow all evidence we have is Suvorov clutching at straws. Stalin couldn’t manage to erase one person, are we seriously supposed to believe he succeeded in erasing the preparations for an entire invasion?

      This is on top of all the other objections brought up in this thread.

  27. Le Maistre Chat says:

    So, um, President Trump went and saved us from a 64-year standoff with a nuclear dictatorship. I hope that’s not CW.

    • Nornagest says:

      At this point, unfortunately, it’d probably count as culture war if you walked up to a stranger with a grin on your face, said “Trump,” and walked away.

    • CatCube says:

      Forgive me if I wait until seeing the agreement before popping the champagne.

    • skef says:

      Such an agreement with a “normalish” regime would normally call for cautious optimism. However, North Korea in particular has a history of flashy pronouncements of good will alternating with threats. Given that history, even “waiting for the text of the agreement” doesn’t mean much, and it is most sensible to judge only the eventual material results, if any.

      • Well... says:

        Can we safely say that North Korea’s main imperative at this point is finding a way to gracefully back down, dignity intact, from all the fights they’ve hinted at wanting to start?

    • Tuesday says:

      At this point, what I really want is for Dennis Rodman to get the Nobel Peace Prize.

      • Anonymous says:

        I want to see Kim Jong Un get it.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I was disappointed we didn’t get a picture of Trump, Kim, and Rodman together.

        And if not a Nobel, at least give Rodman a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

      • Nornagest says:

        Realistically, Moon Jae-in is probably going to get the nomination for this one if anyone is.

        Trump/Kim/Rodman would be funnier, though.

        • SamChevre says:

          Trump vs West is my ideal Presidential race for 2020. This is what happens when I switch from voting for my President to voting for your President.

        • Aapje says:

          Unfortunately Rodman didn’t win a medal in the Olympics, otherwise it would give us an answer to the question that someone asked a while back: how to win an Olympic medal and a Nobel.

          Answer: be crazy.

          • knownastron says:

            Fun fact: during Rodman’s NBA prime a Team USA track and field coach wanted him to train for the 400m because he apparently had the physical gifts to be a gold medalist in the event.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      CNN’s gloss seems to be that Trump traded away South Korean military exercises for a vague commitment to denuclearization that reiterates language that North Korea already gave to South Korea and has no timeline or milestones.

      I’m sensitive to the idea that the media likes to underplay any successes Trump achieves. But I’m also sensitive to the idea that Trump spins everything as a big win and doesn’t have any patience for the process of getting from here to there. Does anyone have any deeper analysis of what this thing actually means?

      • Aftagley says:

        Determining how important ending the South Korean military exercises are requires an expected probability of actual kinetic war on the Korean peninsula between South Korea (backed up by the US) and North Korea. If you think that’s a likely possibility, the exercises are critically important. If you think it’s more likely that either conflict will never happen, conflict will happen via nuclear weapons, or the south Korean state/military would be so drastically depleted that the eventual conflict would be between the U.S. and North Korea, then the exercises are less important.

        The reason why the exercises happen so often is due to troop turnover. US troops are mostly on 20 month deployments to Korea and the required conscription time for the Korean military is 2 years. Every year you don’t conduct exercises, you lose roughly 40-50% of people who have experience working together. If you don’t hold the exercises for 3 years, basically only the officers and senior enlisted will have any experience. Expecting two armies who haven’t aggressively trained together to be able to successfully integrate in a wartime setting is unrealistic.

      • Tuesday says:

        Scott Adams’ (yes, the Dilbert guy) analysis of Trump and his doings is sometimes a little nutty-sounding, but he has a really weird habit of being right more often than not. He’s already got some stuff up about this.

        http://blog.dilbert.com/

        So far on this, one of the things he said was significant was how the contact was direct and personal — that it’s easy to break an agreement that was made through five layers of intermediaries and so forth (the old model of negotiations), while breaking an agreement that you yourself signed (on television in front of the whole world no less), face to face with your counterpart, is much more difficult. This is just one part of it, of course, but the gist is that these things point to it being the real deal despite the general similarity of the written agreement to past attempts.

        Tyler Cowen at MarginalRevolution meanwhile thinks that an undervalued part of this whole thing was simply getting Kim Jong-Un to Singapore and in front of the cameras.

        • John Schilling says:

          So, the theory is that the Kim Jong-Un who had his uncle executed by antiaircraft gun and his own brother assassinated by nerve gas, is going to be reluctant to break a deal with a guy he had lunch with and shook hands with on national television? Or are we banking on Donald Trump’s record of faithfulness in personally negotiated handshake deals?

          • cassander says:

            The hope is that the Chinese are telling Kim that they want him to make that deal and keep it.

          • John Schilling says:

            We’ve been hoping that China will make our Kim problem go away for the last three Kims, imagining it is just a matter of finding the right magic words to make it so. I am skeptical that those magic words were just discovered at this summit.

          • I think the hope is that Kim has seen what happened in China after Mao died and concluded that he would be better off as the dictator of a considerably less socialist economy with friendly commercial relations with the rest of the world.

            Socialism with Korean characteristics.

            I don’t think he is likely to get rid of his nukes and missiles, but he might find it wise to stop testing them, stop threatening people, and generously agree to rejoin the rest of the world.

          • Nornagest says:

            NK’s official ideology has been “communism with Korean characteristics” since 1950-something — juche is very unorthodox as communist ideologies go. That doesn’t make it any more liberal.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nornagest: But what David Friedman is getting at is that after Nixon shook Mao’ s hand and especially after Map died, China integrated itself into the global economy rather than remaining killing fields.
            That’s the only reason I’m not 100% cynical about this summit: because the one with the PRC REALLY worked.

          • Tuesday says:

            John, if you’re determined to deny that there is an opportunity I don’t think any words can convince you otherwise. However, we can wait and see.

            Kim Jong-Un… had his uncle executed by antiaircraft gun and his own brother assassinated by nerve gas

            I am not terribly concerned about Kim Jong-Un’s actions on that front. It’s a tyrannical regime, with a complicated web of internal alliances underpinning it. When the throne is being passed along, a violent power struggle ensues; none of this is surprising (though I was quite upset by the assassination of his brother, who I always liked thanks to the whole Disneyland thing) — and it doesn’t change the calculus of whether or not to open the regime up. Deng Xiaoping disposed of the Gang of Four when he rose to power.

            And, yes, I think that Kim’s personal presence at the meetings does indicate that things are different. When breaking an agreement negotiated and signed through intermediaries, you can do so and use those intermediaries as scapegoats (and dismiss or even jail them for ‘treason’) – North Korea does this all the time. When it’s the Chairman himself negotiating in a very public way, this ‘out’ is no longer available.

          • rlms says:

            Your faith is truly touching.

          • Tuesday says:

            @rmls

            Do you disagree with any point in my analysis? Kim’s presence is not a guarantee of anything, but it does leave North Korea without one of its most convenient tools for backing off of an agreement without its government losing face.

          • rlms says:

            @Tuesday
            Yes. Kim Jong-Un doesn’t need “outs” to go back on his word, he can just do it. I don’t think “politicians are untrustworthy” is a particularly wild leap of cynicism. This also happened on live television in front of the American public.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Then why bother going himself? KJU going implies that he want something from the proceedings in a way that sending an underling doesn’t. It is fairly reasonable to view going personally and agreeing personally as being qualitatively different, and if he views himself as important (duh) then lending his gravitas to an agreement that fails isn’t in his general interests.

          • Iain says:

            Then why bother going himself? KJU going implies that he want something from the proceedings in a way that sending an underling doesn’t.

            KJU gets a photo-op where he is treated as a legitimate equal to the American president. For years he has been telling his people that building nuclear weapons will make him a player on the world stage. Now he can prove it.

            Trump sweetened the pot even further with his comments to Voice of America:

            “He’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that. […] He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country. He wants a lot of good things and that’s why he’s doing this.”
            Asked if he had a message for the North Korean people, Trump said, “I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well. We had a great chemistry.

            If you think Kim will have a hard time wiggling out of his (quite vague) commitments, look at it the other way around: do you believe that anything that happened in Singapore will limit Trump’s future actions? Sitting face to face with another leader has hardly constrained him in the past: indeed, the last thing he did before flying to Singapore was a face-to-face meeting with the other G-7 leaders, and Air Force One had barely left the ground before he started denouncing the joint statement.

            If the agreement won’t constrain Trump, why should it constrain Kim?

          • John Schilling says:

            I am not terribly concerned about Kim Jong-Un’s actions on that front [having his own relatives killed]. It’s a tyrannical regime, with a complicated web of internal alliances underpinning it.

            The issue is not the tyrannical nature of the regime, and the point I am trying to make is not that Kim is an Evil Meanie Bad Guy. The point I am trying to make, and somehow failing to communicate to you, is that “people are reluctant to betray other people with whom they have a direct and personal connection”, is demonstrably false w/re Kim Jong Un. People with whom he had the closest sort of direct and personal connection, he betrayed in the most severe way as soon as it was politically pragmatic for him to do so.

            When breaking an agreement negotiated and signed through intermediaries…

            What agreement are you talking about? There is no agreement worth mentioning, unless possibly a secret one and those can be broken without cost. Not an agreement negotiated between intermediaries, and not one agreed to directly between Trump and Kim. There’s just fluff. The “agreement” is to “work toward complete denuclearization”. No metrics, no timeline, and no definition of the term “complete denuclearization” (which, no, is not obvious and is not generally understood to mean what you think it means).

            Anything involving even a freeze in North Korean missile and/or nuclear testing is just a guess by us as to what Kim might do going forward, if it’s worth his while, or a thing that Donald Trump has said Kim is going to do without Kim himself saying “yeah I’m going to do that”.

            And if you think that a simple statement of “work toward complete denuclearization” is going to bind a nation to actually do a damn thing, consider that the United States agreed to work towards the complete denuclearization of Planet Earth. In a signed and ratified treaty, not a handshake agreement. In 1970. Neither the United States nor any of its Presidents have lost any credibility whatsoever for their conspicuous inaction in working towards global disarmament.

            John, if you’re determined to deny that there is an opportunity

            Yeah, I think we’re done here.

          • baconbits9 says:

            If you think Kim will have a hard time wiggling out of his (quite vague) commitments

            This isn’t the point being made here (well it might be Scott Adams’ point, I don’t follow him). The point isn’t “no way KJU will back out of a personal commitment” it is “there is basically 100% chance of him backing out of a commitment made at a lower level, the fact that it is being made at a higher level makes it no longer 100% and that improvement in odds should be seen as a positive sign.”

            KJU gets a photo-op where he is treated as a legitimate equal to the American president. For years he has been telling his people that building nuclear weapons will make him a player on the world stage. Now he can prove it.

            The way to remain on that state will be to keep a dialogue open with other countries, and the way to do that is to make some concessions. How significant they are remains to be seen, but it is a reasonable expectation.

            If the agreement won’t constrain Trump, why should it constrain Kim?

            Trump is in his 70s and president of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world. KJU is a mile younger and presides over one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world, their incentives are very different.

        • rlms says:

          Tyler Cowen thinks that simply getting Kim in front of the cameras was a win for Trump?!

          • Tuesday says:

            Here’s his own words:

            https://twitter.com/tylercowen/status/1006508206447833089

            So, more the “getting Kim to see Singapore” part as far as Tyler is concerned. Admittedly, I disagree with him here – Kim certainly knows what the outside world is like, he spent years in Switzerland.

            But credit to Tyler for pointing out an underappreciated angle to this story – Singapore as the backdrop. What fascinates me is the way this has played in the North Korean media – specifically how Rodong Sinmun, the official North Korean newspaper (which is plastered up all over the place for people to read) covered Kim’s nighttime tour of Singapore. Even to me, an American, Singapore looks like it came straight out of science fiction, so I can only imagine what it looks like to an average resident of Pyongyang.

            And it gets better:

            https://twitter.com/rpcward89/status/1006290818087473154

            Apparently the article mentioned that he saw the “current level of socioeconomic development of Singapore while looking at ‘Sky Park’ on top of ‘Marina Bay Sands'” (italics mine).

            So if I understand correctly, the official North Korean newspaper showed off pictures of Singapore and specifically called out its insane level of development to their readers — a comparison which cannot possibly be favorable even to the best parts of Pyongyang.

            True, the North Korean elite were probably already aware that the outside world – esp. South Korea – was significantly wealthier and more developed in pretty much every way. But to see the official press tout an outside country like Singapore as a model for North Korea to emulate is probably something else entirely.

            https://www.nknews.org/2018/06/north-korea-will-learn-from-singapores-economic-development-rodong-sinmun/ (gated, unfortunately)

            Something’s happening.

          • John Schilling says:

            True, the North Korean elite were probably already aware that the outside world – esp. South Korea – was significantly wealthier and more developed in pretty much every way.

            It isn’t just the Elite. As far as we can tell, pretty much everyone in North Korea watches South Korean television via bootleg DVDs and flash drives, and the North Korean government only pretends to try and stop this.

            They all know what economic development looks like. And, pragmatically speaking, they all know that their choices are, A: wait and hope that KJU brings that same level of development to the DPRK, as he has promised from the start, in spite of the pernicious enemies of the DPRK trying to keep them down as he has said from the start, or B: make themselves personally rich via black marketeering, or C: die of starvation and torture in a gulag, because anyone with the skill and gumption to help them move against the regime is probably busy with Plan B and not wanting to rock the boat.

            Showing Kim hobnobbing with the global elite in prosperous, developed, neutral Singapore, helps make the case for A and implies further opportunities for B, so this is not really a change.

        • beleester says:

          It’s hard to outright break a deal, but it’s really easy to assert that the other guy broke it first and that you’re totally justified in responding to that.

          If we strike a deal (keep in mind that we have nothing concrete yet), and if someone breaks it, that’s how it will get broken. North Korea will argue that we screwed them on some minor provision, maybe not lifting sanctions fast enough, and that totally shows that we’re bad-faith actors and they need nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Or we’ll say that they’re not being cooperative enough with nuclear inspectors and that proves that we need to put the sanctions back on again to make them cooperate.

          • Tuesday says:

            Sure. Again, I’m not arguing that they can’t go back on a deal – only that they seem to believe that they won’t need to go back on it. Many people here, in the media, etc. are arguing that the deal (if a concrete version happens) will inevitably come apart, and it’s that assertion which I find weak in light of North Korea’s behavior.

            See the above comment. If they have absolutely no intention of abandoning their Hermit Kingdom status, why have Kim Jong-Un talk (in the official government newspaper) about emulating Singapore?

          • John Schilling says:

            Again, I’m not arguing that they can’t go back on a deal – only that they seem to believe that they won’t need to go back on it.

            Again, THERE IS NO DEAL. What deal do you think North Korea has made, that they could “go back on”?

      • fion says:

        Ending the military exercises sounds like a good thing to me even if they got nothing in exchange. America might not have “won” but the tensions will be eased in the Korean peninsula somewhat.

        • John Schilling says:

          America might not have “won” but the tensions will be eased in the Korean peninsula somewhat.

          That’s not entirely clear. North Korea will be feeling more secure and confident without the exercises, South Korea less so. South Korea’s potential responses to this insecurity could include things like defensive alliances with China or Russia, seeking nuclear weapons of its own, or adopting an aggressive “don’t mess with us; we’re still badass even without our Yankee allies!” posture w/re provocations by the newly-confident North.

          The exercises had purposes far beyond just ensuring an allied victory in the event of actual war, and it is genuinely worrisome that the exercises were apparently suspended without consulting the ROK government and military.

          • baconbits9 says:

            North Korean instability is more likely to lead to a war than South Korean in most situations. If you want to avoid war trading one for the other seems like a reasonable strategy.

    • John Schilling says:

      We’ve heard all this before, so I wouldn’t expect that 64-year standoff to end any time soon. On the other hand, standoff >>> nuclear war, so there’s that. The very act of a summit is a concession to North Korea, and I’d have preferred we held off on giving them that until they had given us something new. But it could have been a lot worse.

      Only real down side came after the summit, with Trump’s apparently announcing an end to joint US-ROK military exercises. If as I suspect that is one half of an agreement to suspend both the US/ROK exercises and North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, that might be a good deal (albeit one that would have been a much better deal a year ago). But making it an informal and unilateral announcement, without first running it past the ROK, is going to weaken that alliance. And driving wedges between the allies is a major North Korean diplomatic goal, so hopefully this can be cleared up quickly.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Is there any reason to believe ROK wasn’t aware of or didn’t agree to the offer to end joint exercises?

        Also, NK did give us new stuff: prisoners, the dismantlement of their nuclear test site, and a pledge to end nuclear testing.

        If they do not progress towards denuclearization we can just start the exercises right back up.

        How else do you plan to settle this situation? Nobody wants a war. Seoul would get leveled. A coup probably won’t work either. You just get Libya all over again. Or we can offer Kim the Singapore route, he stays in power, they get foreign investment, McDonald’s and condos as they slowly liberalize. This seems like the plan. Cultural Victory.

        • One thing I noticed in one of the related news stories was the claim that Kim has mildly liberalized internally, permitting market transactions among private individuals previous forbidden, and that the result was a respectable growth rate (from a very low base) despite the negative effect of sanctions.

          If that’s right, it suggests that he may have taken the Chinese experience as evidence that he can make the country he rules considerably richer by making it somewhat less socialist, which would fit with the idea of integrating somewhat more into the world economy/society.

          I would be surprised if he actually gives up his nuclear capacity, since it is obviously very valuable, but this might be the beginning of something like what happened with China after Mao’s death. China still has nuclear weapons and missiles too, but it’s part of the world in a sense in which it wasn’t under Mao.

        • Iain says:

          Is there any reason to believe ROK wasn’t aware of or didn’t agree to the offer to end joint exercises?

          South Korea seems to have been taken by surprise:

          The South Korean President’s office said Tuesday it was still trying to figure out what Trump meant in his military comments. “At this moment, we need to figure out president Trump’s accurate meaning and intention,” a South Korean statement said.

        • John Schilling says:

          Or we can offer Kim the Singapore route, he stays in power, they get foreign investment, McDonald’s and condos as they slowly liberalize. This seems like the plan.

          If that were the plan, I would have expected Trump to tweet about lifting sanctions, not suspending exercises. There can be no foreign investment and precious little foreign trade while the sanctions remain in place.

          OTOH, the sanctions shouldn’t be traded away save for concessions far more substantial than any we have yet heard about. OTOOH, same goes for the exercises.

          • Lillian says:

            Vaguely disappointed you didn’t use “on the gripping hand”.

          • John Schilling says:

            I save that for when the third argument is the overwhelmingly powerful one, and is didn’t seem to meet that standard.

    • BBA says:

      They apparently spoke about the lovely beaches in NK, great places to put up beachfront hotels… it seems my snark about the Ryugyong Hotel hit pretty close to the mark.

  28. johan_larson says:

    So, why are we ignoring the FIFA World Cup?
    a) What?
    b) Corruption
    c) My country isn’t in it.

    • Nornagest says:

      Ugly logo.

    • Protagoras says:

      I’m going to go with a little B, more C.

      • quaelegit says:

        I’ll cover A then!

        Is Russia playing Saudi Arabia? I swear I just saw an ad to that effect… in Spanish… (calling back to our conversation on weird or poorly targeted ads.)

        • AlphaGamma says:

          They are, as the opening match of the tournament. The host of an international tournament often gets automatic qualification and top seeding in the draw to give them an easy group*, and often play the opening match of the tournament against the lowest-ranked team in that group.

          This has been known to backfire amusingly, such as at Euro 2004 where hosts Portugal lost the first match of the tournament to eventual winners Greece.

          *For those unfamiliar- the World Cup begins with a Group Stage where the teams are divided into 8 groups of 4. Each team play each other team in its group once, getting 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw (teams equal on points are separated by goal difference, then goals scored, then a range of other criteria which almost never come into effect). The top two teams from each group advance to the knockout stage.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            I know next to nothing about the world cup, but 32 countries sounds like a very convenient number. What if the next tournament we get 35 countries interested in playing? How will that work?

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Mark

            The WC has qualifying stages, only 32 get through to the actual cup.

          • Protagoras says:

            Yes, in fact this time the U.S. failed to qualify, for the first time in a long time (and as a result of a pathetic performance against a very poor team in their final do or die qualifying match).

    • Montfort says:

      speaking only for myself and my social circle:
      d) no particular interest in soccer. By this point, most Americans know pro soccer and international competitions for it exist, it just gets filed with chess tournaments and rugby under “things some of my acquaintances are strangely obsessive over.” (I already have many strange obsessions, but specifically ice hockey for sports).

      It seems like corruption should matter, but then, no one seemed to care that college basketball is basically 0% NCAA-compliant at high levels.

    • phisheep says:

      I usually ignore it, but that’s mostly because I’ve never understood the game (my sports are rugby and cricket). But I’ve just read Ruud Gullit’s marvellous book “How to Watch Football”, which is a real eye-opener about game tactics and what to look for, so I’ll be paying attention this time around.

    • johan_larson says:

      Its kind of cool that tiny Iceland made it. Wonder if they’ll make it to the round of 16. They’re in a group with Croatia, Nigeria, and Argentina.

      Here’s a writeup:
      http://time.com/longform/iceland-2018-fifa-world-cup/

    • Tarpitz says:

      International football is just a much lower standard than high end club football these days, and I’d rather they got rid of it altogether.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      No interest in sportsball, I’m afraid, but I second Johan – that is an excellent eldritch abomination.

    • Anonymous says:

      No idea that it was going on. I will go back to ignoring it.

    • The Nybbler says:

      d) It’s soccer. Kind of a combination of a and c.

    • Randy M says:

      Who’s we? I don’t recall much SSC discussion of other recent sporting events. Oh wait, there was some chatter about curling, wasn’t there? Maybe soccer is too mainstream for us hipsters.

      • Nick says:

        lvlln talks about ultimate frisbee sometimes, doesn’t he? But less about the activity and more about the culture, if I remember correctly.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Force of habit.

    • drunkfish says:

      mostly ab, but c certainly makes it easier. Honestly I just don’t get the whole game. I watch baseball for slow sports, hockey for fast sports, and football for complicated sports. I don’t see a place for a slow but simple sport.

  29. fion says:

    People quite often come on here asking about managing comments and replies, and efficient ways of keeping up with the threads. I learned only a couple of weeks ago how to link to a specific comment. It seems like every couple of weeks somebody explains about the wee “[+] n comments” thing in the top right, or posts a link to that helpful thing that sends you an email when somebody replies to you, or the one that auto-collapses comments you’ve already seen, or something about the report button not working…

    (On a slightly-related note, people often get confused about what culture war means and when we can and can’t have it.)

    I wonder if it would be an idea to have a tab or something for “blog FAQs” that covers some of this stuff. Obviously it would require Scott thinking it was a good idea and making it happen, but does anybody have any ideas or suggestions? Has something like this already been suggested and over-ruled? Would it be possible for a commenter to maintain it to save Scott from having to deal with it? Most importantly, does anybody actually think it’s a good idea?

  30. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    It seems to me that there should be an arms race between liars and people needing to be skeptical about what they’re told, but it looks as though the liars have a stable victory. There’s an awful lot of trust available to be abused.

    Is there any way to measure the gullibility level?

    • Aapje says:

      Is there any way to measure the gullibility level?

      There is an easy way to measure this.

    • albatross11 says:

      Nancy:

      It seems like a useful concept for thinking about this is rational ignorance.

      If the used car salesman is lying to you, you have a strong incentive to figure that out. You still won’t do that 100% of the time, but you at least care a lot about trying. By contrast, if the politician is lying to you, it probably doesn’t matter all that much whether you figure it out or not–even if you see through his lies, you probably won’t be able to make much of a difference on whether he gets elected.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        The used car salesman problem may be getting solved to some extent by group methods.

        There are a lot of MLMs. I don’t know whether it’s gotten any more difficult to recruit people.

    • Jaskologist says:

      There is a sucker born every minute.
      There were 3,945,875 births in 2016, which is 7.5 births/minute, giving us a gullibility rate of 13.3%.

      Total births have been (mostly) decreasing since 2007, so the vital “suckers as a percent of US population” stat has indeed been increasing.

      • Nick says:

        This sounds like the premise to an xkcd comic. Or an smbc ending with a dystopia caused by the lack of suckers.

        • Randy M says:

          Hmm, what would be the comically tragic outcome of a world with near zero gullibility? Technological stagnation due to a dearth of early adopters of unproven tech? Second coming/aliens/singularity arrives, and no one buys into it, and since it has no social proof, never catches on?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Authority can be a schelling point for coordination, I think. You’ve got someone making the unproven claim “I’m in charge because I ought to be in charge and besides, you can’t possibly displace me”. Assuming they’re not totally incompetent, less effort is spent on people trying to be in charge.

            This is a very tentative theory.

          • Beck says:

            SMBC almost got there yesterday.

    • baconbits9 says:

      There is a natural inhibition against the liars, as they will fight over their marks. To brazen a lie and it becomes in the best interests of everyone else, even other liars, to point out such lies. This is why dictatorships often (always) criminalize (de facto or de jure) criticizing the administration, as it works as a tool to prevent low level criticism and also as a tool to prevent usurpation via high level criticism. Forcing your general to state that “we have always been at war with Eurasia” prevents conspiracies based on truths limiting effective communication.

  31. Could a hyper-intelligent slug destroy the human race if it wanted to?

    Or alternatively, would it still be a pretty much harmless creature with literally zero possible options for initiating prompt human genocide?

    • hls2003 says:

      This scenario seems like a version of Pickle Rick.

      Assuming arbitrarily high levels of intelligence, the limitations on initial capabilities would presumably affect the beginning part of the development curve. And he could be squished during the early phases.

      • toastengineer says:

        I love Wikipedia humor.

        “Ah yes, the pickle is a phallic symbol representing Beth’s unresolved Electra complex.”

        [next paragraph]

        “We started with ‘he turns himself in to a pickle’ and came up with an excuse for why he’d do that…”

    • dndnrsn says:

      Of course not. Slugs are virtuous creatures, and would never dream of harming humanity, even if they were able. But slugs aren’t able. And they aren’t hyperintelligent, either.

      Let’s talk about the real issue: getting rid of salt, which is known to cause high blood pressure, thus harming humans.

    • Nornagest says:

      It wouldn’t be prompt, but if I was a hyper-intelligent slug and I wanted to destroy the world, my game plan might look something like this:

      – Devise a method of communicating with humans via cursive slime trails or something. Some slug!

      – Get myself nominated as the National Mollusk Security Advisor to a major nuclear power.

      – Talk my bosses into starting WWIII.

      But the bigger problem with hyper-intelligence is that a hyper-intelligent slug is going to be able to think of things that merely normally intelligent humans won’t be able to.

      • But the bigger problem with hyper-intelligence is that a hyper-intelligent slug is going to be able to think of things that merely normally intelligent humans won’t be able to.

        I’m not sure that it is. I’m fairly convinced that humans can think of everything that can be done by a slug, and the real advantage hyper-intelligence has is in thinking of all available options much much much faster (and with the necessary memory). When the options are inherently limited by the form you take, and the laws of physics governing the world around you, you’re running through a much smaller list than you might be in some abstract mental realm of possibilities.

        This is one of the reasons why I also believe that while intelligence can be fairly described as a super-power to be truly effective it requires the secondary superpower of manipulative tools.

        On the lowest level we can imagine a rock that is 10^100000000000000000000 times more intelligent than any human being, able to do umpteen basaltillion calculations per second, but since it can’t move or communicate under the laws of physics, its practical combative intelligence vs human beings is a big flat ZERO.

        A slug is a bit better, because it can do nice cursive writing with icky slime trails as you noted, but it’s still relying on persuasive abilities not hitting some ceiling as we crank up its hypothetical intelligence, and so then it’s relying on disguising increasingly improbable causal chains leading to human annihilation as some totally different plan that is not bad at all.

        I’m sure that a hyper-intelligence that can only communicate could talk someone into doing something that will cause something to happen that will cause something to happen that will lead to WWIII, but since there’s no magical special way of saying “Start WWIII” that is only unlocked at a staggering IQ, Mr.Smarty Slug will only be able to influence things to happen that are fairly likely to begin with. So it’s more about adding on % points of something happening than being the definitive proximal cause of the event. Also, we should consider that the causal chain leading up to an event many many many many many many steps ahead might begin to be dominated by true randomness, and so using super-speed and memory to calculate that far into the future ahead of a particular choice may not be a process that has a totally linear correlation of success to multiples of human brain power. Practical intelligence is limited by physics.

        What I’m suggesting is that if there’s, just for the sake of an example, a 1% chance of a nuclear war over the next year, a vastly presposterously insanely ludicrously offensively intelligent mollusc could increase those odds in a particular year to 3% by enacting a ten year plan that starts with convincing a guy to do some innocuous thing that humans wouldn’t detect as threatening that then influences another person to do another thing that humans wouldn’t detect as threatening that influences another person to do another thing that humans wouldn’t detect as threatening to do another thing that humans wouldn’t detect as threatening… (insert 500 more lines of this)… until finally the carefully calculated butterfly effect (to the degree permitted by randomness) has resulted after ten years in a slightly worse geopolitical situation that makes leaders slightly more likely to push the button. If the slug keeps at it, and keeps churning away with its zeptillion zetabyte brain to calculate the best ways to surreptitiously increase the likelihood of nuclear war maybe it can ensure it by the next decade.

        …assuming no one squashes the damn weird satanic slug that all the important people are talking to.

        • Randy M says:

          basaltillion

          I see what you did there

        • hls2003 says:

          A thinking rock such as you describe would be outputting energy on a scale unimaginable to humans. The dissipated heat alone would be more than adequate to annihilate the human race, I think. I might argue that there are more physics reasons to doubt “arbitrarily high intelligence” than “ability to convert intelligence into meaningful action.”

          • A thinking rock such as you describe would be outputting energy on a scale unimaginable to humans. The dissipated heat alone would be more than adequate to annihilate the human race, I think.

            “I think, therefore you aren’t.”

            (Not sure how you say this in Latin. Cogito ergo vos sunt?)

          • quaelegit says:

            cogito ergo non potes

          • beleester says:

            That’s “I think therefore you can’t.” I’d go with “Cogito ergo non estis”

          • quaelegit says:

            Sorry, I misread Forward Synthesis’ post; you are correct.

        • Nornagest says:

          Wow, that’s a lot of words for this premise. I mean, I know we’re actually talking about AI and not slugs, but I was hoping to keep this relatively light.

          I think our most important point of disagreement is this:

          I’m fairly convinced that humans can think of everything that can be done by a slug, and the real advantage hyper-intelligence has is in thinking of all available options much much much faster (and with the necessary memory).

          I’ve criticized rationalist culture in the past for having an unrealistically cornucopian view of intelligence, but you’re going too far in the other direction: by saying that we can think of everything that an arbitrarily intelligent agent could do, you’re essentially fighting the premise. We might be able to think of everything as long as it can’t communicate, but if it can, all bets are off — the space of things it could convince others to do is way, way too large to be manageable. I don’t buy that it could only steer events towards options that are already pretty likely: people are convinced of unlikely things all the time.

        • albatross11 says:

          I don’t think an entire academic community of dogs would be able to understand my thought processes, and the same is presumably true for humans vs some hyperintelligent slug.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Probably not if it was just a regular slug otherwise, the 1-2 year lifespan would probably be the limiting factor.

      • albatross11 says:

        Project #1: The Slug Immortality Vaccine

        • baconbits9 says:

          Which is probably going to take more than the lifespan of a slug.

        • dndnrsn says:

          A hyperintelligent slug – if such a thing could exist, which it can’t – would undoubtedly need human assistance to speed up the immortality vaccine. These human assistants would of course be richly rewarded. Hypothetically.

          • baconbits9 says:

            One of the big issues (under the assumption that the slug is hyper intelligent but starts with no data outside of its slug experiences) is that prior to making any plans the slug has to figure out its expected lifespan (and a whole bunch of other things) before it can start to figure out the best approach. Just the data gathering at slug speed would be a major risk at burning through its lifespan without collecting enough to formulate a plan, let alone execute it.

      • This is a good point. Maybe it should just try to kill one guy by choking him.

    • Randy M says:

      The easiest way for a hyperintelligent slug to magnify it’s reach would be to have many off-spring. The question becomes how to inculcate his brood into his vision of human annihilation.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Regression to the mean would make the offspring of the slug of extremely low intelligence.

        • albatross11 says:

          What’s R^2 for slug intelligence, I wonder….

        • Randy M says:

          I was also assuming a hyperintelligence granting mutation, when the classic blessed by mad science version of hyperintelligence is just as likely (or moreso!) and more likely to lead to a vendetta against humanity, while probably not being heritable.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Clearly, the slug would use its superintelligence to design world-conquering nanotechnology which can be assembled in secret by the sort of person who falls for Nigerian Prince email scams without them or anyone else realizing what they’re doing until it’s too late.

      It will work perfectly the first time without any need for testing or gathering empirical data, because the slug simulated it beforehand. The slug also simulated the reactions everyone who could possibly get its spam emails. And it also simulated everything else that could possibly go wrong with the plan so shut up.

      /sarcasm

      But yeah, I agree that a superintelligent slug would have a hard time taking over the world. Outside of bad science fiction, intelligence isn’t an automatic “I Win” button.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        This entire thought experiment is “how do you define hyperintelligence?”

        If the slug is infinitely intelligent in a way that is obviously physically impossible, like omniscient for the present and future due to “simulating everything,” and able to effortlessly design new technologies that are very strongly possible (no new physics, no dubious leaping over seemingly insurmountable chaotic systems) then I think it could pretty plausibly overcome its lack of manipulators. Find someone who is relatively strongly emotionally attached to accepting deals. Give that person a taste of success by, say, giving them a $5,000 lotto winning number. Credibility proven, use that person as proxy manipulators until you can design cybernetics of your own to handle your lack of manipulators. Then follow any number of supervillain schemes.

        The thought experiment as constrained above breaks down as a metaphor for strong AI in a couple of ways:

        1. That level of intelligence is physically impossible.
        2. A superintelligent AI wouldn’t have the freedom to seek out a person who is a good match for its manipulations unless it was substantially out of the box already. It doesn’t get to present itself as “magical slug, wtf?” it has to probably negotiate with its creators, who have much more information about it than does the rube that the slug gets to pick.

        (Even if the slug is pretty strongly constrained about which person it picks, due to geography, it probably can pick the best person out of several thousand for its purposes. Obviously if the slug is on Antarctica it’s fucked.)

        • baconbits9 says:

          The issue with the “simulate everything” hyper intelligence is that you have to know which reality you are actually in. Our hyper intelligent slug crawling to the top of a blade of grass could (not plausibly, but playing along) conceive of all the conditions of our universe that would lead to a blade of grass existing, however they also would be capable of conceiving every other possible combination of conditions that would lead to a blade of grass existing. Being able to posit every possible outcome of every possible universe isn’t freeing, its paralyzing, it forces perfect measurements of the actual universe to determine which universe you are actually in. Grandiose plans to take over the world in a single attempt can brook no failure, no margin for error, which means no error bars allowed. This is why Sherlock Holmes is a farce, you can’t look at a person and say “tiny speck of grease on the elbow, probably a mechanic, light discoloration where a wedding ring should go, probably married at one point, bags under the eyes probably not sleeping well, probably guilt over causing his marriage to fail” and then come to an accurate conclusion. 5 probables at the 90% level means being wrong >40% of the time, Holmes would look like an smug guessing ass to half of his clients, and like an ass to half of those he got right when he failed to solve their case. At least.

    • Rowan says:

      Others have pointed out that the slug’s short life expectancy, its need to learn everything from scratch from the position of a slug, and regression to the mean preventing its intelligence from passing on, in addition to the expected limitations of being instantiated in a slow-moving body without limbs, prevent it from achieving anything substantial.

      My counter to that: For an otherwise normal slug to be hyper-intelligent, the normal laws of physics have to be out to lunch. Mental traits like “intelligence” varying independently of mechanistic traits like “brain temperature” is supernatural. Thus, the slug is magic, and doesn’t need to bother with disciplines like “nuclear physics” or “biochemistry” that would require actual physical tools. After briefly meditating on the nature of reality, the God-Emperor of Slugkind just uses its incredible psychic powers to kill all humans simultaneously by a means of its choosing – telekinetic smashing, mind-controlled suicides, whatever – then uplifts its squishy brethren and goes on to conquer the galaxy.

  32. Tuesday says:

    Regarding the Singapore Summit and all the brouhaha around it, one interesting thing (I think) to come out of it is this:

    https://kcnawatch.co/periodical/rodong-sinmun-840/

    Today’s edition (June 12) of the North Korean official gov’t newspaper comes with a front-page spread of photos of Kim Jong-Un touring Singapore. Can someone with some knowledge help me out here? What does the article say? I recall at some point reading a story about a North Korean defector, who was amazed when he first saw how wealthy China was – so what might an average North Korean think when they see pictures of Singapore?

  33. adder says:

    I know I want to start a small business. Doing what, I don’t know. How do I go about figuring out what to do?

    I live at Twin Oaks Community, an income-sharing commune that’s around for 51 years. In the late 60s, the community got into making hammocks because, well, some guy was into hammocks. And it turned out to be a business that could sustain the community for decades. More recently our tofu production business has now supports us. Again, this got its start because there was some guy who was really into tofu (and maybe already had a small business?).

    Now there are several other small intentional communities nearby, none of which really have a steady cottage industry that can support the community as a whole. Most of their business ventures come from someone who has a particular interest or skill, but I’m wondering if there’s a more methodical way to go about picking a business to get into.

    So I guess I need to find ways to beat the market? There are a few ways that come to mind:
    – Selling the idea of intentional community itself. Spiritual communities often do this, either relying on donations (Catholic Worker communities, e.g.), or hosting workshops or retreats or something (Kripalu community, e.g.). This is pretty unattractive to me, in part because it has trouble scaling and seems to rely on demand that could fluctuate greatly, but mostly because it requires one’s whole lifestyle to become a product. Blech.
    – Cheap labor. In an income-sharing community, the workers are not employees… legally speaking, they’re more like owners, members of a club, or volunteers. No one’s collecting an individual wage, which means minimum wage laws are irrelevant. Now, the goal here is to make a living wage, but sharing resources brings cost of living wayy down. Having a business that makes $7 for each hour we put into it could be totally fine, especially if there is work that can be done simultaneous with other things valuable to the community, such as meeting or socializing (this is one of the great things about Twin Oaks’s hammock business). It would be nice, however, if profits could later be utilized to make things more efficient and increase $/hr.
    – No employee safety regulations. For reasons similar to above, the workers aren’t employees and aren’t held to government standards for employee safety. Now, of course, we want to take care to be safe, since we’re eating any cost of healthcare, lost work, et c. (and ya know, we don’t want to be injured). But I wonder if there’s a way we can target industries that have unnecessary and costly safety regulations. [Note that consumer safety must, of course, be held to a high standard]

    Anyway, I’m curious about y’all’s thoughts on how to approach this sort of thing. How do people go about doing this? If we don’t have some genuinely new product or service, should we assume that the market has done its job and the profits for the existing products are already being claimed?

    • Aapje says:

      You are basically doing the same thing as the kibbutzim. I would look into their solutions.

      If we don’t have some genuinely new product or service, should we assume that the market has done its job and the profits for the existing products are already being claimed?

      For various reasons, the answer is no, especially if you are content with a niche product, rather than a multinational brand.

      ‘Authentic’ products seem to be fairly popular. My newspaper has stories about people who create small businesses, creating interesting variants of fairly basic products, like soups, ice cream and such. However, these people tend to travel to festivals and such, selling their wares there. They seem to be basically banking on selling novelty at a premium. My impression that most of these earn about minimum wage, but they do it because they enjoy the job.

      You seem to be fairly close to Washington DC, so perhaps you can sell your stuff there?

      I personally think that a poorly tapped market in the US is stroopwafels. Every American I’ve met seems to love them, sometimes as much as crack (I had an American visitor who mostly lived off stroopwafels, rather than proper meals).

      So making your own artisan stroopwafels and selling them to Washington tearooms, restaurants and shops may be reasonably profitable. It doesn’t seem too hard to make them. I suggest calling your brand Roosevelt (as they are of Dutch origin and Washingtonians probably like the reference). You can use the family coats of arms for your packaging (roses on the field, as that is what the surname means).

      Surveys have found that people equate ‘artisan’ with irregular products. Stroopwafels are made fairly uniform by putting the syrup on equally, aligning the waffels, using a waffel iron with a regular pattern and by cutting off the excesses (the latter are actually sold separately here). You can try not doing some of these things (as much) to make your product stand out as sloppy authentic.

      PS. Note that quality packaging is probably very important (put eating instructions on there and a feel good story about how the Roosevelts would serve these to their guests in the White House, which is probably not true, but it’s a white lie).

      • Lillian says:

        Recently i was served stroopwafels in a United Airlines flight as my complementary inflight snack. As Aapje said they are delicious, and seem to have been well received by the passengers. As opposed to say, pretzels, which passengers mainly eat grudgingly. Apparently they started doing this about three years ago, which means that at this point you have three years of United passengers building up a taste for the things. Given that it seems reasonable to expect that by now there is some extant but unfulfilled demand for the things, which would mean now is indeed a good time to get into the stroopwafel business.

    • Education Hero says:

      Most of their business ventures come from someone who has a particular interest or skill, but I’m wondering if there’s a more methodical way to go about picking a business to get into.

      Unless you have significant entrepreneurial experience and connections, building your business ventures from your particular interests or skills is probably the way to go.

      If you do have more than one area of expertise available, that would be the point at which you analyze the relevant markets and your comparative advantages.

    • johan_larson says:

      One thing I noticed in my reading about Twin Oaks is that it makes its living on stuff that doesn’t seem very profitable, like making hammocks and tofu, which are nearly craft work. I suspect it would be useful to find a way to do things that make more money. One option would be software.

      To get into software, assuming you don’t have any people with the skills right now, would require a three-part process. First, the community would need to invest in training for some of your more clever people. That probably means sending them for two- or four-year degrees in software development, probably in-state to keep the costs down. Then they need some experience. To keep them at home, that would mean having them take remote programming positions at companies that are open to that sort of work like GitHub. They would be working for Twin Oaks labor credits, with their salaries going to the community. This would already be very useful, since software professionals routinely make six-figure salaries, which I’m guessing is a lot by Twin Oaks standards. Finally, these people, now with training and experience, would form an actual software development/sales/support organization built around a product of their own at Twin Oaks, in effect running a small software company within Twin Oaks. This would be very profitable for the community; revenue of $250,000 per employee is low-end for software companies.

      • Aapje says:

        I suspect that that kind of work is too conventional for the type of people who enjoy communes. The culture seems to be built around having quite a bit of diversity in the jobs one does in a work week. Turning people into programmers would probably force them into a life that most actually tried to escape by going to the commune in the first place.

        It also seems that about a fifth of the people leave every year, so I don’t see how the investment in the degrees would pay for itself, let alone make a profit. For the people themselves it certainly might be a good investment, but not for the commune.

        I also suspect that communes like these get destroyed by having some people earn very high salaries. The entire labor credit system is predicated on a very Marxist idea that different forms of labor are equally valuable. Of course it isn’t, but many people are probably willing to ignore this if the disparity in actual value produced is not too large. If 3 people each earn $250,000, they would together earn more money than the other 97 adults combined.

        • johan_larson says:

          It also seems that about a fifth of the people leave every year, so I don’t see how the investment in the degrees would work out. For the people themselves it certainly might, but not for the commune.

          I think you’re right about the other parts, but this part is probably fixable. Create an agreement whereby the community agrees to pick up the tab for the education, and in turn the person educated agrees to remain in the community for some set number of years, such as five or ten. And have some provision stating how much would have to be repaid and on what schedule if the person left or was kicked out early. It should be possible to come up with terms that are fair both ways.

          • adder says:

            We do have a few people with programming experience; I myself was a few credits shy of a CS degree. Only one of these people does any paid programming work, and only part time (but the tens of thousands of dollars he brings in are really helpful!) We did have a member that suggested we develop the collective programming skills of the community into a cottage industry (I think he wanted to make an order manager for mid-sized businesses; we know from experience that there’s an opening in the market for that). But he left the community before we ever followed through on that.

            Ditto Apaje on having a few high salaried people breaking the system. The big issue would be the threat, anywhere from implied to explicit, of losing the income if that earner’s wishes aren’t met. This already happens from time to time, albiet honestly and relatively innocently (“Well if the community doesn’t agree to put resources getting this automatic widget-maker and making the work area more comfortable, I’m not sure I’m going to be up for managing the widget facility much longer.”)

            As far as retention goes, it’s worth noting that the turnover rate at Twin Oaks is more like 10-15% annually these days, but at the smaller communities I’m thinking about right now, the turnover rate is much higher.

            @johan_larson, we actually offer absorbable loans that do just that. There are some items that are personal in nature that the community would be reluctant to give to someone who’s just passing through, but in theory we want to be able to provide for our members. So the member takes a “loan” from the community, but we absorb some portion of it for every day the person remains a member.

            However, having someone on the hook for something like a college education seems unfeasible, especially if we want to require (or strongly encourage) that they stay. When I tell people about living at Twin Oaks, some of the first questions I hear are “Is it a cult?” “Can you leave?” I’m imagining the look on someone’s face when they ask “Can you leave?” and I respond “Weeeellll….. it’s complicated.”

          • johan_larson says:

            I think you are going to struggle to make money if you are not willing to invest in training. Without it, you are limited to things that can be done by unskilled (or maybe semi-skilled) labor on the one hand, and skills people bring with them from outside the community on the other. And that sounds like a hard road.

            That said, the concerns that Aapje and you have brought up are very real issues. One solution to the problem of debt-coercion would be to limit training loans only to members who have been with the community for a number of years, and who seem likely to stay. Making it hard to leave for someone who isn’t interested in leaving is less of an issue than for someone who might. Making the terms scrupulously fair would also help. You want out, you have student loans to pay. But many people in ordinary society have student loans; that’s nothing new.

            As to the issue of having a small number of people pulling in disproportionate sums of money, I think the best solution would be a clear plan to get everyone or at least most people doing work of higher economic value. The few people the community has invested in now, and who are pulling in disproportionate sums, are not a permanent elite. They are the first beachhead in the drive towards a more prosperous future. That should arouse less resentment, although the trained few will have disproportionate say in the early days.

  34. johan_larson says:

    Norwegians have been getting stupider since 1970.

    https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-06-iq-scores-1970s.amp

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I’ve often wondered if oil riches in Norway will have long term detriments to the country, just because there are fewer incentives to work hard to make money. I could see the see the same effect on measured IQ, as people become lazier, including intellectually lazier.

      I don’t have a lot of confidence in the above theory, but it is possible that Norway is the canary in the developed world. As life becomes easier, kids may become dumber in general.

      • Aapje says:

        Norway put most of the oil income in an investment fund to pay for a graying population. It seems to me that this in theory keeps the pressure on citizens to work constant, rather than increase it.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          Maybe. But less pressure to provide for your old age may be making life easier too. I think it is the case that all developed countries have government old age pensions these days, especially the Scandinavian ones, but the Norwegian ones are presumably much better than other countries.

          • Aapje says:

            The government pensions tend to not really be pensions, but wealth transfers from the currently working people to retired people. This causes demographic issues when the retired generations are growing bigger and/or the working generations are shrinking. Either the working generations have to pay more, the retired generations get less, or both.

  35. johan_larson says:

    TIL Missy Elliott is not singing “get your free cone” and the song is not about ice cream.