OT104: Antelopen Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. I’ve added an entry to my Mistakes page regarding my post about hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder. Based on some of the comments, I think I was wrong to favor a cell death based explanation and think that an aberrant learning explanation is at least equally likely. I was especially convinced by the comparison to mal de debarquement (THAT WAS A REALLY FUN TIME READING THAT LINK WHILE I WAS ON A SHIP-BASED VACATION, LET ME TELL YOU), which seems similar but doesn’t naturally lend itself to a cell death angle. The aberrant learning idea raises more questions than it solves, but does seem to fit a variety of phenomena better.

2. New sidebar ad for Throne, a social media site for personalized chat rooms.

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586 Responses to OT104: Antelopen Thread

  1. albatross11 says:

    Article on diversity in tech in Quillette. This was well-argued and calm and seemed to me to make the case for his position (that women will probably never be more than 30% or so of the tech field) about as well as it can be made. I’m not 100% conviced (I think a similar guy in 1960 could have made an equally plausible case that women would never be half the doctors), but I’d like to see his points taken seriously and engaged with, rather than responded to via outrage storms and demands for his firing. (I assume he made sure of the stability of his position before publishing that piece, but I don’t know that for certain.)

    • The Nybbler says:

      It will certainly be possible to make women 50% or more of the tech field. Quotas work; ask Harvard. This won’t be good for the men excluded, nor the tech field. It probably won’t be all that good for many of the women nor the remaining men.

      I feel like every point this guy made is something which has been common knowledge for years. But I guess it’s only been common knowledge among tech dissidents (and not even all of us, because if Damore had known, he wouldn’t have written that paper). The whole narrative is built on studies which don’t replicate, anecdotes which may or may not have happened and may or may not have involved techies (many involve finance guys), and antipathy towards male nerds.

      • albatross11 says:

        What I generally want is a pretty ruthless focus on “can you do the job?” and “Do you produce?” Anything that takes away from that (attempts to get the right gender or racial balance, need to make sure we hire only WASPs, making sure only people with the right political views are hired, making sure only church members in good standing get hired, etc.) is throwing sand in the gears of machinery we need to keep working.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        It will certainly be possible to make women 50% or more of the tech field. Quotas work; ask Harvard.

        Yes, and I think it’s about time Google was told to put up or shut up. Their diversity numbers (from their own internal report) are terrible. In tech roles, they are only 21.4% female. Only 1.5% black. Only 2.8% Latinx. Every right-thinking person should be outraged, boycott Google and picket their offices until they fire all the white men they’re employing and replacing them with women and POC.

        • The Nybbler says:

          For the moment employment quotas are still illegal, at least until Kennedy pulls a Powell in some 4-1-4 decision. Though there’s always the question of whether the lower and state courts will enforce this or find excuses (I bet on the latter).

    • rlms says:

      So let me go once more unto the breach by stating publicly that I believe that women are less likely than men to want to major in computer science and less likely to pursue a career as a software engineer and that this difference between men and women accounts for most of the gender gap we see in computer science degree programs and in Silicon Valley companies.

      Well, yes, obviously. But what people are interested in can change; it seems unlikely that all of the increase in the proportion of e.g. female doctors is down to a reduction in sexism.

      Tangent: does Physical Sciences in the article’s graph mean Physics? If so, a figure of ~40% women seems remarkably high to me. It still seems pretty high even if you include Chemistry.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Physics is negligible. “Physical sciences” is probably dominated by math, which is people aiming to be math teachers. But 40% is surprisingly high.

        • rlms says:

          Seems odd to include a subject that is neither physical nor a science, but you may be right.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Aside from being wrong about including math, I’m also wrong about the relative sizes. Chemistry is about twice as big as physics. Math+stat is less than 2x chemistry. Chemistry is 50%, while math is 40% female. Earth science is a little smaller than physics. Aggregating these, but leaving out astronomy (and math) gives physical science 38% female. These are all degrees conferred.

          Nybbler’s link gives the percentage of men women intending to major in physical science. Naively dividing numbers also gives about 40%. However, that has two discrepancies. One is that this is freshman intention, which is not a good metric in America. The other is a pure math error, that it assumes the sex ratio of freshman is equal. But the Quillette piece does make a very clear citation, so I don’t know if it makes this error, or the first decision.

      • Randy M says:

        Well, yes, obviously. But what people are interested in can change; it seems unlikely that all of the increase in the proportion of e.g. female doctors is down to a reduction in sexism.

        I have heard that medical schools keep somewhat tight limits on the number of applications accepted, and of course it is extremely non-trivial to open a new medical school. Change in fashions among their admittance procedures 10-20 years ago could entirely account for the demographics of young doctors.

        • rlms says:

          What do you mean? I’m assuming that admissions procedures stopped being sexist pretty rapidly in the 70s or something, but I don’t see how that could have directly led to the 20% rise in %women in med school since 1980 (from the graph).

          • Randy M says:

            Is that undergrad majors? That’s different from “proportion of doctors who are female”, but it could be a response to med schools starting to seeking to have 50/50 representation.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You can imagine someone saying something in 1960, but that is fabricating evidence. What did people actually say in 1960? Were those arguments correct? I think Bernard Davis was involved in a debate in ~1975 about women in medical school, but google only turns up complaints about affirmative action for minorities. It’s possible that “minorities” include women.

      • albatross11 says:

        My point is that there’s a parallel argument that would have been about as convincing in 1960 as this one is today. You’d say something like “Of course, women should be allowed to go to medical and law school. But simply accepting the differences in interests and abilities of women, it’s unrealistic to think that women will ever be half the doctors, and we should be okay with that.”

        And that argument in 1960 or 1970 would have looked about as plausible as the current one he’s making. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but it does make me worry about whether its current convincingness should actually convince me.

        This isn’t about policy–I prefer a gender (and race, religion, politics, etc.) blind meritocracy regardless of whether women are 20% of the engineers or 80%. But when I think about whether I believe his prediction, it worries me that the same prediction would have looked equally plausible w.r.t. doctors in 1960, and yet now it’s clear that such a prediction would have been incorrect.

        • The Nybbler says:

          You’d say something like “Of course, women should be allowed to go to medical and law school. But simply accepting the differences in interests and abilities of women, it’s unrealistic to think that women will ever be half the doctors, and we should be okay with that.”

          And then you’d allow women to go to medical and law school, and lo and behold women would become about half the doctors and lawyers, and you’d admit you were wrong (or pretend you never said it).

          Not at all parallel to computer science. There’s no “programming school”. And neither the profession nor the degree has been off-limits to women. It has only been subject to general effects where women were once discouraged from higher education or having a career.

          Today we are not forbidding women from going into programming or studying CS. Far from it; it’s encouraged to extreme extents by universities, corporations, and various interest groups. Yet the field remains stubbornly male. Totally different set of conditions.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      He essentially restated the Damore memo. There are already a lot of comments on his post, some of which are “toxic” and others of which are condemnatory. The twitter mobs are surely and surly forming as we speak, this will go viral, spill over into realspace, and may God have mercy on his job.

      ETA: and this guy is a professor of CS. An actual position of authority, right there on the front lines of “getting women into tech.” Damore was just some worker bee schlub. This is going to be way worse.

  2. P. George Stewart says:

    I just came across this article re. the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Apparently it’s a crock of s!”t.


    This is quite shocking to me, as it was one of those things I’d long ago thought “settled science” that blocked off a certain area of possibility and likelihood, etc.

    Is it time for a thorough investigation of most of the received wisdom of the 20th century, especially in psychology and the social sciences?

    • James says:

      Feel like there was some discussion of this in a recent (non-integer) open thread. Try ctrl-f Zimbardo on the last couple.

    • albatross11 says:

      Yes, it’s definitely time to call into question a lot of the received wisdom from psychology experiments over the last 100 years. It’s interesting (and depressing) to consider how much of that wrong-but-convincing-sounding received wisdom got embedded into law, policy, popular culture, clinical psychological practice, management, etc., over the last century, and how much damage that’s done.

      This is exactly the reason I’m super skeptical of people who support “noble lies” in science or public policy debates. You can convince everyone of a bunch of false statements for what seems to you to be a good cause, but they’ll keep believing them (and embed them into all kinds of practical decisions) decades after your good cause has been won or lost.

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      I was immediately annoyed in psychology class when I heard of it’s relevance.

      Everyone was a Stanford student with the type of personality of an individual who would sign up for such a study in the first place, and an estimated mean plus 2 SD in intelligence over violent criminals, and 1SD over the typical guard,along with a very different mean personality compared with either population. Ballpark G estimates for the 70’s, though I could be off. Individual and group behavior changes greatly changes with different g distributions.

      No ethnic or religious differences, nor national ideological differences. Those usual tribalistic reasons for strife were not in place.

      No actual crimes committed with the participants fully aware of that( so no actual disgust or vengeance heuristics in place) , along with being fully aware the study was for someone working at the same University who could write letters of recommendation.

      No possibility of someone being shanked, murdered, or beaten and raped,nor the actual social power discrepancies that exist in prison. Just mean words along with knowlege each participant was an actor getting paid to do what they do.

      It didn’t grant insight into much besides the sociology of American society in the 70’s and what evidence the culture (or, subcultures) was then willing to accept. That’s how it should be analyzed.

      What can be best analyzed in the lab are visual/auditory glitches, and various biological responses not greatly affected by complex social and emotional interactions. Not *this*.

  3. Thegnskald says:

    Supposing you found proof that some variant on physics-based immortality is the case; how would you live your life differently?

    (One example of a physics-based immortality would be quantum immortality – the idea that your brain patterns continue in some potentially absurdly unlikely branch of the multiverse, so your continuity of experience is necessarily preserved. There are others, which I won’t get into, because they sometimes get weird, and don’t exactly help us consider the question)

    • beleester says:

      Quantum immortality always struck me as more of a philosophical dodge than a description of a physical phenomenon. It’s saying “You can’t experience being dead, therefore you will only experience being alive.”

      Which is logically true, but you can have some pretty horrible experiences while still remaining alive. For instance, if you get hit by a speeding train, you will not experience being *dead,* but you could experience getting your legs torn off and slowly bleeding out, all the way up until the point that your consciousness actually dies. You could experience surviving the impact but becoming paralyzed from the neck down.

      And worst of all, you can’t tell which world-branch you’re in until you actually die and stop experiencing that branch. The world-branch where you slowly bleed to death and the world-branch where an ambulance miraculously arrives right before you die are completely indistinguishable until the ambulance shows up. Therefore, living life as if you have quantum immortality basically means repeatedly dying in order to give an alternate-universe version of yourself a better life. Doesn’t sound like a fun time to me.

      (What other versions of physics-based immortality are there? I’ve only heard of quantum immortality.)

      • Thegnskald says:

        I don’t think it has a formal name, but I have seen pattern-based immortality discussed; essentially it is the idea that your mind is just a finite-size pattern, and given infinite time, space, and parameterizations, a sequential variant of the pattern will show up somewhere. (It is the “parameterization” part which is particularly important; the pattern doesn’t need to exist as the relationship between atoms in your brain, it could literally be the non-interacting relationship between a few trillion hydrogen atoms scattered throughout all of time and space forming an instant of experience). This sort of immortality isn’t very condusive to the question, however, as such an existence would be reductive (your experience would tend towards the smallest possible pattern that maintains continuity of experience – your memories don’t have to come along for the ride) and likely rapidly devolve into a cyclical experience (once your experience reaches a sufficiently simplistic state, you will eventually arrive at a recursive experience – your experience of the universe cycling from pattern A to B to C to A endlessly, or, with probability included, cycling between an endless variety of cycles).

        Physics-based immortalities are not exactly attractive – they can only, insofar as they work, guarantee existence itself, nothing more, and they don’t guarantee that the existence would be recognizably “you” as most people understand themselves.

        (And quantum immortality will take the shortest possible probability path to survival. At some point, it costs less probability points to just wake up from a realistic dream than to survive the immediate experience.)


        There is a fascinating kind of spiritualism in pattern-based immortality, in that it might be convergent, on top of everything else – that is, many different people would converge into the same repeating patterns, depending on how their experiential reductions go. These experiences would probably be too simplistic for “pain”, “pleasure”, or even “boredom” to be meaningful, but nonetheless people might end up with different but common kaleidoscopes of static to stare at for eternity.

        • Thegnskald says:

          Huh. Thinking about it, there might be a finite number of stable consciousness patterns. If that is the case, we could probably resurrect the awareness of everyone who ever dies by providing a pattern exit point for each such stable configuration, provided we could sufficiently mathematically define consciousness.

          It wouldn’t be meaningful resurrection from the common perspective – you wouldn’t carry any of the things we think of as ourselves with you – but your continuity of experience could be returned to a meaningful existence. And given a finite number of such stable pattern sequences, even if you died, you would just fall back into the loop and out again, potentially reliving the same exit-pattern life for perpetuity afterwards.

  4. pontifex says:

    IBM has built a debater.

    Subsidized space exploration, the machine said during its opening statement, “inspires our children to pursue education and careers in science and technology and mathematics.”

    “It is more important than good roads or improved schools or better health care,” it added.

    Time to invite this machine to SSC?

    • toastengineer says:

      If you set it up to have a bunch of conversations in parallel, does that make it a mass-debater?

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      It’s not really that impressive. All it does is say “womp womp” every time its opponent opens his mouth.

  5. skef says:

    God dammit, I like straws. Such an awkward thing to carry around with you …

  6. sfoil says:

    How bad is the crowding-out effect of government spending in countries like Italy? I read this yesterday, and I was less struck by the political aspects than by the economic. The article describes, correctly I think, Italy’s private sector as “stagnant”. On a hunch, I looked up the numbers, and apparently government spending accounts for 50% of Italy’s GDP. Given that GDP is more or less a measure of “economic activity”, half of the economy in this country consists of the government writing checks. That sure doesn’t seem to leave a lot of parts of the economy to function.

    As I continued to read, this looked more and more like a hugely unaddressed aspect of what was going on: all of the young people seem to be angling to get a government job, and the successful parents retired from government jobs with government pensions. The resulting family arrangement looks suspiciously like minor nobles living off the rent of their small estate and hoping they can marry their daughter off to a gentleman of some means, minus the pensions being hereditary.

    I realize this is the Wall Street Journal and the writer may have purposely insinuated the whole undertone, but this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this sort of thing. Greece looks to have similar issues for the same reason. Is there a common consensus, or even several major schools of thought, on how, exactly, this sort of massive long-term spending tends to affect economies?

    • rlms says:

      Look at Wikipedia’s table of government expenditure as proportion of GDP. Cuba, Libya and Lesotho are near the top, but Denmark and Finland aren’t far behind, and 50% is not unusual. A lot of countries in that ballpark seem to be doing fine.

    • SpeakLittle says:

      First, I hit accidentally hit “report” instead of “reply”. Apologies.

      Disclaimer: 1) I am by no means an expert on Italy. The following are simply my limited observations from my brief time in northern Italy. 2) Your link is paywalled, so I’m responding mostly to your comment and not the article.

      While the high government spending may not help, I don’t think it’s the sole cause of Italy’s economic woes. In addition to Italy’s famously gridlocked government, there is a sprawling bureaucracy. There is a form and a license for everything, mostly so it can get taxed. As an example of this, someone I knew was trying to build a loafing shed for their horses. A loafing shed is basically two posts and a short roof. The permit was delayed two years because no one at their local construction permit office could figure what tax category it fell under (barn, small building, etc). While this is a pretty extreme example, I imagine dealing with this looks like too much of a headache. “Heck with it, I’ll just get a government job.”

    • sfoil says:


      This is probably a trivial observation, but obviously what the government is spending money on has to matter somewhat. If Italy spends all of its money paying old people lots of money to do nothing, and Denmark’s government buys more productive things, it would make a difference.


      That’s very interesting. For one thing, I can see how someone might see that situation and say, “See, we need the government to spend even more money because they don’t even have enough resources to approve horse shack permits!” I don’t think that’s an example of crowding out though, which would be more along the lines of “I could make shoes for $100, but why bother when I can approve horse permits for $150?” What you describe sounds like something a lot worse; again with the feudalism example, I could make more money building horse sheds than I do now doing nothing, but I can’t get permission from Baron Ligotti to do it. And the Baron isn’t even motivated to increase the cut he personally takes of my income, because it doesn’t matter.

      • Eugene Dawn says:

        According to a graph from FT that made the Twitter rounds a little while ago, Italy has an extremely poorly targeted welfare state; a quick skim of the article didn’t explain what it is about the system that is so poorly targeted, but it seems like your intuition that Italy’s government spending is more inefficient than that of the Netherlands has some support.

  7. terran says:

    I’m looking for a leftist (or left-authoritarian) intellectual policy magazine to read, either United States specific or international with a strong United States section. It would probably best be described as “the leftist version of the National Review.” I tried Mother Jones, which is considered a canonical well-regarded left magazine, but I found it to be too focused on specific anecdotes and emotional appeals; in other words it was sensing-feeling, and I’m looking for intuiting-thinking. It should advocate specific policy positions and explain why they would be desirable. Any suggestions?

    • J Mann says:

      Have you checked out Current Affairs? I’ve only read Nathan Robinson articles, but he reads like the lefty version of a NR writer.

    • SamChevre says:

      Not quite leftism–more Cathedral than left–but Democracy (free online) is one suggestion. The Nation may also have some of what you are looking for.

      [ETA]: Actually, I think the magazine that would come closest is Jacobin.

      Fitting, since Jacobin ideology is the central disastrous idea of the last 250 years.

    • axiomsofdominion says:

      All of the major leftists magazines have gone under new neo-liberal management since they were created. So you aren’t going to find much leftism at all. Regardless of your preferred style.

    • Matt M says:

      It would probably best be described as “the leftist version of the National Review.”

      Have you tried National Review?

    • dndnrsn says:

      Liberals aren’t leftists. The leftist version of NR is, yeah, probably Jacobin. The liberal version is probably something like the Atlantic.

      • engleberg says:

        I’d try the World Socialist Website. Just a lefty Reader’s Digest, but they at least try to cover highbrow stuff too, and the world labor news is real enough. Mother Jones, Jacobin, the Nation, the Atlantic- used to have an edge and some depth, but what they’ve got they used to have.

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      Why search for just one genetically biased point of view, instead of all possible sources of knowledge?

    • JonathanD says:

      The New Republic was the answer back during the Bush administration, but I seem to remember they had some sort of buyout/business failure and possibly an objectionable editorial change. They’re still out there, but I’m not sure how prominent they still are.

      Modern day, perhaps The Atlantic?

  8. Tibor says:

    So it seems that my original post disappeared either by my own mistake or for some mysterious reason. Also three replies to that post seem to have disappeared with it. Here is a somewhat abbreviated version:

    I have some 2-3 months to learn Python (which the employers in the field where I want to apply seem to be most interested in, see below) to a passable level (again, passable in the context below) and I’m interested in tips on how to go about that most efficiently. In the first month (i.e. now) I’m still employed (as a maths PostDoc) so I can give it maybe 2-3 hours a day, more afterwards. I plan to take August and possibly also September off, then I want leave the academia and get a job in the industry. Most likely something finance related as that seems to work the best with my probability theory background. My programming skills are very basic, mostly just loops, if-else, I haven’t done much more than an occasional MCMC algorithm, some of which were not entirely trivial mathematically but it’s more or less just loops anyway. Ideally, I would like to have a new job by October or late September and I would like to able to add at least some Python/programming skills to the CV when applying. I have no work experience outside of academia and I’ve more or less just finished my PhD in December and I’ve been a PostDoc since November (there was a 1 month overlap there), so I want to learn some more “practical skills” like programming since I think the employers will probably care about that at least as much if not more than about a doctorate in maths (I currently have one submitted publication, one which is almost ready to be submitted and one which hopefully will be submitted by the end of July but that’s probably not what they will care about much either). I’m 29, so hopefully that is still a sort of “fresh graduate” age considering that I did a PhD and so the employers should hopefully not see my lack of work experience too harshly.

    Someone here recommended me to Code fight and a friend of mine who’s a programmer told me to Dive into python. Rlms also replied but I did not read his reply before it was also deleted for some reason…Could you please post that again?

    • rlms says:

      (I deleted to avoid a random orphaned comment)

      You definitely want to write programs rather than reading books. If you have minimal programming experience and are aiming for some statsy job, you probably want to do start off by writing simple programs using plain Python (if you’re stuck for ideas, try a text-based interactive fiction game). Then you probably want to familiarise yourself with the common libraries you will likely end up using: Numpy, Scipy, Pandas and Tensorflow are some of the big ones.

      I think there are a few different approaches you can take to searching for jobs, which will affect what you want to focus on. I think it’s unlikely that anyone will hire you for a generic programming job because of a few months learning Python, although it’s quite possible you might be hired for one on the reasonable assumption that if you have a PhD in maths you will be able to pick up the relevant skills quickly on the job. So if that’s what you’re aiming for, I don’t think how well you learn programming will matter too much.

      Another approach would be to go for jobs with names like “quantitative researcher”, where you would be more using programming as a tool rather than building things, which would actually use your mathematical background. You could brand yourself for these kind of positions in different ways depending on how learning Python goes — for instance “I’ve got a PhD in relevant maths and some programming experience” if you don’t get that far, or “I have a maths PhD and m a c h i n e l e a r n i n g experience with [libraries]” if you get very into it.

      • Tibor says:

        Sounds good, thanks. I definitely don’t want to work as a “pure” programmer and throw away 9 years of studying maths (counting the bachelor, master and the doctorate) out of the window, but I also want to do things which are more applied than what I’ve been doing so far. Quantitative researcher sounds quite nice, what I wonder is what it means in practice. Is it about reading research papers and then implementing the results in whatever the company does or does it mean doing that research yourself (or a combination of both)? I was actually thinking about something like “quantitative trader” which seem to me to be the former, i.e. I’d still need to understand the maths but I would not be coming up with new results. I might want to go back to that eventually, but now I’d like to do something more hands on where I actually get to see the results of my work doing something (which you pretty much never do in theoretical maths).

        But to be frank, I don’t have any dream job in particular. I want to use my maths skills, ideally to a non-trivial level (i.e. I don’t want to do linear regression all day), I want to do something more applied than I’ve been doing so far and I want to work in the industry rather than a university or any public organization. But aside from that I honestly don’t care all that much about what the specifics of the job are. The quantitative research/trading seems to be an obvious choice, but perhaps I am missing some other options? Of course, I could also go work for an insurance company or a re-insurance company, that would probably be an easier job, but rather boring too. I might want to switch to that eventually, since the quant jobs have a reputation of being rather stressful and very time-consuming, but I’d like to try something a bit more “challenging” first.

        • toastengineer says:

          There’s math-heavy “pure” programming positions out there. Admittedly the examples I’m thinking of are as much about physics as math, but… I dunno, maybe you can get a job with Wolfram Research or some entity like that?

        • Chalid says:

          Quantitative researcher sounds quite nice, what I wonder is what it means in practice. Is it about reading research papers and then implementing the results in whatever the company does or does it mean doing that research yourself (or a combination of both)? I was actually thinking about something like “quantitative trader” which seem to me to be the former, i.e. I’d still need to understand the maths but I would not be coming up with new results

          Depends heavily on the job. Jobs where you are coming up significant new mathematical results are quite rare (in any field, but especially in finance these days).

          Jobs where you write “papers” about finance are not uncommon, but they’re not going to have that much serious mathematical content; it’s more like “look at some effect, estimate its size and trend, handwave about its implications for the markets.” This sort of thing tends to be essentially creating marketing materials for a company’s services or data products and so it needs to be pitched at a broad audience.

          Jobs where you read the papers, make a judgement call as to the papers’ quality, make modifications/approximations to deal with your specific case, and then implement in code are more common. Also jobs where you just get trading ideas, which you then code up, from reading news or looking at the data. Also the task of managing a “portfolio” of many such strategies is another serious task which is a full-time job at some firms.

          Another common job is the one where you support a bunch of traders and portfolio managers, providing analysis and support, help them understand their risks, do screens to find trading opportunities, etc. There is tremendous variation in what these jobs are actually like as it depends very specifically on the team you join.

          Also common, unfortunately, are jobs where you help maintain a gigantic model, occasionally making minor tweaks and fixes but spending 90% of your time just keeping it running, or jobs where you spend all your time producing risk metrics to send to government regulators, or jobs where you produce numbers and metrics that the real decision-makers in your firm ignore.

    • Chalid says:

      Keep in mind, your goal is not to learn python, it’s to get a job. Which implies that you need to know the python necessary to get through an interview, not the python necessary to do useful work. These can be very different things.

      If you’re aiming at a finance job, your PhD is likely going to be your main qualification, not your programming skill, and you should be aiming at a quant position, not an engineering one, since with your PhD the quant position will pay you way more at the entry level and the work will be much more interesting. The programming questions in an entry-level quant interview are going to be very heavy on algorithms and very light on libraries/frameworks/etc – think IQ tests with a programming flavor, not tests of programming ability per se. Pick up a book like Xinfeng Zhou’s Practical Guide to Quant Finance Interviews and do all the problems. Focus on the core language, know it very well, and don’t spend too much time on libraries. Everyone talks about machine learning in finance but no one particularly does any of it, so I wouldn’t expect it to come up in an interview unless you put it on your resume, which you shouldn’t because you don’t have time to learn it well enough. No one will ding you for being ignorant of a particular technical topic, but you will get hit hard if you claim expertise in something and can’t back it up. Don’t learn tensorflow, no one uses neural networks in finance.

    • Björn says:

      If you want to go beyond the basic control structures like loops, you want to learn more or less what you learn in a Algorithms & Data structures lecture in the first semester of a Computer Science bachelor’s degree. By googling, I found this book, which looks good at least from skimming it. The relevant chapters would be chapters 3-7. Many of the concepts come from discrete mathematics, about which you might now some things already, but in any case they shouldn’t be shocking for a math PhD.

      I think the difference between Dive into Python and the book I posted is that Dive into python is focused on the technical aspects of Python like what kind of objects, functions etc. you can create in Python and how you combine and use them in powerful ways, while the Algorithms & Data structures book is about how to solve common mathematical problems that appear when writing programs. I think both things are equally important. Maybe you can read Dive into Python to learn the language, and whenever the technicalities annoy you, you read the Data structures book.^^

      Also, I can recommend you to really watch your programming style. In programming, it’s important that you write understandable code by using sensible names and staying in the naming conventions of your programming language. Putting code you use multiple times in an own function is very important as well. In my experience, self taught programmers often struggle with those things, as you need someone with experience who tells you what to do and what not.

    • toastengineer says:

      If you want a random Python FOSS project to contribute to, I have one. I’m porting it over to a new graphics backend and everything’s broken, so there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit. It’s not the most glamorous project but I’m the “Python expert” at work and I’m sure I can pass some useful knowledge along via code review.

      The product itself can be treated as one of those learn-to-code-games although it is designed more for someone who already knows what they’re doing.

  9. Tibor says:

    Interesting, I wanted to do a minor edit in my post and I must have either deleted it by accident or something unexpected happened with the same result. I will post it again…

  10. Tibor says:

    I want to learn Python as best as I can in 2-3 months (see background below) What would you recommend as a source material?

    A Friend of mine who’s a programmer recommended the book Dive Into Python. I’m currently working my way through it, mostly still just reading (which makes me a little uneasy since while the stuff is not particularly hard to understand, I forget most to all syntax a week after I read a chapter and I’m left with the basic principles of each chapter and a vague notion that “one can do stuff like this”). Do you think that is enough to gain a passable knowledge (again, see background below) of the language? Would you recommend something else? My background is in maths, most of my coding until now consisted of putting a couple of loops and if-elses together (as a part of a project I did one MCMC simulation in C++ at one point, which was rather complicated as far as MCMC algorithms but a programmer would probably have a heart attack if he saw the code).

    Some background:
    The reason I’m learning python is that I’m about to move from the academia, where I’m doing pretty much strictly theoretical maths, to the private industry (finance most likely, or something related – goes rather well with my probability theory background) and these skills will probably come in handy. I want to be able to add at least a passable level of programming to my CV before I start applying since I have no work experience outside of academia and very little there as well, I finished my PhD in December and I’ve only been a PostDoc since November (there was a bit of an overlap). I’m 29 so that should be sort of OK, but I still expect the employers to appreciate programming skills at least as much if not more than a maths PhD (I also have a few publications, with those submitted and almost ready to be submitted I will likely end up having 4 in total, but I don’t think people in the industry care about publications very much). I’ve started a little bit late, my current contract expires by the end of July (I had an option to stay until the end of the year but I don’t want to), I want to take August off completely and ideally by late September or October I want to start working. That’s to say I have something like 2-3 months to learn this and at least in the first month I cannot dedicate my full day to it, although I can probably dedicate 2-3 hours a day to Python instead of doing umm, my job (but maths cannot be done on an 8 hour a day 9-5 schedule anyway) 🙂 Later in August and possibly in September I can increase this to something like 4-5 (or more if absolutely necessary…I’d also like a bit of a break which I originally planned right after the PhD but then started the PostDoc even before my thesis defence).

    Thanks for the answers!

    • albatross11 says:

      Find some problem you want to solve using python, and teach yourself the language with the goal of solving that problem. That’s my best technique for actually learning a language–just reading a book about it seems unlikely to help.

      More generally, write programs to do stuff. Lots of programs. Programming is like math in that reading a book about it in a narrative way isn’t going to teach you much–you need to work the problems, or go through the proofs and understand them, or whatever. The equivalent for programming is to write programs–even dumb little ten-line programs–to do stuff. (Python has a nice interactive command line interface, so you can play with the commands till you get things to work like you want–that makes learning a lot easier, IME.)

      But to keep yourself interested, I find it’s best to have some actual problem you are trying to solve.

      • smocc says:

        I am someone who enjoys programming but rarely has his own ideas for interesting things to work on, so I really love resources that collect small interesting problems.

        Codefights is a gamified instruction / recruiting tool that feeds you increasingly difficult problems that you can solve with nearly any language you want. The early ones are really easy and a little bland, but that might be what you’re looking for if you’re just starting out.

        Project Euler is a huge bank of tricky math problems that usually require a computer to solve. Often they are combinatorics problems that require you to do some clever thinking of how to reduce the required computing from brute-force down to something manageable. A lot of the problems are not my style, but it also has some of my favorite ever.

        I invite others to link similar resources because I always want more.

        Last night I used Python to answer the question “how many words are there in the English language counting sets of anagrams as just one word?” It would make for a good beginner project because it combines file input, string manipulation, and a little bit of clever algorithmic thinking if you don’t want it to take forever.

  11. Aapje says:

    New paper: People tend to assume that others decide based on extreme attributes of their choice more than is correct (sci-hub link).

    Study 1 asked Clinton voters about what issues Trump voters care about and asked Trump voters about their preferences. The study found that the Clinton voters overestimated the importance of migration issues to Trump supporters and that the Clinton voters who overestimated more also had a more negative view of Trump supporters.

    An obvious weakness is that the Trump supporters may have been atypical, especially since they are MTurkers, so not selected fully randomly. The actual preferences of the average Trump voter may different, so the Clinton voters could have been more or less correct than the study indicates. Non-Mturk Clinton voters may also be better or worse informed.

    Study 2 asked people how much weight a fictional person who decided to move to either Ft. Lauderdale or Ft. Worth placed on the weather in these places. The study found that people thought that the weather was a more important part of the decision when moving to the place with the more extreme weather & that if they perceived the weather as more extreme, they thought it was a larger part of the decision.

    The researchers claim based on these studies that “observers use attribute value as a proxy for attribute weight;
    consequently, attributes with extreme values are seen as more important in the decision.”

    In study 3, people were given two fictional candidate profiles with information on how liberal or conservative they are on global issues like ‘individual rights’ & ‘domestic issues.’ The study subjects were asked to judge how important the voters considered these issues. On one issue, both fictional candidates had an equal and equally extreme stance, while on another issue, one candidate has an extreme stance, while the other had a moderate stance. The study subjects thought that the distinguishing stance was more important to voters to base their decision on, which seems rather logical.

    In study 4a, they checked whether people would imagine that weather was relatively more important to a person when that person moved to a city with fewer jobs. They found that people didn’t consider that information. It was also found that it didn’t matter whether people were given information about the weather of the origin city. The researchers consider both outcomes as being evidence of overinferring.

    Study 4b was similar to 4a, except the surveyed people could wager on the result, to test their confidence. The outcome was very similar to 4a, showing that people had high confidence if they made a strong inference.

    In study 5, some respondents were asked to decide for themselves between two cities, where the second city was superior in weather (and equal in everything else). Others were asked to ‘observe’ & judge how important weather was to the deciders. The observers judged weather as more significant a factor than the deciders said it was. The researchers claim that this is evidence for overinference.

    In study 6, it was tested whether it matters if the observer had been a decision-maker before, to see if the extra information from having been a decision maker makes people realize that they will also choose the superior option if they care relatively little about the way in which the superior option is better (because there is no downside to choosing that option). It was found that this matters quite a bit and that people who first were decision makers judge others as less concerned about superior weather.

    The issue I have with studies 1-5 is that it is claimed that people use a relatively simple model of decision making, but use it incorrectly. This is a weak claim, because results that conform with the simple model are used to claim that it is used by people, while results that don’t conform is used to argue that the model is used incorrect, not that people use a different/more complex model. This is why study 6 seems crucial to me, because that is the only study where it is shown that people change their judgments based on a perspective change.

    Of course, caveat replicatore.

  12. Aapje says:

    Camp Diversity: a ‘leadership’ camp where the kids get called slurs and get other abuse.

    This is just really confusing to me. They do some reverse role playing, for example by blindfolding kids to have them feel how it is to have a disability. However, they also do this:

    In a segregation exercise carried out during lunch, Valenzuela separated students by race and ethnicity and shouted directions. “White group, always go first!” he ordered. “You may leave your plates, your cups, your silverware and glasses at the table because the brown, the Mexican brown group, will clean up — because they’re good at it.”

    “Half-breeds!” he hissed at the biracial group. “You’re a bunch of mistakes aren’t you?” White students were dismissed as “privileged and racist supremacists.” Jewish students, tagged with yellow stars, were called “Christ killers.”

    “You Jews waiting for the train or what?” Valenzuela shouted at them. “That’s what happened in the Holocaust, nobody cared, nobody did anything.”

    He made certain all the students went to restrooms with signs posted on the stalls that read: “Whites Only,” “Colored Only” and “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.”

    I guess that this is intended to open people’s eyes to discrimination in society, but it seems to me that this would be straight up violence and/or triggering people in a harmful way according to SJ theory.

    My impression is that the camp director loves to abuse people and has learned to say the proper pro-diversity incantations to let him get away with it (and he probably convinced himself that he is helping people by abusing them). Most ‘pro-SJ, but not actually activist’-people seem to be easily hoodwinked by saying the right things.

    PS. This also shows the weird dichotomy we have between ‘official’ treatments, interventions and studies that have to conform to strict ethical guidelines, while there is this vague category of things that are funded by and get support from the government, yet where there seem no solid ethical requirements.

    • fion says:

      Well that sounds pretty horrible. I would lean quite heavily towards it being unjustifiably horrible, but I guess I’d have to see whether it had any measurable positive outcomes… If the kids came out of it understanding racism better and how to avoid it and without any lasting trauma then I guess it’s justifiable. But I’d guess they don’t.

    • WashedOut says:

      Difficult to respond in a measured way to such a catnip article, but I find the existence of such camps a) not surprising in the least given the current political climate and b) the logical progression to “privilege walks” in schools.

      The Anytown retreats, run by a loose network of nonprofit social justice groups, say they instill leadership and build empathy by prompting young people to confront difficult issues such as racism and sexism in a safe setting far from home and school.

      I wouldn’t trust a “loose network of nonprofit social justice groups” to run a lemonade stand let alone education and training services for children, not least because…

      …many of the camps’ “experiential learning” methods, however well intended, are ethically suspect at best and, at worst, reckless and potentially harmful for some young people. The programs are unsupported by research, misguided about the safe handling of trauma, and generally lack adequate on-site mental health care.

      So: parental negligence or fraudulent advertising/marketing ?

      My impression is that the camp director loves to abuse people and has learned to say the proper pro-diversity incantations to let him get away with it (and he probably convinced himself that he is helping people by abusing them).

      Sounds like David Miscavige and his associates in Scientology, but replace the pro-diversity mantra with armchair psych and self-esteem-building. Difference was, Miscavige didn’t have an entire cultural zeitgeist behind him.

    • brmic says:

      Maybe I missed it, but the article does seem to omit key details like how and whether people can quit, how it’s financed, who is responsible, how many complaints there are.

      I agree it sounds triggering and abusive, but that presents a problem for the special snowflakes narrative. If the SJ-adjacent people going to these camps were as susceptible to microaggressions as some critics would have us believe, these camps would be flooded with complaints and shut down in a heartbeat.

      Finally, I don’t understand where you get your ‘weird dichotomy’ from. The correctional boot camps that spung up in the eighties and only got sufficient ethical guidelines after bad shit happened were state run and coercive. The diversity camps are as far as I know voluntary and according to the article ‘some students pay their own way, but typically costs are covered by donations, grants and school funds’. Presumably just like the local church summer camp or the boy scouts the state’s assumption is that community ties ensure oversight, people vote with their feet and substantial problems can be resolved via lawsuits and the police. I don’t want the local church to have to submit a 120 page document about the safety and impact of all activities during their summer camp, complete with paid-for evaluation by outside experts. If OTOH, the camp is forced on people and paid entirely by tax dollars, I want 200 pages.

      • toastengineer says:

        I agree it sounds triggering and abusive, but that presents a problem for the special snowflakes narrative.

        Not really. “If you’re on our side you get to do whatever you want until someone decides you’re worth targeting and convinces everyone you’re not really on our side” has been an understood part of their modus operandi from the beginning.

        • mdet says:

          I’m reading brmic as saying “A camp that deliberately subjects people to hurtful experiences so that they can learn something presents a problem for the narrative that SJ-young people are whiny, fragile, traumatized by literally everything, and out to trigger-warning away any semblence of microaggression”

          While resilience is important, this camp sounds confused and awful by any standards.

          • John Schilling says:

            That would depend very much on whether the “SJ-young” people in question are the ones dishing it out, or the ones taking it. One thing I didn’t notice, was any mention of who these campers (as opposed to the counselors) were or why the attended. High school students, yes, but did they volunteer or were they voluntold, and what was the pitch?

          • albatross11 says:

            There are a lot of ways to be a human, and this is just one more of them. But I sure wouldn’t send my kid to such a camp, either as a participant or as a counselor.

      • Aapje says:


        Maybe I missed it, but the article does seem to omit key details like how and whether people can quit, how it’s financed, who is responsible, how many complaints there are.

        Of course they can quit, it is not prison. However, the kids are presumably under various pressures to stay.

        “Some students pay their own way, but typically costs are covered by donations, grants and school funds.” -> so a mixture of public and private money

        They are “independent nonprofits.”

        The article weakly suggests that there have been few complaints.

        Finally, I don’t understand where you get your ‘weird dichotomy’ from. The correctional boot camps that sprung up in the eighties and only got sufficient ethical guidelines after bad shit happened were state run and coercive.

        I see a lack of consistency, where fairly small differences result in highly disparate levels of scrutiny and acceptability of certain behavior.

        For example, if a school tells/suggests to a student to go to such a camp and pays for it, there seems little difference to having it be part of the curriculum. Yet if a teacher starts smacking students in the back of the head and calling them slurs, I doubt that he would be a-teachin’ much longer.

        Scott wrote a story about how he could experiment on his patients under the guise of treatment and then use the collected results to write a paper, but that doing an official experiment had absurd ethical demands.

        • brmic says:

          One ‘fairly small difference’ I can see are that one camp is voluntary and you can leave, the other isn’t. Not small to me.

          The other difference I see is that actions done under an agreement of ‘I’m going to do this even though it’s wrong, you can leave at any time, we will make time to talk about this at length later’ are different from unpredictable, unconsensual actions without lengthy debriefing.

          As to your example: No, if the school allows military recruiters to come to the school for a day, that’s not ‘little difference’ from making weapons training part of the curriculum. It really depends on the details. If the schools pays part of the cost, and other organizations can also dip into those funds, absent complaints of abuse it’s fine for the school to assume people will vote with their feet. It really has to be compulsory or the only option to be counted as somewhat part of the curriculum.
          As for the teacher, no, this is fine and expected behaviour as long as it’s the athletics coach. Social norms have changed and are changing but there’s no substantial difference in standards. In the camp case, the behaviour apparently wasn’t reported as ‘hitting’ and the ‘slurs’ sound like they were part of the agreed upon intervention. Closer scrutiny on what participants can really agree to in this situation being both young and impressionable and in a camp situation was obviously lacking, but again, apparently there was no unusual amount of complaints or we don’t hear about them.

          Lots of people tried to explain to Scott why there was a difference in the comments to this IRB nightmare post. Maybe you did not find those arguments persuasive, but that merely means that you, personally don’t think the distinctions are relevant, not that there are none.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I see this backfiring like in workplaces that have implicit bias training and wind up more discriminatory than they were before once people are made aware of inevitability of their own biases.

      I mean, tell a bunch of 10-year-old white kids “White group, always go first! You may leave your plates, your cups, your silverware and glasses at the table because the brown, the Mexican brown group, will clean up — because they’re good at it” and a not insignificant number of them are going to respond “whoa, being white is awesome!”

      • Aapje says:

        It can also create huge resentment on the part of the Latino, black, etc kids; who may have felt accepted before, but who may now resent the other kids, even though the latter were egged on to be abusive by authority figures.

        • albatross11 says:

          Hey, *someone* has to try to replicate the Stanford Prison experiment!

        • Education Hero says:

          Given that such resentment would increase the likelihood that these kids will embrace social justice, perhaps this is a feature rather than a bug.

          • gbdub says:

            On the other hand, my reaction (and I doubt I’d be the only one) would probably be “this whole premise is absurd and over the top, the real world is nothing like this, if this is what racism is then racism is clearly dead, you and your fellow travelers have lost all credibility with me”.

            I think that’s basically what happened to the DARE program. Over the top scare mongering only works until your target audience realizes you’re full of it, and kids are smarter than you think.

          • Aapje says:

            Perhaps both happen, creating a greater rift within society.

    • J Mann says:

      It’s just a weird method of argument – you’re not convinced that there is so much discrimination in modern society that action must be taken, so let me show you some other society where discrimination is more offensive. It’s like trying to convince people to be radical feminists by showing them The Handsmaid’s Tale, or trying to convince them to be racist by playing Birth of a Nation. (On the other hand, I guess those methods sometimes work.)

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Then if your goal is to foster excessive racial resentment disproportionate to the real level of oppression in society, the program is a complete success.

    • Randy M says:

      Indoctrinating children into racial hatred… for tolerance!

    • Matt M says:

      A nice case of “South Park did it” (over 10 years ago!)

  13. Well... says:

    Has any serious, thoughtful consideration been put into answering the question “What would happen if all the mosquitoes in the world died, like right now please?”

    • Steven J says:

      Janet Fang (2010), “A World without Mosquitoes,” Nature 466: 432-434, https://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/466432a.html.

      I can’t vouch for the quality of the study, but at least someone has tried to answer your question.

      • Well... says:

        it’s difficult to see what the downside would be to removal, except for collateral damage“, says insect ecologist Steven Juliano, of Illinois State University in Normal. (Emphasis mine.)

        Sub-headlines can be misleading.

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      It would be a better place.

    • albatross11 says:

      I think it’s a small subset of mosquito species that spread nearly all the bad diseases, so you can probably get a large fraction of the benefit to humanity by just getting rid of those species.

  14. tayfie says:

    The US MENSA annual gathering is happening July 4-8 in Indianapolis.

    Is anyone here going this year or has gone in the past? I am looking for a buddy to spend time with outside the scheduled events and would enjoy meeting some of you in person.

    If you have gone in the past, what is your experience with it?

    • BBA says:

      I don’t know why anyone would want to hang out with the kind of people who think IQ means something.

      But then I post here and I’ve even been to an SSC meetup so I’m not the one to raise that objection.

      • quanta413 says:

        This sounds kinda self-hating dood. You should have some ice cream. That always makes me feel better.

      • tayfie says:

        In my limited experience, I have encountered zero members that think that way.

        We don’t “think IQ means something” any more than the average college graduate thinks education means something.

        The comparison to college is especially apt because what made it a good experience was that it was an effective filter for the kind of people I was socially compatible with. Outside of top universities, it is difficult to find a large social group nearly as well filtered. MENSA is one possibility I am currently exploring. It is also a decent proxy for finding those with similar interests.

        Back before the internet, the chances of nerds finding more than a couple people in their lives they enjoyed socializing with was slim. The relative rarity of the type made physical space a limiting factor, so organizations like MENSA were created to fill the void.

        On the flip side, I get the impression MENSA is a dying organization, having been largely supplanted by the internet more than many clubs because intelligence correlates with tech-savvyness and all the young people who would have joined MENSA before now don’t see as much need. The member population is certainly ancient compared to any of my other social groups.

        • BBA says:

          I’m sorry to sound so dismissive… but, you know, I am. I can see how in the pre-internet days Mensa might have been useful, but now it seems simultaneously petty and pathetic: a club of people with high standardized test scores, who get together so they don’t have to talk to people with lower standardized test scores. I mean, I’ve got high enough standardized test scores to get in but I’d like to think I’ve got more going for me than just that.

          Is that all there is to it? I know, from those books I had as a kid, that they’ve also got logic puzzles, but there are lots of clubs for that (obligatory plug).

          [This is all setting aside the Great Awokening tenet that IQ is an inherently racist concept, which nearly all the people I encounter who might have been Mensans in less enlightened times now subscribe to.]

          EDIT: in the interest of not derailing this subthread completely, I’d like to give some advice about Indianapolis but I haven’t been there since I was 12 and I don’t remember anything about what to see or do there. Sorry.

          • tayfie says:

            I’ll start off with a thanks for the plug. I didn’t know about them.

            Why should it be any more petty and pathetic than any club or any other way of meeting new people? I’d like to choose my friends and acquaintances through an exhaustive tour of the world getting to know everyone I meet personally and judging them as individuals, but no one has time for that. Any other method you can choose is equally or more shallow. It’s not any worse than finding people through a common interest of sports or music or books. Choosing friends from people in your immediate physical proximity, by far the most common method, is the most shallow of all because you are choosing based on a first impression of appearance with no extra information. In high school, some friendships are started by something as arbitrary as liking the same brand of clothes.

            I think you are missing the fact that common people are common. I couldn’t avoid them if I tried, and I don’t want to. Social interaction with regular people is good for jokes and small talk and emotional issues, but I crave more. I occasionally need some heavy discussion of the kind that makes regular people fidget uncomfortably and change the subject. I can’t get that without seeking out the kind of people capable and willing to do it.

            As for what there is, they have a ton of special interest groups and frequent in-person meetups. It’s a nudge on my back so I do more on the weekends than waste away reading internet comment sections. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen Indianapolis, but now I get the opportunity to see it.

  15. Telminha says:

    Anyone here is following the World Cup? What are your bets?

    Wishing for a sixth trophy, although I’m not very hopeful.

    I was very impressed by Mexico’s performance against Germany. If they keep winning, we might experience a few earthquakes. Well, articles were stating that one happened following Mexico’s goal, but it seems that there is no such thing as “earthquake of joy,” but a total eclipse of the heart is possible.

    Also, the latest Freakonomics episode is about How to Catch World Cup Fever.

    May the best team win!

    • quaelegit says:

      I’m (theoretically) rooting for Iceland, of course! It’s got the romantic underdog story, and it’s just a fun country 🙂

      Theoretically because I haven’t actually watched any of their game… but to the extent that I am keeping an eye on the tournament I’m rooting for them 😛

      The only game I’ve watched so far is Mexico v. Germany because my appartment building held a watch party. All I can say (as a soccer noob) is it looked to me like the German team was used to a taller net…

  16. Andrew Hunter says:

    Putting aside all the culture war implications, we now urgently need to answer an important question: will the Space Force follow every single real military space traditions and have Air Force (i.e. Army) rank titles, or every single imaginary military space tradition and have Navy rank titles?

    Seriously. We need to decide right now if we have a vice admiral commanding the 1st Space Fleet or a Lt. General commanding the 1st Space Corps.

    • bean says:

      Which way I’d vote is fairly obvious. But I doubt it’s going to happen. Odds are that some reporter is grossly mangling what he said. It definitely isn’t time yet.

      • Iain says:

        I agree that it’s probably not going to happen, but the reporters aren’t mangling what Trump said:

        I want to also say that when it comes to space, too often, for too many years, our dreams of exploration and discovery were really squandered by politics and bureaucracy, and we knocked that out. So important for our psyche, what’s you’re doing. It’s going to be important monetarily and militarily. But so important for right up here — the psyche. We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We’ve always led — we’ve gone way far afield for decades now, having to do with our subject today. We’re going to be the leader by far. We’re behind you a thousand percent.

        America’s vital interest in space lost out to special interests in Washington, except, of course, for the senators and congressmen here. They would never do it. Right, Dana?

        But all of that is changing. We know that. My administration is reclaiming America’s heritage as the world’s greatest space-faring nation. The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers. But our destiny, beyond the Earth, is not only a matter of national identity, but a matter of national security. So important for our military. So important. And people don’t talk about it.

        When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important.

        Very importantly, I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. That’s a big statement.

        We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force — separate but equal. It is going to be something. So important. General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored, also. Where’s General Dunford? General? Got it?

        GENERAL DUNFORD: We got it.

        THE PRESIDENT: Let’s go get it, General. (Applause.) But that’s the importance that we give it. We’re going to have the Space Force.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          separate but equal

          I’m dying.

          It’s been about two years now and I still can’t tell if he’s doing this on purpose or is just some kind of idiot savant when it comes to trolling.

          • Matt M says:

            That one made me chuckle aloud too.

            Hate his policies all you want, but none can deny that Trump has been the most entertaining President in recent memory!

    • Well... says:

      Obviously they should go a third direction and appropriate Star Wars titles like “Darth” and “knight” and “sith” and “raider” and “lord” and so forth.

      (I can’t vouch that this made much sense since I haven’t seen any Star Wars movies since I was a kid, because they’re movies for kids. But it still seems like a good idea.)

      • helloo says:

        Given that the first Space Shuttle is named Enterprise rather than Falcon, you probably are looking at the wrong fandom.

    • beleester says:

      I’ll be happy keeping Air Force rank titles until we actually have a spaceship worthy of the name, something with an engine big enough to take a casual cruise around the solar system and enough crew for Captain Kirk to be in charge.

      But what would a Space Force really be in charge of? ICBMs have a very narrow use case (and they don’t stay in space for long). Satellites are autonomous and don’t need much commanding. And blowing up the enemy’s satellites is a risky idea, because of Kessler Syndrome. So, what exactly is their job?

    • Aapje says:

      Seriously. We need to decide right now if we have a vice admiral commanding the 1st Space Fleet or a Lt. General commanding the 1st Space Corps.

      A compromise?

      A Vice General commanding the 1st Space Florps.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      The Space Force is gonna have the best rank titles. Ask anyone. They’re gonna be amazing. Believe me.

      I don’t really know much about military’s internal politics, but I would assume that since the new Space Force would be an offshoot of the Air Force they would be most comfortable with retaining their current titles. It would be different if they had some animosity or reason to want to distinguish themselves from their parent branch but right now it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

      Speaking of not making sense, if we’re going to create a new branch ex nihilo whose primary job is shooting rockets into orbit, why focus on the space part rather than the rocket part? A Strategic Rocket Force has an actual job rather than existing just on the off chance Elon Musk’s grandchildren send an army of tripods to invade the Earth.

      • Nornagest says:

        on the off chance Elon Musk’s grandchildren send an army of tripods to invade the Earth

        There are worse ways to waste money, I guess.

        Jokes aside, this doesn’t strike me as a good move. Ninety percent of what we do in space is already covered perfectly well by the NRO. I’ve said elsewhere that a Strategic Rocket Force or equivalent would probably be a better way to bucket our ICBM arsenal than putting it under the Air Force, and I stand by that… but at this point I’m not sure what having a full nuclear triad is buying us. Historically ICBMs provided range and accuracy that SLBMs couldn’t, but the Trident D5 has enough of both to do anything that’s likely to need doing, and putting that under anything but the Navy would be nonsensical. Minuteman IIIs are thoroughly obsolete by now, and silo basing is looking increasingly vulnerable.

    • The Nybbler says:

      We take this opportunity to unify the rank structures. In the worst way possible. We’re going to keep Commodore, have a Brigadier Admiral, and two different Captains at different ranks, referred to formally as “Captain of the Blue” and “Captain of the Green”. And we’re keeping the title as the person in charge of a ship, too.

    • John Schilling says:

      Seriously. We need to decide right now if we have a vice admiral commanding the 1st Space Fleet or a Lt. General commanding the 1st Space Corps.

      Sky Marshal, commanding the 1st Space Wing.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Sky Marshal is a fantastic title [1] but by parallel construction it almost has to be a five star rank. What goes underneath it?

        [1] I’d add “would you like to know more?” but the movie sucks. Just because it’s satire doesn’t make it not bad. I can’t think of a pithier way to refer to the book high command.

        • John Schilling says:

          Hmm, let’s mix it up a bit. The three Grand Moffs (of the Red, White, and Blue) command the orbital, cislunar, and deep space squadrons respectively, with each having a Vice-Moff and a Rear Moff to round out their staff. We can have commodores to command detachments, if necessary.

          Hmm, maybe individual spacecraft should be commanded by DaiMons, with Centurions to fill the XO slot. After that, functional ratings like reactorman, photon torpedoman’s mate, and ship’s brewmaster.

          • bean says:

            Can we not adopt the unnecessarily confusing flag rank scheme of the Georgian navy? We’ve learned a lot better since then. Things like not promoting strictly on seniority, and having rank structures you can figure out without spending several hours pouring over the charts.

          • John Schilling says:

            Don’t be ridiculous; we aren’t going to be promoting by seniority. We’re going to be promoting by the number of mentions in POTUS’s twitterstream.

          • albatross11 says:

            I’m pretty sure that we need to establish the rule early on that whenever a ship encounters some groundside danger, they send their whole command crew down personally to investigate. Maybe leave a really junior officer in command of the ship. Because it’s really hard to see how that could ever go wrong.

        • Eric Rall says:

          The Royal Air Force made up a new rank structure instead of using existing Army or Navy ranks, and they use “x Marshal” as their General/Admiral equivalent ranks. A lot of other (mostly Commonwealth) countries seem to have copied them.

          If you substitute “sky” for “air” in the RAF ranks, Sky Marshal would be a three-star rank. Four stars would be Sky Chief Marshal, and five stars would be Marshal of the Space Fleet. Two stars would be Sky Vice Marshal, and one star would be Sky Commodore.

          The middle ranks probably need a bit of work, though. “Wing Commander” (OF-5: Army Lt. Colonel or Navy Commander) and “Squadron Leader” (OF-4: Army Major of Navy Lt. Commander) imply command of groups of vessels, which might be a highly non-central example of the responsibilities of an OF-5 or OF-4 if the space military winds up being made mostly of larger ships.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          We could adapt some titles from 43-Man Squamish.

    • Protagoras says:

      Three branches use the army structure (army, air force, marines), while only two use the navy structure (navy and coast guard). Obviously the space force must use the navy structure to bring balance to the forces.

    • Randy M says:

      Thank you for starting this thread. It may be fairly low brow by SSC standards, but I for one am highly amused by all y’all today.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Obviously Navy titles, because I need to fulfil my Star Trek fantasies.

    • Bugmaster says:

      They should transition to a hybrid matrix-management system, where the individual space warriors are controlled by a network of combat management professionals. Utilizing modern communications systems, these managers would be able to quickly pivot their focus to where they’re needed. In addition to other benefits, this means that, in order to increase the size of your space force, all you’d need to do is SPAWN MORE OVERLORDS.

    • johan_larson says:


      We’re going to call them all “Boss”. The One-Boss reports to the Two-Boss reports to the Three-Boss all the way of to the Top-Boss, however many levels that might be. If there is a secondary hierarchy of non-coms, they are Lil’Bosses. One-Lil’Boss below Two-Lil’Boss below Three-Lil’Boss and so on. All the people at the bottom will be No Bosses.

      Simple and dignified.

    • Chlopodo says:

      The modern Greek Air Force calls its general-equivalents “pterarchs”, so if you ask me we’re already way behind in the international rank naming arms race.

    • Chalid says:

      The highest rank will obviously be the Yuge.

  17. arlie says:

    Quirky Reactions?

    There’s a thread above in which a bunch of people express rejection of video media, such as youtube, because it wastes their time, compared to text. This surprised me, because other times when I’ve expressed such an opinion, people have generally told me they see me as “weird,” or worse.

    So what about advertisements? Not the ones you just happen to see on a billboard or bus shelter, but ones that delay or interrupt whatever you were trying to do at the time? Do other people here also resent them as time wasters? Or is the consensus here that this kind of reaction is “weird”?

    • Randy M says:

      There exist a category of products designed to prevent that experience, so I doubt you are alone, and probably not even unusual.

    • Brad says:

      So what about advertisements? Not the ones you just happen to see on a billboard or bus shelter, but ones that delay or interrupt whatever you were trying to do at the time? Do other people here also resent them as time wasters?

      Um, of course? Are you saying you know people that *like* e.g. TV commercials?

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Nobody likes ads that interrupt what you’re doing. That’s a 100% normal reaction.

      What I would be more interested in finding out is people’s opinions on sidebar ads and the like. This is where I suspect I may be weird: I actually don’t mind those, because they don’t get in my way but function more as suggestions for other things I might enjoy. That’s more in line with what advertising should be IMO: by all means let me know that your product exists, but don’t hold me down and shout at me about it.

      • Aapje says:

        I don’t mind if they are static, but I don’t like the moving/flashing/annoying kind.

      • fion says:

        Like Aapje, I don’t mind them if they’re static, but that’s only really because they’re easier to ignore. I certainly don’t see them as at all positive, just negligibly negative.

      • Nornagest says:

        Unobtrusive sidebar ads are OK. Scott’s are especially OK, since I get the sense they’ve been picked by a human who actually thought about who they’re advertising to, as opposed to an algorithm. I’ve never actually bought something because of an ad here (I’ve had Mealsquares, but I knew about them before I started reading SSC), but I still think they’re adding more value than most ads do.

    • SaiNushi says:

      As a kid, advertisements on tv were an opportunity for me to read or play pokemon (blue). But then they got too loud to ignore, so I stopped watching TV altogether.

      For internet browsing, I use firefox with adblock plus and a script blocker (both disabled on here, since Scott is really good about me not having to worry about the biggest issues with ads). My biggest issues with ads:

      On youtube, some of the ads are over 2 mintues long. That’s not an ad, that’s a full-on video! I once tried to watch a 5 minute video, and had a 10 minute ad come up for it. Pissed me off.

      On other sites, ads that pop up over the site and prevent me from reading it until I click on something.

      And those ads that have malware hidden in the code.

      However, I do recognize the need for the content producers to get paid somehow, and adverts are the easiest way for them to do that. Plus, on a rare occasion, I do learn about an interesting product or service. I guess it’s a, yeah, most of the time I agree with you, but occasionally I remember the point of them.

      • arlie says:

        FWIW, I get a lot of interrupting or otherwise time wasting ads where there is no content provider, unless you count those who created the ad.

        Telephone spam goes from bad to worse, with calls to my cell phone that perhaps 2/3 of the time don’t even bother to connect the spam tape when I answer them. Fortunately various cell phone providers allow me to block them. Unfortunately, there’s an obvious denial-of-service attack, reporting legitimate callers as spammers. (I currently take the risk of believing the collective reports. But I see a lot of ways for service providers to game the system, and suspect that they are probably legal.)

        And then there’s the time spent sorting paper mail, and hoping to avoid false positives – tossing notifications that aren’t actually spam, because I don’t recognize the name of the sending entity – while still getting through it in minimal time. (That can have actual $$$ costs too, when something important gets mistaken for spam.)

    • sty_silver says:

      ads that actually interrupt what I’m doing are almost always a sufficient reason to stop doing it entirely. But given adblock they are very rare.

  18. fion says:

    What are examples of action films with good-quality action in them? I’m sick of shaky cameras and a million cuts to hide the fact that the choreographed fight isn’t actually that well choreographed.

    I don’t really mind if it’s not realistic; realistic fights are often boring. But I want something where a lot of thought and/or skill has gone into it where you can actually see what’s going on and what you see is good.

    • J Mann says:

      Have you watched AMC’s wire-fu series Into the Badlands? The premise is a little silly, but the fights and the cinematography are astonishing. They have some of the Hong Kong pros choreographing their fights and it shows. (The writing and characters also get better season by season, so if you like the fights, keep watching past Season One.)

    • kokotajlod@gmail.com says:

      I’d recommend the original Seven Samurai. It feels like the action wasn’t even choreographed–it feels like someone read a report on a real battle and then re-enacted it. Lots of feints, attacks that turn into retreats, lulls in the fighting, attempts to encircle, scouting, etc. Lots of shouting and brandishing of weapons, zero inane twirly-whirly swordplay.

      (I love realism, so maybe this isn’t exactly what you are looking for.)

    • John Schilling says:

      The original Die Hard still stands as one of the best action movies ever, in large part for the work that went into arranging for interesting people to be doing all this action for interesting reasons, but the fights themselves are also very well done. In particular, they absolutely meet your requirement for being comprehensible and clearly shot. And for the most part smart and realistic.

      Also, Black Hawk Down. A fair bit of shaky-cam when being shot from a first-person perspective, but a solidly choreographed fight that we can understand better than the people fighting it.

    • lvlln says:

      I’d recommend the Raid movies for their action choreography, but they do use a lot of cuts & shaky cam. Jackie Chan’s old kung fu movies tend to have excellent choreography and mostly long camera cuts. One of my personal favorites is Fearless Hyena which had a number of single-cut action sequences, including one pretty famous chopstick battle sequences. I’d also recommend his Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Project A, and Legend of Drunken Master, though really, it’s hard to go wrong with any of his old movies.

      • James says:

        Second The Raid.

      • Lillian says:

        To clarify, while The Raid does make use of cuts and shaky cam, it uses them in an attempt to enhance the fight scenes. As lvlln says, the fight choreography is in fact very good and clearly visible throughout. While i think the shaky cam adds nothing and would have been best dispensed with, it’s not so bad you cannot see the action. The cuts on the other hand are very well done, they’re not too frequent and flow smoothly into one another, providing a three dimensional view of each fight such that it actually improves the viewer’s ability to follow what’s going on. You can see for yourself.

    • hls2003 says:

      Atomic Blonde had really good fight scenes. The plot was somewhat nonsensical, but it was directed (I believe) by a former stuntman so it’s no surprise that the fight choreography was impressive.

      • James says:

        I was utterly bored by all but one of the fight scenes in Atomic Blonde. (I’d have been willing to put up with the nonsensical and much-too-hard-to-follow plot had the fight scenes been any good, but they weren’t.) Special shout out for stupidest series of gimmicks for the one with a hosepipe.

        Looked cool, though, and good soundtrack.

        • mdet says:

          I wouldn’t say I was utterly bored with the other fights, but agree that the fight near the end that starts in the stairwell is the scene that makes the movie, and that you could get away with only watching that one piece.

    • Björn says:

      Hard Boiled by John Woo has very good action, and more disregard for civilian lives and less restraints for cheesy overblown scenarios than the typical western action film. I haven’t seen anything else from him other than Mission Impossible 2 as a kid, but I heard that Face/Off was his best Hollywood film.

      The Cantonese action cinema has other great things as well, you can check out the movies with Bruce Lee (I only saw Enter the Dragon, but it’s good). Not with Bruce Lee, but also very good is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. I really like that it has a quiet irony in it, but it’s not a full blown action comedy like the Jackie Chan movies. And it’s the origin story of the Wu-Tang Clan.

      Edgar Wright, who did Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is also very good. Hot Fuzz is a comedy at first and a nice looking action film at second, in Baby Driver he focuses on the action first. The choreography in that film is top notch, he hired the choreographer from Sia’s “Chandelier” music video for it.

      Also good is Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn. It had the retro 80s vibe already in 2011, and real human bean Ryan Gosling as the lead. Refn got the Best Director Award of the Cannes Film Festival for it, which I found quite surprising for an action film.

      If you want an action film with exactly zero cuts, I can recommend you Victoria by Sebastian Schipper. It’s one continuous that runs for more than 2 hours, without any editing tricks to hide the cuts. Granted, 50% of the movie consists of hipsters partying in Berlin, but it has a cool bank robbery in the end.

      If you want more the bizarre side of things, I can recommend you Enthiran. It’s a bollywood Terminator movie, more or less, with everything that entails. It’s three hours of absolutely merciless entertainment. Maybe you already have seen the fight scenes on youtube, they are absolutely hilarious. If you haven’t seen them, don’t watch them beforehand! After two hours of dancing and rom-com nonsense, the impact is greatly amplified.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Somewhat surprisingly, I’d recommend two Keanu Reeves movies: John Wick and The Man of Tai Chi. The first movie is completely unrealistic, but it’s action scenes look like a perfectly choreographed ballet of death. In general, the movie is aesthetically very well balanced. On the other hand, The Man of Tai Chi is unique, in that it actually uses martial arts to convey emotional state as well as character development. I’ve never seen any other movie even attempt this. The fact that Keanu Reeves plays only a peripheral role in the film is probably for the best.

    • mdet says:

      Fury Road was great. I’ve heard the older Mad Max movies were good too, but I haven’t seen them and don’t know if they hold up. And I second Baby Driver. Edgar Wright’s probably my favorite director, and after the first 15min of that movie, it’s easy to see why.

      The youtube channel Rossatron does video essays dissecting what makes a good fight scene and action movie, so that’s a good place to check out too.

      Also this convo has prompted me to spontaneously start watching Into The Badlands on Netflix, so thanks J Mann

      • James says:

        The first Mad Max is a mumbly, underbudgetted mess, and the third is an ostentatious, overbudgetted mess. The second one is the only one that even potentially stands up, and I’m not even 100% sure about that one.

        But yes, Fury Road is fantastic.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          So would you say that the series managed to get beyond thunderdome?

        • Nornagest says:

          I liked the first one, although Road Warrior is better. I especially like it for one bit of realism that I’m not sure I’ve seen from anyone besides George Miller: characters that receive serious, even fatal injuries linger. A character gets set on fire and he doesn’t just die; he goes to the burn ward, hangs around in a great deal of pain for half the movie, and may or may not have died of his injuries by the the third act. Same for a lot of the other people that get hurt. Somehow it makes the consequences more concrete than if the characters had just keeled over.

          Fury Road has some of this too, but it’s especially noticeable in the first movie.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          I mean, the first half hour of Beyond Thunderdome is epic camp worth wathing. Just stop watching when you start to think “this is boring, why do I care?” You are right; you don’t.

      • Protagoras says:

        Largely agree with James, though I’m a little less uncertain about the second movie. In the case of the third movie, you get most of what’s worthwhile in that one in a fraction of the time if you watch the video to Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

        • mdet says:

          Are you saying “I am certain that Road Warrior holds up and is worth watching in 2018”, or certain that it doesn’t?

          • Protagoras says:

            Well, certain is a little strong, but I meant to convey a more favorable assessment than James.

    • johan_larson says:

      How about Aliens, by James Cameron? Plenty of exciting fight scenes between the Marines and the aliens, and later between Ripley and the Queen.

      • mdet says:

        Aliens is good, but I don’t know that it meets the specific criteria of being “well choreographed”. The action scenes are tense, but they’re not particularly complex or physically demanding.

        • John Schilling says:

          Since when did “well choreographed” mean “particularly complex or physically demanding”? Doing things particularly flashy usually means you didn’t do them particularly well.

          • mdet says:

            The way I’m reading fion’s request, they want to watch an action movie where the actors (or stunt people) really are pulling off some impressive feats, and aren’t just using quick edits to hide that they don’t know how to throw a punch.

            Aliens is a good movie, but I wouldn’t say it fits in this category. The action is mostly “Shot of soldier pulling trigger and yelling at the top of their lungs. Shot of alien exploding.” It’s tense, but even shakey-cam action movies can pull off showing someone get shot. It’s the martial arts, acrobatics, and other stunts that they struggle with.

    • WashedOut says:

      Rambo 4, Eastern Promises, Old Boy, Terminator 2, Defiance.

      If you like the style of Westerns, The Proposition is really good. Not a hell of a lot of action compared to the canonical films of the genre, but just a really good movie.

      • mdet says:

        Old Boy — not an action movie, although it has a great fight scene. And the movie’s ending is… not for the squeamish (ie, me).

        • fion says:

          Thanks for the “not for the squeamish” warning. With hindsight I should have put something about that in my original comment. (I’m a bit of a wuss…) 😛

    • James says:

      Dredd! An adaptation of Judge Dredd from 2000 AD, and no, not the crappy 90s one. Good action scenes, that run-down anarcho-tyrannical cyberpunk vibe which I will never not enjoy, and a nice modest scope—and running time—which I love. Not everything has to be about saving the world, guys!

    • fion says:

      Thanks for the responses everybody. Almost all of the suggestions are things I haven’t seen, and a good fraction I’ve never even heard of. I’ll make a list and start checking some of them out. 🙂

    • fion says:

      Kingsman is one of the very few recommendations here that I’ve actually seen and I did enjoy it quite a lot. Super-ridiculous, but entertaining and slick.

    • Buttle says:

      Blood on the Sun, James Cagney does his own old school judo action scenes.

      Once Were Warriors, as long as you don’t require your action heros to be admirable — some realistic wife beating scenes among all the other beatings.

      I remember being quite impressed by the Kenneth Branagh Henry V battle scene, but that might have been mostly the sound effect of all those flying arrows.

      But the most impressive fight scene I can recall was the one from Patersen,
      bearing in mind that:

      1. It’s not an action movie, it’s an art film.
      2. It’s not even an action-filled art film, or an arty action movie.

      The fight scene in question looked good, and made sense in context: in the setup, the physical action itself, and in the aftermath.

  19. andrewflicker says:

    I don’t think this has been posted yet- https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/14/opinion/sunday/meditation-productivity-work-mindfulness.html

    Short bit about a study that claimed to show that mindfulness meditation was demotivating. I don’t think much of the study itself, but the “just-so” story is interesting and plausible.

    • skef says:

      Yet companies want their employees to be motivated. And the very notion of motivation — striving to obtain a more desirable future — implies some degree of discontentment with the present

      “Welcome to Management 101”

    • bzium says:

      Meditation will lower the craving for the achievement of Having Done the Thing, but it might also lower the aversion to the tedious process of Actually Doing the Thing. So I can imagine it balancing out either way, depending on specific task and circumstances.

      Anyway, meditation or practices derived from it were never meant to be a business productivity tool, so this isn’t a shock. Maybe it’s a sign of the corporate mindfulness fad going into decline.

  20. blitzerrr says:

    Scott (@scottalexander) the “About / Top Posts” link only goes to slatestarcodex.com/about rather than your slatestarcodex.com/top-posts page. This is a real shame as I have really enjoyed the groupings of your top articles found on the top posts page but the only way I can get to it is directly editing my URL. This should be easier for new users or those unaware to find.

  21. silver_swift says:

    Are there any good EU based charities that focus on life extension research? I’m currently donating to several different charities that focus on research into specific diseases (heart/brain/cancer), but I get the impression that those kind of charities are kinda overfunded and doing research into ageing seems like it would be a more generic solution anyway.

    The EU based restriction is because tax benefits make it nearly twice as effective for me to donate to EU based charities relative to non-EU based ones.

    • sty_silver says:

      Not an answer to your question, but my workaround for this is to send money to friends in the USA and have them donate for me. That way the only inefficiency is the percent or so that I have to pay as a fee for the money transfer.

      • silver_swift says:

        That only works if you know people living in the USA (and know them well enough that you are comfortable sending them money), which, sadly, I do not.

        Also, to be perfectly honest, it seems like it would be a lot of hassle.

  22. a reader says:

    Roman Emperors trivia quiz – name:

    1. 3 emperors from each dynasty: Julio-Claudian, Flavian, Antonine, Severan
    2. an emperor who killed his mother
    3. an emperor who killed his son
    4. an emperor who killed his brother
    5. 3 emperors who killed their wives
    6. an emperor who (allegedly) had sexual relations with his sister(s)
    7. an emperor who married his niece
    8. 3 emperors who were assassinated
    9. 3 emperors who reigned less than a year
    10. an emperor who had a kind of a transwoman as his oficial partner

    • Watchman says:

      Nero is a very useful answer on this quiz…

    • S_J says:

      Are we giving answers in ROT13, or not?

      I really only have answers for number 1. If I could remember all three guys who held the title of Caesar during the year between the final Julio-Claudian emporer and the first Flavian emporer, I could answer 9.

      1. Julio-Claudian: Nhthfgvar, Gvorevhf, Pynhqvhf, Areb, Pnyvthyn.
      Flavian: Irfcnfvna, Gvghf, ?
      Antonine: ?
      Severan: does Frcgvzvhf Frirehf count?

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Oh shit I got this

      4)Constans (sorta?), Caracalla is the more straightforward answer
      5)Constantine, Nero again, Irene. She killed her husband, but I don’t see why that shouldn’t count.
      6)CaligulaBu fuvg V tbg guvf

      4)Pbafgnaf (fbegn?), Pnenpnyyn vf gur zber fgenvtugsbejneq nafjre
      5)Pbafgnagvar, Areb ntnva, Verar. Fur xvyyrq ure uhfonaq, ohg V qba’g frr jul gung fubhyqa’g pbhag.
      7)Pynhqvhf, V’z cerggl fher.
      8)Ubb obl. Pnyvthyn, Areb, Cregvank, Qvqvhf Whyvnahf, Pnenpnyyn, Znpevahf, Ryntnonyhf, Nyrknaqre, rgp.
      9)Tbeqvna V & VV, Chcvravhf & Onyovahf, Cregvank, Qvqvhf Whyvnahf, Tnyon/Bgub/Ivgryyvhf. V’z pbhagvat gur wbvag rzcrebef nf 1.
      10)V guvax Ryntnonyhf qvq guvf?
      7)Claudius, I’m pretty sure.
      8)Hoo boy. Caligula, Nero, Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus, Alexander, etc.
      9)Gordian I & II, Pupienius & Balbinus, Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Galba/Otho/Vitellius. I’m counting the joint emperors as 1.
      10)I think Elagabalus did this?

    • a reader says:

      I’m glad to see somebody even more interested in the history of the Roman Empire than me – Chevalier Mal Fet mentioned some names I didn’t know (my knowledge is mostly about the first century).

      At 10, the answer was Nero (with his lover, a young boy, Sporus, disguised as his deceased wife Sabina Poppaea) – Elagabalus was kind of a transwoman himself. Watchman was right, Nero was the partial or complete answer to 4 questions (even 5 if we include step-brothers among brothers). But not at 8 – after he lost the throne, he committed suicide, helped by a libert.

      Irene killed her husband? You mean Irene the Byzantine empress who ruled alone after she blinded her son – or is there another Irene?

  23. Andrew Hunter says:

    Hey, did we discuss Artemis by Andy Weir yet? If so, I missed it. Got the ebook from the library last week and read it in Memphis and Louisville. My review and comments to follow. Plot spoilers are rot13ed, but I’m not going to do so for the world building (none of which is secretly revealed, even if some of it just happens to show up late.)

    A friend of mine hated The Martian describing it as “Some guy repeatedly rolls d20 against the Mars Environmental Random Encounter Table and details his reaction.” I think that description is entirely accurate, and is why I *liked* The Martian. The part of Artemis that is a welding-and-space-living-technology heist novel is pretty much more of this, though not quite as good, and I liked it. The part of Artemis that worldbuilds Artemis is interesting, though I’m not sure of its accuracy and I have some technical quibbles. The rest of the novel, which is about character development and dialogue and all that stuff, is terrible. Overall…eh? I’m glad I read it, but forgettable. Other than the lack of a technically detailed heist, just read Moon is a Harsh Mistress again, which is the same setting but better. (No, seriously, they’re both about wild frontier lunar settlements, have a technically skilled protagonist who doesn’t like the authorities, and…I mean, the similarities just go on.)

    One Puppy of some stripe or another–I forget who–once gave a description of what the Hugos rewarded as stories where “nothing happens, but at least it doesn’t happen to people of color.” Artemis is thankfully not one of these, despite Weir clearly wanting to hit all the diversity checklists–our heroine Jazz is a Saudi woman, has friends/allies/compatriates who are Norwegian, Kenyan, Brazillian, Russian, gay, straight, polyamorous, and a bunch of other things I’m surely forgetting. Of course, all of these people still behave like wise cracking white guys in a movie. Other than some family strife that’s really more told to us than really experienced, I don’t think Jazz is treated / faces consequences / makes choices differently because she’s Saudi, and she behaves less like a traditional woman than a hard partying alpha male. (“Are you saying women can’t do that?”) No, and you know that, imaginary interlocutor. I’m saying it really feels like Weir labeled her such because he wanted to “have a diverse protagonist” but didn’t actually want to write her as a different character because of that.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure fur’f n fbpvbcngu. Lrf, gur abiry gevrf gb whfgvsl ure jvyyvatarff gb qb gur fnobgntr, ohg fur ernyyl frrzf gb tybff bire “qrfgebl bhe novyvgl gb oerngur urer–guvf ovyyvbanver fnlf vg’f fnsr!” This didn’t reach Eight Deadly Words territory, but I definitely started meta-reading the book at that point as being about a diffferent, much worse person than the author intended.

    As I said, all of the characterization is pretty dumb, as is the plot development itself. (I liked the heist, but not why they’re doing it or any of the details around it. Rkcynva jul gur rivy flaqvpngr jvyy fraq hc n ohapu bs guhtf, gnxr bire gur gbja, naq znxr ovyyvbaf vs gurl fgvyy yrtnyyl bja gur nyhzvahz fzrygre, ohg vs gurl *qba’g* bja gur fzrygre jba’g whfg fraq hc gur fnzr guhtf, gnxr bire gur bgure thl’f fzrygre, naq znxr ovyyvbaf?) Oh, and the Anc eryvrf ba fbzr cerggl qhovbhf purzvfgel. V ernyyl qba’g guvax vs V nfxrq n cebsrffvbany betnavp purzvfg ubj gb flagurfvmr n gba bs puybebsbez, ur’q gryy zr gb qrgbangr n uhtr dhnagvgl bs zrgunar, bkltra, naq puybevar tnf…

    The setting is pretty interesting and well built, though I am not sure I agree with some of the economic points. A few that stood out (I had more but can’t be bothered to write them all down, it’s 2 AM.)

    – The fear of fire makes for pretty good plot fodder throughout. However, the justification given for the pure O2 atmosphere is BS–they clearly can build domes pressure rated to 1 ATM. (their domes are really limited by the need for shielding, I think?) The real question here, which Weir seems to totally miss, is whether lunar ISRU production of N2 is feasible, to which I say…uh, no idea, paging John Schilling? If it is, we’d totally have an Earth atmosphere and much of the plot falls apart.

    – At one point Weird points out that costs on the moon are going to be weird–much more driven by weight than cost on Earth. Except we actually tie down the value of a slug (“soft landed gram”, our currency in units of transported goods…) – someone on Earth buys two beers for 50 slugs. Even if those beers were super expensive, say $25, that implies a cost of about $1/kg for lunar transport, which, wow. This does not match with how people treat the cost of shipping. Actually, prices are all over the place in the book.

    – While we’re on that subject–let’s assume slugs are actually closer to, say $100/kg, which seems closer to how people treat them in most of the book. The example Weir gives as to how this changes things is welders using neon instead of argon as a inert gas layer. Except that’s nonsense, I think. It’s surprisingly hard to find tables with costs of all noble gasses, but my best two minute Googling comes out to something like $330/kg for neon and $4/kg for argon…and you get twice the volume for neon, not 100x. You’d have to have slugs at the $1000/kg for that to make sense, and I’m not sure the prices I have are actually accurate (and in the bad direction.) I’m really not sure here.

    – And in the same topic, Weir totally misses the boat on where this would show up in food. He talks about various expensive Earth-made delicacies, and cheap local algae, but strongly implies there’s also a middle ground, which is exactly wrong. Because of the cost of transport, we should see no liquor other than 35 year old scotch, no meat other than Kobe beef, and so on.

    – I’m really not sure the guilds make sense here. We have guilds that limit their membership to make more money, but (other than the EVA masters) don’t/can’t prohibit non guild members from practicing the profession? That’s not a guild, is it?

    …if you liked the Martian, you’ll probably think this is okay. Not bad road trip fodder. As I’ve said in reviews before, just because I complain doesn’t mean I didn’t like it–if I thought this was just bad, I’d stop reading it. Instead I went to the trouble to pick nits about the worldbuilding.

    Oh, and Bean, a cycler exists. (Don’t worry, it’s just mentioned in passing.)

    • fion says:

      Yeah, I agree with most of what you say. A good, fun romp, and whether or not the details were correct, it *felt* like there was lots of attention to detail and I enjoyed that.

      But yeah, none of the characters made much sense and neither did the large-scale aspects of the plot. I still enjoyed it, but it did feel like a less-good The Martian.

      I also thought the tone was a bit weird. Most of it read like a children’s book to me, with unrealistic dialogue, simplistic exposition and SO MANY REFERENCES TO THE MOON’S GRAVITY. But there were also a lot of sex references. Maybe it was aimed at young teenagers? Or maybe it was aimed at adults and just not written very well.

      And I had one major peeve: Gur ovg jurer fur’f va qvfthvfr naq fur objf gb fbzrobql. V’z abg n zhfyvz, qba’g unir n qribhg zhfyvz sngure naq jnfa’g oebhtug hc zhfyvz, ohg V xabj gung zhfyvzf qba’g obj gb crbcyr. Ubj pbhyq Wnmm abg xabj guvf? Rira vs fur’f “abg n irel tbbq zhfyvz” fur’q xabj guvf. Naq rira vs fur *qvqa’g* xabj, objvat jnf n cerggl jrveq guvat gb qb va gung fvghngvba naljnl. Qb crbcyr ba Negrzvf obj? Frrzf yvxr cerggl oyngnag cybg freivpr.

      • albatross11 says:

        I suspect Weir was trying to check lots of diversity boxes without changing what the characters should have been like. OTOH, I liked the story quite a bit despite some unrealistic bits.

        My biggest qualm was with the bit where they nppvqragnyyl znqr puybevsbez naq vg xabpxrq rirelbar bhg vafgnagyl naq abobql znqr vg gb na nve furygre rira gubhtu ybgf bs crbcyr unq gurz va gurve ubzrf naq bssvprf. Gurer vf ab jnl gung gur qvfgevohgvba bs gur puybebsbez jbhyq or gung havsbez npebff gur jubyr unovgng. Gurer fubhyq unir orra n ohapu bs crbcyr jub ernyvmrq fbzrguvat jnf hc jvgu gur ngzbfcurer naq tbg vagb gurve furygref. Gurer fubhyq nyfb unir orra n ohapu bs crbcyr jub qvrq orpnhfr gurl tbg gbb zhpu tnf naq gurve urneg fgbccrq, be gurl jrer va gur zvqqyr bs fbzr qnatrebhf npgvivgl jura gurl tbg xabpxrq bhg, be jungrire. Naq Wnmm fubhyq unir unq gb yrnir Yhan gb nibvq orvat ylapurq ol natel zbof bs crbcyr jub xabj fur arneyl xvyyrq gurz nyy, eryngvirf bs crbcyr jub qvrq orpnhfr gurl jrer jryqvat be pbbxvat be jbexvat jvgu cbjre gbbyf be fbzrguvat jura gurl tbg xabpxrq bhg, naq ercerfragngvirf bs gur Oenmvyvna znsvn jub qvqa’g nccerpvngr ure xrrcvat gurz sebz trggvat znffviryl evpu. (Gubhtu gurl pbhyq cebonoyl trg gb ure ba Rnegu, gbb–ohg zbfg gbjaf ba Rnegu ng yrnfg unir zber guna bar pbc.)

    • bean says:

      I actually read it right after it came out. For all of its flaws (and you do a good job of noting them), I still really enjoyed it. But yes, the cyclers and the 100% O2 atmosphere were both annoying. Cyclers are an interesting, if stupid, solution for Mars. They make no sense at all for the Moon. And the 100% O2 atmosphere just won’t work. Besides the fire hazard, 100% O2 is at the very least annoying to health long-term, and might be actively dangerous.

      Re N2 abundance, I know this one. According to the paper Water and Cheese from the Lunar Desert, there’s about 100 g of N2 per cubic meter of regolith. Unfortunately, that means you need to process at least 10 m3 of regolith for every m3 you want to pressurize. If you’re doing large-scale He3 mining (or something else that has you doing industrial regolith processing), that might be feasible, but not for anything less than that. Using other buffer gasses as well lets you stretch that a bit, but you only get 20 g of He, 2 g of Ne, and 2 g of Ar. Actually, given how light He is, that’s a substantial benefit, because it’s (round numbers) equivalent to another 140 g of N2 as a buffer gas. Throwing in some wastage and diversion to other uses, and I’d say you can pressurize 1 m3 on 5 m3 of completely processed regolith. Of course, that’s another important caveat. I have no idea what the capture efficiency is going to be.

    • blitzerrr says:

      Thanks for this review. Have you read Seven Eves yet and what’s your take on it?

      • albatross11 says:

        SevenEves has this wonderful transition where we leave the human survivors in a state where vg’f vzcynhfvoyr gurl pbhyq cbffvoyl fheivir (jvaabjrq qbja gb rvtug crbcyr, jvgu qjvaqyvat fhccyvrf naq irel yvzvgrq rkcregvrf), naq gura cvpx gur fgbel hc gubhfnaqf bs lrnef yngre, jura gurve ahzrebhf naq rkgerzryl fhpprffshy qrfpraqnagf unir ohvyg n uhtr, cbjreshy pvivyvmngvba. Guvf fgehpx zr nf fbeg-bs yvxr gur byq ovg jurer Puncgre 10 yrnirf gur ureb qnatyvat sebz n pyvss jvgu n enggyrfanxr fyvgurevat qbja uvf nez naq uvf rarzvrf fubbgvat ng uvz sebz gur tebhaq orybj, naq Puncgre 11 fgnegf jvgu gur ureb jnyxvat pnyzyl qbja gur fgerrg n jrrx yngre.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I read Seveneves and liked it a great deal, though it’s flawed in a couple ways. Albatross11 points out one hard-to-believe section (I’d love to read a novel that vignettes its way across that gap.) I wonder if it’s writable, given how hilariously done they are.

        Also, Stephenson has reached the stage in his career where he’s immune to editors unless he wants to listen to them, and without that force there were several unkilled darlings in the book. Any section involving the physics of whips could and should have been cut.

        Overall quite liked it, though. Even the often-denigrated second section, though it was clearly abbreviated.

    • John Schilling says:

      Bean has already addressed this, but it’s going to be really hard to pressurize large volumes with a ~80% nitrogen atmosphere on the Moon. Except maybe at the south pole, depending on how much ammonia is in the cold traps there, or someplace with a railroad or pipeline to the south pole. Anywhere else, what nitrogen you can get is going to be mostly used for agriculture.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean that 100% O2 is the way to go, but whatever they do go with will have a substantially enhanced fire risk compared to sea-level air. And 100% O2 at low (~4 psia) pressure does have the advantage of allowing soft-suit EVAs without prebreathing, which could be decisive.

      Regarding welding gas, you can’t just ship up a crate of neon or argon, you have to ship a high-pressure gas cylinder(*) with it. A carbon-fiber cylinder filled with 75 standard cubic feet of technical-grade neon will weigh about 6 kg and cost about $700. The same tank filled with argon, 8 kg and $600. For any shipping cost more than $50/kg, you’re better off shipping neon. Generally speaking, I think their economy works at $100/kg or some small multiple thereof.

      I agree that trying to write Jazz as an Arab woman, and more generally trying to diversify the cast, fell a bit flat for me. Not Weir’s strength. But I didn’t see it as a huge problem because A: I’m a man and not as sensitive to authors getting the nuances of female characterization wrong, particularly in adventure stories, and B: I’d expect the “multicultural” population of a lunar colony to skim from the top 0.1% WEIRDishly cosmopolitan population of the nations/cultures that contribute.

      My biggest problem, actually, was with the heist. The probability of that going off well enough to not only succeed but for Jazz to remain uncaught in spite of being yvgrenyyl gur bayl crefba ba gur zbba jvgu na RIN fhvg naq n xabja pevzvany ragrecevfr, was implausibly low and so uncharacteristically stupid of Jazz to have even tried it. I liked The Martian for about the same reason you did, but I’d have liked it quite a bit less if Mark Watney had deliberately schemed to get himself stranded on Mars under the same desperate circumstances, because he was poor and someone offered him lots of money for the story rights or something.

      Also, there’s no way the chemistry and biology worked out for the everybody-lives happy ending, and no way Jazz didn’t wind up shipped home in chains even if it did. Gur znlbe pna vzcbeg n arj, yrff qnatrebhfyl fghcvq, oynpx znexrgrre vs fur arrqf bar.

      * Or a cyrogenic dewar, probably actively cooled, and those aren’t cheap or light either.

      • bean says:

        That doesn’t necessarily mean that 100% O2 is the way to go, but whatever they do go with will have a substantially enhanced fire risk compared to sea-level air. And 100% O2 at low (~4 psia) pressure does have the advantage of allowing soft-suit EVAs without prebreathing, which could be decisive.

        It’s possible to do zero-prebreathe with gas mixes, just not 80% N2 at 14.7 psi. If I had no constraints on available gasses, I’ve seen suggestions of O2/N2/He/Ne or Ar, which should allow you to run atmospheric pressure and zero prebreathe. I suspect that the best buffer gas is probably Helium, and a 50/50 mix of He and O2 at 10 psi should have lower fire risk (though still higher than Earth), solve the problem that pure O2 isn’t pleasant to breathe long-term, and other issues, too. (One example: Most air-cooled electronics won’t work at 4 psi, because there’s not enough atmosphere to carry off the heat.) And no, I don’t think everyone will sound like a chipmunk. That’s an artifact of it crossing from a mostly-He environment to a mostly N2 one.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Are there any long-term safe-to-breathe fire suppressant halons? Nobody’s going to care about greenhouse gases on the moon, and fairly small concentrations of Halon 1301 (which would be too toxic, I think) can reduce fire risk considerably.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Storage costs matter for gasses, of course, yes. I would need more time with a Airgas catalogue and a professional gas storage engineer (I suppose you probably qualify…) to be clear as to the answer here–point is that I think it’s not as simple as Weir implies. (I also really thought neon was considerably more expensive but…whatever.)

        I’m much more upset he misses that this should happen with food. For quite some time now I’ve been slowly struggling to write a detective story about a chef in a space station with Artemis level infrastructure/tech, and a really key point is that there is no excuse for food not to be really, really good in space. Okay, there are several: human capital, zero-G difficulties with taste and form factors, possible sterilization needs, etc, etc, etc. But anything that isn’t valley tan should be the best stuff available on earth, because all of the cost is in the lift.

        I can’t remember the usual name but there’s a standard economics-class example of this: “If Washington state makes all the apples, shouldn’t they have the best apples? Why are the best apples only sold in NYC?” Because if a great apple is worth 10c and a okay apple is worth 5c, and it costs 4c to send an apple to New York, profits are six times higher for nice apples in new york and only twice as high locally.

        • bean says:

          Shipping cost isn’t quite that simple. Let’s take meat. The cheapest meat is going to be meat where the meat is easiest to handle. No refrigeration, no real need to protect from launch vibration, just throw it in a box and ship. Jerky, or maybe freeze-dried. Next up, you have meat in pouches. Not freeze-dried, but it’s not as good as proper meat, and you have to pay for the water. Lastly, you have fresh or frozen meat, where you’re paying for the refrigeration equipment as well as the meat itself. Although that might not be as hard as I think. Keep it cold on the launch pad using an external refrigerator. Make sure that the system has enough thermal mass to keep it cold from when the umbilicals detach until it reaches space. Once in space, place the pressure-tight box in space, with the heat leakage from the ship sized to keep it at proper temperature. So the markup might be fairly modest, actually. There will be special handling requirements, but it’s a much smaller factor than I originally thought.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            At the moment I can have frozen meat shipped to me over a week’s time in styofoam with dry ice, which is easily good for at least that long and costs maybe 5% in weight and 20% in volume overheads, and again, rounds to free compared to launch costs. I don’t think getting it across the orbit change is much worse.

            I absolutely agree with you for form factors–freeze dried stuff will be cheaper than fresh meat, but even if we’re freeze drying, we’re going to freeze dry good stuff. If you’re shipping a bottle (metal cask probably?) of liquor, there is no excuse for it not being 30 year old scotch. Inside any particular form factor or class of good, we’ll be sending the best.

        • helloo says:

          $100/kg is expensive but not THAT expensive.

          Kobe beef as was mentioned, can easily cost 500-1000 per kg.
          The standard wine bottle is 750ml, and thus weighs .75kg (without the bottle). A $75 bottle is nice, but hardly top of the line.

          Another is that I think you are underestimating the challenges of eating in space.
          Astronaut food is not known for its high cuisine. Even when price isn’t an issue (like when companies send NASA their food for endorsement), it doesn’t look all that great.

          Lastly – there’s going to be the question of how expensive is it to just raise/make the things in space.
          If volume isn’t that big of an issue, they could just have a space farm with space grapes and space cows raised on space algae.

    • Tenacious D says:

      I enjoyed it. Started reading it on a plane, then finished it in a single sitting when I got home. That said, I agree that the world-building was a lot stronger than the characters or the plot.

      Instead of a movie, I think Artemis should be adapted as a video game. The full title could be Artemis: Lunar Welding Simulator.

  24. Scott Alexander says:

    A friend had chronic moderate foot pain – nothing life-ruining, just bad enough that he couldn’t walk more than a few blocks without trouble. After a few years of the treatments not working, he came up with a plan to amputate the foot and get a good prosthetic. Before he could get started he found an alternative treatment that solved the problem, but it got me thinking.

    Prosthetics are so good now that this kind of plan could actually work. But I still hear amputation talked about as an extremely last-ditch solution, and most people with chronic limb pain just continuing to suffer. Is there a principled reason for this, or is everyone just being too conservative?

    • Wrong Species says:

      Isn’t it incredibly expensive to get a robotic leg that can decently imitate your old one? Would that be covered through insurance?

      • Well... says:

        And if it is covered through insurance, does it make sense to cover voluntary amputation, either from the insured or the insurer’s perspective?

        I always thought of insurance as, “I have enough money set aside to bail me out of minor emergencies but not major ones, so I set a little extra aside for those knowing an insurance company will pick up the rest of the bill should one happen, God forbid.” I.e. betting against yourself hoping you’ll lose the money and have good health/luck.

    • Wander says:

      Before he could get started he found an alternative treatment that solved the problem

      I think this is the main reason people don’t do it. It doesn’t leave you open to better or easier options.

    • liskantope says:

      The idea of amputation will probably always have a high shock factor and feel scary, no matter how safe the procedure is and how effective prosthetics are nowadays.

    • melboiko says:

      Never understood why Dr. House didn’t just do that. (I know, narrative logic, but.)

    • nameless1 says:

      Neither, rather our identity, our sense of self being tied up with our bodies. We don’t think we have a body, we think I am a body. Losing part of you sounds bad even when it is replaced with a better alternative – and lack of pain does not automatically mean better, it still lacks features.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I think in most cases the prosthetic still isn’t as good as a damaged original (aside from pain), and add that to both rational and irrational conservatism about modifying your body, there you have it.

      Note that when the prosthetic isn’t visible we do this all the time — knee and hip replacement. Assuming I live long enough I expect I’ll eventually get both knees and at least one hip done. And many people do this long before the pain is debilitating, to improve quality of life. But this hits both factors — the new joint is just as good as the old (as of 10 years ago the main issue was the prosthetics don’t last long enough for them to be a great idea for a relatively young person, but while they work, they work fine), and being non-visible they probably don’t trigger irrational worry about body modifications.

    • johan_larson says:

      I’ve never heard about this specific issue, but I remember reading about people who wanted to have limbs amputated for aesthetic reasons — they thought they looked better without an arm or a leg or whatever. And they generally couldn’t get surgeons to amputate healthy limbs. The surgeons cited various codes of medical ethics that amounted to, “First do no harm.”

      I would expect the same sort of reluctance in this case. Presumably it would be easier to persuade a surgeon to amputate a limb if it was actually causing pain, particularly if a physician was on hand to argue that everything else had been tried. Still sounds like a hard conversation, though.

    • Randy M says:

      What about phantom pain? Is that treatable? Seems like amputation would be trading against an unknown chance of uncurable pain of unknown intensity and frequency.

    • toastengineer says:

      Doesn’t major limb amputation come with a relatively large chance of death? Like, bits of fat tend to get in to the bloodstream as an inevitable result of the cutting process and there’s nothing that can be done to fish them back out before they plug something up and kill you, or something like that.

      • Eric Rall says:

        There is an elevated risk of death after amputations, but part of it is confounded by amputees not being a random subset of the population. One big confounder is diabetes: one of the main reasons for needing an amputation is diabetic foot ulcers, and if your diabetes is bad enough to give you ulcers requiring amputation, there’s a good chance it’s screwing up your heart or your kidneys as well. Another big confounder is age: most amputees seem to be quite old (average age in this study is around 75, for both the diabetic and non-diabetic subset), regardless of diabetic status.

        War casualties do provide a natural experiment of young, otherwise healthy people who need amputations due to acute injury. This study based on WW2 injuries found a significant increase in mortality for combat amputees relative to a control group of soldiers who were hospitalized for disfiguring injuries not requiring limb amputations, but the increase was much smaller than numbers I’ve seem elsewhere for the general population of amputees (1.3-1.4x in this study, vs 2.5-3.0x elsewhere). I can’t find more recent data, apart from this study which has too small a sample size to produce useful info on mortality risk.

    • Reasoner says:

      I would be worried about phantom limb pain continuing after the amputation.

      Anyone who is struggling with chronic pain should check out painscience.com, reading that guy’s stuff cured my crippling RSI and saved my career.

    • tayfie says:

      I don’t know how principled you may think it is, but imagining myself in such a situation provokes a reaction like “It’s my foot and I am quite attached to it”. It is physically a part of me. Being an amputee feels like it would be a larger psychological blow than regular but manageable pain. Worse, people might see and treat me differently for it.

      I would think it likely that most people with chronic pain have already learned to live with it and it would have to be very extreme for them to consider amputation. Chronic pain can be annoying without a large negative impact on quality of life.

      Furthermore, from a doctor’s perspective this probably feels like an admission of defeat. It’s sidestepping the problem rather than solving it, and just cutting more whenever you don’t know what else to try seems like a bad precedent.

      • Barely matters says:

        “It’s my foot and I am quite attached to it”

        I always vaguely thought the same thing about my appendix, until the day it started doing its weird swell up and burst thing. Then the internal conversation very quickly turned to:

        “You know, we’ve had some really good times and I wouldn’t change a thing, but I feel like we’ve been growing and changing and just have different priorities now. I get that this swelling and bursting thing is important to you, and I wouldn’t want to stifle your growth in whatever direction you want to go. So I think we need to part ways now. I hope that swelling up and bursting brings you all the joy and fulfillment that anyone could hope for. We’ll always have Paris. Goodbye…”

        • tayfie says:

          There is a huge difference between external and internal parts of your body. External parts are visible. One is reminded of a missing foot every time one looks down, but one would never know their appendix was gone without the memory of the surgery.

    • Barely matters says:

      I’ve actually been in a similar but lower level position as your friend. For me it was a toe that set badly after a break and would make my whole foot painfully unusable for about a week if I tried to run on it. I was at the point of getting off the clock, totally-not-medical-advice from medical staff I knew regarding the best and safest ways to just get rid of it.

      The best advice was supportive, while invoking an almost Chesterton’s fence style of ‘I know this seems like the best bad idea in a situation where nothing else is working, but there are a lot of other moving parts in play that could get even worse from radically changing a system you don’t fully understand.’

      That said, if I hadn’t found a workaround like your friend I probably would have gone through with it anyway. So I don’t think everyone is necessarily being too conservative *right now* given the state of modern medicine and prosthetic technology with respect to costs and unforseen side effects, but I don’t think there’s much of a principled stand against it and it seems like this would fit reasonably well into the “Right to try” framework I keep hearing about.

      I’d hope they would have to pay for the procedure and its fallout out of pocket, as I wouldn’t want to have to pay for people’s risky experimentation and certainly don’t think it would be reasonable to make people subsidize mine. And I think societally (and maybe this is a bigger deal in Canada, with our government paid healthcare) we’re not very good at staying firm when people look really sad five years down the line, even if they swore they understood the consequences at the time. But if there’s some way for people to be personally responsible for the outcome, I don’t see any problem with letting them try whatever wacky stuff they like. Voluntary amputation to install a better leg with less pain and room to store a mickey or something, have at.

  25. MartMart says:

    Do comments need trigger warning? If so, warning: suicide.
    I’ve been thinking about the recent post about gun ownership and suicide rates. Having been swayed to the anti gun side by the idea that lower ownership will primarily save would be suicides, and those outnumber other gun deaths 2-1 I was surprised to find the post unconvincing. My very brief summery of what I’ve read is this: US has a very high ownership rate, which should result in much higher suicide rates, however US suicide rates are approx the same as the rest of the developed world. The exlanation for this is that US suicide rates should actually be much lower than the rest of the world for a various reasons, but the gun ownership rate negates this, bringing us back in line with everyone else.
    While this could be the case, I find the general structure of the argument, which I will uncharitably summarize as “the effect predicted by my model seems to be missing, which I’ll explain by proposing a different, new factor equal in magnitude to the one I was predicting, and then use the lack of an effect to support my model” to be very suspicious.
    So what else could be going on here?
    The idea that suicides can be prevented by reducing access to means relies on suicides being impulsive and not fungible. What if suicides are semi-impulsive? Perhaps people don’t end their lives because they are having a very terrible day, but rather over the course of many terrible days start making plans on how to end their life. From my limited knowledge, people generally develop suicide plans/fantasies. Then, once those are firmly in effect, it takes one push for the final act.
    So what happens if access to the means is restricted sometime during this process. Someone starts making plans about jumping off a bridge (first in a gallows humor sort of way, then progressively more seriously) and then, before they go thru with it, the bridge gets new fencing. That person still feels terrible, but it takes them some time to build up a whole new plan/fantasy (I hate the term, is there a better one?) perhaps during this time things change enough that they decide to go on living.
    In that model, reducing guns will drop the suicide rate, temporarily, but not so in the long term.

    • Andaro says:

      “The idea that suicides can be prevented by reducing access to means relies on suicides being impulsive and not fungible.”

      They don’t have to be impulsive. Method restriction changes parameters such as the suffering involved in an attempt, the involuntary survival probability and psychological factors such as “You must overcome fear of height to achieve your preferred outcome”. As long as these restrictions are successfully implemented, these parameter shifts are also permanent.

      Only 1 in 25 suicide attempts actually end the suicidal person’s life. This has been treated as an argument for even more prevention; in reality it’s evidence that method restriction seriously harms people who want actual options.

      I have no interest in suicide prevention. I could perhaps benefit from it if it were strictly restricted to acute delusion, e.g. if I am about to jump off a rooftop because I believe I can fly, and you’re pretty sure I’m incorrect (I have no jetpack or parachute as far as you can tell), you might make me better off by preventing me from jumping until the misunderstanding is resolved.

      The problem is that suicide is always treated as a wrong or sinful decision by a lot of people and the consequence of that is nonconsensual method restriction. And rather than benefitting people, this harms our choice set. Our option value is reduced. We are limited in choosing a humane and reliable death when we actually want to. This forces negative consequences on us against our will. And that is enemy action.

      Enemy action is not free. I don’t tell other people when and how to die against their will. I expect them not to force that on me either. If they choose otherwise against my clear communication, this is enemy action that will be reciprocated with uncompromising severity. All their values, goals, preferences and interests become worth harming at this point. That is not an equilibrium that is in anybody’s best interests.

      As I wrote in the original thread, I want to be able to walk into a drug store, buy a deadly dose of pentobarbital with my own money at the time of my own discretion, walk home and take it as I see fit, without violating the rights of others. When I see people attacking this right politically or through propaganda efforts, they become enemies worth harming. It’s a choice one can make, but it is costly.

      • John Schilling says:

        Only 1 in 25 suicide attempts actually end the suicidal person’s life. This has been treated as an argument for even more prevention; in reality it’s evidence that method restriction seriously harms people who want actual options.

        I think it is mostly evidence that a majority of what we classify as “suicide attempts” are high-risk behaviors by people who prefer the option of waking up in a hospital with lots of people paying attention to them. There are two distinct populations of “suicide attempters”; one that almost exclusively uses methods with 50% lethality, and very little crossover in repeat attempts.

        • baconbits9 says:

          How many difficult things have you done well on the first attempt?

          • John Schilling says:

            The vast majority of people who attempt to commit suicide by means other than poisoning or wrist-slitting, succeed on their first try. And for that matter, people trying to commit suicide with poisons other than barbituates/sedatives (e.g. farmers in countries that don’t allow shotguns but do allow rat poison), have a very high success rate.

            It’s not that difficult. Barbituate/sedative overdose and wrist-slitting are major outliers in terms of success rate, and I am extremely skeptical of “well, maybe women are just incompetent” as an explanation.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The vast majority of people who attempt to commit suicide by means other than poisoning or wrist-slitting, succeed on their first try

            You have no idea if this is an artifact of the data.

            1. Walk in on someone with an empty bottle of liquor next to them and a pistol held up to their temple, he drops the gun on the floor.

            2. A person finds a secluded bridge, climbs over the railing and stares down at the water before climbing back over, and collapses on the road crying.

            3. Someone takes a handful of pills, panics and calls 911, gets their stomach pumped.

            4. Someone gets drunk, drives their car off the road on purpose, gets badly injured.

            Of these scenarios only 3 will definitely be counted as a suicide attempt. Person #1 might kill himself the first time he pulls the trigger, but he also might stick that guy to his head ten or a hundred times before that. “Successful on the first attempt” is the label he gets, but the girl who called 911 after taking 8 ibuprofen who ends up oding all the way 5 years later will be “successful on her nth attempt”.

          • Aapje says:

            Perhaps men lie much more about unsuccessful attempts and paint them as accidents. Like ‘the gun just went off while cleaning’.

        • Garrett says:

          More “tales from EMS” land. Details have been changed to protect the innocent, and because my memory is terrible. Also, some of this may have happened to a friend-of-a-friend.

          Which of these (mostly real) cases would you consider to be a “suicide” attempt?

          1) Teenager has a yelling match with their parents in which they happen to unwisely use the phrase “or I’ll kill myself”. No other risks of suicide present. (Congratulations – your can’t-watch-TV night gets a lot longer while you get an involuntary-voluntary psychiatric evaluation)

          2) Middle-aged person with a history of depression who secures a large selection of opiates, claims is going to kill themselves. No drugs consumed. 911 called by family.

          3) Elderly person who is found in bed in the late afternoon, by family they live with. A nearly-empty fresh bottle of Ambien-or-similar is found in their medicine cabinet. No history of mental illness or severe health problems. “Patient was very lethargic”.

          4) Middle-aged interstate truck driver who is found parked alongside the Interstate, unresponsive, having consumed a large quantity of drugs. This is apparently the ~11th time this person has done this in a similar location. The first few times they phoned their spouse in advance of consuming the drugs.

          5) Young adult found unresponsive in their bedroom in their parents house. Last seen at a bar the previous night where they were in a fight, have a significant laceration on the head. Empty bottles of liquor, of opiates, and of Xanax are found at their side.

          6) Middle-aged person found at home by a friend who they let come over to do the laundry. They had consumed alcohol and heroin. Upon being revived state “I just wish you’d let me die”.

          7) Middle aged person found sitting in their kitchen, surrounded by blood. They’ve stabbed themselves in the chest with a 6″ kitchen knife, full hilt, twice. They are attempting to refuse treatment, care.

          Finally, I’ve heard via a few news reports that part of what’s leading to the opioid crisis is that a significant percentage (perhaps 40%) of overdose deaths are deliberate suicides, but haven’t been categorized as such.

      • albatross11 says:

        There is no proposal I can imagine for the modern US that would actually prevent a determined and competent person from ending his own life, assuming he’s not locked up or confined to a hospital bed or something.

        What you can do via removing means of suicide is to make it harder for people who are either acting impulsively or who are in the middle of a mental health crisis or a personal crisis that’s making it very hard for them to think straight. Delaying their ability to suicide until they can sit down and think things through doesn’t seem like much of a violation of their rights to me.

        • Andaro says:

          Most of your heavy lifting is done by “determined and competent person” because it allows you to classify all failures as indetermined or incompetent.

          The problem is of course that a higher-than-necessary suffering profile, psychological factors such as fear of heights, or less than ideal medical competence ARE, in fact, real causal factors. They actually harm people, and saying that harming people is okay because a determined and competent enough person would just swallow the harm without complaining doesn’t change the fact that you are harming them, and harming people is enemy action.

          Again: I want to be able to walk into a drug store, buy a deadly dose of pentobarbital using my own money, walk home and take it without violating the rights of others, if and when I see fit. The existence of inferior suicide methods is not an argument against that. The legal reality says I don’t have this liberty, and that is enemy action. Those defending this legal status quo or propagandizing the coercion are enemy actors.

          Enemy actors will incur harm through the principle of reciprocity.

          By the way, people can be literally locked up against their will if the police know they’re suicidal. Physically restraining a person against their will is enemy action, and yes, it does prevent people from having an intact choice set. So does the destruction of black markets and legal markets for good methods like pentobarbital.

          Frankly, I’m annoyed that I even have to discuss this. We should have had this liberty from the beginning without any controversy, outside of perhaps practical questions like “Is he delusional?” or “Can it be used against third parties?” which can be solved with reasonable effort.

        • John Schilling says:

          There is no proposal I can imagine for the modern US that would actually prevent a determined and competent person from ending his own life,

          I would go beyond this and say that there is no credible proposal that would actually delay the median determined and competent suicide by more than five minutes or so. The question is whether there is any evidence for a population of people whose suicidal determination passes in a matter of seconds, and I don’t think that there is.

          • Andaro says:

            “I would go beyond this and say that there is no credible proposal that would actually delay the median determined and competent suicide by more than five minutes or so.”

            Method restriction forces people to choose between worse modes of death than they agreed to or not attempting suicide. As I pointed out to albatross11, this harms people without their consent. If I didn’t have a preference to acquire better suicide methods than those available to me, I wouldn’t communicate this preference.

            I am determined to harm all my enemies, and your rhetoric is enemy action designed to rationalize a legal status quo that harms my best interests.

            “The vast majority of people who attempt to commit suicide by means other than poisoning or wrist-slitting, succeed on their first try. And for that matter, people trying to commit suicide with poisons other than barbituates/sedatives (e.g. farmers in countries that don’t allow shotguns but do allow rat poison), have a very high success rate.”

            Utter misrepresentation of the data, but it does allow you to pretend that the current law isn’t harming people, even though it is.

          • John Schilling says:

            1. I am not your enemy, and I am unclear as to why you would think, from what I have written, that I would be.

            2. I have not argued or “pretended” that current law isn’t harming people. I understand that it is and I would like to prevent it from causing even more harm.

            3. Everyone else here, is trying to discuss a different subject, within the broad domain of “suicide”, than the specific one you want to discuss. They aren’t going to switch to talking about what you want to talk about in this thread, and you would be better served by raising the topic you want to talk about in a carefully-considered post of your own in e.g. the next OT.

            4. I will not engage you further in this thread.

          • Andaro says:

            “Everyone else here, is trying to discuss a different subject, within the broad domain of “suicide”, than the specific one you want to discuss.”

            That is incorrect, and I will remind you that you were the one responding to my parent comment, not the other way around.

            “I will not engage you further in this thread.”

            I didn’t ask you to engage me in the first place. Given your misrepresentation of the empirical data, I would have preferred if you hadn’t.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Are you using “determined and competent” to define away the apparently quite large population of people who get focused on some particular method? My understanding is the data is quite clear that putting up fences/nets/signs on the Golden Gate Bridge (and banning pedestrians after dark, grrrr) meaningfully changed the statistics, because a lot of people only had ideation about jumping off the bridge, but didn’t want to step in front of BART or whatever.

          • J Mann says:

            John, are you categorizing disarming the US as a non-credible proposal? (I won’t argue if you do – it’s both politically and logistically daunting).

            As Scott has said, Taborrok and Briggs concluded that increased access to firearms increases suicide frequency, so if they’re right, then if Miracleman destroyed all the guns in the US, you would expect suicides to reduce, ceteris paribus.

          • Spookykou says:


            Do you more generally hold some sort of freedom of choice idea as a terminal value? That might clear things up if you fundamentally reject the idea of society being structured in such a way, or writing laws such that they protect people from a perceived flaw in human priorities/cognition, like seat belt laws. This is an understood (and not totally uncommon on SSC)position, and if this is your position it would clarify where the dispute actually lives.

            I assume a lot of the responses you have gotten so far are basically that ‘delusional’ conditions that predispose people, temporarily, to suicidal ideation are common and easy utility gains can be had by making it difficult for those people to kill themselves. Similar to the easy utility gains to be had by incentivising people to wear seat belts, because they are ‘delusional’ about the risks and rewards there.

            It is also a bit easier, from the outside looking in, to see the harm in a ‘delusional’ person who in theory is better off alive, but was temporarily depressed, had easy access to suicide, and killed themselves. Against the harm from a rational resolved person who is forced to shop around for sub-optimal ways to kill themselves.

            *I put ‘delusional’ in quotes because you seem to be using it only to cover an extreme case “I think I am a bird” where as I understand it to be commonly applied to most depressed people with regard to their self image, view of the world, etc. I generally think it is applicable in lots of cases where a persons perceptions do not match with reality, that don’t rely on full on hallucination. This difference in definitions of delusion might also capture a lot of the disagreement here.

            **Edit, I have read more of this discussion, feel free to disregard this even if sunk cost fallacy prevents me from deleting it. Your significantly walked back ‘suicide after jumping through a bunch hoops’ is sufficiently different from the position I thought you held to make most of what I said irrelevant.

            One point of clarification though, is this hoop jumping something you do once and have for the rest of your life, or do you need to jump through all the hoops for a couple months, and then you can go into a doctors office for a lethal injection within one week of the last hoop jumped, type of deal? The latter is much more palatable, given the above concerns about temporary suicidal ideation.

          • Andaro says:


            I also don’t want to be forced to wear seatbelts, but having to wear them isn’t really relevant to me, so I don’t put effort into fighting it. Controlling the modality and time of my death is a much stronger priority for me than not wearing seatbelts, so I put the effort in.

            I’m not a fan of depression being used as an argument why people can’t make choices because such arguments tend to be abused. I’m sure it’s correct in some clinical sense that depression can bias people, all kinds of things can bias people and suicidal people aren’t automatically irrational (or even depressed). I hold such framing in low regard because it’s been used repeatedly against me. Pathologizing preferences is the first rhetorical step to delegitimizing them, followed of course by practical and legal ways to undermine them. The end result being a state where your preferences can be violated under the guise of benevolence while you are low-status and worse off, and those who forced it on you are high status and you’re supposed to be grateful for them. I absolutely hate this pattern.

            Edit: “One point of clarification though, is this hoop jumping something you do once and have for the rest of your life, or do you need to jump through all the hoops for a couple months, and then you can go into a doctors office for a lethal injection within one week of the last hoop jumped, type of deal?”

            I’d prefer to do it once and then it sticks, but for all I care it can decay after a year or half a year and then you have to do it again. I like personal freedom in choice of timing, but that’s not a dealbreaker. I’d also like to die at home, but also not a dealbreaker. Generally I favor people having choices even if other people don’t understand or share them; I think it removes artificial zero-sumness from society.

          • John Schilling says:

            @Andrew: I am aware of no data to indicate that fences, nets, etc, on the Golden Gate Bridge have had any measurable effect on suicide rates in San Francisco generally. They have certainly had an effect on suicide rates at the Golden Gate Bridge, but whether we can infer the one from the other is precisely the effect we are debating here.

            @Mann: I don’t consider broadly disarming the United States to be credible, but more importantly I don’t consider Briggs and Tabarrok to be credible in the strongest form of their claim. Their analysis strongly supports a correlation between gun ownership and suicide, but is very weak on historical causation and provides no support for forward-looking causation. If there’s a common factor that drives both hunting / gun ownership and suicide, and I can think of some obvious possibilities, they’ll miss it. If there’s any willingness at all to substitute for unavailable guns in the future, they’ll miss that as well.

            Generally: Reduction in suicide rates due to reduced availability of means is a transient effect, and even then one that manifests most strongly when the change is unannounced, e.g. with the substitution of natural gas for town gas or the improvement in automotive emission controls. That’s not practical with guns. And there’s ample evidence that e.g. people who can’t shoot themselves are just as willing to hang themselves.

            Indeed, looking at the breakdown of suicide methods vs overall rates by country, there’s a very clear pattern that if a country has an abundance of some particularly effective suicide tool (tall buildings in Hong Kong, pesticides in agrarian economies, guns wherever there’s hunting), people will use that, and if there isn’t they’ll just hang themselves at about the same rate.

            Good luck reducing the availability of rope.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            “reducing the availability of rope”

            The UK will get right on that, right after they succeed in their quest to ban sharp knives.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            “reducing the availability of rope”

            The UK will get right on that, right after they succeed in their quest to ban sharp knives.

            Oh, please. Not this again.

            The largest group people calling to ban pointed knives in the UK are the British Medical Association (like the AMA). They are also on the record as calling for boxing to be banned, which is about as likely to happen (note that the current holder of three of the four world heavyweight titles is British).

            The recent high-profile comments were from a relatively low-ranking judge at his retirement ceremony, and should be filed under “judge says silly thing”.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            The Mayor of London appears to be slightly higher than “low level retiring judge says silly thing at retirement”.


          • That again… the amazing thing is that the US right, Trump specifically, is condemning us for having too many knifings, whilst also condemning us
            for doing something about it.

            PS love the way that Khan’s religion is always mentioned…

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            I wouldn’t say condemned so much as mocked.

            The UK banned guns thinking that it would reduce murder, and saw the knife homicide rate rise to maintain the trendline. Gun control utterly failed to prevent murder in Britain and now the British think that knife control will somehow be different. In another decade or two you’ll likely have the same problem but be considering bat control instead.

            Beyond that, it’s hardly surprising that people notice that Sadiq “terror attacks are part and parcel of living in a big city” Khan is Muslim. On this side of the pond you can’t get arrested for noticing yet, only fired, so we notice coincidences like that more easily.

          • The UK banned guns in response to a school shooting and has not had a school shooting since. The UK homicide rate remains much lower than the US one.

          • So whats the 100% effective methods of preventing terrorism in cities?

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            That’s not actually true, you had the Cumbria shooting since then. /pedantry

            Anyway this is that same hilarious attitude.

            “We had a shooting which killed a lot of people so we banned guns.”

            “Oh, so murder is down then?”

            “No, all the murderers use knives now. But at least we haven’t had any shootings!”

            Come on. The problem with gun murders is that they’re murders, not that they were committed with guns. A murder victim who was killed with a knife or a car isn’t any less dead.

            As for the overall crime rate, we’ve been over this before. America’s murder rate is driven by demographics, specifically the extraordinary murder rate of African Americans. If white America was a country it would be roughly middle of the pack for Europe / slightly higher than average for Western Europe.

            As for terrorism, a good start would be not entrusting terrorism prevention to sympathizers. Just a thought.

          • Derek Bird did not shoot up
            a school. Pedantry.

            If you really think knives are as well effective as guns , why not equip your army with them.?

            Apart from being completely successful at preventing school shootings , the 1992 ban had little impact because the gun homicide rate was already low.

            So you don’t have a solution to terrorism, and all can do that s smear someone on the basis of religion. Is Trump a sympathiser with every white Christian terrorist? The case is just as weak.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            If you really think knives are as well effective as guns , why not equip your army with them.?

            Criminals have a luxury that soldiers rarely enjoy. They get to attack at the time and place of their choosing, and they also get to choose who they attack. If someone is trying to murder you they have likely already decided that the odds are in their favor.

            That’s why concealed weapons are effective. They level the playing field by reducing the disparity between criminals and law-abiding citizens while making it harder to predict who is unarmed and vulnerable.

            Apart from being completely successful at preventing school shootings

            So would you agree that the PATRIOT Act was a huge success because nobody has flown an airplane into a building since 9/11? Or would you point to the terrorist attacks which used different methods?

            So you don’t have a solution to terrorism, and all can do that s smear someone on the basis of religion.

            My preferred solution would be the Westerling method. It’s a proven system to end support for terrorism in Muslim communities.

            It also provides an illustrative example of why having people who run cover for terrorists in power is a bad idea. The Dutch government punished Westerling for his success because eliminating terrorism in southern Sulawasi denied them a pretext for being “forced out” of their colonies. Surrendering to the people they had just beaten made them look foolish.

          • Calling for genocide is easily enough to get you banned from the Reddit.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            Firstly, that’s not genocide by any sane definition.

            Secondly, your threat makes no sense. So what, you’re going to get my unused alt banned from a sub I don’t post on for something that I wrote on another site? It would make more sense to ask Scott to ban me: I actually post here often, and my offending comment is on his site.

          • Calling for genocide

            Massacres yes, genocide no. Judging by the Wiki article, Westerling’s force killed about 1,500 people, roughly the same number killed by the other side, although a substantial additional number were killed by forces not under Westerling but on his side of the conflict. I don’t know what the population of Sulawesi was then, but the current population is seventeen million.

          • Is there supposed to be some ethical significance to “only a massacre”? Is it supposed to be on the right side of a line?

          • AlphaGamma says:

            @Mark Atwood on Sadiq Khan- He has not banned knives. As a local mayor, he does not have the power to do any such thing.

            What he has done is to order the Metropolitan Police to be more proactive in enforcing existing laws against carrying knives in public without a reasonable excuse, and given them funding to do so. The main law in question has been on the books since 1988.

            I reiterate that nobody in a position to do anything about it has proposed introducing restrictions on the ownership of pointed knives.

          • Aapje says:

            @Nabil ad Dajjal

            The Dutch government punished Westerling for his success because eliminating terrorism in southern Sulawasi denied them a pretext for being “forced out” of their colonies. Surrendering to the people they had just beaten made them look foolish.

            He was not punished, he was relieved of his duties.

            Your claim about the motives for doing this seems suspect, to put it mildly.

          • rlms says:

            As for terrorism, a good start would be not entrusting terrorism prevention to sympathizers. Just a thought.

            This is the dumbest shit I’ve ever seen on this site.

        • I was asking Scott to ban you. I’m fairly sure he’s opposed to massacres, too.

      • SaiNushi says:

        When I was a teenager, I believed the world in general and my family in particular would be better of if I never existed. I decided that the best way to rectify the situation was take myself out of existence. We lived in a pretty flat place, so there were no heights I could jump from. We had no guns in our house. I didn’t shave. So my plan included a part where I had to somehow get a knife from the kitchen to my bathroom. Problem was, our house was u shaped, and the kitchen was at one end of the u, my bathroom at the other. My parents bedroom was at the curve of the u, and my bedroom was on the same leg as my bathroom, so I had to sneak past my parent’s room to the kitchen, and back to the bedroom. LOTS of clear patio doors all along the U meant that in the kitchen the entire house could see what I was doing.

        My dad was awake. He caught me on my way to the kitchen, and stayed by his bedroom door watching me while I “got a drink of water”. I waited in my bedroom, full of adrenaline, for the sounds to tell me he had gone to bed. I misread the sounds, and when I opened the door to my bedroom for another try, he was standing outside his bedroom door. I said I had to use the bathroom, and did that instead of trying the kitchen again.

        Morning came without me having a chance to get the knife. I had blinked, waiting for my dad to go to sleep, and two hours had passed. I wondered why I was prevented (was Catholic at the time), and realized that as much as my life was ruining theirs, my death would be even worse for them.

        Three months later, I was glad I hadn’t managed to kill myself. Now, 17 years later, there’s been moments where I have the urge again, where I think so little of myself that I feel the world would be better off if I didn’t exist. And I remember my teenage years, and realize that the moment will pass, and I will once again be glad to be alive.

        I don’t want a world where suicide is normalized. I don’t want a world where suicide is easy to do on an impulse. Because in that world, I wouldn’t exist. But I also don’t want a world where people are forcibly imprisoned just because they’re suicidal. I want a world where people who are contemplating suicide are encouraged to rethink it, to wait a bit. Sleep on it for a week.

        • Andaro says:

          So let’s make people sign a formal letter to consent to having suicide rights, sleep on it for a week, then sign another letter, then sleep on it for another week, then sign another formal letter, then sleep on it for another week, then sign another letter, and then they can walk into a drug store and buy the pentobarbital for themselves.

          “I don’t want a world where suicide is normalized.”

          What is or is not normalized is not a grab-bag that you can wish for free. I don’t want a world where Catholicism is normalized and yet there are billions of them. We have to accept that we cannot piss over other people’s preferences and interests for free.

          I will penalize all those who work to prevent me from having an open choice set in this matter.

          • Aron Wall says:

            At least 3 times in this thread, Andaro has threatened to harm those who have argued against his position on this ethical/political issue.

            He hasn’t stated exactly how he intends to take his revenge, but surely threating other commenters with (for all we know physical) harm should be a bannable offense? It’s not kind, it’s not necessary, and I can only hope it isn’t true.

          • toastengineer says:

            I mean, he says “penalize” which sounds more like “I’ll vote for things you don’t like and won’t buy things from you” and stuff to me.

          • Aron Wall says:


            He also used the term “harm” above, for example the following statement which was directed towards a specific commenter:

            “I am determined to harm all my enemies, and your rhetoric is enemy action”

            the cannotations of which are militaristic, suggesting (but not requiring) the possibility of physical harm, rather than economic or political.

            While it’s probably an empty threat, that doesn’t sound to me from the context like he was merely threatening not to buy things from this specific person (who buys things from random people you argue with about politics online?). It sounds to me like a creepy attempt to get another person to back down by means of a vague threat, which does not belong on SSC or any other civilized discussion board. If that doesn’t justify a ban, I don’t know what would.

            The thing about a vague threat is that the person giving it knows what they intend to do (probably nothing), but the recipient is left to imagine every possible form of retaliation that might be covered. Sure, he might just be planning to bad-mouth the other commenter on a bunch of other discussion boards. But I think that commenters should avoid even ambiguous expressions that might put other commenters in fear for their physical (or even professional) safety.

          • Andaro says:

            Since Aron_Wall has read so many of my posts, he must realize that the position I’m arguing against harms my interests considerably. Otherwise I wouldn’t put the effort in to argue against them.

            I harm the interests of those who harm my interests. It’s called reciprocity.

            If you seriously think you get to force a painful mode of death on me against my will, and there won’t be at least similarly severe reciprocal damage delivered in return, you are objectively mistaken.

            Deceitful framing is easy. You can say, “Hey, we’re just talking ethics and politics here! You are threatening us.” But of course, politics is all about writing laws, and writing laws is all about threatening people who disagree with those laws. These threats are carried out through uncompromising physical violence by the state. Your one-sided framing that you are merely discussing abstract topics while I am engaging in illegitimate threats is pure deception. Of course, threatening to ban and censor people who defend their core interests is also a threat, which makes your position self-contradictory.

            And yes, selective voting is very much a part of this.

            “…suggesting (but not requiring) the possibility of physical harm, rather than economic or political.”

            Economic or political harm IS physical harm! How do you think they are enforced?

          • Beck says:

            From a bit earlier.:

            I am determined to harm all my enemies, and your rhetoric is enemy action designed to rationalize a legal status quo that harms my best interests.

            EDIT: Aron ninja’d me and commented on it much more clearly than I could.

          • Spookykou says:

            I just wanted to add that I agree with Aron Wall here about all this ‘harm’ and ‘enemy action’ talk.

            This seems almost perfectly antithetical to the ideals of rational debate, or at the very least my idiosyncratic version of those ideals.

            First, isn’t the goal to debate an idea on the merits of that idea? I am not sure how your willingness to harm people who disagree with you factors into the general merits of the idea that, easy access to methods of suicide is preferable to our current situation. I can’t think of anything these threats are actually supposed to be accomplishing for you here, that I support in the context of the SSC comment section.

            Addendum, it is probable that nobody responding to you has any legitimate power in the relevant domains.

            Is it safe to assume that your ‘reciprocal’ action actually amounts to ‘posting in the comment section of a blog, arguments and ideas that oppose your interest’, because that is reciprocal in terms of the effect size of the ‘harm’ that is being inflicted on you by the people commenting here, and it hardly warrants all these nebulous threats.

            I assume part of what Aron and myself find concerning about the threats is the implied escalation. I thought SSC generally took a dim view of the jump from the communication of ideas to the application of violence.

          • Andaro says:

            I’m not interested in abstract debate. We’ve been discussing for years and decades how these prohibitions harm people. Nothing has changed for the better as a result.

            The hard truth is, humans respond (only) to incentives. Ethics and morality are all subject to arbitrary reframing followed by practical hypocrisy. The fact that ethics committees and theologians get paid serious money to rationalize why people should be forced to die in pain against their will should tell you everything you will ever need to know about the “merits” of abstract discussion. If ethical arguments worked, we wouldn’t be torturing innocent people who disagreed on the matter. Yet that’s what “civilization” empirically does.

            I’m willing to end the threats, in the sense that I’m willing to end good faith communication altogether. Of course, the actual reciprocity doesn’t go away, only its honest communication.

            If you want to be tortured for free, be my guest. I’ll put as high a price tag as possible on that, and it will be just as nonconsensual as the enemy action to which I am responding.

            End of communication.

          • J Mann says:

            I would be ok with banning Andaro after that last response if they don’t clarify what kinds of harm they are threatening.

            Andaro, I honestly find it hard to believe you’re not smart enough to end your life painlessly if you choose to do so. I really hope you don’t – life almost always gets better, and you will never know what you’re missing.

            The lengthy wait times you propose are probably a fairly plausible compromise, but you’ll never know if you proceed via threats. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to learn if different methods of argument might convince some of the people here?

          • Aapje says:


            I’m not interested in abstract debate. We’ve been discussing for years and decades how these prohibitions harm people.

            Perhaps your case is not so strong if you cannot convince that many people.

            Do you accept democracy as the way to resolve disputes or do you not feel bound by laws created by the majority, where you have the ability to convince people to support you? Do you feel that other people who make incorrect decisions with the best of intent should be punished? If so, aren’t you worried that your decision to punish them is incorrect?

            Do you believe that your own well-being is paramount? For example, if hurting you and people in a similar situation helps others more than how much people like you are harmed, then do you still feel legitimized into reciprocating that harm? Are you aware that the rational way to deal with people who act like that, in a situation where groups have mutually exclusive needs, is to brutally eliminate the minority, as such behavior makes compromise impossible?

          • albatross11 says:

            Aron Wall:


          • John Schilling says:

            Wait, so we’re being threatened with violent physical conflict, torture and death, with an adversary whose only grievance is that we won’t let him kill himself as quickly as possible?

            This shouldn’t take too long. But it does point at a solution to Andaro’s dilemma, in that if you are looking for a quick death, Suicide by Cop will still be on the table.

          • Nornagest says:

            What was that link supposed to point to? I have a couple of guesses…

      • toastengineer says:

        What do you think of the various arguments a la “[BIG PERCENTAGE] of attempt survivors say they changed their minds since” and such?

        • Andaro says:

          Suicide attempts shouldn’t be ill-considered, involuntarily survived and then reconsidered.

          They should be well-considered, then either not attempted at all or well-implemented, and in the latter case, not survived involuntarily.

          • bean says:

            Everyone’s problem with your position is that all evidence indicates that a staggeringly high percentage of suicides are ill-considered. I suspect that allowing suicide under careful evaluation to make sure that they’re well-considered would probably be the majority position here. But that’s a world away from “Lethal barbiturates should be OTC”.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ bean

            The data that has been presented in this and the other discussions here (that I have read at least) wouldn’t be accepted as complete for any other commonly discussed issue. If we were using survey/ER/police data for rape by gender half a dozen people would chime in and argue that men are less likely to report being sexually assaulted than women, use it for suicide and everyone basically accepts the “men attempt less often, complete more often” statistics without even a cursory discussion on what the definition of a suicide attempt should be.

          • Andaro says:

            As I wrote above, “So let’s make people sign a formal letter to consent to having suicide rights, sleep on it for a week, then sign another letter, then sleep on it for another week, then sign another formal letter, then sleep on it for another week, then sign another letter, and then they can walk into a drug store and buy the pentobarbital for themselves.”

            Problem solved.

            The true problem is not that we can’t cost-effectively test whether a suicide is well-considered, it’s that religious and some other lobbyists don’t want suicide to be legal whether they are well-considered or not.

          • bean says:

            I’m going to point to Scott’s post on the subject. I suspect this is part of the mental background for almost everyone in this conversation, so there’s not really a need for that discussion. Until you’ve tried a rebuttal, I’m going to treat it as true.

            You lead with the following quote:

            As I wrote in the original thread, I want to be able to walk into a drug store, buy a deadly dose of pentobarbital with my own money at the time of my own discretion, walk home and take it as I see fit, without violating the rights of others.

            If that’s not a request for making suicide drugs OTC, I don’t know what is. You’ve walked it back a bit in that one post, but you’ve been excessively hostile to anyone who disagrees with you. It’s no wonder that you’re getting little traction.

          • Andaro says:


            Yes, I want that right. I don’t care if I have to wait four weeks and sign five formal consent letters for it. That was never the problem. The problem is that it’s banned unconditionally, and then others create rhetoric why that is irrelevant because a determined and competent person can always use an inferior method. My point was that this is harmful and hostile.

            And yes, I am hostile toward those who are hostile toward my interests. It’s called reciprocity. The upside is that I have given up on all hostility toward those who don’t harm my interests. I communicate clearly so that people have a chance to understand the difference and make the better call.

          • CatCube says:


            Why the deep attachment to that exact particular method? Other easy and cheap methods are available, especially if you don’t care about violating the law (which, if you’re going to be dead soon, shouldn’t much matter).

            I submit that the pattern of a drop-off in suicides when a particular method disappears (closing a bridge, changing from coal gas, waiting period for guns) shows that a certain amount of irrationality is generally present in these decisions, since some other equally-effective means is usually trivially available. If the suicide is a product of long, deep consideration I wouldn’t think that limiting easily-abused* drugs would be the showstopper.

            * I mean abused in the sense that many more people purchase them for getting high, rather than suicide, and prohibition for those reasons is a different argument.

            Edit: I realized after posting that Scott might not appreciate me pointing out other easy methods of suicide that are legal and OTC, so the post has been changed.

          • Andaro says:


            It’s the most humane and reliable method that I am aware of and that doesn’t contain some dealbreaker like having to suffocate yourself to death while fully conscious that you’re not breathing oxygen etc.

            I’d prefer even better methods like a freely choosable percentage of sudden painless death per sleep cycle, as configured by the user. But such methods are harder to implement than a simple self-administered dose of 15g pentobarbital. It’s cost-effective, proven and available for nonhuman animals. Kind of insulting that we can’t buy it for personal use.

            Also it doesn’t make a mess and it doesn’t harm third parties.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I would refute it except that Scott largely agrees that the data isn’t particularly useful.

            but since this whole section is about totally useless anecdotal data,

            I guess what I’m saying is that the data don’t prove very much

  26. Evan Þ says:

    Apropos of nothing, has anyone else misread the title of the drug side effects post as “HJPEV And The Specter Of Permanent Side Effects”?

    • quaelegit says:

      No but now I’m wondering if the LSD problem is caused by partial transfiguration 😛

    • Nornagest says:

      Persisting perception disorder might have some pretty alarming side effects when you can make the universe sit down and shut up with your brain.

    • jeqofire says:

      I’ve been reading it as “HPV”, as in Herpes.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Those are both STDs but they’re different ones.

        HPV stands for Human papilloma virus. It’s an oncovirus which led to a controversy around vaccinating young girls for it a few years ago.

        HSV stands for Herpes simplex virus. That’s what you were thinking of.

        • albatross11 says:

          And now you can get your kids vaccinated for it, boys and girls. Decreases the chances of various forms of cancer, with cervical cancer being the most important one. I think the current HPV vaccine also protects against some strains of HPV that cause genital warts.

  27. Matt M says:

    I know I’m a few weeks behind the news cycle, but I wasn’t here when it broke.

    What are people’s thoughts here on the Theranos situation? It strikes me that this is an unbelievable story and I’m kinda surprised it didn’t get more attention. For those of you in the bay area – did you know anyone who worked there? Does this come as a shock, or did people kind of suspect something was up? (and by “something was up” I mean “the entire company was a giant fraud that managed to hoodwink tons of powerful and experienced people who should have known better”)

    For those of you who do the prediction thing, what do you think the chances are that Holmes or Balwani end up spending at least one day in jail?

    • hash872 says:

      While I didn’t know anyone that worked there, I worked for a recruiting firm that actually somehow placed a candidate there (software or IT engineer) *after* the WSJ articles started to come out. Sort of shocking. Strangely, the contract my firm had with Theranos was unusually generous (they paid a larger contingent fee than is standard in the Bay Area). Scrappy startups are generally tough negotiators with vendors, so maybe the influx of VC cash made them more generous.

      On the prediction front- at least one of them will probably spend some time in a Club Fed-type jail if actually convicted. At one point Theranos told investors they had or would have by the end of the year $100 million in revenue, when they actually had about $100,000. Whatever one’s opinion about laissez faire capitalism in the US, the system has always come down pretty hard on actual fraud, if for no other reason than to compensate wealthy investors who were defrauded and keep the overall system functional. I think Theranos officially crossed the line from ‘scrappy Bay Area startup who pushes the envelope with established laws, ha ha you guys are crazy’ to ‘actually defrauding multi-millionaire investors’

      • Matt M says:

        I worked for a recruiting

        Are you still in that industry? (asks a currently unemployed person)

        • hash872 says:

          I am. I’d be happy to try to help you if I could (and maybe there’s a PM function through the website where you could send me your resume, not sure). To be totally frank about how the whole industry works though (because I frustratingly see an enormous amount of misconception out there), third party recruiters like myself only work a very small number of highly specialized jobs. I have like, three or four open roles with exactly two companies, and they’re all niche tech. It’s not like I have a broad number of open jobs or client companies, so when people send me their resumes ‘in case I have anything’, I mean- I really don’t. That’s basically how the industry works, even though 98% of people on the street think I ‘find people jobs’. Instead I find ultra-specialized people for niche searches for a very small number of companies who I have an established relationship with. I don’t have any power with companies outside those two at the moment (and would only harm your job search if I tried to find you more hiring companies, because then they’d view you as coming with an extra fee via myself).

          Sorry. I recommend Indeed & LinkedIn for comprehensive job searches

          • Matt M says:

            Fair enough. I’m coming from management consulting and looking to stay in Texas, so it doesn’t seem like a logical fit!

    • John Schilling says:

      The Theranos story broke in 2015, got a fair bit of coverage at the time, and then dropped off the radar while the SEC dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s on the paperwork saying, yes, Elizabeth Holmes and Ramesh Balwani are going to jail for fraud. Which was pretty much inevitable in 2015, but no sense risking justice by being sloppy.

      Prior to 2015, Theranos looked a lot like any other Silicon Valley startup running in stealth mode before the Big Reveal, but with more hype and a somewhat unusual biomedical focus. Everyone with a clue would have suspected the reality wouldn’t live up to the hype, but outright fraud with no underlying substance came as a surprise.

      I’m guessing that this is the biotech/VC equivalent of Fyrefest/Dashcon/UniversalFanCon. As a bright 19-year-old Stanford student, Holmes had a genuinely good idea but got Edison backwards on the inspiration/perspiration ratio necessary for implementation. Then had the charisma and/or connections to rope an atypically powerful team of People Who Should Have Known Better into the theory that moving fast, breaking things, just doing it and being legends, would turn the good idea into reality. That’s the part of the process I would like to understand better.

      As reality failed to live up to the hype, Holmes and company compartmentalized their operation to keep the reality deeply obscured while manufacturing ever more fraudulent brands of hype, I suspect all the while assuming that enough red-bull-fueled all-nighters by their (ingrateful, lazy, traitorous) dev team would eventually close the gap. But they crossed the line into overtly criminal fraud far enough back that there’s no way they don’t see the inside of Club Fed.

      • Matt M says:

        Holmes had a genuinely good idea

        Did she though?

        I mean, it’s a “good idea” in the sense that yes, it would in fact be pretty good if someone could invent a machine that can use two drops of blood to diagnose 200 things and it’s really cheap and small and everything else.

        But as far as I can tell, she never had any specific ideas of how any of that would actually be done. She just figured she could hire a lot of smart people, pay them a lot of money, and occasionally yell at them for not working hard enough, and someone would figure it out and she could take the credit.

        This is like me saying “You know what would be awesome? Teleportation! I’m going to start a company that is going to build a device that can instantly transport people and things from any one location to any other!” Did I just have a great idea? Without any further insight, I’d say probably not…

        • sfoil says:

          I’m not clear on the details, but there were some advances (breakthroughs?) in the earlier 2000s in using various solid-state sensors to detect various characteristics of organic materials, the buzzphrase being “lab on a chip”. I have no idea how that’s all ended up, but at the time it looked like a novel technology waiting for an application — instead of having a bunch of people in white coats doing chemical reactions in test tubes to find out your blood pH or whatever, expose a small amount of material to this integrated circuit and it gives you a readout, right there.

          My understanding is that applying this idea didn’t work for some combination of two reasons: the first, which is intractable, is that blood is too heterogeneous to reliably give you everything you need from such a tiny volume, and low-volume tests (like blood sugar) are already cheap and available. The second is that the integrated circuit technology described above didn’t perform in practice as well as theorized even given a “correct” sample.

          • J Mann says:

            Is Holmes’s 2014 quote to the New Yorker as absurd as it sounds, or is it a legitimate if banal description of lab on a chip technology?

            What exactly happens in the machines is treated as a state secret, and Holmes’s description of the process was comically vague: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.” She added that, thanks to “miniaturization and automation, we are able to handle these tiny samples.”

          • John Schilling says:

            No, that’s as absurd as it sounds, and basically just a pretentious way of saying “It’s a secret and we’re not telling”.

            Which is actually legitimate. There’s a whole lot of hard work between “lab-on-a-chip now means medical tricorders Real Soon”, and a working medical tricorder, and someone partway down that path has good reason to be secretive until the patents are filed. Someone trying to conceal the bit where they stumbled and fell early on that path also has good reason to be secretive, and the two can be hard to distinguish externally. Fortunately, investigative reporters are merely an endangered species, not yet extinct in the wild.

          • Matt M says:

            No, that’s as absurd as it sounds, and basically just a pretentious way of saying “It’s a secret and we’re not telling”.

            Which is actually legitimate

            Or at least, it would be if the secret was the actual technology, rather than the secret being tha they don’t actually have the technology…

      • hash872 says:

        Everyone with a clue would have suspected the reality wouldn’t live up to the hype, but outright fraud with no underlying substance came as a surprise.

        I think it’s worth noting that all the healthcare/medical-focused VCs passed on Theranos, so it was just the tech guys venturing outside of their normal area of expertise who actually ended up funding it. I’m sure healthcare VC partners are feeling pretty smug right about now

        • Matt M says:

          There were some big pharma companies who did pilots and tests with them early on, but seem to have bailed quickly when the results weren’t there.

          Safeway and Walgreens got taken pretty hard too, but that’s retail and not healthcare.

          And a lot of her investors and powerful board members weren’t tech experts either (although they weren’t health care experts either, as you say)

        • Douglas Knight says:

          The tech VCs insist that they didn’t fund it, either.

        • Chalid says:

          My impression was that there were some VC involved in the very early funding (where everything is understood to be an overhyped long shot) but most of the late funding came from hoodwinked billionaires and their family offices.

          • albatross11 says:

            I’m curious about what effect the politically connected big names on their board/among their investors had on how they were treated by regulators, media, and potential investors. It’s pretty obvious from just watching how the world works that most political big names don’t understand anything about science or technology, but I guess this also re-enforces that lesson.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            According to CrunchBase, it raised money in three phases 2004-2006, in 2010, and 2013-2015. The three phases raised $35, $45, and $600 million. The high power board supposedly dates from 2011, so that probably indicates the shift out of Silicon Valley, but I’m not sure about the 2010 funding round.

    • quaelegit says:

      I haven’t been following the news either and I might be confusing this with something else, but I am pretty sure I heard a bunch of stories/discussions about this company being fake a couple years ago (note: was a Berkeley student with a bunch of bioengineering-major-friends who might have been following this company closely). According to Wikipedia it started facing pushback in 2016 and lawsuits in 2017, so maybe that’s what I’m remembering…

      Edit: “Downfall” section of the Wiki entry says the WSJ published some of this in 2015, that’s probably what I’m remembering. (Again, probably because I had friends who wanted to work at places like this and thus were following the company closely.) Also I see John has already explained this above.

    • skef says:

      I’m currently at chapter 10 of the Bad Blood audiobook at the gym.

      There’s a bunch of bad stuff, but so far I would say the most clearly fraudulent thing described was the Walgreens contract. At that time they had only substantially developed their Edison device, and claimed it could do 200+ specific kinds of test. But that box could only do photo-detector based mmunoassays, and most of the tests they listed were of a different kind (that they eventually tried to incorporate with the later “Minilab” system).

      So they signed a contract with an obvious outright lie that made their product look much better than it possibly could have been.

      • Matt M says:

        I just finished the book myself, which is what inspired this topic. Interesting read, although I’m not a huge fan of the author’s writing style. He truly is more of an investigative reporter than a storyteller.

        That said, I see this guy as a hero. He deserves some sort of medal for this. Holmes and Balwani bullied their way into damn-near destroying many innocent lives to protect their own fraud, and they deserve to be seen as the scumbags they are.

        • ordogaud says:

          >Holmes and Balwani bullied their way into damn-near destroying many innocent lives to protect their own fraud

          I mean that one chemist committed suicide before being subpoenaed into court, so they did destroy at least a few innocent lives. Tho I take it you’re point was more about the harm they could have caused to consumers.

    • Brad says:

      I’m ambivalent about the arrest. There was clearly fraud there, but I’m annoyed that US Attorneys seem to only care about fraud when the victims are rich.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      I remember hearing about how it was a fraud in college, which must have been 2014?

    • proyas says:

      Is Elizabeth Holmes a sociopath?

      Consider the evidence: pathological lying, lack of remorse for past misdeeds, “fixed” facial expression and speech (see her TED Talk footage), shallow charisma, highly controlling and bullying behavior towards subordinates.


  28. proyas says:

    This is a question about the best way to provide cars that are immune to the effects of EMP weapons. As most of you know, powerful electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) can disable electronics, including the systems in modern cars.


    Because of this, it’s possible that an EMP attack against a country could cause catastrophic damage to the transportation network since millions of cars would effectively be destroyed.

    One way to solve the problem would be to buy an older vehicle (1980s manufacture or earlier) that lacks any computer chips or fine electronics in it, but I wonder if it would be cheaper and easier to incorporate EMP shielding (Faraday Cages) into modern vehicles to protect their vulnerable components. You’d have the option of buying a “2018 Toyota Corolla EMPx,” which would be outwardly the same as the “2018 Toyota Corolla,” but with EMP shielding.

    Putting aside the issue of whether or not there’s enough consumer demand for something like this, is it technically feasible? Would it indeed be a better and/or cheaper way to solve the problem than to let people buy old vehicles? What vehicle components would need to be shielded? Obviously the car’s computer module, but what about the various sensors? Would entire lengths of wiring need to be clad in Faraday Cages?

    Note: I don’t think anyone is going to use EMP weapons against anyone else, nor am I asking this question to guide any personal plans. This is just a thought exercise.

    • John Schilling says:

      since millions of cars would effectively be destroyed.

      Also, 90% of the US population would die in the first year. Oh, no, wait – that was a crappy science fiction novel that someone used as a source when speaking for the congressional record.

      The reality, not so much. Page 155-16 cover motor vehicles. Of fifty-five cars and trucks tested in a military-grade EMP simulator, only one required a tow to a repair shop. Five more suffered engine shutdowns, but could be restarted in the field. Most suffered minor disruptions, e.g. spurious dashboard indications. At most, and aside from the one truck that had to be towed to the shop, simply disconnecting the battery to fully power down the electrical system and then reconnecting was sufficient to restore the vehicles to driveable condition.

      If you want to knock yourself out, old (pre-1997 or better pre-1986) diesel Mercedes should be pretty much immune, but this isn’t something you need to worry about. Maybe make sure you know where the batttery is under the hood, and have a wrench suitable for disconnecting the terminals.

      More generally, there’s a cottage industry in spinning doomsday scenarios where some terrorist or dictator with a nuke throws the entire world back into the dark ages. Partly because there’s a neat set of fantasies about being the ultimate badass in a post-apocalyptic future where there are no rules and we all get to laugh at / bootfacestomp the middle-management mediocrities who keep us down in the civilized world but who we know aren’t as secretly badass as we. And partly because it’s an easy way to attack those Damn Dirty Democrats for being soft on terror and weak on defense and whatnot, because they are risking literal armageddon with their wimpishness. EMP attacks are one of the few things where, if you carefully avoid the technical literature, you can maybe make yourself believe that’s not ridiculous – and you can definitely harvest youtube clicks by pandering to that belief. But it’s mostly hype. EMP produces widespread, erratic, temporary disruption, not dark ages.

      • Another Throw says:

        How well would a Tesla hold up, though, what with literally [sic] everything, from the glovebox to the breaks, being controlled by a stupid touchscreen?

        Oh, and I guess the computer that controls the “don’t set my batteries on fire” might be a little more important than the computer that controls the fuel-oxygen mixture but doesn’t complain too much if things are slightly out of spec.

        Considering they can’t keep the batteries from setting on fire while just driving normally, I have little faith. 😉

        Edit: Okay, maybe that was a little snarky, but a legitimate question. Nuisance failures are a way bigger nuisance when you only have one control interface. And are current EMI/EMC practices sufficient to protect Lithium Ion batteries from combusting? The high rate of nuisance failures and engine shutoffs seems to indicate that an EMP does in fact pretty reliably screw with car electronics despite current EMI/EMC practices, and naively, it would seem that IC engines are far less prone to spontaneously combusting due to a failure of the control electronics.

        Also, didn’t the Boeing Dreamliner get grounded because the lithium ion batteries combusted a couple of times due to an electronics failure? Maybe even EM related? (Internal short circuit, and inadequate design precautions to mitigate the effects of.) Either way, I am pretty sure it went through a much more rigorous testing procedure than an EV, and meets much higher EMI/EMC standards.

        • John Schilling says:

          Oh, and I guess the computer that controls the “don’t set my batteries on fire” might be a little more important than the computer that controls the fuel-oxygen mixture but doesn’t complain too much if things are slightly out of spec.

          Yeah, but the computer that tells the spark plugs when to fire absolutely, positively has to work, and that’s basically all non-diesel cars and trucks since about 1990. The diesels I think got digital control of fuel injection in the mid-90s. The reason cars mostly don’t die when exposed to military-grade EMP simulators isn’t that they don’t “really” need their computers, it’s that only fantasy EMP is InstaPermaDeath to all computers. The real version mostly just makes them act wonky until you power-cycle them.

          And all of these computers are built to approximately the same specifications by the same OEMs; I doubt Tesla made a special order for automotive silicon that is either substantially more or substantially less robust than normal. Normal for auto parts, that is, which is substantially more robust than for consumer electronics.

          The actual batteries and motors of the Tesla will probably be nigh-immune to the very brief EMP transients on account of high thermal mass and intrinsic capacitance. But we should probably find someone who is willing to drive their Tesla through an EMP simulator just to be sure.

          • Another Throw says:

            Yeah, but the computer that tells the spark plugs when to fire absolutely, positively has to work, and that’s basically all non-diesel cars and trucks since about 1990. The diesels I think got digital control of fuel injection in the mid-90s. The reason cars mostly don’t die when exposed to military-grade EMP simulators isn’t that they don’t “really” need their computers, it’s that only fantasy EMP is InstaPermaDeath to all computers. The real version mostly just makes them act wonky until you power-cycle them.

            I am pretty sure that in this context a failure in the “absolutely, positively has to work” department just means the engine turns off, not sets aflame. A modern engine doesn’t “need” its computer insofar as that there are relatively few things it can do wrong that will make to spontaneously explode, or burst into flames, or whatnot. It definitely wont run without it, though.

            I’m not so concerned about the EMP transients damaging the batteries directly.

            The question is how many things can the battery control computer screw up, within the range of expected “act wonky until you power cycle them,” that could cause catastrophic failure through, e.g., thermal runaway. Mis-measure the temperature? Mis-control the cooling pump? Mis-measure the voltage? Miscommand the voltage regulators? Do any of the above while supercharging? Activate super-ludicrous mode while parallel parking?

          • The Nybbler says:

            The computer that fires the spark plugs is firing high voltages across a gap several times a second. It’s already going to be pretty well protected against transients. Inducing a current in the spark plug wires might fire the spark plugs off-time (and possibly “backwards”), but you’d have to get super unlucky for that to cause significant damage.

            I’d be more worried about the runs between the computer to, e.g., the rear lighting. Long run, little protection, and if the same computer is used for engine and body control (I believe this is not typically the case), could disable the car.

            The Tesla has to deal with transients due to large collapsing magnetic fields all the time. I’d be surprised if anything critical would be taken out directly by the EMP.

      • INH5 says:

        The reality, not so much. Page 155-16 cover motor vehicles. Of fifty-five cars and trucks tested in a military-grade EMP simulator, only one required a tow to a repair shop. Five more suffered engine shutdowns, but could be restarted in the field. Most suffered minor disruptions, e.g. spurious dashboard indications. At most, and aside from the one truck that had to be towed to the shop, simply disconnecting the battery to fully power down the electrical system and then reconnecting was sufficient to restore the vehicles to driveable condition.

        I think you mean page 115-16, and there is an important caveat to the tests:

        We tested a sample of 37 cars in an EMP simulation laboratory, with automobile vintages ranging from 1986 through 2002. Automobiles of these vintages include extensive electronics and represent a significant fraction of automobiles on the road today. The testing was conducted by exposing running and nonrunning automobiles to sequentially increasing EMP field intensities. If anomalous response (either temporary or permanent) was observed, the testing of that particular automobile was stopped. If no anomalous response was observed, the testing was continued up to the field intensity limits of the simulation capability (approximately 50 kV/m).

        The same procedures were used for the tested trucks.

        This means that we actually don’t have very good data on the effects of the highest field intensities on motor vehicles, because any vehicles that were impacted at lower field intensities were removed from testing. The fact that 8/37 cars and 5/18 trucks exhibited no anomalous effects even at 50 kV/m, and that vehicles that weren’t running at the time apparently weren’t affected at all, does demonstrate that the Hollywood depiction of an EMP disabling all motor vehicles in the vicinity isn’t accurate, but I would be very cautious in drawing any conclusions beyond that.

      • LHN says:

        When I raised this in another context, the next question everyone had was “What about the electrical grid?” Is that also something that’s more “have you tried turning it off and on again?” than “Puerto Rico, but worse”?

    • The Nybbler says:

      It turns out cars aren’t all that sensitive to EMP. At least in 2004.

      That said, EMP causes damage by inducing current in things. So the first thing you’d want to do is eschew convertibles and cars with plastic or composite body panels; steel or aluminum body panels will tend to block EMP. Next thing to worry about would be any long runs of wire to anything sensitive. This probably mostly means runs to the car’s computer. Fully enclosing in conduit (you can get conduit made to block EMP) should work, and of course you’re going to want the computer’s outer case to be metal. Probably best to eliminate any especially finicky electronics. Especially security systems; anything that’s made to disable the car is asking for trouble.

      • proyas says:

        Fully enclosing in conduit (you can get conduit made to block EMP) should work

        How do you do that?

  29. hash872 says:

    So, I’m inevitably going to have shoulder surgery to fix a labrum tear (actually two I believe, one anterior and then a small posterior one). Injury likely came about through wear-and-tear from years of weightlifting (my ortho has convinced me to never bench again) and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. (I continue to do BJJ once a week even with two labrum tears, if that gives you an idea of how addicted I am. Just went again today- even put serious effort into fighting out of an armbar on my *injured arm*. Am not claiming to be the brightest bulb in the box).

    My very open-ended question is- any hacks on improving the healing & rehab process? My ortho is apparently a shoulder specialist rockstar who works with NFL, MLB teams etc., so I should be good there. I’m in a major US city famous for its hospitals. I have a great PT who appears to be considered excellent by outside objective criteria. Everyone says ‘take your PT super super seriously!’, so I intend to do just that.

    Any….. like, life hacks around recovery? I’ve heard some talk glutamine supplementation aids wound healing? I’m not opposed to taking AAS if it would help, though I’m not really clear that steroids specifically aid joint growth (vs. muscle). I guess I could take ostarine in lieu of AAS, just in terms of ease of ordering. Is there anything else that boosts recovery? I’m assuming pro athletes mostly do test, AAS & HGH to speed up healing? Anyone else have any shoulder surgery experience and general tips? (I’m also super-anxious about the actual surgery as I’ve never had surgery before, but I can get anti-anxiety meds from my PCP)

    • keranih says:

      ….see if you can get platlets harvested and then dumped into the injuried area.

    • WashedOut says:

      In the Joe Rogan podcast where he interviews Guy Ritchie, they discuss the recent advances in stem cell injections for exactly this type of injury (they are both expert martial artists). I don’t know the specifics but it sounds like this sort of thing is available if you live on the west coast, have enough money, and know the right medical professionals.

      I’ve had shoulder problems myself, did my left rotator cuff a couple years ago. I found dry needling really helped, as did ultrasound/sonic pulse massage. I was back rock climbing and lifting within 3 months, which for that type of injury was pretty remarkable.

    • Education Hero says:

      Step 1 is probably to start flow rolling and tapping early/often. A lot of beginners have trouble embracing the latter because they don’t like how that results in frequent “losses”, but it will actually lead to incentivize you to emphasize preventative posture and anticipation, which will strengthen your game in the long run.

      I assume you meant glucosamine rather than glutamine. Our understanding of glucosamine is still very limited (we know it has a statistically significant effect, but the clinical significance is unreliable and possibly industry-influenced). In other words, preliminary evidence suggests that high doses (3,000 mg) can marginally slow joint degradation, but it’s really only one small part of what you need.

      You are correct that AAS will not help you heal (if anything, they are likely to delay healing by helping you train harder). SARMs like ostarine will actually help. I would recommend a daily stack of 5 tablets N2Joint-RX + 25mg ostarine + 3-6g of a high quality fish oil. In conjunction with flow rolling and plenty of rest, this should actually help you repair your joints while reducing pain and inflammation.


    • Andrew Hunter says:

      So, I’m inevitably going to have shoulder surgery to fix a labrum tear (actually two I believe, one anterior and then a small posterior one). Injury likely came about through wear-and-tear from years of weightlifting (my ortho has convinced me to never bench again) and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. (I continue to do BJJ once a week even with two labrum tears, if that gives you an idea of how addicted I am. Just went again today- even put serious effort into fighting out of an armbar on my *injured arm*. Am not claiming to be the brightest bulb in the box).

      You are me from the future and I claim my five pounds.

      (And now I’m worrying about my mid thirties. No surgeries yet, but feels like a matter of time between, well, weightlifting and BJJ, not to mention my off day habits of climbing and dance.)

      • The Nybbler says:

        (And now I’m worrying about my mid thirties. No surgeries yet, but feels like a matter of time between, well, weightlifting and BJJ, not to mention my off day habits of climbing and dance.)

        “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” — Hunter S. Thompson

        Besides, you’ve been contributing to your health insurance for years; why let the insurers off easy?

        Since I’ve hit 30 I’ve managed to tear my acetabular labrum, break my hip, break my hand, break a finger on the other hand, and develop arthritis in at least one knee. Probably broke a rib too, though I never bothered to get it checked out. But what’s the alternative, to sit in a nice safe office ALL the time? Bah. We don’t have enough wars any more, we have to keep the surgeons occupied somehow. (though only the finger and labral tear required surgery. The finger to preserve the nail. The treatment for a minimally displaced hip fracture turns out to be nothing but rest.)

        • Well... says:

          But what’s the alternative, to sit in a nice safe office ALL the time?

          “Still lift but maintain proper form for 8-12 reps at 75% of your 1 rep max” is where my mind went. Not sure there’s a BJJ equivalent though. For climbing it’s probably “Climb easier courses (cliffs? skyscrapers? whatever it is people who climb are climbing) that still make you feel like you’ve exercised a lot at the end but are less likely to cause you to get injured.”

          • Education Hero says:

            Not sure there’s a BJJ equivalent though.

            I alluded to this above.

            By flow rolling, I’m referring to sparring light using technique and adaptation instead of explosive strength and speed.

            Alternatively, should your physical health and/or skill level not support even light sparring (yet), then one should refrain from sparring altogether and stick with technique drilling while rehabbing.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Drilling is probably safer, because there’s not the risk of “yeah let’s roll light!” and then escalation until you’re rolling at normal intensity.

    • analytic_wheelbarrow says:

      Related: I’m in my early 40s and have tennis elbow. PT didn’t help much, though the therapist showed me the Theraband Flexbar. Doing those every day helps a lot (I’m using the most difficult one now), though I’d still say I’m only 60-70% cured.

      Any advice on completing the recovery process? I’ve been doing PT exercises since January.

      • hash872 says:

        (This is where this website’s particular format annoys me, because I suspect my comment will be hidden due to length of time and won’t re-up the thread to the top).

        I think everyone misinterpreted my question, which was around accelerating the post-surgery healing & physical therapy process. I appreciate, like, the fish oil recommendations from some people, but obviously that’s not gonna speed up recovery from arthroscopic surgery (I do take fish oil already, BTW). That’s why I mentioned glutamine, which supposedly does have some evidence that it aids wound healing. My issues are not quite the same as yours, tennis elbow/tendinitis.

        With that being said (because I originally thought I had tendinitis and so did a ton of research around it)- everyone in the BJJ community & beyond swears by active release therapy, which is basically extremely painful massage/massage torture. It supposedly breaks up scar tissue on the affected ligament. No, it’s not extensively peer-studied, but from my self-research on Pub Med I have to say that virtually nothing in the physical therapy field is particularly well-studied one way or another. In that case, I’ll take the anecdotes from dozens of BJJers I know. Good luck

        • analytic_wheelbarrow says:

          Hash872: Thanks. I’ll check out active release therapy. Is this the sort of thing a PT does?

        • dndnrsn says:

          I did ART for some stuff that physio hadn’t helped me much with. The practitioner was really good; the nagging issues I’ve had over time are significantly better.

    • Pdubbs says:

      Be super religious about icing it. A friend recently recovered from this surgery and on the two week checkup was told “this is doing remarkably well, you must be very consistent with icing it” (which she was).

      • analytic_wheelbarrow says:

        Oh interesting…. I always assumed that icing it was a load of BS. But now I have to try it.

        Thanks, Pdubbs.

    • Anonymous says:

      I had bankart repair(which depends on the specific location of your labrum tear might be what you will get) done to my shoulder about 12~ months ago.

      First of all just so we are clear, from my experience and reading, the main thing that you should be worried about post surgery is not the recovery of the labrum/ligaments so much as the muscles.
      Assuming the surgery was successful and you properly rest your shoulder after it, the labrum and rest of the ligaments would pretty much be completely healed in 3 months time.
      So worrying about having it heal fast and taking supplements etc is sort of misplaced as far as i can tell, the main issue possible is that the surgeon will not do a good enough job and will either over-tighten the ligament, or leave it too lax, other than that it is pretty much ok to assume the labrum will be as close to new as the surgery enables.

      This brings us to what actually is the problem, and that is muscle atrophy.
      In my case i did PT, and worked on muscle building for about 3~ months before the surgery(mostly because it took a long time to figure out the exact issue, and the physiotherpist explained to me that in any case building support muscles will help both stabilize the shoulder if not surgery is needed, and to lower the recovery time if it is needed.
      after the surgery, i “rested” for about 2 weeks while i still had the stiches.
      I placed rested in parenthesis because i tried to use the arm as much as i could during this time in whichever safe way i had, this obviously depends on what your surgeon tells you, so dont over do it either.
      after those two weeks i immediately came back to the gym and started resistence training on my healthy shoulder.

      jump forward a few weeks and proper PT started, and the physiotherpist basically concluded that i am 2 months ahead of schedule, and from there on i mostly needed to do some more muscle building as there still was some muscle atrophy.

      My lessons from that is actually that my cross-training focused only on the major mascle groups, and that i should have worked more on the smaller muscles, as even now, a year later, i still have some imbalances and minor annoyances with the shoulder for all kinds of quirky untypical movement.

      So my suggestion is to make sure to mirror-train while recovering, from my experience, and btw clinical research conclusions[1], it is very effective at preventing muscle atrophy, which is the main problem with orthopedic surgery.

      Make sure to mirror-train while recovering, also follow proper nutiritional recommendations wrt protein content of you diet.

      [1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3721498/

  30. dndnrsn says:

    Welcome to the third installment of my effortpost series on Biblical scholarship. So far we’ve covered the creation stories and the rest of Genesis, focusing mainly on the Patriarchs. This time around we’re going to look at Exodus. I’m largely going to consider the scholarly arguments concerning the historicity of slavery in Egypt and liberation, the dating of the covenant (please note that when I say covenant, for the purposes of this installment I mean the Mosaic covenant) and related materials, and the ramifications of both. Put simply, this concerns primarily the parts of Exodus where the Israelites escape slavery and then are given their laws by God.

    Caveats: I’m not a true expert at this (but I do have a master’s degree) and this focuses on secular scholarship. Also please note that I’m not doing much summarizing of the Bible – there’s a lot to summarize.

    Considering sources, it seems pretty clear that Exodus is derived from multiple sources. The same events are described more than once, sometimes contradicting each other. I don’t want to do a play-by-play of this, nor do I want to get into haggling over which particular hypothetical source provides what (though I can provide more information if people like). More interesting is that the question of historicity of the liberation from slavery is, as we will see, a place where scholars begin to differ in a way that makes indicating what “the consensus” is a bit harder than what we’ve seen in the first two installments. There are (at least, I think there are) legitimate arguments for both “it is legend” and “there is probably something historical there.”

    Those who say that it is not historical argue that the exodus from Egypt is not described in any nonbiblical source. The sources we have describe neither an escape of slaves (these scholars argue that the eastern border was well-held) nor any of the more dramatic events (rather more impressive than mere runaway slaves) in the story. Archaeologically, the conclusion is that the material culture of early Israel was basically Canaanite, without Egyptian influence. So, there’s no proof the things happened, and some proof they didn’t.

    Those who argue for possible historicity say that the Egyptians tended to minimize misfortunes when describing past events, point out that “Moses” is Egyptian-derived (why would they give their hero a foreign name?), and question why a people’s story describing their institutional foundation (so to speak) would describe them as having experienced slavery – stigmatized in the ancient world – if there was not some grain of truth there. The story makes a lot less sense without some historical fact being there.

    Considering Egyptian history, if the story is at all historical, the 13th century BCE is the most likely time. It is known that Semitic slaves existed in Egypt around that time, and evidence that “‘Apiru” workers were involved in the building of Ramses II’s capital (he reigned from 1279 to 1213). On the other hand, the dramatic events do not appear to have happened in anything close to the form they are described in the Bible. One can find records of plagues in Egyptian history, but most societies are not short on plagues.

    One conceivable explanation that reconciles these approaches adequately is that they didn’t cross the border – the border crossed them. This approach sees the story as a reversed version of the Egyptians conquering the land where the Israelites arose, then retreating when their power weakened. The actual events of the story are legend, but they’re legend built on history.

    So, why is any of this important? The story is theologically fundamental. It’s a very important myth for the northern kingdom (less so in the south – for example, prophets ascribed to the south mention it a lot less than those ascribed to the north). There are parts of the Bible with lots of ethical and moral injunctions based on the experience of slavery and God’s liberating them from slavery. If this event or something upon which it was based didn’t happen, that certainly undermines this key theme.

    Coming to the revelation at Sinai and the covenant, some scholars think – based on old poetic passages that associate God with Mount Sinai or other places in that region, but not in connection with an exodus from Egypt, and early accounts of the history of Israel that don’t pay a great attention to what happened at Sinai – that the revelation of YHWH and the liberation from slavery in Egypt were initially different stories, woven together in Exodus. This is, of course, speculative.

    The question of dating the covenant is a particularly interesting one, and another case where it’s hard to talk about a scholarly consensus, because both of the major proposals seem fairly solid. As is commonly the case, dating is accomplished relatively – in this case, relative to Ancient Near East vassal treaties. These treaties are an agreement between unequal partners, with one submitting to the other. Parallels have been drawn between the agreement with God (scattered throughout different parts of the Hebrew Bible, and, on the one hand, Hittite treaties in the period of the 16th to 13th centuries, and on the other, Assyrian treaties of the eighth century. The various material that is associated with the covenant likely has different dates – but the body as a whole would presumably date closer to the treaties that served as a model than to those that didn’t.

    Obviously, if the “treaty” composed of the covenant and related materials follows the Hittite model, that suggests it is older than if it follows the Assyrian model. The arguments over whether the elements in the Hebrew Bible are better likened to Hittite or Assyrian treaties are highly arcane, and to me neither seems to be a slam-dunk – though I will admit to being certainly less than expert in this particular case.

    Beyond the question of whether the model is Hittite or Assyrian treaties, dates can be set on the different parts of covenant by considering its preoccupations. For example, the first commandment of the decalogue (Exodus 20:3) does not deny the existence of other deities, but it does ban their worship. Insistence that YHWH was the only true God became stronger during the Babylonian exile, and even stricter monotheism developed later still, in the Hellenistic period. So, the wording of this commandment would imply that it is earlier than those two periods – that it is a product of a culture that believes the worship of one God alone is important, but doesn’t insist that said God is the only god.

    The first commandment is a great example, further, of why dating matters. There is evidence, in the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere, that at various points the Israelites worshipped other deities along with YHWH, and that many may not have seen a contradiction in worshipping both. If the first commandment is early, then this is very clearly breaking the rules – a sign that people were slackening in doing what they were supposed to do. If this was the case, then the reforms associated with Deuteronomy were a revival of what had originally been done. If the first commandment is later, this indicates the reforms were innovations, and the backdating of the commandment could very well be part of an attempt to support them.

    More generally, if the the covenant and the laws associated with it are early, then there is a link between God’s choice of Israel as his people and their obligations to follow various conditions. If the covenant and the laws associated with it are later, however, God’s choice of Israel did not initially hold those conditions. This is going to be extremely important when we consider the prophetic works: were, similar to above, the prophets arguing for a return to the way things used to be, or were they innovators trying to orient the religion towards ethical issues?

    To recap: the historicity of Exodus is very unclear, with strong arguments that it could not have happened anything close to as it is written, but also that something must have happened. What happened (or didn’t happen) is clearly important because the experience of slavery and liberation is the source of authority for major moral injunctions. The dating of the covenant and related material is, likewise, controversial. It’s also very important – because whether you date it early or late shapes how you view major developments in the history of Israel: were they attempts to recover the way things were supposed to be from the beginning, or were they attempts to retcon history?

    Postscript: please let me know if there’s anything here you’d like me to expand on – I will to the best of my ability. If there are any glaring mistakes, let me know in the next 55 or so minutes while the edit window is open. Next up: probably the “priestly theology” consisting of a chunk of Exodus plus Numbers and Leviticus.

    • Relenzo says:

      Oh hey, this is neat.

      I imagine plagues, while frequent enough, were often ascribed to supernatural causes, being pretty big events. Is there evidence other of the plagues could have happened, naturally or unnaturally? I feel that I remember hearing about some theory that the nile running red with blood was caused by some kind of crazy mud, or mineral or something. Anyone take that seriously?

      • spkaca says:

        “I remember hearing about some theory that the nile running red with blood was caused by some kind of crazy mud”
        That theory has I think been advanced more than once, but the version of it I know is in The Miracles of Exodus by Colin Humphries. It’s an entertaining read, I’m not sure how seriously to take it, but it is worth reading. Humphries in general regards the biblical Exodus account as close to the truth, and sets out reasons why he thinks it plausible. Without giving too much away, he thinks the traditional location of Mount Sinai/ Horeb is wrong, and that the actual mountain of the Law was a volcano. Which is awesome, of course.

      • S_J says:

        I wouldn’t know about the Nile running red with blood…

        But the plague of “Three Days of Darkness”, also described as “Darkness that could be felt”, has me wondering: was there a volcanic event that produced an effect of that type? The peoples of Iceland recently experienced a major volcano, and the darkness-plus-cloud-of-ash reminded me of that plague.

        There was a major volcanic eruption at Thera. Geologists and Archeologists disagree about the date, but both of them put the volcano before 1500 BCE. The later-dates for that eruption line the event up with the reign of Ahmose I, who’s mentioned below a a possible Pharoah-of-Exodus.

        Whether or not the eruption coincided with whatever history led to the story now told as the Exodus, the eruption could have produced a period of extended daytime darkness and ash, a “Darkness that could be felt”.

        I find that possibility intriguing.

        • dark orchid says:

          I’m sure I’ve watched a BBC documentary on that theory before now, so it can’t be completely unknown among scholars.

          Something else I find intriguing was that there was apparently a contingent of Jewish mercenaries in Egypt at some later time – some even go as far as to say they built a Jewish temple on Elephantine – and I think one of the theories about the way Egypt is mentioned in the Bible is the Jerusalem faction making clear that they are the true chosen ones and could their brethren in Egypt please shut up about how much more civilised they are?

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            You may be thinking of one of Simcha Jacobovic’s “documentaries“? I don’t believe they are particularly well-regarded.

            Also, I don’t think the focus on Egypt in the Bible can owe to the Elephantine Jews; the Jewish soldiers were only there from about 650 BC, roughly the beginning of the reign of King Josiah who probably is responsible at least in part for the Book of Deuteronomy–and Deuteronomy pretty clearly has Egypt playing their traditional Biblical role. If one of the more expert commenters on this disagrees, I’d be interested to know, but my amateur opinion is that that theory is quite unlikely.

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      I’m enjoying this series of posts, they’re very interesting.

      Something I’ve heard re: the historicity of the Exodus is that perhaps the Exodus or an Exodus-like event was only experienced by one of the tribes of Israel. Usually, the Levites are supposed to have been the Exodees, since a number of Levites have Egyptian names: Moses, but also Levi’s son and grandson Merari and Mushi, Pinchas, the sons of Eli the Aaronite priest at Shiloh, Hofni and Pinchas, and Miriam’s son Hur. Also, the Levites are not mentioned in the Song of Deborah, so perhaps they were not yet in the land of Israel at the time, being still on their way from Egypt.
      There is also some source-criticism argument for this position, along the lines that the Levite-written Priestly source is more concerned with the Exodus and that supposedly only Levite sources command circumcision which was an Egyptian practice.

      I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this hypothesis. I find it interesting, but am not at all qualified to judge its likelihood.

    • Aron Wall says:

      One way to know that the historicity of the Exodus is on fairly shaky ground, is that there are multiple competing theories about how to date it relative to Egyptian dynasties.

      While modern fundamentalists are thrown off by their desire to take 1 Kings 6:1 literally, and revisionist scholars usually prefer later dates if they think it happened at all, the most traditional answer (provided by ancient historians) is actually Ahmose I, who reigned in the mid-1500’s. Here is some possible evidence for this view (since I’m not an expert, some of these items could well be bogus):

      – Ahmose I claimed to have conquered a mysterious “Hyksos” people and expelled them from Egypt to Canaan. This might be the Exodus wrapped under some pretty heavy layers of PR. According to the Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin:

      If you read the military records left by Egyptian pharaohs, guess what! They never lost a battle! (Though we do sometimes read about them “winning” battles progressively closer and closer to home as their armies were forced to retreat.)

      – Josephus apparently identified the Hyksos with the Hebrews, but the modern historians do not agree, so take this with the appropriate-sized grain of salt.

      – his eldest son Ahmose-ankh died before him (as the historicity of the Death of the Firstborn plague would require).

      – the fragmentary Tempest Stele describes Ahmose’s rebulding efforts after some disaster. It is usually identified with a storm which casued flooding, but does includes multiple references to unusual Darkness (one of the 10 plagues in Exodus), as well as a rather surprising comment: “Then His Majesty said ‘How these (events) surpass the power of the great god and the wills of the divinities!” which seems to imply a crisis of faith, imputing the disaster to something exceeding the power of the gods of Egypt.

      – date approximately matches with the layer / carbon dating of the relevant destruction of Jericho, c. 1550 BC.

      On the other hand, on any early theory Exodus 1:11 appears to be anachronistic if Rameses is identified with Pi-Ramesses which was built in the 1200’s.

      The theory also requires that the Israelite material culture be somewhat similar to that of the Caananites for the first several centuries (which is pehaps not surprising if, as the Bible claims, they intermarried with them and adapted some of their cultural practices, rather than wiping them out entirely).

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Pi-Ramesses was the site of Avaris, capital of… the Hyksos 18th Dynasty.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          *15th Dynasty. Ah-moses I founded the 1ith.

          • Aron Wall says:

            1ith is a typo for the 18th, I think.

            What do you conclude from this fact?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            That an oral tradition of being kicked out of Egypt and led by a defector by the good Egyptian name of Moses could have been passed down from the end of Ahmoses’ s life until Ramesses II’s. There are enough elements of the story that don’t fit the profile for what fictions humans make up about themselves for it to not have a historical core. The only question is “When between Ahmoses I and Mernptah?”

    • Aron Wall says:

      While too vague to be much use in pinning down a precise date, the genetic evidence that a majority of the Kohen share a common ancestor approximately 3,000 years ago is also interesting.

      • Watchman says:

        There’s a problem with this sort of genetic analysis in that it doesn’t show that there was a single male Kohen 3000 years ago, but rather that all Kohen now are descended from one common ancestor 3000 years ago. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t several male proto-Kohen at this time, of whom only one’s descendants happen to survive, which would happen naturally over an indeterminate period in most comparable cases (closed high-status caste equates to almost no external genetics so a limited and therefore only able to get smaller number of lines of descent). Indeed all this tells us is that by c. 1950 all Kohen were descended from one man c. 3000 years ago, and nothing much at all about the preceding period other than the fact the Kohen have been very good at remaining a closed caste..

        • Aron Wall says:

          In principle I agree. But it depends on your model of what happened between c. 1000 BC and 1950.

          The Bible claims that the Levites were distributed throughout the land of Israel, rather than having a single geographical location. And the Kohen were actually allowed to marry non-Kohen Israelite women (subject to certain restrictions) so they weren’t a “closed caste” in the normal sense. Intermarriage isn’t that relevant here, since we’re talking about the Y-chromosome, which is inherited only patrilineally. But this does mean that in principle a Kohen didn’t need to stay next to other Kohen geographically in order to reproduce.

          After the Jewish diaspora during Roman times (which would also have given the Kohen a widely separated geographical distribution), replacing all of these Kohen with a single Y-chromosomal line seems statistically unlikely unless there was a population bottleneck.

          We can also compare to the genetics of Samaritans, who have been an ethnically distinct group for at least 2600 years, and probably before that too (during the Divided Kingdom era).

          The effect you mention could also allow for the biblical Aaron to be earlier in history than the “Y-chormosomal Aaron”, if all priests are descended from the same later person.

          • Watchman says:

            I’m happy that the “y-chromosal” Aaron is likely to be a descendant of an earlier Aaron, although obviously if we assume that the common ancestor of the Kohen is not necessarily the Biblical Aaron this does not prove that prior to the extinction of other hypothetical Kohen branches that these branches need share a single male ancestor with our “y-chromosal Aaron’. It is possible the triumph of one line of descent (from a genetic perspective) within the Kohen was not over affines exclusively, but over other unrelated in the male line Kohen, and indeed that one of these linkages might be the descendants of the Biblical Aaron. All the genetics allow us to say is that there is one common male line ancestor for contemporary Kohen, who lived around 1000 BC with quite a large margin of error around that date. The original composition of the Jewish priestly caste cannot be determined definitively by modern genetics, although genetics and historical narrative do at least look mutually supportive.

            In terms of the more recent history of the Jews, population bottlenecks are unfortunately not hard to find, and I would guess that as the community leaders Kohen suffered unduly in these. As you say though, the current male line of Kohen would have to be fairly widespread in the diaspora to explain their current predominance (as a thought, I doubt the DNA of every Kohen family has been checked so we may be generalising a widespread trend to all Jewish communities). It seems a reasonable suggestion that this lineage was at least predominant in the Hellenistic period. The diaspora populations were not discrete so we would not be arguing for multiple unrelated occurrence of the same genetic outcome, but for a single process affecting various communities, but even so it is much easier to suspect that our “y-chromosal Aaron”‘s descendants were the majority of the Kohen prior to this point. Note first millennial BC Jewish history provides plenty of choke points which could explain this, especially combined with normal genetic churn. This is not to say all Kohen in 1AD were from thus single linkage, but that it appears likely that a majority were, although that’s a balance of probabilities rather than a definite proof: the advent of genetics as a field of research has made history even less definite than it was before…

            Incidentally, on closed castes, I’m using the term as understood in, for example, late Roman history, where professional castes were created by imperial fiat requiring sons to follow their father’s profession. Historians at least (I clearly need to check some sociological literature here) seem happy with castes as closed if one parent has to come from it.

            Do you know of any genetic work on the Sarmatians. Don’t know enough about them to know how they’d work as comparators but it’s a tempting example. Shorter time span but the Druze might provide another similar example as well.

    • Watchman says:

      What always strikes me about Exodus is the fact that it hints not at the existence of other Hebrew gods, but rather that it suggests an early case of monotheism being asserted, although this is obviously through the filter of the final compilers of the text (it would be useful to know when a book was first recorded – something from 1000 BC is much different from something recorded for the first time in the Septagenuit). This is hardly unique: the go-to reference here is the cult of the Aten in Egypt, but I believe that monotheism was an idea that arose quite often (generally alongside supreme rulers) so it might not be contextually valuable, but Exodus is potentially valuable for showing the institution of monotheism in action.

      • Aron Wall says:

        It’s interesting that both of these examples of monotheism have ties to Egypt!

        One very intresting question is whether the historical Moses (assuming he existed) was before or after Akhenaten, since it’s natural to suppose the earlier one may have influenced the later one. Unfortunately, this depends on whether you accept an early date or a late date for the Exodus, so the question does not appear to be decisively resolvable.

        Interestingly Akhenaten’s religion differed from Egyptian polytheism not just in being monotheistic, but also in the lack of magical charms/invocations to get a favorable afterlife. (Learned this from the info at the King Tut exhibit.) He apparently believed that this should be regarded as a gift from the Deity rather than something that could be controlled by superstitious means. He was also a proponent of artistic realism.

        • Watchman says:

          I’d say the lack of magic is a normal feature of monotheism to be honest. Magic relies on creatures with powers that are beyond those of a human to bestow their blessings, and monotheisms require all such creatures to exist as a part or servant of the single God, and therefore not as something that can be individually invoked. This is why monotheism tends to produce conflicts such as iconoclasm and witch scares, as the orthodoxy of practices which skirt the edge of recognising only one source of power, such as saints or angels acting directly of their own will rather than as agents of the one god, will be challenged.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I think the scholarly consensus now is that the Aten link is pretty flimsy.

        “Monotheism in action” is an interesting way of putting it. It clearly got stronger over time.

    • dndnrsn says:

      @Aron Wall (you have 2 posts that are relevant so I’m just rounding it up here)

      Josephus is (as with a lot of ancient historians) kinda shaky for actual history. Lots of interesting stuff, and a useful source, but very much a “check that somewhere else, eh?” source. He was also, as I recall, simultaneously engaged in apologetics for the Romans to the Jews and the Jews to the Romans.

      Attempts to find parallels between events in holy books, different histories, etc, can all too easily end up looking like the New Chronology.

      Personally, lacking much expert knowledge, all I can do is just gesture vaguely at the way that a lot of the “early range” numbers relating to the Torah and events described in it point towards a lot of important stuff happening in the late second millennium – in the 13th century or whenever.

      The overall answer that to me seems to pass the smell test the best is something like this:

      1. Israelites local to Canaan, but increasingly separate themselves from the other groups in the region. Even at the points where they are breaking the rules and worshipping other deities (if you date the covenant early) or have not yet developed proper monotheism (if you date it as a later retcon) their worship is different and narrower from the other peoples in the region.

      A random example: I recall reading somewhere that one interesting archaeological point is that while the earliest settlements they can find are basically Canaanite in material culture, they don’t have any pig bones in their garbage dumps, whereas for the median Canaanite settlement they would have. Depending on how you read the prohibition on pork (early health and safety thing? An attempt to ban the eating of a creature that is “mixed up” in that it has hooves but doesn’t chew the cud – see other prohibitions on things being mixed together, hard to classify, etc? Simply a way of drawing a dividing line from the other peoples in the region?) that could mean different things. Plus, it could indicate that the actual written prohibition on pork is early.

      2. The Exodus is a heavily embellished retelling of some combination of the Egyptians retreating from the place the Israelites were already during a period of imperial decline, and maybe also some smaller escape(s) of slaves including Israelites. This preserves the “God rescues them from foreign domination!” theme of Exodus, and explains stuff that doesn’t make a lick of sense if there wasn’t some contact with Egypt, some foreign domination, maybe some slavery, while simultaneously not requiring us to believe that there were all these pretty significant events that there’s no archaeological or extra-Biblical written evidence for.

      3. The covenantal material is fairly wide in the span of the dates for the material it covers, with some of it fairly early and some of it later, but the later stuff backdated – and perhaps even the earliest stuff backdated a little bit. An early date for all of it doesn’t make sense, but neither does the whole thing being put together later and backdated.

      EDIT: I am aware that this is a super-boring compromise position, but I’m not a scholar, so I don’t have to make waves with some spicy new theory that the Hebrew Bible was composed in the future and the Ark was actually the time machine Noah used to escape flooding due to global warming or whatever.

      • Aron Wall says:

        Thanks for the response. I’d heard the no pig bones thing before, but not sure anymore what the source was. Do you know how far back the relevant settlements are dated? It seems like an important piece of evidence.

        I thought I’d made it clear that the thing about Josephus (and really, everything else in my comment) was more of a “FWIW” than anything justifying a definite conclusion. Most likely, Josephus was just making an informed guess (or reporting someone else’s guess) for events that far back. All I know is that he’s less likely to be guessing than I am. 🙂

        I’m not sure I see what evidential advantage is gained by saying the Egyptians left the Israelities rather than vice versa. Is it because one event is supposed to be more historically plausible than the other? Even allowing for embellishment of legend, it seems like “We were slaves in Egypt and then God led us out” is a significantly different narrative than “We were conquered in Canaan and then we beat them off and they left” (the later narrative of course appears many times in Judges). Not sure I’d expect the latter to mutate into the former.

        Question: suppose that the Israelites (perhaps in numbers much less than the census reports in the Torah) really did miraculously cross the Red Sea. Would we expect to have any archaeological evidence of this specific event?

        • dndnrsn says:

          Thanks for the response. I’d heard the no pig bones thing before, but not sure anymore what the source was. Do you know how far back the relevant settlements are dated? It seems like an important piece of evidence.

          I’ll see if I can find it, but I can’t recall which book I read it in, or if it was something in course notes that I didn’t hold on to.

          I thought I’d made it clear that the thing about Josephus (and really, everything else in my comment) was more of a “FWIW” than anything justifying a definite conclusion. Most likely, Josephus was just making an informed guess (or reporting someone else’s guess) for events that far back. All I know is that he’s less likely to be guessing than I am. 🙂

          Oh, just, more something I want to touch on when I get to the New Testament. The differences between history/historiography then and now are very interesting.

          I’m not sure I see what evidential advantage is gained by saying the Egyptians left the Israelities rather than vice versa. Is it because one event is supposed to be more historically plausible than the other? Even allowing for embellishment of legend, it seems like “We were slaves in Egypt and then God led us out” is a significantly different narrative than “We were conquered in Canaan and then we beat them off and they left” (the later narrative of course appears many times in Judges). Not sure I’d expect the latter to mutate into the former.

          Yeah, the argument is mostly that it’s more plausible. It’s a way of squaring the circle. If there was a group of escaped slaves that joined up with the newly-liberated-by-the-Egyptians-leaving folks, and they became especially important for whatever reason, that might explain the embellishment. It could also be another way of reinforcing the “no, we’re NOT Canaanites” theme.

          Question: suppose that the Israelites (perhaps in numbers much less than the census reports in the Torah) really did miraculously cross the Red Sea. Would we expect to have any archaeological evidence of this specific event?

          I’m not an archaeologist, so I don’t know how well different materials hold up – the sum of my archaeological knowledge is pretty much “papyrus rots” – but if there were discarded items that one would not expect to find there, that might be a clue. “Why are there all these chariots buried at the bottom of the ocean?” would be a bit much to expect, I guess.

          • dark orchid says:

            Isn’t “red sea” commonly held to be a mistranslation of “sea of reeds”, which could be … anywhere?

          • beleester says:

            Yes, the Hebrew is “Yam Suf,” or “Sea of Reeds.” But the association between the two seas apparently dates back to the Septuagint, so it’s not merely an English typo.

            Also, there’s only one sea that stands between Egypt and the Sinai desert, so if they didn’t cross the Red Sea, what else could they have crossed?

    • Tenacious D says:

      How do the various schools of thought on the historicity of Exodus explain and date the origin of passover celebrations?
      Another question I have is what kind of new archaeological evidence do you think would have the biggest impact on shifting the argument one way or the other?
      Looking forward to the next installment!

      • dndnrsn says:

        Let me cover the first question and get back to you – I’ve got a couple things to do that for.

        For the second question – right now, anything really dramatic would be shifting the needle in the direction of the Exodus story being historical. Finding previously undiscovered evidence of Egyptian material culture influence among the Israelites, for example. Finding a bunch of chariot parts at the bottom of the Red Sea. Some stele with “oh yeah and a bunch of slaves disappeared and there was some unpleasantness” written on it. Something like that.

  31. WashedOut says:

    I’m interested in hearing from people who have taught themselves to write code whilst in their late 20’s/early 30’s.

    I work in a non-IT STEM field, work 12 hour shifts, am severely under-worked and have a lot of time on my hands during the day. I’ve have tinkered with R in the past and see potential to teach myself data science using it, with the hope that one day I can transition to a role that pays the same but with a higher workload. Here’s a quote from a job description for “Principal Data Scientist” – the position I have in mind would be working under this person:

    You’ll manage projects that use advanced analytics techniques including, but not limited to, statistical analysis (e.g., ANOVA), statistical modelling (e.g., general linear model, Bayesian regression, GARCH), neural networks (e.g., deep neural network, recurrent neural network, long short term memory, autoencoder, adversial), clustering (e.g., k-means, DBSCAN, GMM), classification (e.g., SVM, LDA), optimisation (e.g., evolutionary optimization, linear and mixed integer programs), natural language processing (e.g., space embedding, GloVe), dimensionality reduction (e.g., PCA, t-sne), image processing and image underestanding (e.g., object detection and recognition), to name a few.

    With this in mind I have a few questions.

    Is R a good choice for my situation?
    It realistic to be able to teach yourself to code if you have zero background in programming, and if so in what time-frame could I expect to attain entry-level competency? Assume 10-15 hours/week study/practicing.
    I have a copy of Roger Peng’s book and have access to the accompanying tutorials through John Hopkins. Are there any better resources than this I should know about?
    Should I pay money to do a “code camp” or some such? Is paying for tutoring in meatspace likely to be beneficial?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      In my experience (both from self-teaching programming in high school, and later helping friends in their twenties to learn), it is extremely important to get some kind of regular feedback from a human. Whether this means code camp, a tutor, or just befriending a programmer and bothering them on Skype, you can save so much time by finding someone who knows what they’re doing and can answer a majority of your “How do I do X?” or “Why doesn’t this work?” questions with just a few minutes. Plus they’ll provide course-correction: “Oh god, why are you doing it like that? Here, let me show you a better way.”

    • SamChevre says:

      I did.

      I started college when I was 23; I’d never even worked with a computer enough to know how to type. I learned a little programming in college–just Excel/SAS/Mathematica, and nowhere close to their capabilities. I started work in a role where I needed to learn APL, and learned that with a mixture of the Zark tutor, talking to colleagues, and having things I had to do to provide incentive to learn how to do them. I learned VBA the same way.

      I’m by no means a programmer, but I can do a lot of small-scale coding.

      For me, having something to accomplish, and a code base to start with, were key.

      • rlms says:

        I started work in a role where I needed to learn APL

        I thought that was banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

        • johan_larson says:

          It’s a very specialized language used for working with arrays and matrices. It’s usually the wrong tool, but when it’s right it’s really right. Sort of like a duck press.

    • Telemythides says:

      R is a language for statisticians and scientists who also do some programming. If that’s what you want to be (seen as), then go for it; if the idea is to get a job as an entry-level programmer with a focus on data science, then what you want is Python. My impression is that most data science work is done in either Python or Matlab and the latter isn’t free and is hated by developpers.

      10-15 hours per week is a healthy commitment, you should be able the program decently in a few months.

      • quaelegit says:

        Matlab: beloved by engineers, deplored by programmers. (I don’t know how stats people feel on the matter, and I assume the data scientists side with the programmers because there’s a high overlap.)

        • John Schilling says:

          Beloved by engineering students who get it for free, hated by people who hire engineers and have to pay for the licenses, and “teach your millenial engineer to code Python!” courses are the hot thing right now.

        • CatCube says:

          I’ve been slowly learning Python as needed, but man is it more difficult to work with than Matlab or FORTRAN (which I learned in college, and forgot in the 9 years of non-technical work I was doing). I just want to do a bunch of operations on a list of input data in text format, and having to learn to fuck around with data structures is an unnecessary waste of my time.

          I just need something that will do arithmetic bitchwork for me, the kind that 80 years ago I could have put in a tabular format and had a computer (when that was a job title for a person) just crank out. I use Excel and VBA, but I’ve got data sets that are too large for that.

          • bean says:

            This, pretty much. Never took FORTRAN, but matlab is a great language for automating math. The only other language I use is VBA, which is also splendid, in a different way.

          • ordogaud says:

            I haven’t used Matlab or FORTRAN, but it sounds like what you want is R. Super easy to read data from a csv (and other formats) into a data.frame (tabular) and perform operations on it (simple arithmetic or more complex functions).

          • pontifex says:

            I had the exact opposite experience. Python seems really familiar and easy, and things like R and Matlab seem obtuse and weird. The python module for something is probably named what you think it will be, and does what you think it will do.

            A lot of the pain of R is frankly weird conventions (periods as part of variable names? 1-based indexing? Size returns number of columns?) that just don’t match programming conventions. Plus the error handling is nonexistent.

          • quanta413 says:

            I think Matlab is probably the most user friendly language for basic arithmetic over tabular data.

            At least in my work though, I’ve found that the tiny things I write often grow a lot bigger than I expected. I had some functions and scripts (a collection of tiny related .m files) that did stochastic simulations in Matlab that eventually got kind of unwieldy, when I rewrote them in Python (while simultaneously learning it) it was like manna fell from the heavens. Never before when learning a programming language had I been able to write something that worked as expected on the first try (well, close to it anyways).

            A lot of the pain points that had made managing and changing my Matlab files hard vanished. I didn’t have to think about syntax anymore. And I’d been using Matlab a lot longer than I’d used Python. And updating the code became enjoyable rather than a total slog.

            Maintaining a working python installation is a lot less friendly than Matlab though (assuming you can afford to pay for Matlab licenses or someone is paying for them). Even if you use a nice package manager like Anaconda.

          • pontifex says:

            The thing about Python is that “there’s a module for that.”

            Do you need to do matrix math with super-optimized C libraries? Use numpy.

            Do you want to create a neural net and run it on your GPU? Use the tensorflow python bindings.

            Do you need to draw graphs? Use matplotlib.

            Do you want to run wordcount on your 200-node Spark cluster? Use the Python spark APIs.

            On a more mundane level, most of “data science” is not actually science. It’s stuff like cleaning up a file where some of the names are First Name Last Name and some are Last Name, First Name. Or removing rows where someone’s age is listed as -1 years old. R and Matlab are really bad at this. In fact, some of the documentation for R recommends that you learn Perl in order to clean up your input files. But why bother with all that? Just learn Python and be done.

          • CatCube says:


            Yeah, but see, I don’t need any of that. What you’re extolling the virtues of is equivalent to a pneumatic nail gun, where it can drive 40 nails in 10 minutes, all at the quick touch of a trigger. That’s great, if I’m framing a house or something. I’m just trying to hang a couple of pictures. The overhead of dealing with all of that might very well take longer than the actual task.

            One thing that I guess I haven’t said here: I don’t grok object-oriented programming. When I use the csv library in Python and write (I’m not going to look it up to make sure I’ve got this totally correct, and it’s been a few months):
            for row in f:
            blah blah blah
            next row

            I know that a verbal description of what I’m doing is to create an object “f” and iterating over that object, but I don’t actually understand what those words mean. “f=csv.reader”, “for row in f”, and “next f” is just the chicken I need to slaughter to get Python to let me play with my data.

            I’m still thinking of my file as a bunch of rows, and it takes me way less time to do much of this in Excel, because I can visualize the operations that I need to do programmatically to move up, down, left, or right to find the data I’m interested in and compare them or operate on them. This table of data is also permanent, and I can move around it freely, forward and back or up and down. Whereas when I hit that “next row” line in Python, the data I slurped in from the csv disappears in a puff of smoke, and if I didn’t store it in a tuple or something while I had it, it’s gone.

            The vast majority of what I’m doing in Python I could visualize much more easily in Excel and use VBA, but the sets are many times what Excel can handle.

            Now, I freely admit that this is a limitation in my knowledge. After all, VBA is also object-oriented and my operations on a cell are using objects, but it’s much easier for me to visualize what’s happening when I slaughter the chicken, “Cell(x,y).Value = [some operations, possibly with Cell (a,b).Value and Cell(c,d).Value]”

            I’ve been trying off and on for the last few years to actually understand what working with objects means, and once I crack that nut the skies may open and the angels may sing and I’ll start to love working with Python, but it hasn’t happened yet. Right now, it feels like an incredibly frustrating slog to get my computer that can do several billion mathematical operations per second to do the several million calculations I need it to do.

            Often, I’ll hand-write a few rows of data on a piece of paper and solve the problem I need by hand, then figure out how to get the computer to duplicate those operations. That’s how I’m approaching the problem, and Matlab, Excel w/ VBA, and (IIRC) FORTRAN made it relatively easy to just duplicate that in the machine. Many “developer-friendly” languages force me to think like a software developer, and not a structural engineer; I’m not limited by either memory or calculation speed, and I’ll be honest that I’m more than a little pissed off that I have to reorient my thinking to get the computer to do what I need.

          • skef says:

            Do you want to create a neural net and run it on your GPU? Use the tensorflow python bindings.

            I’ve only had a limited exposure, but characterizing the python/tensorflow interface as “bindings” seems like an exaggeration. It feels more like using a small part of python syntax as a kind of twisted XML: You awkwardly specify some relations and then ask for something to happen, and what happens then is outside the influence of any control structures (if statements, loops, etc.).

            It could be because the most influential machine learning folks come from a matlab background — the primary theoretical foundation of the field to date being linear algebra — but one striking thing about Andrew Ng’s newer Coursera courses is the terrible programming style. I tried to describe it to a friend and only came up with “pile-oriented programming”: Write a function to do stuff and shove whatever may be needed later into tuple, or maybe a dictionary if there’s enough things that that looks embarrassing. More than one layer of indirection? Well, a tuple is just fine as an element of another tuple, right?

            Even though a “layer” is a very solid abstraction to work with, such that in almost all cases the calculations for one layer only involve data from directly adjacent layers, he writes back propagation as a for loop that pulls everything out of a big dictionary. Want to add a layer? Go edit all of your primary functions.

            I suppose python is a reasonable Schelling point, and it doesn’t suffer from the “monkeys banging on keyboards” character of so much of the Microsoft world. But for a language whose Big idea is basically prescriptivism*, it has such a random collection of features and preoccupations.

            * In the olden days whenever I needed to get some python thing to work I would do a search and turn up a thread on some Stack Exchange precursor that would inevitably have: 1) Someone posing a version of the same problem, 2) someone proposing a solution, and 3) a chain of 3-40 messages arguing about how “pythonic” #2 is and what would be more “pythonic”. I avoided the language for a long time because that was pretty much the last thing I wanted to talk about. In fairness the community seems to be over that now, but the whole thing still smells suspiciously of Pascal.

          • quanta413 says:


            I dunno if you have control over your work installation, but do you have numpy installed? Doing math in Python without it sucks, but with numpy, it’s a lot like Matlab. Its array syntax is really similar to Matlab with the minor difference of indexing starting at 0 instead of 1.

            It has a function numpy.loadtxt that may make your life easier if you want to write code like Array1[x,y] = Array2[a,b] + Array3[c,d]. But if your data is too big to fit in memory on your computer this might not work. In which case you might be better off doing what you’re doing now.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I’ve only had a limited exposure, but characterizing the python/tensorflow interface as “bindings” seems like an exaggeration. It feels more like using a small part of python syntax as a kind of twisted XML: You awkwardly specify some relations and then ask for something to happen, and what happens then is outside the influence of any control structures (if statements, loops, etc.).

            Right, don’t think of it as “writing a program to do stuff”. Think of it as “writing a program to build a model to do stuff”. The model is running on some optimized linear algebra engine, and the job of the python stuff is merely to set it up and feed it data.

          • SamChevre says:

            Indexing: my does that bring back (painful) memories.

            APL lets you select 0-base or 1-base for indexing. One of the programs I inherited had a bizarre bug–it got things wrong in an entirely incomprehensible way. I finally ran the problem down–someone had re-purposed code that had been written for a one-pass execution and was using multiple-pass execution (executing the same code over and over) — and the original programming genius had switched indexing methods in the middle of the code (it made sense for code efficiency in the original context). So part of the time, it called the correct item; part of the time, it called whatever was one dimension off–it whatever array dimension it was looking at.

            In the “most bizarre bugs” category, that one is memorable.

          • pontifex says:

            @CatCube: I agree that using a programming language like Python is more work up front than using something like Excel or MATLAB. I guess the point that I’m making is that the work pays off eventually over time, as you use it more. Once you use it for a while you’ll understand why everyone uses it for scientific stuff.

            Also keep in mind that I was more addressing the original question, “I want to learn data science, where should I start?” If you already have a bunch of engineering tools you’re comfortable with, the tradeoffs may be different. MATLAB is also something many engineers seem to use and like, although it feels inflexible to me.

            Although, if you know FORTRAN, is it really that much effort to learn Python? Python is older than some of the people posting here, and it hasn’t changed that much over the years (although they got more pedantic about strings) 😉

          • skef says:

            MATLAB is also something many engineers seem to use and like, although it feels inflexible to me.

            MATLAB/Octave are domain-specific tools with features that are handy and intuitive to people who have deep familiarity with that domain. Given a linear algebra mindset, it’s natural to expect to be able to take 2-D matrices A and B and have “[A; B]” be a full-fledged 2-D matrix expression (rather than a 1-D matrix of matrices). That kind of thing is harder to do in a general purpose language without a lot of ugly layering.

            Some general-purpose languages are designed to allow for domain-specific syntax, but people tend to wind up objecting to them as “too flexible” and “hard to read”.

          • tayfie says:


            I know that a verbal description of what I’m doing is to create an object “f” and iterating over that object, but I don’t actually understand what those words mean.

            When thinking about it, be more concrete than “object”. You created a reader. The reader does what it says in the name. It reads the text in the file and transforms it to stuff you can manipulate. “Iterating” means “one thing at a time”. “Things” are rows in this case.

            Whereas when I hit that “next row” line in Python, the data I slurped in from the csv disappears in a puff of smoke, and if I didn’t store it in a tuple or something while I had it, it’s gone.

            import csv
            data = list(csv.reader(open(“myfile.csv”, “r”)))
            row0_col0 = data[0][0]

            It may be you have more complicated complaints, but to me it sounds like you are simply unfamiliar and don’t know what to ask for.


            That is a profoundly bad example. The equivalent expression in python is A + B. It is one special character instead of another, and less to type without the brackets.

          • skef says:

            That is a profoundly bad example. The equivalent expression in python is A + B. It is one special character instead of another, and less to type without the brackets.

            Look, of course it’s possible to write a function to create a matrix as an arrangement of two other matrices. And in a language that allows operator overloading you can attach that function to an operator.

            But expressing the concatenation of two matrices with “+” is bizarrely counter-intuitive to someone familiar with linear algebra.That symbol already plays a different, central role. So that semantic makes it a better example of what I was getting at, not a worse one.

            (There’s a separate generality issue that I’ve set aside here, in that [A B] in Octave also does the expected thing, while “A + B” in python happens to be equivalent to [A; B] not because of overloading but because of a preexisting list concatenation semantic.)

          • quanta413 says:


            That is a profoundly bad example. The equivalent expression in python is A + B. It is one special character instead of another, and less to type without the brackets.

            When? What data structure in Python works that way? For numpy arrays the equivalent to that matlab is np.array([A, B]) which is definitely longer.

          • skef says:

            quanta413: It’s a list thing:

            import numpy as np;

            A = [[1, 2], [3, 4]]
            B = [[4, 5], [6, 7]]

            print(A, "\n", B, A+B)
            [skef@isolator nm]$ ./a
            [[1, 2], [3, 4]]
            [[4, 5], [6, 7]] [[1, 2], [3, 4], [4, 5], [6, 7]]

          • quanta413 says:

            Thanks. I see. I was thinking of working with either numpy arrays or stacking 2 1-D matrices into a 2-D matrix which list addition wouldn’t work for.

            I agree that using lists and the “+” operator that way to concatenate 2-d matrices is… really unnatural notation. On top of that, by not using numpy arrays, you could more easily accidentally make a jagged array. Possible with numpy too unfortunately, but mildly more likely to throw an error.

          • tayfie says:

            @skef and @quanta413

            Please explain how [A; B] more “intuitive” based only on linear algebra experience. When either of you first started Matlab, did you know what that meant? I didn’t. The convention was created by Matlab and only known by people who use Matlab. Matrices are conventionally drawn in two dimensions and any way of expressing that in one dimensional form for ease of typing will lose something.

            There is nothing about “;” that makes it a better symbol to use than “+”. @skef complains about having the meaning of a symbol overloaded, but “;” is overloaded too. In Matlab, “;” is also a statement terminator that suppresses automatic printing. That’s not even remotely similar or intuitive. “+” means concatenation or joining together in many contexts, and concatenation is basically what you are doing. It’s not so bizarre as @quanta413 suggests. If a person can tell the difference in “;” based on context, they can do the same for “+”.

            To keep to python, strings, tuples, and lists all work that way, and you can define “+” on any new data structure you want to create, though people avoid going overboard with that because there is such a thing as too much symbol overloading.

          • skef says:

            Please explain how [A; B] more “intuitive” based only on linear algebra experience.

            Given that brackets are one of the most common matrix bounding symbols, I take it that the question is limited to the semicolon.

            I’ll say a bit more about that specific symbol below, but that wasn’t really my point, which has to do with overall consistency of notation.

            To specify a 2×2 matrix in Matlab/Octave you can type “A = [1 2 ; 3 4]”. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that the semicolon is arbitrary. Now suppose that you have two column vectors b = [1 ; 3] and c = [2 ; 4] (or, if you like, c = [1 3]’ and c = [2 4]’). Then [b c] is equivalent to A.
            And [A A ; A A] is
            1 2 1 2
            3 4 3 4
            1 2 1 2
            3 4 3 4

            This semantic reflects a consistency in matrix algebra generally discussed under the heading of “block matrices”. Matrices broken down into (or constructed with) sub-matrices follow the same addition and multiplication rules as matrices of scalars.

            “Linear Algebra and its Applications” by Gilbert Strang discusses the block interpretation of linear algebraic operations in the first chapter and returns to it frequently. So:

            When either of you first started Matlab, did you know what that meant? I didn’t.

            Once I was familiar with the semi-colon notation in general, yes, I immediately understood what “[A; B]” expressed based on my (quite recent re-) familiarity with linear algebra.

            There is nothing about “;” that makes it a better symbol to use than “+”. @skef complains about having the meaning of a symbol overloaded, but “;” is overloaded too.

            This sounds about as silly to me as defending a system that uses “-” to express addition and “+” to express subtraction on the same grounds. Yes: symbols are in some sense arbitrary. Still, the “network effects” are very significant.

            “;” is a better symbol in this case than “+” because the former has no particular relevance to the domain, while “+” is a close-to-universal symbol for addition, and matrix addition is very much a thing. It may be preferable to avoid using “+” at all if it can’t be used to express addition, just to avoid semantic confusion.

        • Murphy says:

          From my experience with matlab:

          amazing for stringing together a bunch of high power, extremely high level functions.

          Ridiculously bad for trivial tasks like minor text manipulation or parsing. I wrote a tiny app in it and spent many x the time on code to handle a few arguments than I did on the code that actually did the work.

        • tayfie says:

          That’s what happens when you sacrifice lots of common programming conventions and functionality for no reason. All the benefits engineers get from Matlab could have been done in a more programmer friendly way.

          Of course, programmers would still frown about it being its own isolated environment tightly controlled by one company and sandboxed from the rest of the computer. The tabular data processing Matlab excels at is not a large part of most applications. The tricky bit is usually gluing everything together, and that means general libraries for fiddling with any file format or OS function under the sun.

      • skef says:

        There is an open source clone of Matlab called Octave that isn’t perfectly compatible but good enough that a lot of that ecosystem works with both.

      • WashedOut says:

        I am an engineer – my holy grail use for programming would be geostatistics (such as random field theory, kriging, etc.)

        I will probably come to regret this wording, but looks like R is going to be the smoother ride.

    • Tenacious D says:

      I’m also non-IT STEM and early 30s. I recently worked through the book Seven Languages in Seven Weeks and found it to be a good experience. Time investment was about half of the 10-15 hours/wk you mention. In-person tutoring would probably be more effective, but a book with a good structure and some guided exercises can also be a good way to learn. This particular book was great because switching between languages on a weekly basis meant that some concepts were repeated in different ways, which helps reinforce them.

    • Elena Yudovina says:

      I am currently employed as a data scientist; I brought to the interview a PhD in probability, a postdoc in theoretical statistics, a year and a half as a developer in a custom Java spin-off, and a token gesture at learning python. This was regarded by my employer as sufficient qualifications to be employed as a [junior] data scientist (sadly, we don’t have a principal / senior data science position; I really wish we did).

      At my company, there’s a group that does data science mainly in python and another group that does it mainly in R; I agree with @Telemythides that R goes better with a PhD in math / stats / …, whereas python goes better with a general programming background. (Also, neural networks stuff seems to be happening mainly in python, whereas R has more of the “classical” techniques.) However, my personal opinion is that differences between languages get overblown; if you know what you want to do in R, Google can probably tell you how to get it done in python. (This is slow for the first couple of weeks, until you actually internalize the translations.) Anecdotally, my employer seems to agree, though they might be particularly open-minded.

      On the subject of teaching yourself programming, I’ve had some personalized instruction in C++, and am self-taught beyond that; this disqualifies me from commenting on how to learn your first programming language on your own. My latest new language I learned by using it for Project Euler, and would recommend that to supplement whatever you’re doing; the early exercises are quite short, and there’s a lot of solutions by other people, so I’ve found it a good way to find short code snippets that do what I was trying to do except cleaner. Unfortunately, it’s only tangentially related to data science, so it’s a good way to learn language basics but not to learn data science-specific libraries.

      In terms of boosting resume, it would likely help to be able to say “I completed these courses” (in-person or online), beyond “I read this book”. It is also helpful to be able to say “I did these practical applications”, for which I can recommend Kaggle (you don’t need to win competitions to cite it, but it helps if you can get into the top 10%).

      May I ask what your current position is? I’m always interested in what other things one can do with a STEM background.

      • WashedOut says:

        Thanks so much for that feedback. It sounds like you’re working in an industry/location that is very competitive and near saturation point for people of your background. If you lived in my city/country you’d be an absolute shoe-in for a principal position.

        May I ask what your current position is? I’m always interested in what other things one can do with a STEM background

        I’m a geotechnical engineer, working at the crossroads of slope stability/seismology/geophysics/mining. I linked a few papers elsewhere in the subthread that hint at the sort of problems i’m looking at, which boil down to neat numerical tools to study the spatial and temporal variability of ground conditions. The data I normally have to work with are large drill hole databases and down-hole geophysical measurements.

        • Elena Yudovina says:

          Interestingly, it’s the opposite: it’s a company (and, arguably, an industry) where data science is new and small and they’re sort of giving it a try. I suppose one way to see it is that all of us in the group are senior data scientists, and there’s a shortage of junior ones; it’s certainly true that a lot of the goal-setting of “what projects do we work on, what do we expect to be able to accomplish in them, what is more valuable” ends up being done either by me and my peers (with a limited background in actual hands-on down-to-earth data analysis), or by management without any background in data science at all.

    • savebandit says:

      Finally, something I can contribute to! I’m a self-taught programmer (well, self-taught, then boot camp, but that seems to fit what you’re looking for). My last few roles were on the data science side, partially doing analysis and partially as the guy who would turn the other data scientists’ code into something that would run at all/run in a reasonable amount of time.

      The first rule when just starting out is that whatever language you find understandable is the one you should run with. If that’s R, and nothing else makes sense, then learn R. The second rule is, don’t learn R if you can learn Python instead.

      The first reason for that is that R is terrible at anything that isn’t statistics, and very few computer programs are valuable just for number-crunching. They need to communicate with the rest of the business somehow. Eventually, someone will ask you to turn your R programs into a form that the rest of the business can interact with. There is R Server, which as of a year ago reliably breaks under any kind of strain, or just for the hell of it, about once every two weeks. It’s the most supported option for building APIs with R (or was a the time I looked), which doesn’t speak well of the other options. Generally, R libraries for doing general purpose programming all have something subtly wrong with them that you have to change before they’re useful. Maybe the original author assumed that all files get put in “C:\harvard\users\ggreen”, or assumed that you’ve installed the same three or four plotting libraries that they have, or something else.

      The second reason is that R is easy precisely because it does bad things by default. Sometimes languages are easier to use than others because they’ve been designed without the problems of earlier languages. Sometimes they’re easier to use because they choose to do nonsensical things where other languages would throw an error to indicate you need to fix something. R is the latter. This isn’t just a theoretical problem, either; we had about 10 incidents of missing data in a year because of errors that were hidden by one quirk or another in R’s handling of input data. In one case, a colleague spent a month on a script before realizing that an issue with NA values threw off all his statistics. This resulted in a complete 180 for his analysis, which lost us several months worth of misspent revenue. Frequently, I would be asked to rewrite things just to make sure that the algorithms they designed were even valid. R will look easy because it removes all those pesky errors, but they’re there for a reason. For the same reason aspiring scientists can’t shrug off learning about significant digits, aspiring computer programmers can’t shrug off learning about proper error handling. Unfortunately, R makes this incredibly hard, and you’ll feel like you’re making progress even as you develop all kinds of bad habits.

      In terms of learning, find a tutor and a problem you would like to solve yourself. Then use the time with your tutor to tackle this problem. I don’t recommend stuff like project euler or other coding practice sites unless you don’t have any problems you would like to solve yourself. It’s easier to stay motivated when solving a personal problem.

    • Pdubbs says:

      I’m a self-taught data scientist who originally did undergrad in physics, so I think I understand your scenario. I’ve done IC and team lead work, and in addition to my day job I mentor bootcamp students trying to transition into data science.

      First the language question:
      If R feels good, it’s an excellent choice for your situation. You’ll see a lot of hate for R from devs because it has a lot of nonstandard conventions (like indexing from 1), but in my experience people from physics/chem/bio/econ backgrounds find it much easier to learn and use. R is good for almost any data science task and is used in almost every data science team. Python edges it out for most common language in data science, but R is far more prevalent than any third alternative (matlab, julia, etc.).

      If you decide R isn’t right for you, learn python. Here’s a set of pros and cons for each:

      R Pros
      RStudio provides a better environment for exploratory data analysis than anything in python
      ggplot provides a toolkit for data visualization that is fast to use but also easy to make pretty
      – R is more likely to work “out of the box” than python as you install libraries from within R and theres only one line of development (vs. python 2 and 3 having slightly different module sets and conventions)
      – R is often more intuitive for people not familiar with CS (because of nonstandard things like lists starting at 1)
      – Data science is the primary concern of R: it was built for statistics, so basically all the features revolve around what you usually want to do
      – R is the language preferred by academic statisticians. This means advanced statistical techniques are more likely available out of the box and better supported in R

      R Cons
      – R is often slow. Although there are tricks to speed it up, lots of things (especially loops) will run faster in python than in equivalent R code.
      – R is bad at talking to other computers (interacting with other programming languages, communicating over APIs etc.) This means if you want to do work that could be put into production, you should try to do it in python (or something faster than either)
      – R is not intuitive for people with CS backgrounds: indexing starts from 1, everything is a vector, and other adventures make it weird and different if you’re used to programming in basically any other language
      – Data science is the primary concern of R: This means if you want to work with data in nontraditional forms (like image/video) python support is better, and if you want to do things in the domain of general programing, R is going to make them harder than they need to be.

      R Summary: An excellent choice for doing data science, R excels at data exploration and is the best choice for jobs that focus on finding insights and presenting them to others or that have a heavy component of traditional/academic statistics. R is the language of overlap between Data Scientist, Statistician, and Analyst. I have found it most helpful when working as an analytical consultant.

      Python Pros
      – Python is fast. While compiled languages will blow both out of the water, python typically outperforms R, sometimes dramatically.
      – Python is a general purpose language: when you want to do things like link to APIs python will be much easier and more reliable than R
      – Python is the language of choice for neural network support. You can still do deep learning in R, but support is usually worse and libraries further from the cutting edge.

      Python Cons
      – Python is a general purpose language: while the pandas/sk-learn/etc. ecosystem provides excellent support for data tasks, it’s less unified than R and you will run into issues that you never see in R (like errors between pandas dataframes and numpy arrays), and data tools are less well indexed than CRAN
      – Python is worse for data exploration. Although IDEs like pycharma> and Project Jupyter are good, they are not as good for EDA as RStudio. Similarly matplotlib and seaborn give excellent visualization capabilities, but require more effort to get graphs as good as ggplot makes.

      Python Summary An excellent choice for doing data science, Python excels at automation/production data science and is the best choice for jobs that focus on passing the results of data science to other machines or deal with data that can’t be structured as a spreadsheet. Python is the language of overlap between Data Scientist, Programmer, and Machine Learning Engineer. I have found it most helpful when building models that continuously update in-house in tech companies.

      Then the bootcamp question:
      Whether or not a bootcamp is a good choice depends mostly in two factors: how self motivated are you, and do you have expert friends/colleauges who can review your work and answer questions. For the first, there are a ton of smart, productive people, who nonetheless won’t complete all of the work they need to to learn unless they’re paying for it and set on a schedule. Be honest if you are this type of person and if so, seek instruction. For the second: while you’re learning you can’t be trusted to assess the quality of your work or whether you are developing bad habits. You need someone who can do these things for you, and if you don/t have access to it in your professional/social circle, the bootcamp is worth it for this feature.

      The other factor to consider is the resume screen. Bootcamp graduates have an easier time getting an interview than people who are self-taught and don’t have a job title with “Data”, “Analyst”, or “Statistical” on their resume, and some bootcamps even have job guarantees (or your money back). The better your professional network in DS is (so people can give you references etc.), the less important this feature is.

      Finally the time question:
      I would say that 3-6 months is a good timeframe for getting entry-level skills if you study 10-15 hours a week. Spend more of that time focused on doing a lot of work (tons of data manipulation, train lots of models, make lots of graphs and see which ones highlight what you thinj is important) and less of it focused on theory. I have seen many people with PhDs passed up for people with an undergrad and a couple years of work experience, because the latter was much faster and more reliable at doing relatively straightforward work. Things you shoud be familiar with to consider yourself ready are:
      – Data manipulation: long to wide, dealing with missing data, transforming variables, etc.
      – Visualization: when, where to use and how to make bar charts, histograms, line charts, box-and-whisker plots, scatterplots
      – Modeling: linear regression and some tree methods (e.g. random forest). Bias-variance tradeoff. How to validate a model. How to avoid overfitting. How to interpret a model.
      – Hypothesis testing: p-values have problems but almost everyone still uses them. Know how to setup and analyze an AB test. Be aware of issues with making multiple comparisons
      Structuring problems: Maybe the most important skill. Taking a vauge problem like “what makes our customers happy” and knowing how to turn it into math is often more valuable than knowing how to do the math.

      Extra advice:
      Learn SQL. At many, many enterprises SQL (or a SQL-like language like hive) is a necessary skill for data scientists. The most expert statistician in the world isn’t very useful if they don’t have data, and if a company needs to employ someone else to query databases and retrieve data for you, you just because twice as expensive. At enterprise tech companies, SQL is typically as big of an interview component as Python/R.

      Also, communication is huge. Knowing how to explain a data result to a project manager, marketer, engineer, or CEO makes you much more valuable than just knowing how to build the model/do the analysis/conduct the experiment.

  32. Diaghilev says:

    Is anyone looking for a player in an online 5E D&D game? I’m in a mountain town in France for the year and haven’t found anyone in meatspace who throws dice and speaks English.

    Preferences are English language, GMT+1, preferably starting around 6 or 7 pm and going no later than midnight on any weeknight from Tuesday through Friday, potentially Saturday. The ideal campaign would be a weekly or bi-weekly high-fantasy or sword-and-sorcery game. I’d like the chance to invest in a setting and character, so no one-shots, please.

    I’ve been gaming since the summer of 2000 and run my own weekly game over Roll20 and Discord; I’m looking for more time on the player side of the GM screen.

    Also potentially open to games other than 5E D&D. Please reply to this post and message me on Reddit at u/Diaghilev, or I’ll likely miss your response.

  33. sebastiankosch says:

    Can anyone recommend an enjoyable introduction to Predictive Processing?

    I recently picked up Surfing Uncertainty, but while the content is just what I’m looking for I found the writing style atrociously baroque and long-winded and had to put the book down after a few dozen pages.

    • Lambert says:

      Same, to a certain extent.
      Though it was an e-resource with a UI I didn’t particularly like.
      Perhaps I just need a copy made out of dead trees.

  34. Argos says:

    As a (very) junior part-time software engineer still in college I am somewhat scared that much of the technical knowledge that I acquire will be rendered obsolete sometime in the future. What technical knowledge (in terms of languages, frameworks, concepts) has the longest expected timespan of still being relevant and helpful in my future career (“softer” skills like good communication or writing readable code are obviously very important too, but they don’t get you past the hr department) ?

    This is a point I have rarely, if ever, seen discussed. Whenever programmers discuss what language or technology would be useful to pick up next, the focus is always on things that are hot right now or gaining traction in the industry and are expected to be in demand in the near future, but somehow people rarely consider that careers last longer than 5 years. Surely one should also consider the lifetime of a technology when learning something:

    An obvious example of what not to learn seems to be the new coolest web framework that will be useful for about 6 months. More surprisingly to me, I recently saw a discussion on hacker news how much of the specialized skills of computer vision engineers has been rendered obsolete by the recent advances in general purpose deep learning algorithms, with very little transferability of that knowledge to other domains. It’s already not easy to find a new job as a middle aged software engineer, good luck doing that in a new domain too.

    • Argos says:

      My thoughts on possibly long lasting technology:

      Obviously, nobody can see technical advancements coming beforehand, but the best strategy seems to be to identify skills with predictably high demand in the future and cross applicability to other domains (at least being able to convince other people that those skills are transferable); so far I have identified the following:

      Enterprise Java (has been around for forever, and is deeply uncool, so the demand is not affected by the fickle trends in our industry, but even if Java goes out of fashion, you can still claim experience in writing enterprise software)
      SQL (has also been around forever, but less transferability)
      Principles of Distributed Systems (Given that Moore’s Law seems to have stopped, the field is likely to grow in importance, however I am unsure about transferability)
      Linux (not going away)

      Notably, I think that investing time in shallowly learning machine learning is a dangerous time investment. Most of the things taught in courses on practical machine learning seem to lend themselves easily to automation given enough computing power, there is a bunch of people who will now focus on this area in college while the actual demand in the industry might stay relatively flat; also, very little is applicable to other fields.

    • johan_larson says:

      If I were studying CS right now, I’d be sure to take advanced courses in AI, networks, UI, and distributed systems. All four matter now and seem likely to keep mattering. I would also go looking for a course on computing and the law or something like that, because computing’s footprint is now so big that governments can’t help but get involved, and understanding the issues and pain points around that would be useful. I would also take rather a lot of stats courses, because the world is full of messy data and statistics is the discipline that squeezes truth out of it. And I would make sure I understand full-stack web development using some current stack; which one doesn’t much matter because the favorites keep changing.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Firstly, your theoretical knowledge will always outlast technical knowledge by a factor of at least 10. Things like fundamentals of data structures and computer architecture will still be relevant when Web Framework N+1 replaces Web Framework N. Some familiarity with multi-threading seems to be particularly rare among programmers. Sure, the standard response to that is “no one needs to deal with threads because the framework takes care of it”; but, like most pithy answers, it is simple, compelling, and wrong.

      That said, machine learning and AI are currently in high demand. Assuming the Singularity is not going to arrive in the next 5 years, these skills will still be in high demand then (or rather, they will be the bare minimum that you need in order to get a decent job in the field). Google’s TensorFlow is currently the industry standard, but you might want to learn how AWS does things, as well — not just to learn the two leading frameworks, but to get a feel for how future frameworks might be put together.

    • SamChevre says:

      I’d say it depends on what field you want to work in, but one particularly-durable technology is whatever big-business record-keeping systems run. Most big firms in my field (insurance) are still running COBOL mainframes, and there’s still a good bit of APL in some areas, even though “let’s get off APL” has been everyone’s goal for at least 20 years.

      I don’t know what the next COBOL is, but whatever the equivalent is will be around for a long time.

      • johan_larson says:

        The next COBOL is almost certainly Java. Perfectly decent language. Weird, weird tools/frameworks ecosystem.

        • Brad says:

          Yeah. I don’t get the love for spring—with xml or now with shiny annotations—whatsoever.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          The *current* COBOL is Java!

          Most production COBOL compilers today output JAR files designed to be run on JVM application servers.

          The COBOL execution model is trivially mapped onto the JVM. A talented CS 4th year could do it, and some decent compiler optimizations too.

          • Iain says:

            This is mostly false. (Source: this is literally my day job.)

            First: of the five COBOL compilers listed on the wiki page, only Visual COBOL (from Micro Focus) runs on the JVM. GnuCOBOL compiles to C. Fujitsu’s NetCOBOL and all of IBM’s COBOL compilers generate native code. I don’t know what MCP does, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Java-based.

            Second: it’s actually pretty difficult to accurately map COBOL execution onto the JVM. Control flow in COBOL is deeply non-standard, and so are the default datatypes. Also, most versions of mainframe COBOL are deeply intertwined with the operating system in a variety of ways.

            Micro Focus makes it work by redefining the language and breaking compatibility. A true remapping of COBOL’s execution model would be much harder.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            We have different experience.

            Yes, I was wrong about the number of compilers. But in the gigs I was working in, the COBOL to JVM technique was eating native COBOL alive.

            My experience included switching a pretty large company from native-arch COBOL to JVM hosted, and then running those JAR files in what the industry was just starting to call a PaaS. The necessary source code transformations over 100+ apps of a few 100 KLOC each were minimal, were done with a few hundred lines of Perl hackery, and mostly involved stripping out non-portable OS-specific IO and linking directives.

            Ran faster too.

          • Iain says:

            Micro Focus obviously has customers, or else they would be out of business. Nevertheless, that’s not what the majority of COBOL usage looks like. COBOL shops hate change; if they liked change, they wouldn’t still be using COBOL. Big migrations to the JVM are the exception, not the rule. (They’re the most visible aspect of COBOL to people doing temporary gigs, though, which explains your experience.)

            Looking through the Micro Focus documentation, there are a bunch of places where it indicates that they’ve done their best to provide the same behaviour, but can’t make guarantees. That won’t fly with your average COBOL programmer, who complains when code stops crashing on invalid data because his workflow depends on invalid data crashing in production.

            Also: while it’s very possible for a JVM-based implementation to run faster than a bad native compiler, I’m quite familiar with the details of both approaches and I can assure you that the JVM is not a great fit for COBOL’s execution model. COBOL’s most common datatypes are not natively supported by the JVM, and no language other than COBOL supports the nonsense that can be done with PERFORM statements. If you want precise dataflow analysis, you either have to impose a different semantics on COBOL programs (and hope that the program is well-structured) or teach the JVM how to handle COBOL-specific constructs.

      • Bugmaster says:

        C# is definitely a niche language that is used by many major firms (and also Unity, for some reason). It gained popularity among large enterprises when they decided that “you can’t go wrong with Microsoft” (because of course they did). The language itself is actually not bad, but the ecosystem for it is nonexistent (since most people use Python or Java instead); as the result, most enterprise shops have massive amounts of custom libraries and frameworks that they wrote over the years just to keep their old code functioning.

        • nameless1 says:

          I know an IT manager who also doubles as a programmer for coding some inhouse used apps, is using a very nice web frontend/gui framework, just hand it an SQL query and it shows a table with column sorting, filtering, searching, paging, Excel exporting and so on. And also very useful data entry forms, which can use the above table as lookup etc. Instead of developing massive frameworks, he basically just writes SQL and the basic minimum C# to glue this. But this framework costed money. Not so much. A few hundreds maybe.

          So the ecosystem is there, just not free.

          BTW what is an enterprise shop? What one guy does as half his job is probably not one. Why does American business sound always so terrifyingly big? This guy is the IT manager of a company that can put a shoe on the shelves of shoe shops from Oslo to Athens. In that sense big. But not big in the sense of headcount.

          • SamChevre says:

            One big difference in IT scale is how much history do you need. Insurance IT tends to be huge and old for this reason; you need an accurate record of everything that has happened for decades (there are still a fair number of policies from the 1950’s in force).

          • Bugmaster says:

            Yeah, if you want some UI controls to tie together a bunch of DB tables, with minimal coding, then C# is a great language for you. But if you want to write code to do any kind of math, or biology, or graphics, or full-text search, or ML, etc., then you’re pretty much on your own. The best you’ll get are one-off ports of old versions of Java frameworks, and that’s if you’re lucky…

        • toastengineer says:

          C# is the #4 most used programming language (not counting HTML, CSS, etc…) according to the latest Stack Overflow poll.

    • rlms says:

      Most substantial pieces of technical knowledge have arbitrarily long lifespans if you don’t switch jobs: I doubt anyone’s started a new project in COBOL in the last 20 years, but there are still people working on maintaining old ones.

    • tlwest says:

      Speaking only for myself, a good understanding of basic programming concepts and data structures (up to OO) along with basic database concepts has kept me happily employed over 35 years and about a dozen languages and technologies.

      People will tell you that you should learn this field or that, but my experience is that just being completely conversant with all the concepts taught to a second year university student put one in the 95th percentile of programmers.

      Now that won’t make you a Googler, but it’s been enough to have a decent long running career, and I don’t think that will change all that much in the next 25 years either.

      About the only conceptual element I’ve had to spend a decent amount of time learning about since graduation was functional programming (I’m currently a C# programmer), and that turned out to be a booby trap because despite being assured that it was something “everyone needed to know”, nobody knew it, and I had to rip it out of any code I’d used it in so that the code could actually be maintained.

      My only recommendation is to become the main or sole programmer on some large projects (hobby projects are fine). Once you’ve designed and written, then thrown away and redesigned and rewritten a couple of 100K line programs, you’ll likely be a much better designer. (And you’ll understand why one comments one code. The first time you look at something complicated you wrote a few years ago and you have *no* idea what you were thinking, is the first time you truly understand what comments are for.)

      • ordogaud says:

        >About the only conceptual element I’ve had to spend a decent amount of time learning about since graduation was functional programming (I’m currently a C# programmer), and that turned out to be a booby trap because despite being assured that it was something “everyone needed to know”, nobody knew it, and I had to rip it out of any code I’d used it in so that the code could actually be maintained.

        Really? You mean like pure functional programming? Because delegates/lambdas are the backbone of LINQ and someone not being able to maintain some LINQ code in a C# project should find another job. That’s like a fundamental feature of .NET these days, ripping that out of a project would be super annoying. Also WPF/WinForms/Any god damn UI with binding/dependency injection.

    • arlie says:

      I am 60 years old, and I’ve been working in software for 40 of those years, not counting education.

      I am not using any language, framework, or tool I studied in college, or even used in my first 7 years in industry. Knowledge of specific algorithms has lasted a bit better, and knowledge of how to design and evaluate algorithms has lasted better than that.

      But bottom line – whatever you pick is not going to last. If you pick something likely to change slowly, and stick with it, you’ll find yourrself maintaining legacy software for some boring behemoth. And even they will eventually either succumb to a changing market, or rewrite their software using more modern tools. (Most likely, they’ll stop rolling their own, and buy a replacement. The areas with most of the jobs have been moving up the software stack almost from the beginning.)

      Oddly, I have no difficulty finding jobs. I know the “common wisdom” says it’s hard, at my age – and it probably helps that I don’t look all that old – but the truth is, I can still pick and choose. And I don’t do many of the things people expect – I rarely study new technology on my own time, preferring to get paid to learn it 😉

      My many year specialty (operating system kernels) has few jobs available in it any longer. I explored several possibly related directions, and wound up working in performance – I know a lot more about what’s going on under the covers than the average developer, and can often tell them what they are doing wrong, to create a variety of unpleasant issues. A lot of the tools used to investigate performance issues are easier to understand if you understand libraries and kernels. And the average new grad seems to pick up rather less about operating systems in school than my peers generally did. So I had a potential advantage, and it’s been working out quite well for me.

      I see a career as a process of periodic reevaluation and redirection. If what you are doing isn’t working, figure out how to leverage it to do something you prefer. You’ll have to do that several times, just from technology drift, even without other issues. (Example of other issues – a chemist friend reinvented herself as a systems administrator after a stroke left her one handed…)

      • Ketil says:

        I am not using any language, framework, or tool I studied in college, or even used in my first 7 years in industry.

        I actually find I still use tools I learned in the early nineties, more than 25 years ago. Unix (now in the flavor of Linux). Emacs. LaTeX. I don’t personally program much in C family languages, but would probably still look to gcc and gdb.

        I’m a bit at a loss about whether to recommend people learn those tools, or get on some shiny newfangled bandwagon instead. But then again, I’ve seen bandwagons come and go for a couple of decades, while the tools I use tend to remain.

        • rlms says:

          I think all of those are still worth learning (with the obvious exception of emacs) and the people who designed my undergraduate CS course curriculum seem to agree.

    • Aapje says:


      I think that it’s safer to be a semi-generalist than a hardcore specialist. If you keep using different technologies, then some of those will become obsolete fairly quickly, but the process of learning them keeps one major skill strong: the ability to quickly pick up something new. You’ll also learn to recognize the common elements. Many new languages and frameworks are very similar to the old ones, in their structure.

      Furthermore, by knowing many technologies, you can nearly always find shared ground with technical interviewers and have some buzzwords that match the HR requirements.

      As a junior programmer, I would suggest laying a basis with a language and frameworks that have been popular for a long time and will likely remain so (even if merely due to inertia). For example, Java + Hibernate + Spring + SQL is a good basis. As a beginning programmer, you have to look past the tendency of senior programmers to get excited about new things a bit. They already have the basis that you are missing and that they take for granted.

    • Murphy says:

      Myself I don’t think you should worry too much about specific languages as long as you don’t hyper-specialize.

      There’s a couple of career paths I avoided despite being potentially lucrative. One was in a set of languages used in perhaps a dozen factories around the world. Specialists could make a fortune… but once those few fabs update then you’re stuck with all your experience being in dead tech.

      But there’s a host of languages that will never die and general skill transfers well between languages in the same “family”. C, C++, perl (euck), python, java, .NET, SQL,even lisp. Enough of the world runs on these things that you’ll never struggle too hard to find paying work and any skills you have in them transfer smoothly into hundreds of other languages.

      • skef says:

        perl (euck)

        You would think perl had murdered everyone’s baby given how much people signal against it.

        • johan_larson says:

          Perl makes it very easy to write terse code that works but is very hard to understand for anyone other than the author. That makes working in an established codebase of Perl a real pain in the ass, particularly if the person who wrote it originally wasn’t trained in more conventional programming languages or was just quirky in general.

          • skef says:

            Perl makes it very easy to write terse code that works but is very hard to understand by anyone other than the author.

            This is what people usually say and I guess I don’t know what to think about it because I’ve worked with plenty of code in most of those languages and the issues with perl have never stood out for me that way.

    • Iain says:

      Don’t focus on individual languages or frameworks. It’s a trap. Learn concepts.

      Take all the algorithms courses. Take a functional programming course. Take a computer architecture course. Take a web development course (but don’t get hung up on the specific choice of frameworks). Your goal is not to learn how any specific piece of software works; it’s to learn how software works in general. Don’t learn about SQL — learn about databases.

      If learning about one front-end JS framework doesn’t teach you anything about other front-end JS frameworks, you are probably doing it wrong. You should have at least a rough understanding of what your framework is doing for you under the covers. Similarly, you should aim to learn “Enterprise Java” in a way that generalizes to “Enterprise C#”. The way that you organize a program at scale is not language-dependent.

      Get used to learning new languages.

    • SaiNushi says:

      As someone with a lot of family who’s been in the computers field for awhile (lots of older siblings who are >5 years older than me), and who has been getting advice about this very thing:

      The thing about different languages within the same category is most of them are basically the same, just with different syntax. So, if you know Java, you’ll be comfortable with C#, you just have to learn the “grammar” differences. The most useful thing is to learn languages that are very different from each other. (Java and C are both object-oriented programming languages, python is a simplified version of those two, but Ruby is a whole other ball game), and maybe one or two that are similar so you can see what is meant by them being basically the same with different syntax.

      Beyond that, knowing security concerns is the next most important thing, and having a good handle on how hardware fits in is also a good idea.

      • rlms says:

        Java and C are both object-oriented programming languages, python is a simplified version of those two, but Ruby is a whole other ball game

        I think all three clauses of this are false: C certainly isn’t object-oriented, Python isn’t a simplified version of either, and AFAIK Ruby is extremely similar to Python (they’re more similar than almost any other pair of mainstream languages I can think of).

        • 天可汗 says:

          AFAIK Ruby is extremely similar to Python

          I wouldn’t say that. You can write Ruby that’s similar to Python, but it’s not good Ruby.

          For one thing, Ruby is an OO language, whereas Python has clunky support for OO, sort of. My impression is that idiomatic Ruby uses a lot more classes than idiomatic Python.

          • toastengineer says:

            What’s wrong with Python’s OO? It’s perfectly fine. You’re encouraged not to use classes when they aren’t needed, when you don’t have behavior and data that inter-depend on each other, but that’s because they aren’t needed when they aren’t needed.

          • rlms says:

            They aren’t exactly the same, but they are very similar (being scripting languages that don’t use curly braces with OOP and functional features and overlap in common use cases (backend web development)) in comparison to other pairs of languages. If you used to work with Python/Django and have to switch to RoR, you will have to learn some new syntax, idioms and libraries, but that shouldn’t take that long for anyone competent. On the other hand, switching between any of e.g. C, Java, Python, Haskell requires significant shifts in approach. I think C# and Java are probably more similar than Ruby and Python, but I’m struggling to think of any other pairs with more similarity (not counting e.g. Javascript, Lisp, ML dialects etc.).

          • James says:

            Python’s OO is fine according to OO as commonly understood in its Java-ish/C++-ish sense, but I think Rubyists tend to lean more towards a Smalltalk-ish concept of OO, where objects have a bit more autonomy in how they deal with/interpret messages. Python (like almost all mainstream languages) comes up wanting on that metric.

    • beleester says:

      Fancy new web frameworks may last about six months, but almost everyone uses something that gives you components and data binding. If you learned React, it won’t be very hard to switch to Angular or Ember or whatever. So you should still learn at least one web framework, even though you might not use it at your next job, because they share the same concepts.

      EDIT: My personal tool-belt for a well-rounded developer would be:
      1. An object-oriented, memory-managed language (C#, Java, Python). A bread and butter language that everyone knows and can do pretty much anything.
      2. JavaScript, HTML, and CSS – the core you need for any sort of web development.
      3. A modern JS toolkit – NodeJS and your favorite framework like React or Angular. These tools will stick around in some form or another, because the concepts are useful.
      4. SQL. This is basically the choice for databases, far more common than any NoSQL options.
      5. A functional language of any description (Haskell, Lisp). This one you’ll never use,
      but the concepts are gradually penetrating into the mainstream, and “normal” languages now let you write things in a functional style. Know how to write a lambda in your languages of choice, and common functions like map, reduce, and filter.

      • SamChevre says:

        I’ll add: if you are working with data, understanding how a database works “ground-up” is very helpful long-term. A flat-file or APL database makes you think about the things that SQL does automatically; it’s much more efficient to have them done automatically, but having done them “by hand” a few times really increases your ability to work effectively with a database that handles them automatically.

    • Viliam says:

      In programming, the more abstract knowledge usually has a longer lifespan, but of course you have to get though the specific knowledge first (it is impossible to generalize from zero examples). So I would say don’t worry as long as you are moving forward. Keep asking whether what you know now could be just one specific instance of a more general thing.

      Java is the new COBOL, where by “COBOL” I mean “a well-paid job that you can keep doing even after 30 when you are no longer considered one of the cool young kids”. Python and JavaScript are great choices, too. The most important thing is to avoid PHP.

      Databases are important; many applications use data that are too large to fit into memory at once. You should learn not just the SQL syntax, but also things like database normalization. Or just good habits such as: “each table should have a primary key which is always called ID and is never used for anything other than uniquely identifying a database record”. Programming languages typically provide an abstraction layer above SQL, but the layer is usually imperfect and in a non-trivial project you will have to touch the database directly. It is also good to become familiar with no-SQL databases, just to know there is another option.

      Linux is a great choice. Parallelization is an important concept to keep in mind when learning programming (“what would happen if two threads would call this code at the same time?”).

      Don’t try to memorize everything; keep notes instead. No need to write a thesis on everything; sometimes the most useful note is a hyperlink; but sometimes there are details that most popular tutorials forget to mention. I like to keep minimal examples of various things.

      Learn to write algorithms (e.g. recursion) and become familiar with frequently-used data structures. Understand the algorithmic complexity notation, i.e. why a logarithmic solution is usually better than a quadratic one. Notice the repeating “design patterns”. Instead of using various recommendations blindly, try to understanding their point (because too many people do cargo-cult programming). For example, notice how using immutable data structures makes parallel programming much easier.

      Okay, something controversial: Many programmers repeat the mantra “do not reinvent the wheel”. In general, this is a good advice in production, but when I have more free time I noticed that after I tried to reinvent something there already was a standard solution for, I later understood the standard solution better, because I understood why certain things were done in a seemingly complicated way. (In general, learning the solution before fully understanding the problem may lead to the cargo-cult programming. “Why are we doing it like this?” “That’s the best practice.” “Why?” “Because the website said so.”)

    • veeloxtrox says:

      Learn SQL. While it might get replaced down the road (and that is unlikely) whatever replaces it will be very similar because SQL is close enough to relational algebra that your skill will transfer.

    • pontifex says:

      Being a computer programming is more about intelligence than about knowledge. As long as you rolled a good INT on your character creation sheet, you’ll be fine. The degree is mostly for signalling purposes and for networking purposes. Nobody will ask you about it once you have a few years of experience.

      There are a few exceptions like bioinformatics, signal processing, artificial intelligence, and certain types of scientific computing, where you actually need the magic letters “PhD”. For the most part, though, the pay is the same, and the PhD takes years of your life. So only do it if you really, really want it for its own sake.

      P.S. Don’t ever take a job as a game programmer. The hours for game developers are long, and management treats you like dirt, since they don’t need you once the game is released.

      P.P.S. Avoid web stuff because it’s boring. Any kind of knowledge in web development has a shelf life of like 6 months.

      • Lillian says:

        It’s not really that management doesn’t need you after the game is released. Most game studios are always working on something, so chances are there’ll be another project after the current one. The main reason game programmers tend to be overworked and poorly treated has more to do with supply and demand. There are far more programmers would like to make games than there are gaming development jobs available, which means that there is no shortage of schmucks willing to put up with long hours and poor conditions for the sake of living the dream. As long as that is true, game development will be primarily a job for those who are passionate about it.

        • pontifex says:

          You’re right that many young people seem to really want to get into games programming, and that is one driver of poor conditions.

          It’s not really that management doesn’t need you after the game is released. Most game studios are always working on something, so chances are there’ll be another project after the current one.

          Sure, but to be blunt, I’ll work for people who definitely need me, not people who have a “chance” of needing me. And also people who need me specifically, because of the code I wrote in the past, not just another warm body for Madden N+1.

          • Lillian says:

            A game studio can very well need you specifically because of code you wrote in the past. Game engines are usually reused several times, with incremental improvements over their multi-year life span. Even when a new engine is developed expertise in the previous one is frequently relevant. While i’m not in a position to say how the rate of code turnover in the gaming industry compares to others, it is definitely not the case that they start over from scratch every new game.

            That said, yes the games industry is in general best avoided unless you’re really passionate about it.

          • pontifex says:

            I was under the impression that game engine development had become significantly decoupled from game development in the last few years. Maybe a few big studios like Id still do their own engines in-house, but don’t most other studios just license something?

          • Mark Atwood says:

            don’t most other studios just license something?

            Yup. Unity. Unreal. Lumberyard. etc etc etc.

            Whenever I go to PAX West, my favorite area is the small indy section. It’s mind boggling what game startup can build on top of those foundations with a staff of 5 (paperwork, project management and fundraising, art and design, and two sw devs).

          • Lillian says:

            If your company is making a game using the Unreal 4 engine, it helps to have people who are familiar with the Unreal 4 engine. If your last game was also made using the Unreal 4 engine, then the team that worked on the last game is conveniently familiar with the engine, the modifications you’ve made to that engine, any assets you built using that engine, and your general approach to game design. It is therefore beneficial to keep that team around instead of bringing in new people who will have to brought up to speed.

  35. johan_larson says:

    Hello, everyone. Welcome to the June meeting of the SSC SF Book Club. This month, we’ll be discussing Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Everyone should have read the book, so feel free to post without worrying about spoilers.

    You can find a detailed summary of the book here:

    Some thoughts:
    Was the subplot about Diane and her deep-dive into apocalyptic cults a good idea? To me, the book felt a bit long, and I could have done without the Diane plot.

    Did anyone else have issues with suspension of disbelief? I thought the whole idea of seeding Mars with life was a bit of a stretch, but OK, every novel gets one what-if. But the second plan, to seed the Oort cloud with ice-eating nanomachines with a goal of exploring the universe, was a step too far. Maybe I would have bought it with a what-if coupon, but on its own it seemed too far fetched.

    Did I miss something, or would everything have worked out for planet Earth if the protagonists had done nothing? The Hypotheticals stepped in at the last minute, returning Earth to the normal passage of time and allowing interstellar emigration via the Arch, neatly resolving the problem.

    • raj says:

      Without the Diane subplot I think it have been totally unremarkable, not enough high-concept to stand on its own. As it was, woven through the “main” plot of the book, it created compelling human narrative from Tylers’ perspective. Something to tie it all together given how much in-universe time passes.

      I thought there was something moving about how Diane basically flipped out and went to live with a cult, which normally would spelled the end of that chapter of Tylers life – a permanent closing off of possibility. But the martian cure gave them a second chance they couldn’t have really had otherwise. That’s something I’d like to see more of in scifi: connecting the science to real human outcomes that can be tangibly felt.

      I dont think the suspension of disbelief was too much, as the books’ strength wasn’t as hard-scifi. Plus terraforming and von-neumenn probes are scientifically plausible, and reasonable enough options given the scenario.

    • John Schilling says:

      Diane’s story, and character, were I agree weak. And for that matter, the protagonist had very little agency and basically served as a narrator. I suspect Wilson felt that a story about nerds taking a nerdly approach to an existential nerdish crisis would have limited appeal, and wanted to include the mundane/secular and mundane/religious responses, which would be a major part of the overall human response to a Spin-like event but which aren’t really Wilson’s natural voice.

      But this isn’t the sort of story I read for the characters, and the plot and worldbuilding were quite good most of the way through. The consequences of the Spin, and the Perihelion response, were well thought, and the sometimes less-thoughtful response of the rest of humanity was well depicted and with a reasonable impact on the Perihelion team’s planning.

      Also, Perihelion’s plan is very nearly the same one I came up with as soon as the nature of the Spin was revealed, which is always a plus. Though I’d have hedged it with a bit more (mostly but not entirely) unmanned solar system exploration to find evidence of the nature and intentions of the Hypotheticals, and a parallel Seveneves-style project for a lunar/asteroidal human civilization. That would have been more expensive, somewhat riskier, but more importantly would have made for a megatome-length book. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the hypotheticals would deal with a classic Belter civilization.

      The letdown came at the end, with an explanation that was too small. First, because I am not fond of Fermi-Paradox explanations that require that absolutely all alien civilizations behave the same way, and this requires that twice over. Every single planetary civilization has to outgrow its resource base to an irrecoverably fatal degree before developing long-term stability, and every local manifestation of the massively decentralized nanoprobe fusion culture has to agree on exactly the same response.

      Second, because the response is inadequate. Humanity took ~5500 years to go from the dawn of recorded history to the point Wilson and the Hypotheticals would mark as the near-exhaustion of the Earth; if we add another 550 years at 2% growth that would exhaust another 59,873 Earth-like planets. 550 years beyond that, and we’re above three and a half trillion Earths. Perhaps other species develop their civilizations at different rates, but the “problem” requires that T(prehistory->KI) is never sufficient to reach stability but 1.1-1.2T reliably will be – across many diverse biologies, psychologies, and cultures. I don’t buy that level of uniformity even for Earth and Mars.

      And even so, this is the best the Hypotheticals could come up with? A culture that can warp time and space to Spin up planets in an evening, takes four billion years to terraform some extra worlds and build a wormhole network? They couldn’t manage e.g. a Ringworld (which would at least buy an expansionist culture another 800 years or so)? Maybe some quasi-cornucopias and wormhole-ish garbage disposals to drop as gifts and give planetary civilizations some breathing room?

      As solutions go, I think I prefer the one where you just kill 50% of the living things in the universe, and even that one was stupid.

      • quaelegit says:

        John Schilling’s Sci-Fi seal of approval: “The protags came up with more or less the same plan I did” 😛

        Good point about trying multiple settlements! I really don’t know what they’d do about a Belter society… would one get big and advanced enough to be noticed by the hypotheticals though?

        Re: all civilizations behaving the same. It is not necessary that every civilization runs into resource exhaustion that requires Spin-intervention. Just that enough have before that the Hypotheticals developed this response to it. For all Tyler knows, there might be plenty of other civilizations that achieved interstellar travel without help and are off doing their own thing (presumably they interact with the hypotheticals somehow, idk the details.) I think it’s plausible that self-bootstrapped “natural” civilization(s) could coexist with hypotheticals, and humans just haven’t met them yet.

        The “everyone’s nanobot replicators do the same thing” part does seem a bit more of a stretch. I guess the best justification I can give is that this is the strategy of the single most successful type of replicator, but that still seems like too neat of a coincidence.

        (However I did think it was really cool when I realized that Jason’s eyes were sparkly because that was the new replicator-structures growing. And of course they would grow in the eyes, the organs that sense EM radiation!)

        Are “quasi-cornucopias and wormhole-ish garbage disposals” much faster than or much different than the Spin? Honest question, I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at here.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Every single planetary civilization has to outgrow its resource base to an irrecoverably fatal degree before developing long-term stability

        I thought that the main point there was not that this necessarily had happened every time but that the hypotheticals believed it be so. That’s why they did the Spin even before humanity had outstripped its resources.

        • John Schilling says:

          Believed it on what basis? Presumably they observed (or simulated?) a statistically significant sample before adopting their Spin-them-all policy, but if we are instead supposed to believe that the nigh-omnipotent Alien Space Bats are just really, really stupid, that’s also an unsatisfactory story.

          Actually, there are likely many good stories to be written about nigh-omnipotent but really really stupid space aliens, but I think they’d have to be written with a conscious awareness of the stupidity and at least some not-stupid characters to question it.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Why does that make them stupid? If there is a statistically significant chance that these civilizations will go extinct and by the time they can be certain that some civilization will need help it will be too late, wouldn’t it just make sense to Spin all the civilizations that meet whatever criteria they have, even before they know whether they need it?

    • dodrian says:

      One thing that I really liked about this book is the differences between the three main characters in crisis, and how they reflect on humanity. On the one hand you have Jason, who bends his will and optimism to the Spin problem. At the other extreme you have Diane, who runs from it. John Schilling notes the Tyler’s lack of agency, and I think that’s the third option: just go with the flow. This kind of sci-fi usually focuses on the Jason characters, and I think Diane and Tyler really added to the novel by giving different responses.

      Religion as Antagonist is often a crutch trope in sci fi, but I think Wilson handled it well in Spin. It wasn’t a case of crazies opposing Progress, well, I guess it was kind of, but they were believable crazies. I understood why they’d run to a cult, firstly why Diane wanted to rebel from her household, why Simon was part of the NK movement, and why he eventually fell into the Tabernacle crowd, pulling Diane with him. I’m pretty sure the red heifer has been done before though (Michael Chabon?).

      One thing that I think Wilson excels at is guiding readers to feel what the main character is feeling. You’re right – nothing would have happened to Earth had ED and Jason not founded Perihelion. They would have learned less about the Hypotheticals I suppose, and there probably would have been more rioting earlier, but ultimately the same outcome would have come. Like Tyler’s character, we were just along for the ride.

      A number of his other books have been like this – Burning Paradise and The Affinities come to mind. The Affinities in particular had a rather unsatisfying ending, but I feel that was intentional because the main character ended the book in a very unsatisfied state. A lot of reviewers were upset by it, personally I thought it was a great way to write (on the whole the book was OK, but I felt the ending was right).

      For those interested, while I thoroughly enjoyed Spin, the last time I read Axis (the sequel), I wasn’t terribly impressed (I’m enjoying it a bit more my second time through), and Vortex (the third) was at least a satisfying conclusion. Both novels go more down the transhumanism route hinted at by the Martian bio-engineering technologies. If you liked Spin and want to read more Wilson, I’d recommend Darwinia.

      • johan_larson says:

        I liked the book too, despite its flaws. Wilson is very good at characterization. Tyler, Jason, Diane, Carol and E.D. really pop as characters. Their relationships make sense and feel both real and poignant. Also, the idea of Earth getting put in slow motion while the rest of the universe speeds past it is just nifty. If only Wilson had found a better justification for why the Spin was imposed, and why it went away.

    • quaelegit says:

      Darn it! I should have checked SSC earlier in stead of arguing about spelling on Reddit, I would have had time to everyone’s replies!

      First, I agree the Tyler/Diane romance was weak, but I like dodrian’s take that Tyler and Diane subplots are nice for showing different ways to respond to the existential crisis instigated by the Spin.

      Personally, I think using the time distortion to terraform Mars is SO NEAT I’m totally willing to forgive weirdness from the Martians and their nanobot colonizer plan. It didn’t blip my suspension of disbelief particularly.

      What *did* push it, to me, was the ending. You are totally correct that nothing the protagonists did really affected the outcome (although no one could have known that in advance). That part doesn’t bug me — what bugs me is the apparent unexplained altruism of the Hypotheticals. This readthrough I caught Jason’s explanation that this is their form of evolution/generating great complexity (basically, foster pre-space civs so that they advance enough to invent more replicators), but that still seems a bit incomplete to me.

      Over all, though, I think this is solid scifi, and as I said before, thanks for getting me to re-read it!

      Hopefully more comments and responses tomorrow, depending on how much I’m in trouble at work…

    • Wrong Species says:

      “Great literature” is generally considered that which contains compelling characters and is supposed to be about universally felt emotions. Personally I think Great Science Fiction is principally about ideas. Characters and universality are secondary. So while I agree with some of the others that Tyler Dupree had little agency, it didn’t really hurt the experience for me because I was interested in the whole idea of the Spin and the Hupotheticals and humans raised in a Martian environment.

    • johan_larson says:

      Let’s talk a bit about the second plan, the von Neumann machines in the Oort cloud. Wouldn’t it have worked way better to put them in some richer environment, like the asteroid belt or the rings of Saturn? More energy and more building material means faster growth. Or was Perihelion trying for stealth, maybe?

    • J Mann says:

      I liked it a lot. Mostly, I enjoyed the book’s narrative momentum – it felt like every chapter had one or more questions driving the story forward.

      Is this Secret History/Metropolitan experience where you meet a charismatic upper class mentor who changes your life a real world experience? If so, I missed out.

      Nothing changed with the Hypotheticals but Jason’s project did tell him what the project was about, which apparently Earth’s government is trying to suppress and may drive the sequels.

      I called Fermi Paradox as soon as the Spin was explained – I was guessing the Hypotheticals wanted to preserve all emerging civilizations at this stage and let them all out to meet each other at the same time. I think there’s a David Brin short story that put the idea in my head.

      Plot holes:

      – Jason’s satellites saw the actual encapsulation of Mars, right? What are the odds?

      – I was disappointed that Mars didn’t communicate with the Earth after the Spin took hold. I guess the issue is that Mars didn’t have the resources to launch probes to communicate with Earth?

      • dodrian says:

        The impression I got was that the satellites were sent up periodically to check on Mars. One week they went up, Mars was progressing as usual, the next week they went up, Mars had ‘disappeared’. If its gravitational effects are still there, the obvious conclusion is spin.

        The book described Mars as an extremely tightly managed low-resource environment. Life on Mars is young – there aren’t vast (any?) oil reserves. They couldn’t communicate directly by radio to Earth, only by sending probes. The impending Spin envelope was the motivation to send an ambassador, along the information they’d gleamed about the hypotheticals, and a plan to learn more (and also let Earth take the blame if it went wrong). The sequel does give a little more about the culture of Mars, and hints at why they were reluctant to communicate.

        • J Mann says:

          I just checked my Kindle copy – the envelopment happens while Jason has a satellite in orbit taking photos. One photo shows inhabited Mars, the second, taken 24 hours later (by the satellite’s time frame), shows enveloped Mars.

          “The second photo,” he said, “was taken twenty-four hours later.”

          “I don’t understand”

          “Taken from the same camera on the same satellite.”

          I’m not sure how long a satellite could stay in orbit and still deliver its data, or how much data it could hold. I’m assuming that for the vast majority of time, Jason doesn’t have a satellite in orbit, but maybe it’s easier to get daily pictures than I think. (Even then, you would have a hundred million pictures produced per Earth day – maybe that’s do-able too, and they mostly look at the pictures for the time periods that interest them).

          • dodrian says:

            Good catch.

            The Spin rate was 3.17 years outside to one second inside. The Voyager probes have been sending us data for 40 years now, though they still get commands back from earth, not possible in a spin situation. There’s also the issue of orbit degradation, though apparently near geosynchronous orbit this isn’t much of an issue, and in this scenario the chances of man-made objects colliding is practically nil, as there are very few satellites up at any given time.

            That said, I don’t think it would be impossible to engineer a satellite to keep operating for 50 years. One of the bigger issues would be storing them in memory, using a long lasting microfilm might be easier. At one photo every 24 hours, that’s 18250 photos, returning after 15 seconds earth time.

            Fun fact, the original spy satellites dropped film canisters from orbit.

            I guess you’re right though, that may have been too much of a coincidence.

          • J Mann says:

            At first, I assumed the Hypotheticals deliberately enveloped Mars when Jason had a satellite in operation in order to send him a message, but that doesn’t seem likely by the end of the novel.

            (I haven’t read the sequels yet, so no spoilers after Spin, please!)

            It’s irritating in a mystery plot when you have clues that are just mistakes, unless this is something that pays off later in the series.

            The selective permeability of the Spin is also a weird choice by the Hypotheticals. It’s like they want trapped civilizations to engage in long range colonization and exploration, rather than just shelving them for a while. On top of that, if they could increase the time dilatation by a factor of 100 or 10,000, they could get the whole thing done with much less risk of humanity freaking out or dying an nuclear war or something.

          • dodrian says:

            Jason’s work implied that the Hypotheticals were unable to perceive things on such a short time scale as the satellite in orbit, and they viewed their work as protecting and maybe even multiplying (like linking the planets) the conditions which led to other Von-Neumann life developing. The book didn’t conclude any point of origin – they could even have come from another galaxy, and would have had thousands upon thousands of planets to experiment upon. They seem to have somewhat optimized the process (the right kind of permeable membrane), and even had the time to do it through trial-and-error if they don’t actually understand the nature of human-type intelligence.

            I would bet the Mars-enveloping observation was either A) Coincidence, B) A satellite like the X-37b which would actually make a lot of sense in spin conditions where you want quick turnarounds and recoveries between launches, or
            C) Author mistake.

    • dodrian says:

      One question that struck me when reading through:

      The whole point of terraforming and colonizing Mars was to give Humanity time – time enough to figure out what to do about the Spin Barrier and avoid the imminent expansion of the sun. The first colonists would have technology but no industry, their goal being pretty much just to establish agriculture. Over time technology would degrade, and without the rich energy and mineral wealth of Earth it would take a long time to re-establish a technological society (and it’s implied by the book that was the case, though they did get help with the late-arriving colonists).

      Given that the society was bound to regress to pre-industrial level before they could make any progress on the Spin problem, what would you as mission designer do to encourage a new society which would hold such long term goals and values?

  36. liskantope says:

    One bemusing aspect of online intellectual culture that I’ve been thinking about lately is the apparent compartmentalization of people discussing the same ideas but through different media. For instance, the YouTube community seems quite separate from the rationalist blogosphere despite the fact that there are probably some pretty successful YouTubers out there making videos on rationalism-flavored topics, and this feels like something that should be remedied.

    The example which just now got me thinking about this again is a semi-famous member of the YouTube atheist community who goes by the handle of Noel Plum. One of his latest videos is pretty clear evidence that he would love Slate Star Codex and in particular classics like “The Worst Argument in the World” or more recent posts like “Varieties of Argumentative Experience”. Perhaps Scott would enjoy some of his work as well.

    • Brad says:

      I, and perhaps others, will never ever watch a video of some guy staring at a screen talking at me. We invented writing 5000 years ago for a reason. If someone wants to use video as a medium I expect him to actually use it in some way that can’t be done in text.

      At an absolute minimum I want Ken Burns style panning over photos.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Agreed entirely! Every time I see some link to a 15 minute YouTube video that’s probably going to express something I could read in a few minutes, I wonder, why not just write it? I guess the incentives are better for YouTube or something.

        • Ninety-Three says:

          I wonder what’s a bigger factor, the increased value you get out of being able to run video preroll ads vs blog banner ads, or being able to tap into the potentially enormous built-in audience of “whoever the Youtube algorithm recommends my video to” as opposed to relying on people hearing about your blog through word of mouth.

          I’d never thought about it before, but damn, the existence of the Youtube recommendation algorithm as an alternative to “Word of mouth” and “Be on broadcast TV/radio/newspaper” is a huge deal that I never hear people talk about.

        • gryffinp says:

          On a personal level, this is one of those things I chalk up to being non-neurotypical. Faces on the screen speaking words out loud must do something for most people where it just doesn’t do it for me, and therefore videos are getting made for that audience.

      • Nornagest says:

        Seconded. I would rather gnaw off my arm than listen to thirty minutes of nasal nerd-whine when I could just read the same content in five.

        I’ll give podcasts a pass, though, because I can listen to them in traffic. Hard to read then.

      • John Schilling says:

        Agreed, and the same goes for podcasts. I can read enormously faster than anyone can talk, so if all someone doing is talking when they could be writing, they are wasting my time. And I am going to refuse to let them do that.

        People who will not write, have no real advantage over people who can not write, and I have no particular desire to be a part of their community. If perchance one of them has something genuinely interesting to say, I expect someone literate will get around to writing it down eventually.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          Podcasts (and videos, on Youtube at least) can be listened to at 2x speed. This improves density dramatically. Now, I still prefer paper books for most purposes, but when I’m stuck in the car (say, driving from Seattle to Texas to Massachusetts) they’re really great (as are audiobooks also listened at 2x speed.)

          • Wander says:

            My issue with double speed podcasts is, while I listen to youtube videos double speed and also generally read very fast, sometimes I like to change the pace of my reading to take in information, consider something, put extra effort into visualising, etc. which I lose the ability to in a podcast. If it’s just racing past and I can’t control the pace at all I can’t ensure the same level of comprehension.

          • TracingWoodgrains says:

            One of the unexpected best quality-of-life improvements to my time online has been installing a video speed-control add-on to Firefox (I use “Video Speed Controller” but there may be others) that lets me choose the speed I want for any HTML5 video at increments of .1. I find myself watching almost everything, even pure entertainment, at somewhere between 1.3-1.5, and speeding it up to 2x or more depending on the situation.

            It’s amazing how much more watching videos feels like reading when I can control the speed of the information being presented.

          • John Schilling says:

            If it’s just racing past and I can’t control the pace at all I can’t ensure the same level of comprehension.

            This. Spoken English is an irregular mix of content and filler, paced to allow the speaker to generate new content and to allow the lowest-common-denominator listener to keep up. At least in face-to-face speaking the latter part can be dynamically adjusted by the speaker.
            But if you speed up a monologue to the point where the filler isn’t a tedious waste to the non-LCD audience, you start missing content.

            Properly edited text, with the reader’s option to skim or pause at need, is simply more efficient at transmitting information.

            Also, text disallows most of the vocal and body-language cues that try to bypass rational thought and insert an often-spurious “this guy sounds trustworthy and you should believe him” into the cortex.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          What about interviews? Do you find any value in listening to those, or would you prefer reading written questions and written answers?

          • John Schilling says:

            There’s advantage to the interviewer being able to dynamically adjust the interview in real time, but I’d rather read a transcript after the fact.

        • ordogaud says:

          I disagree when it comes to podcasts and interviews that have a more conversational style, which most do. Text can’t translate the tone/emotion/etc. that typically comes out in a good interview.

          I do agree if the main purpose of the content is to convey information or knowledge through words then there’s no point in doing it with video/audio.

      • Glenn says:

        I solve this by watching everything at a bare minimum of 1.5x, typically 2x, higher if I’m in a hurry or finding the content boring. I use a Chrome extension called ‘video speed controller’.

        • Nornagest says:

          Still slower than I can read, and my comprehension’s worse. Doesn’t make people’s voices any less obnoxious.

      • quanta413 says:

        You may be saying the only thing that almost everyone here agrees on.

        Inb4 all the podcast listeners post… (well the 2x speed ones have already posted)

      • nameless1 says:

        My less polite version is “Transcript or GTFO”.

      • fion says:

        I’m genuinely surprised to see how many people share this sentiment. I read maybe 1.2 times as fast as typical speech, and reading takes more effort than writing. I normally prefer to read, but sometimes I’m in the mood to listen. I’m envious of all you super-fast readers!

        One important difference between writing and audio is that, while it’s possible to spend a lot or a little effort on either, I suspect writers more often proof-read, edit, perhaps re-arrange their posts/articles than youtubers prepare a speech and re-record bits that didn’t work. In general higher-effort things are easier to consume. (With people like Scott as an unusual exception, who has said he just sits down and types and yet consistently produces good posts.)

        • andrewflicker says:

          1.2 is a lot slower than most people. In English, most people speak at around 130 words per minute. An “average” reader is around 200 wpm, or ~1.5… and I doubt many SSC readers are average readers. Based on some googling, it’s not uncommon for heavy readers to be in the 250-350 range with no attempt to speed-read.

          • fion says:

            Ok, I may have under-estimated myself. I was intrigued by your comment so I tried measuring my reading speed and got about 250wpm. So perhaps I’m above average but below average out of the people who comment to explain why they prefer articles over videos.

            So I guess it’s more like 2x… Eh, I still think my point stands. There are times when I’d rather lazily listen to something than consume it at twice the rate.

        • bean says:

          With people like Scott as an unusual exception, who has said he just sits down and types and yet consistently produces good posts.

          I suspect you’re overreading him somewhat. I really doubt that what we see is exactly as it came off his keyboard on the first draft. Even if he doesn’t do outlines or the like, he can still glance back and see that the paragraph he just wrote doesn’t quite make sense (which happens quite a lot).

          • fion says:

            I was basing that on (helpfully the current top comment on) this.

            To save clicking:

            Q: Do you do workshop your posts with an editor, or get feedback from anyone, or do you just write them and post them up?

            A: Just write them and post them up. The only exception is a few really controversial statistics-heavy posts where I’m worried I might have made a mistake, which I submit for review on Tumblr first.

            So sure, he might do the glancing back and checking it makes sense as you say, but I do get the impression he’s well above the trend line on the scatter plot of “quality of writing” against “time spent editing”.

          • bean says:

            So sure, he might do the glancing back and checking it makes sense as you say, but I do get the impression he’s well above the trend line on the scatter plot of “quality of writing” against “time spent editing”.

            No question on that. But I’m pretty sure that even he is taking advantage of the ability to read and revise the communication before it goes out.

        • Brad says:

          I’m genuinely surprised to see how many people share this sentiment.

          Me too, actually. I thought it would be more mixed. But in retrospect I imagine there’s heavy selection bias.

          • Ketil says:

            Obviously, most people prefer reading a transcript of performances of stand-up comedians to actually seeing them on stage….

            On a more serious note: different strokes? I find that I learn better from listening and watching than from reading, and when I teach, I also use a blackboard, lots of drawings and gesticulation. Perhaps not ideal for everybody, but I find this paces the material nicely, and allows the lecturer to emphasize important parts in ways that are hard to communicate through text only.

            Youtube lectures lose the interaction with the audience (yes, I was the obnoxious student in the front row who would interrupt with questions), but allows for individual pacing as you can pause the video to check things on the internet, or just take a break.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I don’t know if you could compare the two. A fifteen-minute standup set is going to be many, many jokes; a fifteen-minute YouTube video could be one random point.

          • albatross11 says:

            There are some things where a video lecture is better IMO–particularly for something where there’s a diagram or illustration or animation that allows you to see what’s going on better. How-to videos are a lot better than how-to text descriptions, for example.

            IMO, the main value of podcasts is that they leave my hands and eyes free–I can listen to TWIV/TWIM/Immune or Conversations with Tyler or whatever while I’m at the gym or doing the dishes or driving.

          • Eric Rall says:

            There are some “talking head” youtube channels I like (Lindybeige, Shadiversity, Spoony Experiment, etc), but I’m fairly adverse to random talking head videos by people I’m not familiar with.

            I suspect part of the difference is that all of them do use some visuals in the videos (sometimes quite a bit, depending on the video) and rarely do pure talking-to-camera vids. Another part is that they’re fairly entertaining speakers (especially Lloyd and Spoony) so there’s actually some value-added to watching them instead of reading something with similar content. And I’m pretty sure they put a decent amount of effort into editing their videos rather than simply uploading raw footage.

            But I think the biggest part is that I’m already familiar with them and trust that their videos won’t be a waste of my time. But if an internet stranger links me to a 10-minute video by someone I’ve never heard of, I tend to be fairly suspicious that it’s going to be a waste of time. At least with an article I can skim it and get a quick impression of whether it’s worth reading closely.

            Second-biggest part is that being linked to a video requires me to switch gears in order to watch it. I watch my chosen videos when I’ve decided to sit down and watch something (most commonly when I’m eating lunch at my desk at work), but getting a random link when I’m reading something takes me out of my flow to follow the link and watch the video. I’d need to pause the music I’m usually listening to, switch mentally from reading-mode to watching-mode, and watch something when I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to watch something.

      • liskantope says:

        Illuminating to see so much hostility towards videos of the style I linked to above. This goes a long way towards explaining the disconnect between online communities that present their ideas through different mediums.

        I myself overall prefer written essays to videos of people rambling on about their ideas, and I prefer by a long way the rationalist community to any YouTube community that I know of (it doesn’t take much wading through the YouTube atheist community to see that aggression and drama are the norms). However, I do see some upsides to the latter. The biggest upside for me is that I can listen to such a video while doing something else around the house like cooking dinner without missing anything. Some YouTubers have voices that I find pleasant and comforting (I don’t know about Noel Plum), and there’s just something warmer about putting their videos on that can’t quite be obtained from consuming an online blog post. Also, the ramblings of YouTubers such as Noel Plum just bring such an authenticity with them; you are witnessing them talking off the cuff in a way that’s hard to convey in a blog post, with facial and verbal tones and expressions and so on — when done in the right way, it feels much more like having a casual conversation with someone than reading a written essay possibly can.

        But anyway, that’s just my opinion, and I still prefer the essay format on the whole.

        • theredsheep says:

          I think part of the issue is that most people are just not that good at presenting themselves in an engaging way on video, and few of those who are good happen to also be experts on a subject. I rather like Skallagrim, for example; he’s clearly well-informed on HEMA stuff, and you can learn a lot from his more hands-on videos, like the one where he abuses the hell out of a bronze sword to try and wreck it and finds it’s almost impossible. Less entertaining: the ones where he’s in front of the camera reviewing a sword somebody sent him. He rambles, repeats himself, goes off on bizarre digressions, etc. And there’s no easy way to skim, like you can with written material, until he gets back on track.

          He has thousands of followers, even though most of his videos are three times as long as they need to be due to sheer repetition and digressions. Others are similar. I believe there’s a profit incentive in that longer videos translate to more ad interruptions. But mostly it’s just hard to present information in an organized manner without sounding like a robot. So they err in the other direction, and sound like crazy people talking to themselves.

    • arlie says:

      It’s very interesting to read the responses to this. They’ve pretty much all gone down the same tangent, establishing that there’s a subculture of people who like to read, and to write, and have little use for video or audio presentations. (And here I thought I was unusual in this regard…)

      What’s interesting to me is that no one has shown up and said they were happy with either form of presentation. I’d expect to find some people acting as ambassadors and summarizers – bringing what they learned from the written world into videos, and vice versa. This ought to be easier and so more common than people bringing information across language barriers – telling their english speaking colleagues what they got from french or german or chinese media, and vice versa. Yet I personally encounter the language case more often.

      What’s going on here?

      • bean says:

        That’s a good question. I can sort of understand the reluctance to go from print to video. For what I do, I don’t really have much interest in doing videos for Naval Gazing. It would be a lot more work to get across the same information in a less effective way. I’d basically have to write the post, then record the video and do all of the production. Or you could just read the post. I like working live, but I feel very differently about that than I do about something permanent.

        As for video to print, usually there was someone who read about something and then made a video. Point people to the original source, which is probably better. There are exceptions, but they’re pretty rare.

      • SaiNushi says:

        Can’t answer for other people, but I’m one of those “different mediums for different situations” people.

        I prefer to read over listen. Plus, if I’m working, I can read stuff without people realizing, but listening to stuff will get me caught. However, when I’m doing chores, or playing video games, I can’t read stuff, so I tend to listen to stuff at that time. What I listen to tends to be stuff like SciShow, MinuteEarth, Comedy, and political things.

        Due to this, for my own (very small, rarely updated) blog, I have a blogspot written version and a youtube spoken version (but it’s not my face, it’s a picture). I write the blog post first, sit on it for a day, review and edit, then post the blog. Eventually, I get around to recording my voice, adding the picture, and posting to youtube.

        Since I use both, I’ve noticed something rather important. When I’m reading, I’ll notice that I wasn’t paying attention, so I go backwards in the text, take a bit of a break, then pick back up at the last thing I actually remember reading. Whereas, if I’m listening, I don’t really notice that I didn’t hear the video. Sometimes, I’ll have snapped back to reality five videos later. And if I realize it in the middle of the video when my mind starts to wander, there’s no easy way for me to get back to the beginning of the part I missed, so I tend to not bother unless I think it’s important.

        So yeah, listening to spoken word, I’m much more likely to miss stuff.

      • Randy M says:

        I like either. If I want to learn something in particular, the old standby of text is best for general concepts or background material. Learning how to operate some software or instrument is best facilitated by direct instruction demonstrating to me what I need to know then standing by as I repeat the process.

        But podcasts/videos are nice for topics I’m vaguely interested in but have no pressing need to know. For example, I went through the pbs Crash Course astronomy youtube series recently. The speaker’s enthusiasm helped to stay focused on the material, and I could play it while driving or exercising.

        Plus, podcasts and videos fill a social need better than books. I’m on the introverted side, but it’s still nice sometimes to virtually hangout with people having conversations about interesting topics (for example, when Stefan Molyneaux interviewed an English professor about Shakespeare or Dostievsky).

        • Spookykou says:

          I was trying and failing to say exactly what you said here. If I have a passing curiosity about something without any real world need to know about it, I often prefer videos to text, since I find it more of a mix of entertainment and education.

          However I do wonder from other posters descriptions If I have ever even seen the videos they are referencing with, nasally uncharacteristic people droning on about a topic. I feel like even in the ‘talking head’ space YouTube should select for more entertaining speakers over time?

      • mdet says:

        In addition to reading a few blogs and some opinion columnists, I also watch several video essay channels on youtube. But I do different topics for each. A lot of the stuff I read is political and/or social commentary, whereas the youtube channels are mostly movie, anime, and video game criticism — stuff like Extra Credits (games), Now You See It (movies), Polyphonic (music), Sideways (film scores), Mother’s Basement (anime), Nerdwriter (misc). So while I do enjoy both mediums, I also pretty much agree with Brad’s initial comment — if I’m gonna watch youtube essays, it’s going to be on topics that can’t just as easily be written about.

        While I’m on this topic, does anyone know of more channels like Polyphonic and Sideways — channels that talk about music and do music reviews / criticism, but in a way that someone with no musical background can easily follow along?

    • cernos says:

      In the spirit of taking your call to reduce the compartmentalization and the views of many in this thread that audio/video must do something more than the written word in order for them to listen/watch over reading I have jotted down a few of the ways multi-media works better than text:

      The audio from a video can enhance the written word by demonstrating how to pronounce words. I have found this very useful for learning world histories, it makes reading the sources easier if I have heard the people and city names spoken out-loud for a few hours. The stories become more real and I find myself thinking about them and talking about them more if I am confident in how to speak the foreign words.

      Recorded dialogues contain more information (word emphasis, nuance, body-language) compared to the dry written transcripts. Also, most people don’t do dialogues in print, compared to audio/video recorded.

      Mathematicians can use the extra dimensions of time and pitch to explain important functions.

      Seeing and hearing past proponents of ideas, across cultures,in their native language, and the way the audience reacts can have a different kind of value compared to precise details of only what was said.

      There is a low bar of entry to video, services like Twitch/YouTube Live allow anyone to broadcast. This allows for a different type of person to express their ideas then would normally write an essay. These services also record the IRC while live broadcasting and store it with the video. This allows for audience participation and community building.

      Many people mentioned the speed being slower with multimedia, which is my experience as well, though with content that is more audio focused there is the ability to multitask and low cost of re-listening if I am able to do something else productive at the same time. For instance, I find it hard to read and drive but listening to Econtalk and driving is a breeze.

      These are a few things that spring to mind. I tend to like both written and audio/visual if only for easier quoting. The more intelligent content in all the different mediums the better, I hope this helps.

      • liskantope says:


        Could you elaborate on “Mathematicians can use the extra dimensions of time and pitch to explain important functions”, please? (I’m a mathematician btw, though I rarely watch math-related videos online.)

        • cernos says:

          I have seen some good stuff from 3Blue1Brown on YouTube. Complex functions that take the complex plane as input make for good video candidates as the results can be difficult to visualize. There was a particularly good one that demonstrated winding numbers using colors and animations to show how the algorithm searched the space.

          I suppose the addition of color, time and audio allow for extra channels of information and can be used to get us a little farther from one dependent and one independent variable being graphed on a plane. In the end, any practicing mathematician will still use algebra to really prove a result, but I have found extra visualization to be useful in my understanding.

  37. TracingWoodgrains says:

    Does anyone here have experience/recommendations concerning good online colleges? I’ve got a whole mess of undergraduate credits including a pair of associate’s degrees but no real progress towards a major course I care about, I’m working full time, and I’d like to keep the option of a top grad school open since those are where a lot of the conversation seems to go on in topics I care about. Independent study is the ideal option and I’m already doing quite a bit of that, but having an effective motivational structure and potential for a degree are both important since I struggle with executive function and keeping things focused and organized during self-driven study.

    My focus of peculiar interest is cognitive science and the process of learning/expertise, particularly the potential for game-like elements in the learning process and improving online tools. There aren’t really online undergrad degree options directly in that field, though, so approaching it indirectly through some hybrid of education, psychology, statistics, and web design/development is the best bet I can find. With The Case Against Education fresh in memory, I’ve been trying to work out a course of action that would let me maximize time getting better at useful things while ticking the boxes towards getting a meaningful, relevant degree within the next few years, but drawing a blank as to how to go about it.

    • Matt M says:

      Does anyone here have experience/recommendations concerning good online colleges? I’ve got a whole mess of undergraduate credits including a pair of associate’s degrees but no real progress towards a major course I care about, I’m working full time, and I’d like to keep the option of a top grad school open since those are where a lot of the conversation seems to go on in topics I care about.

      I have two thoughts here.

      1. Find the best, most prestigious “regular” college that offers an online program in your field and will accept you, and do that. From what I’ve heard, most “online degrees” aren’t actually distinguishable from in-person ones. It’s the same degree granted by the same institution, so if you want to keep it a secret, nobody will ever have to know you went online.

      2. Barring that, if you’re looking for a school/program that specializes in online, see if you can find one that’s affiliated with a respectable public institution. My online B.S. in Finance from the University of Maryland University College was enough to get me accepted into Top 10 MBA programs (along with a great GPA and great GMAT score of course). Expect that you’ll need to prove yourself with test scores, and have a good “story” to back up your online degree as well (mine was that I did it while being enlisted in the US Navy)

      • cryptoshill says:

        Having to have a “story” to prove why you didn’t get a Regular Degree is probably the most damning evidence I’ve heard yet for the Caplan Hypothesis. Also, hello fellow Sailor!

        • Matt M says:

          Well, I think it helps to have a “story” for everything in life, but especially so for things that seem atypical or are unexpected.

    • Levantine says:

      I have no recommendation, I just want to say that I’m aware of this online school, notable for its unconventional, yet cognitive science-based approach.

    • Aron Wall says:

      Two Associate degrees but no Bachelors sounds like either something went really weird with your planning process, or else you’ve completely changed what you want to work on, possibly more than once—my Dad took 8 years to get through college for this reason, and he only graduated in the end by inventing his own major: “Natural and Artificial Languages”. (Is there no way to go back to one of the original insitutions and do a couple online courses to get one of the degrees you were originally going for?)

      Here’s an outside-the-box suggestion: Skip your Bachelors degree entirely! Instead, apply directly to an (online if necessary) Masters degree in the course of study you wish to embark on. In your application, note that you have over four years of undergraduate course work and ask them to make an exception to their usual requirement that a Masters student have a B.A. or B.S. If your prior coursework was in an unrelated field, you may need to make the case that you have relevant experience (which need not take the form of undergrad course work; consider what made you interested in the new subject and ask if this interest has left objective evidence anywhere).

      I know people who have skipped degrees in this fashion. Do not assume that if something is listed as a “requirement” on a website, that the requirement cannot be waived for people with unusual backgrounds. Maybe they’ll reject your application anyway, but don’t be afraid to try it on. But do talk to the admissions people in advance to get their advice.

      1. Skip immediately to learning about cooler, more advanced topics.
      2. People only care about your highest degree attained, so once you have your Masters you lose nothing credentialwise. (This effect might not hold for a sketchy online degree, so you might consider the other commenter’s advice to pick a program which also has an in-person Masters.)
      3. If your undergrad GPA sucks, then once you have at least a year of graduate level work, other graduate programs will only care about your graduate-level GPA. (Could be useful for leveraging yourself into a Masters or Doctorate at a more prestigious institution later. Do not get a Doctorate in a non-prestigious institution if you hope to remain in academia.)
      4. The program will be geered towards more mature adults, so depending on the program there might be more flexibility and less busy-work tripping people up with low executive function.

      Corresponding Disadvantages:
      1. You may have to study independently to fill the gaps in your education. (But don’t be afraid to ask the professors for advice on what you need to catch up on!)
      2. If you drop out of the Masters, you may have wasted even more time on classes that don’t add up to a degree. (But, maybe you still learned something.)
      3. Presupposes you now have the ability to get good grades at the graduate level. (However, as long as you pass, grades usually only matter when applying for a further degree.)
      4. Some graduate programs may still work your butt off, and/or not really teach you the things you hoped to learn. (Talk to students already in the program!)

      • TracingWoodgrains says:

        Two Associate degrees but no Bachelors sounds like either something went really weird with your planning process, or else you’ve completely changed what you want to work on, possibly more than once

        Heh, that’s not inaccurate, especially since neither came during my year and a half of being a regular college student. One was in high school, the other in a specialized job training program that doesn’t go past Associate’s level. It’s a complicated situation, to say the least.

        Your suggestion is fascinating and one I hadn’t really considered. If there’s a relevant and useful undergrad degree, I’d like to prioritize it based on where I’m at, but I’ll look at my options with skipping past it. Thanks!

      • Hanfeizi says:

        “People only care about your highest degree attained, so once you have your Masters you lose nothing credentialwise. (This effect might not hold for a sketchy online degree, so you might consider the other commenter’s advice to pick a program which also has an in-person Masters.)”

        Eh, even with in-person programs this is questionable. I had an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and decided to go for an (in-person) MBA in International Finance to make a career change and become an analyst. I noted, after graduation, that while many of my peers were getting interviews for and getting positions as analysts, they had two things that I didn’t have – quantitative undergraduate degrees (generally non-business, like comp sci and mathematics), and were almost a decade younger than me. I’ve ended up stuck in sales and customer service, exactly the fields I was trying to avoid by pursuing the degree… as they’re the only jobs I can get hired for.

        Of course, finance is tricky as far as credentialing is concerned, very ageist towards newcomers, and had I completed the CFA my story would probably be different. If you’re going for a degree that prepares you for a recognized credential in a non-elite profession, like being an RN, PA, CPA or the like… then there’s no problem with this, as long as the program actually gets you to said credential.

        • Eric Rall says:

          In that particular situation, they may be looking for skills (or signals of talents) that aren’t strongly signaled by an MBA. In particular, there’s a fair amount of math in an MBA, especially with a finance or accounting focus, but much less than in a STEM undergraduate degree. I’m not familiar with the details of what a financial analyst does, but I suspect it involves a fair amount of statistics and at least a bit of basic programming or scripting.

          A plurality of my classmates in my MBA program came from sales or marketing backgrounds, and most of them struggled with the math in the required accounting classes. Based on my experience there, I’d be reluctant to trust someone to handle a math-heavy job on the basis of an MBA unless they also had a STEM background or some kind of technical work experience.

          Tangentially, my experience with the MBA is pretty much the converse of yours. I came to the MBA program with several years of experience as a programmer or SDET and a BS and an MS in comp sci. I’d pursued the MBA with the intention of transitioning into project management, but after graduating I got two job offers: an SDET position at Microsoft and an embedded systems programming position at the CIA. I took the job at Microsoft and have remained in tech ever since. The MBA has been moderately useful, but employers and recruiters have almost always been more interested in my technical degrees and work experience than with the MBA.

          • Hanfeizi says:

            Yes, I get that. I was trying to make a career change into something quantitative (but not coding or accounting; I wanted to be a trader, investment banker or a securities analyst) and thought my high quant test scores + an MBA with some math would be sufficient for such positions, especially as in my previous career I had experience as a statistical editor and researcher with various publishing companies.

            Looking back, my short tenure in many jobs might have been my real problem; when you’re 32, people care a lot more about that than they do whether you got A’s in your classes pursuing your latest degree.

            Now I’m stuck in customer service hell, but I doubt I’d like any of the trades on offer (coding, accounting, etc.) any better than what I’m doing now, and what I really want to do seems out of reach; even as an employee of a huge multinational bank with a few years of experience now, a good internal record, the MBA, and several FINRA licenses, I can’t get anyone in the company to take notice of me outside of my customer service silo, and the few managers I’ve met with about it practically seemed to mock my desire to be a trader or securities analyst.

            One market president even said to me, “I don’t see Wharton or University of Chicago on your resume.”

    • Spookykou says:

      If you are just looking to check the bachelors degree box, I would recommend looking at the Texas State OWLS program. The first and most obvious advantage is that Texas State is a traditional four year university with a pretty campus and sports teams etc, so in as much as people care about such things, it should look a little better than basically any ‘online college’.

      That being said, the program is specifically designed for working adults, looking for career advancement, or grad school, they offer a special course where you can get 10-20 credit hours based on a detailed write up of your work experience/history. They also will probably accept more transfer credits than basically any other degree program would. As long as you have your Core out of the way, it is possible to complete all other degree course requirements with 100% online courses, so you don’t need to be a Texan. If you don’t have your Core totally finished, you can always go to a local community college to knock out a literature class, etc.

      • j1000000 says:

        Piggybacking on this, a lot of very good schools have cheaper night schools that give a degree that is in all respects the same as any other degree from the school. Harvard Extension, for instance. And a lot of these are created for working adults in local cities, so they do offer a lot of online courses (though I doubt you can get a fully online degree from any of them).

        If you already accept that a bachelor’s is necessary for the signal it sends, then maybe pursue one of these for a stronger signal that is nonetheless less personally wasteful to you in terms of effort/money/time.

  38. bean says:


    Do you mind if I ask what kind of ship and where?
    Also, really interesting link. Had never heard of that.

  39. bean says:

    Naval Gazing today examines the man behind most of 20th century naval warfare, Jackie Fisher.

    • Evan Þ says:

      To play devil’s advocate, is it possible that Fisher was right to, late in his life, favor speed over armor? What would’ve likely happened had the Royal Navy gone with that idea?

      • bean says:

        That’s a really tricky question. I’m definitely not one of the people who believes that Jutland proves the battlecruiser was a stupid idea all along. But I do think some of his later designs may have gone too far, and some of the basic assumptions were halfway decent in 1905, but rather bad by 1915. I’ll have to add a full examination of this to my idea list.

      • cassander says:

        I think it depends what you mean by armor. If you solely mean big slabs of steel, then I think he had a point. But when you look at survivability more broadly, including things like damage control practice, internal subdivision, etc., it’s murkier.

        • bean says:

          Fisher wasn’t opposed to that kind of stuff. Sumida reads “speed is armor” to be making a claim about fire control systems in the early dreadnought era, specifically the concept that high range rates could make it impossible for anyone without an Argo Clock to get a hit on the battlecruisers. The bit where the British abandoned the Argo Clock makes this confusing, and I haven’t gotten around to Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland yet, which makes different claims. So I’m not really sure what Fisher’s thoughts were. I should probably start wading through the Bacon biography I just got, but I’m sort of busy right now.

    • Nornagest says:

      “Fear God and dread nought”

      That’s a pretty ballsy motto, on several levels.

      • johan_larson says:

        Has there been some crucial bit of linguistic change here? Fear something but dread nothing is damn near a contradiction in modern English.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Dread is a particular sort of fear, the anticipation of something bad happening that you expect to happen. So it’s not quite a contradiction, and the near-contradiction helps make it a snappy motto.

          • johan_larson says:

            Is it just a poetic way of saying, “Fear only God,” or is there more to it?

          • The Nybbler says:

            That’s how I’d take it.

          • veeloxtrox says:

            Is it just a poetic way of saying, “Fear only God,” or is there more to it?

            No, it is a pun/ double entendre. One reading of it is Fear God and you will have no dread. The other reading is Fear God and dreadnought which is quite funny because of the ship.

        • beleester says:

          It’s a bit of a contradiction, but the specific phrase “fear god” usually connotes something more like “be in awe of God” or “act as if God is watching you” rather than “run away screaming from God.”

          • johan_larson says:

            run away screaming from God

            Hmm, that raises some fictional possibilities…

            “Kid, you’re old enough now to know that the gods are a bunch of crazy fuckers. At best they just don’t care; they have better things to do than worry about ordinary people. But when they do care, when they actually take an interest in you, you’re probably in for a world of hurt. You know how the bad kids like to pull the wings off flies and chop the legs off lizards? The gods are like that, except with people.

            “But there are things you can do that help. Remember the Song of Sixty-Six Don’ts? Those are all things that hard experience has taught us tend to draw the attention of the gods. Attention you really don’t want? There’s a reason we’ve made you recite it twice a day since you were five and spank you when you break the rules.

            “What comes next builds on that. Because it turns out the gods aren’t just cruel, they’re also vain. If we make a big fuss and sing and dance and tell them they’re awesome, they fuck with us less, and sometimes do us favors. It’s a lot of work, but when it pays off, it pays off big.”

          • Protagoras says:

            @johan_larson, Like a more optimistic version of Sumerian religion. One of the themes of the Epic of Gilgamesh is don’t ever ask the gods for anything, it won’t go well.

          • John Schilling says:

            Hmm, that raises some fictional possibilities…

            Like you’re the first person to notice that…

        • Nornagest says:

          Nybbler’s reading is close to mine, but I was also thinking of the pun on Dreadnought, the influential battleship that Fisher was partly responsible for designing. She would have launched three years before he was ennobled.

        • Daniel says:

          “fear God” is idomatic, it means “obey God”. “god-fearing” just means “earnestly religious” or “pious”. There’s no such thing as “dreading God”. By the way, my native Hungarian has exactly the same thing, “istenfélő” is literal translation for “god-fearing”, and it also means pious.

          • Aron Wall says:

            Just because it’s mostly idiomatic now, doesn’t mean there wasn’t, in the past, a real religious feeling underlying that particular choice of words.

            There is in fact a feeling of a Numinous sort of “dread” which is somewhat analogous to fear, but also different from it (in part because the experience includes positive aspects as well as unpleasant aspects). The classic text on the subject is Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, but you can find a pop introduction to the idea in the Introduction to C.S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain. I made my own attempt to describe the feeling here.

            Edit: For those here who have never had this kind of religious experience, you may still have experienced a similar emotion while reading certain fantasy novels.

          • Nick says:

            What Aron said. Note that “fear of the Lord” is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, so the idea is very old.

    • bean says:

      After the success of the first open thread at Naval Gazing, I decided to do another. Talk about anything you want (doesn’t even have to be military-related) so long as it’s not culture war.

  40. Spookykou says:

    I have a story setting question. In a hypothetical post-apocalyptic setting in which humanity simply vanishes, no wars or direct infrastructure damage. What would be the last recognizable major city. Basically, given the climate and location of current major cities(construction standards?) around the globe, which one is in the least damaging environment such that long after the jungles have swallowed Taipei, it would still be largely recognizable. My intuitions are all over the place on this, is the desert better or worse than a jungle, Dallas or Berlin, etc?

    • Lillian says:

      Well the easiest way to answer the question to find the oldest cities that are still recognizable as cities and taking note of their environment. Timgad in Algeria was abandoned for good in the 8th century, but is still pretty recognizably a city. The environment is semi-arid, and the sands of the Sahara buried the city to a depth of only 1m, a happy medium that both helped preserve the ruins, but left them exposed enough to be recognized as an ancient settlement.

    • beleester says:

      I’d guess that desert or tundra is best. Two major sources of structural damage are plants growing around things and water freezing and expanding – a desert or permafrost area will help avert this. Tundra might be better than desert – sand dunes can pile up pretty high – but there aren’t many cities that far north. You also want a tectonically stable area.

      Side note: Do you want the city to be recognizable as a city, or recognizable as a particular city? The former means you want really durable buildings, the latter requires a famous landmark that will stay recognizable even if it’s starting to crumble. E.g., the Great Pyramid is going to be recognizable pretty much forever, but the city of Giza probably won’t hold up as well.

      • Spookykou says:

        I was just thinking recognizable as a city, in as much as the particular city is recognizable, it would only need to be recognizable to the readers not the characters, so smaller details should be enough to get the reader to a “Oh it’s Vegas” moment without the need for pyramids.

      • Another Throw says:

        I am pretty sure arctic tundra is out.

        While, at sufficient depth, the soil remains frozen, the surface melts. Frost heaving is still a really big deal. The permafrost underneath compounds the engineering problem (IIRC, because it lacks mechanical stability). And because the permafrost is impermeable, it causes a concentration of water and nutrients at the surface; the growing season may be short, but it is aggressive. Also, frequent-ish wildfires expending accumulated chemical energy. Also, high winds causing excessive mechanical weathering.

        It’s just not a great place to try building anything.

    • Nornagest says:

      My money’s on a desert environment too. Weathering would be minimized either by a fairly calm environment or by one with blowing sand that could cover and protect ruins. And you probably don’t want very reactive chemistry, though that’s an earth science question that I’m not qualified to answer except in a few obvious cases.

      Riyadh might be a good bet, or one of the other cities in the Saudi interior. They’re populous but very dry, the Saudis build big, and the sand of the Arabian Desert could be protective. In the US, maybe Las Vegas or Tuscon — the famous boneyard at Davis-Mothman AFB is there because the climate’s good for preservation.

    • johan_larson says:

      Cold, dry, and not much sunlight would be my bet. Get the environment as inactive as possible. Of course, that’s a really inhospitable environment, so you’re not likely to find lots of settlements in such places. But there might be an occasional mining town or military base.

    • INH5 says:

      If any surviving major landmarks are enough, then probably Giza. The Great Pyramid has stood for 4500 years and I see no reason why it couldn’t endure for many more thousands of years.

      If you mean be recognizable as a modern city, if a population > 250,000 is enough to qualify as a major city, then maybe Yakutsk. Temperatures are below freezing 6 months out of the year, all of the buildings have foundations built deep into the permafrost, and the amount of precipitation per year is low enough for it to qualify as a desert. I expect that much of it will endure for quite some time.

    • Another Throw says:

      My intuition says desert, but not an erg desert.

      Deserts, with very little water, will significantly slow a lot of chemical, biological, and mechanical (e.g., erosion, frost heaving) weathering. Oxygen and sunlight alone can do a heck of a lot, though, so ideally you would want to exclude one of them as well. While being buried might protect such buried portions (from, say, oxygen and sunlight), any exposed portions will be exposed to significant mechanical weathering from blowing sand. Which is nasty stuff. By mixing a lot of mechanical weathering with oxygen and sunlight, you would significantly speed any residual chemical weathering.

      If you want it to be recognizable, the exposed portions can’t be excessively weathered.

      Consequently, a nice, dry desert without a lot of blowing sand. So, no erg deserts.

      Any other thoughts on excluding oxygen and/or sunlight that don’t involve burying in the desert? Alpine desert, maybe? Thinner atmosphere for less oxygen, maybe even shade?

    • mobile says:

      Meta answer: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com is a site devoted to answering questions just like this one.

    • Quixote says:

      this book might be interesting to that question
      link is to wikipedia article on the book rather than book itself. Note that if you do buy it, try to use our host’s amazon link.

  41. liskantope says:

    Random request: there was a post floating around Tumblr a long time ago, I would say probably more than 2 years back but not earlier than 2015, which was a list of tips for university students with executive dysfunction. If I remember right, the post started with assertions about how administration is generally ignorant of executive function and the cards are already completely stacked against students suffering from it, so it’s unfortunately necessary to be ruthless in certain ways when fighting for leniency on assignments and projects. It then went on to give a list of tips for arguing and pleading with and/or mildly misleading or manipulating instructors.

    Is there any SSC commenter out there who, by any chance, is able to point me towards that post, or who knows of some strategy for finding old Tumblr posts in the absence of recollection of titles or particular phrases?

    • skef says:

      These two sites are the general closest match I could find with 10-or-so minutes of searching:



      But from a quick perusal I didn’t find the specific post you remember. You might check to see if the blog you’re thinking of is interlinked with one of these.

      [Although the chronic pain cluster of tumblrs from that time seem to have more content like you describe. Could you have seen a cross-post from one of those?]

    • nameless1 says:

      I wasn’t yet diagnosed with ADHD when I was as college student – the whole thing just was not very well known here. Two things helped immensely, but they may be not relevant, they may also work for other students or only in my situation. For the kinds of exams where we just had to memorize textbooks or lecture notes, other people made cheat sheets in tiny letters in MS Word and put them on a mailing list. I didn’t have the courage to cheat but these were excellent short extracts to memorize. Even when blown back up to a normal font size I had to memorize only 10 pages and not 200. If nobody does this, well, create an extract yourself and memorize that. For the kinds of exams we had to DO stuff, like solve equations, I realized that the examples in the textbook are often far from what the exam has. And instead the examples handed out by the teachers should be done over and over and over, basically just taking the same 20 examples that were handed out and change random numbers in them and do them over and over. The real exam would often be the very same equation just with other random numbers.

      • antpocalypse says:

        I really honestly might be misunderstanding your advice, but aren’t you just describing… studying for the exam?

    • tgb says:

      I have a friend I’ve known since childhood, diagnosed with ADHD, very smart guy but absolutely struggled with basic things like meeting deadlines for school projects. At one point had convinced the college that had already accepted him that they should take him even if he didn’t graduate just in case he didn’t meet the fairly minor obligations he still had not fulfilled. He ended up getting special accommodations, doing just enough late enough that he couldn’t graduate at the normal time but graduated nonetheless. Guess what happened in college? He got special accommodations the whole time and wriggled his way through things up until the very last class. He failed a class he needed his senior year that he was more than capable of acing. He was so used to getting this wriggle room his whole life that when a professor finally said no he was completely devastated by it.

      But here’s the thing: it turned him around completely. He worked hard and graduated soon after that. He holds a great job, gets promotions, whatever. He finally learned how to actually do the stuff he was supposed to do, but only after failing.

      So I say, don’t learn this skill. Your problem is real, I believe that! But maybe the solution is to not accommodate that problem at all. Maybe the solution is instead to get hit so hard by it at some point that your brain learns what it needs to do. Your situation is there and is tough and will suck no matter what. But is getting other people to allow you to procrastinate longer actually going to make you feel better? Or are you gong to spend every deadline knowing that you can get an extension and therefore enabling the procrastination further?

      I say this as someone who wishes they had better executive function and as someone who seems to always “get lucky” and have things work out okay anyway. And dammit I kinda wish something would blow up in my face one of these days so that I get woken up and learn to deal with it. Now I’m guessing I have it less bad than you. So maybe waiting for such a blow-up is less risky for me than it is for you (where you might have many small blow-ups that just aren’t enough, or your big blow-up might make you give up entirely, etc.). But I just have to feel that the solution to procrastination is closer to stronger deadlines than it is to weaker ones.

      • liskantope says:

        I think I do have some very specific executive function issues, and it’s pretty much a certainty that I have some form of ADHD, but I don’t think I have these kinds of issues worse than anyone in this conversation and I’m certainly way better off than some here. That doesn’t play any direct role in my making that query anyway.

        In fact, I’m asking about that post because I discussed it in this effortpost and thought that actually being able to quote it might make my writing in the relevant part of that essay stronger. In my essay, I touched on a possibility — which I don’t speculate is all that common, just common enough to not warrent dismissal — that some people are in the position of your friend and a “tough love” approach is the most effective way to improve their executive capabilities.

    • vV_Vv says:

      According to Caplan’s hypothesis, isn’t the very purpose of college precisely to filter out people with executive dysfunction or similar mental anomalies?

      • Spookykou says:

        As someone with pretty serious executive dysfunction, this is definitely the impression I got.

      • James says:

        As a bright but distractable (I know, I know! Hard to believe it of a SSC commenter!) student, I struggled a lot with the last half of my degree, particularly with deadlines and large pieces of work. (Surprising exception: my dissertation, which I got really into.) In retrospect, I think I probably had (and still have, but my life situation is such that I’m less affected by it) ADHD.

        I was able to get what I needed and emerged with a decent-but-not-stellar 2:1. (Sorry, I don’t know what this translates to in American.) This was partly because my middle-class parents were good at navigating the bureaucratic structures to get me help.

        I felt terrible guilty about getting any help or special dispensation at the time and would avoid as much as I could seeking it out. The way I saw it, the university system was designed at least in part to test students’ conscientiousness; it was testing mine and I was failing; everything was working just as it should.

        I don’t know whether I still think that’s an accurate view of the function of university but I do know I’m no longer as masochistically scrupulous as I was then. Nowadays, my position would be that if it takes special pleading for me to get the degree that’s a prerequisite for any nice, middle-class job then just tell me where and when and I’ll special plead my heart out.