Open Thread 105.5

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

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587 Responses to Open Thread 105.5

  1. In recent weeks I have noticed something very odd in my google searches, which are designed to spot pages newly mentioning me. A sizable fraction of the hits are links to pages which either appear and then disappear, putting me back where I was, or attempt to get me to download software and ignore my attempts to leave via the back arrow (I can still use “history” to get back where I was).

    The text that my google search shows typically includes references to me, sometimes including one snippet from one of Scott’s posts. As best I can tell, there is software out there deliberately creating the illusion of pages designed to get me in particular to click on them.

    One other thing … . For any one search I do, all of the links in question have a common chunk of nonsense text. Today it is “rtobirur.php?”, but it will be something different tomorrow. It is followed by something like “tlu=friedman-basic-income”, varying from one link to another.

    It’s an intriguing, and probably ingenious, misuse of the web, and I am curious as to whether others have observed it and if they know what is going on.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Have you ruled out malware on your computer?

    • Mark Atwood says:

      I’ve been seeing the same thing, not for my own name, but in the Google Alert automatic searches for technology projects I’m engaged with.

      There exist “instant link farm generators” that recognize incoming google requests, extract the search term from from the URL or the Referrer header, and then immediately dynamically construct interlinked web pages that try to fake being topical.

      They first showed up in product searches (which is why Google became all but useless for searching for information about consumer products). The monitization model was complex, and mixed trying to redirect purchasing decisions, and then later presenting ads and adword boxes, and then later to straightforward ad fraud and click fraud. And now to malware injection.

      It just takes 0.1% of people shitting on the web in the darkside adtech industry to fuck it all up for the rest of us.

      • albatross11 says:

        The internet advertising industry is a force for pure evil in the world. We’d be better off if that whole industry switched to something more socially beneficial, like kicking puppies or selling heroin to schoolchildren.

        • johan_larson says:

          Well, apparently ad rates have been tumbling, paywalls are back for serious publications, and adblocker use has reached 30 percent, so the industry may be headed for trouble.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            The problem is that as the industry fails, member companies will get more and more desperate to survive, staffed with executives who will do ANYTHING to (as the money dries up) pay their bonuses | repay their investors | pay their debts | cover payroll. Ethics are expensive. And these companies that are facing an existential loss unless they can find a new source of money, have just spent the last two decades vacuuming up everyone’s PII and browser history…

      • CatCube says:

        I figured there was some kind of shenanigans where a garbage website was related to my search terms, but I’m still not totally sure how they get it onto the Google results page. How exactly are they capturing the terms (I mean at what stage of the HTTP request)? And once they have them, how does a webpage created 0.05 seconds ago get indexed to show up on the results?

        I mean, unless Google is complicit, which I certainly am willing to believe.

        • johan_larson says:

          Google needs its search results to reliably return good or at least usable results. If they start returning autogen crap, people will stop using it and migrate to other search providers. I doubt Google is complicit in this, except perhaps inadvertently.

  2. wobbler says:

    So, there’s a lot of stuff about being your “authentic self” going around in certain circles. And a lot of that seems to boil down to something like “Follow your heart and don’t judge yourself by the reaction of others”. I have a couple of questions:

    1) If my “authentic self” wants to run away from all social interaction, and I did (and sometimes still do), then I ended up feeling “authentically lonely” and shitty, and that seems wrong. This has happened to me in Real Life before, and I got over that by forcing myself to interact, which didn’t feel like the ‘real’ me at all. So what’s the right thing to do here?

    2) If you just do what you feel is true to yourself, without any consideration for how other people see you, then what about social cohesion, respecting other people and so on? Is “authenticity” just another word for solipsism? I _like_ objective reality, and if something doesn’t go as I would like (repeatedly), I want to regard that as a chance to learn and improve, rather than going “no, the rest of the world is wrong”. (I have a similar problem with that kind of positive thinking mantra “if you believe in yourself, you can make it anywhere” kind stuff — No, the odds are massively stacked against you in all likelihood. Not everyone who believes they will be a great Olympic athlete will become one, etc.)

    3) After a lot of introspection, I think what my “authentic self” wants is to discover and learn things about new people, and to be liked (and yes, sometimes wanted) by those people. But reading up, that kind of authenticity isn’t allowed — it has to be utterly devoid of any thoughts of others. Which I just find weird.

    Any & all help on how to navigate this would be very much appreciated 🙂

    • Randy M says:

      Find the happy medium. Also, people telling you to listen to them about not listening to others are on shaky ground.

      I reject calls to “follow you heart” as well. Instead, find where your passions, talents, and values line up. If you love art, but are a terrible painter, then find another love. If you are a great safe cracker, but breaking into banks to steal money is immoral, find another talent to develop. If the world really needs a fireman, but you are asthmatic or otherwise have some condition that you make you a liability in that area, find some other way to contribute.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      ‘Authenticity’ is basically all just narcissistic bunk. The Last Psychiatrist laid that out in excruciating, if a bit opaque, detail.

      A healthy identity and sense of self is fundamentally tied into how you relate to other people. You have, presumably, a family where you play different roles. You’re, presumably, either a professional in some field or a student preparing to enter that field. If you’re lucky there’s some larger community like a church or a military unit that you belong to and have a clear place within. Those things all inform what kind of man you are and, more importantly, what kind of man you should strive to be.

      Authenticity is a counterfeit of that. You pick a personal brand, like “ironically self-aware hipster” or “earnest acitivist Making a Difference,” and then consume products and media associated with that aesthetic. This gives the sense that your life has a direction and that you’re aspiring to something greater but it’s ultimately hollow and meaningless.

    • wobbler says:

      Not wanting to get into culture war stuff, but let’s just say some of my friends have said that it helped them, so I started digging. And there does feel like there is _some_ truth there, but it seems (like a lot of this stuff) to not be very coherent, with a lot of implicit assumptions to make it work as advertised, I guess?

      • baconbits9 says:

        Humans are diverse and complex enough that any marginally coherent system is going to have some truth, or nuggets of wisdom or something that appeals to some subset of the population. This is what makes fads happen, a couple of people try X, have it work for them and spread the word, enough of those people have it work for them to some degree that it keeps going until fewer and fewer of those who attempt it see any results. Eventually it fades out when no one is singing its praises, but you rarely see articles like “I tried the South Beach Diet and I am still fat”, for a bunch of obvious and not so obvious reasons.

        On a deeper level you have systems that check and correct each other, inhibitions can be to strong or to weak, wildly uninhibited and overly inhibited are both issues but giving someone with weak inhibitions the same advice as the person with strong inhibitions is a bad idea. What works for your friends might not, and even shouldn’t, work for you.

    • ilikekittycat says:

      The authentic self is an empty concept. Even if you believe in the self, the idea that you could ever go “back” to how you were at any point before, or that you owe it to yourself to attain continuity with some magically stable core part of you, don’t follow because of how ridiculous those concepts are. Acting virtuously in the moment and realizing that you may be inconsistent because you are always changing and impermanent is truer and healthier than bisecting your life into the times when the real, eternal you did the right thing and the times when the fake, bad you did the wrong thing and worrying about what it means

    • AG says:

      The framing of behavior around authenticity is useful to some people. It doesn’t seem like it’s useful to you. So don’t follow it.

    • AG says:

      Also known as “competing access needs.” Framing behavior in terms of authenticity is useful to some people, some instinctive mindsets. It doesn’t seem like it is useful to you. So don’t follow it. You have a different set of needs, and the authenticity framework doesn’t address them.

      My personal solution has been “performativity is not mutually exclusive from sincerity.” The well-crafted story conveys truth better than a passionate yet muddled performance. So it’s about finding the best delivery system for what you want others to appreciate about you. Maybe they’re getting distracted by a different behavioral tic that you can afford to prune. Maybe they respond better to the same content if presented with some socially obligated fluff. Maybe it’s a stats game, and you need to go for quantity first, and then refine the quality later.

    • Well... says:

      To me “authenticity” seems like a bad name for a good idea that just needs to be articulated better. I think I can illustrate the idea with some brief scenarios:

      1. You’re a salesman, and your target really seems like she doesn’t have a good reason to spend money on what you’re selling and probably isn’t well-off enough to waste money on it, so although you could probably talk her into a sale, you think about how you’d feel in her situation and how she’s a fellow human being, and you leave her alone.

      2. You turn down a stable but boring career in something you don’t find interesting, to follow your lifelong dream of becoming a professional musician. (That one’s especially cliche, I know, but it works for this purpose.)

      3. You’ve been feeling like crap all month — angry, depressed, frustrated, hopeless, cynical. Later, at the grocery store, the cashier asks how you’re doing. Instead of “fine,” you say something accurate but appropriately nonspecific like “Well, I guess I’m hanging in there.”

      Do these map right? I know there are probably others you could mention…

  3. KG says:

    I’m trying to find the names of as many types of old, traditional, and/or culturally significant dolls as I can, especially but not exclusively Jewish ones. Examples I’ve found on Wikipedia (which seems to have no Jewish examples) include Ghanan akuaba, Japanese kokeshi, and Hopi katsintithu. Anyone here know any?

  4. johan_larson says:

    This is a reminder the that SSC SF Book Club will begin discussing the book A Sudden Appearance of Hope on Wed July 18, just over a week from now. Looking forward to seeing everyone in the thread.

  5. b_jonas says:

    I was recently treated as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital for 18 days.

    It started this way. On Friday, I found out about two specific pieces of news that seemed very unlucky at the time and seemed to required to add important appointments to my calendar, when my schedule for the next three weeks was already full of appointments that all seemed so important and urgent that I didn’t want to cancel any of them. I obsessed on scheduling all day on Friday, and couldn’t do any useful work. My state then got worse and worse as I went home and tried to prepare for the two important programs for the next day (Saturday), and I started to obsess about incrementally more stupid things. I was on the phone with my mother, calling her multiple times and explaining my status, so she realized that I have a big mental problem. She got my father to come over to my home, to which I eventually agreed. By the time he arrived, my mind had crashed completely. I performed the following basic decisions with the strong prodding of my father: that I couldn’t go to the two programs for the next day, and that I need to sleep now. But I couldn’t get to sleep either, and couldn’t get over the problem of understanding what I will do the next day when I wake up. Eventually I declared that I needed professional medical help, and my father took me to a clinic. During the car trip to the clinic, and at the clinic where I was examined, I repeated the same few questions a hundred times, and didn’t properly react to verbal instructions or questions, so my father had great trouble even getting me in the car. Eventually (this was near midnight), the doctor at the clinic gave me strong sedatives. I have total amnesia about the three or four days starting from that point, and I can’t even tell whether that’s three or four days, because the next days seem so similar to each other.

    I was on the closed psychiatric ward for 13 days, including the ones with amnesia, then in the open psychiatric ward for a further 5 days. After the amnesia, I was compliant with the instructions of the personnel. I was treated by a very nice and helpful psychiatric doctor, and some overworked nurses. I was also interviewed twice by a psychologist, had to perform the Rorsach test, and fill a very boring questionnaire of 550 yes-no questions. The psychologist eventually declared that there was no sign of me having schizoid disorder, and that I should continue the therapy with my regular psychologist after I leave the hospital (I would have done so anyway), and wasn’t helpful in any other way.

    The theoretical difference between the closed ward and the open ward is that the closed ward had physical barriers that stopped us from leaving, whereas in the open ward I was allowed to walk freely in the garden of the hospital, there were no physical barriers from leaving, and I only had to promise that I won’t go outside the area of the hospital and will be back in the ward for the three times a day when they gave us medications and the three meals per day. The open ward allowed me to have my mobile phone with me all the time, while the closed ward restricted telephone access to five hours a day. The open ward also had a few hours of mandatory creative activities with the supervision of instructors every workday. For me this consisted of the following three boring activities: on Friday I watched photos of creative activities from the Japanese-themed week before and listen to a description of what we see in the photos; on Monday I drew persons on paper with pencil; on Tuesday I sewed by hand.

    The practical difference between the closed ward and the open ward is that the open ward had terrible beds that made sleeping almost impossible for me, even with the sedatives and with putting the mattress on the floor instead of the bed frame. (Mind you, I’ve been a bad sleeper for years, ever since I became overweight, and often have trouble sleeping anywhere away from my home.) This is despite that the doctor claimed that getting enough sleep is among the most important points I have to take care of to avoid such a nervous breakdown in the future.

    My family visited me often during the stay in both the closed ward and the open ward, and provided me of necessities such as clothing, shower gel, towel, toothbrush, a Rubik’s cube, and a book to read. (I could barely read the book though, because there were no comfortable chairs to sit on in well-lit places.) They also cheered me up on telephone and cancelled some appointments I had. On the last Saturday of my stay, I was allowed a few hours of leave to watch the new Star Wars film in a cinema with my family. Afterwards, the doctor said that his boss chewed on her for that, because such a leave was against the rules, something the doctor had conveniently forgotten to ease my suffering. The company of other patients in the closed ward was decent, there was at least one person I could befriend, and a few other people I could have short conversations with.

    On Tuesday (17.5 days after I got in), I was checked out of the hospital, on condition that I keep taking sedatives on low dose for presumably a month more, and will return in person for an examination on a particular day. I spent Wednesday at home preparing for a four day vacation with friends from Thursday to Sunday that I’d been planning for a long time. The vacation was great, but this writeup won’t describe it.

    This was the first time I was inpatient in a psychiatric ward in my life, the first time I’ve been inpatient anywhere since 2012, and the longest time I’ve had drug-induced amnesia ever. My doctor claimed that getting out after 18 days is lucky, most of their patients stay in the ward for much longer.

    I don’t have specific questions, I just thought I’d share my data point. You may ask me questions if you wish, but I will not tell which hospital this was, or who the doctor is.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      No questions, but thank you for sharing this.

    • Shion Arita says:

      Have you ever had a less severe version of the same problem? Or was this kind of thing qualitatively completely out of the blue?

      I’m asking because of a recentish post on here (which I can’t quite find right now) where Scott was examining two possibilities of the way the brain works: one of which was that the brain is a chaotic system with multipolar attractors where certain things can make the wheels come off the wagon for seemingly no reason. If you have no prior at all it would support that idea a bit.

      • b_jonas says:

        I’ve had something similar around 2003, yes. That was when I was a young university student, and before the difficult exams I felt I was unprepared, but was neither capable of preparing any more nor sleep before the exam. Those crisises lasted for one evening, when my mother tried to console me, as the exam the next day naturally ended them. I then learnt to deal with that sort of thing by letting it go.

        That’s why in this case, on Friday three weeks ago, I knew I should have had to let go of some of those important tasks that I can’t all do together or I’ll go mad, but I still couldn’t choose any of them. It’s really stupid in retrospect, and I sort of deserved the reset I got for it. I had to recalibrate my importance scale now, and have to ration these seemingly very important tasks to about three per week, even if all of them seem important. I’ll also probably feel better when I catch up on sleep, which I can only do on weekends.

    • b_jonas says:

      I’d like to add to the above description that I feel lucky with both the psychiatric ward and my family’s support. The ward was different than what I imagined from Scott’s descriptions. Although they only gave us spoons for food, no forks or knives, they did let me keep my belt, shoelaces, and pen. There were very few distracting patients in the ward, nobody screaming all night, and almost no patients with obvious outwards signs of psychiatric problems. The worst patients were probably kept in other, lower class psychiatric wards in town, and it’s thanks to my mother’s quick action that I could remain in this more pleasant ward.

  6. quaelegit says:

    If you don’t mind yet another thread of wanton speculation, I’ve got an alternate history question for y’all.

    People may have heard of the webserial Worm (& sequel Ward), which among other things has a multiverse of earths with different historical divergence points. We’ve just gotten a bit of info on Earth Cheit, which has a world-government theocracy that has been described as “Abrahamic”:

    “The divergence point for Earth Cheit was six hundred years ago. There was a change in the royal line and a push for an ‘age of enlightenment’ stance, denigrating and even criminalizing some aspects of religion. The backlash was severe and sharp. An inclusive, aggressive faction emerged in answer to it, and that faction would eventually absorb and conquer others… The world has a population well beyond [5 billion people]”

    I’m pretty sure the author is being deliberately vague and it won’t actually matter to the story, so what can we come up with here — a point of departure in the 15th century that leads to a global theocracy in the 21st?

    • quaelegit says:

      The only in-depth guess I’ve seen so far: link text, which argues that it starts the Habsburgs (or someone who replaced them? I’m not sure I read it right…). That family does have pretty good world-conquering qualifications, but I don’t think that covers the theocracy angle. And I disagree that only a big entrenched religious power like the Catholic Church or Abbasid Caliphate could be the progenitor — I think an “inclusive, aggressive faction” would be more likely to come from something smaller with less precedent & tradition to overturn — more like a Jesus or Mohamed than a Martin IV.

      But maybe I’m intrigued by, say, a Hussite* or Dönmeh** world theocracy for the lulz and missing more important considerations.

      *They conquer Siberia because… something something Czechoslovak legion… okay idk where I’m going with this.

      ** Two centuries off, I don’t know of any interesting messianic groups in the 15th century, sorry.

      • Anonymous5Jul2018 says:

        Your link text says Martin IV but you’re linking to Martin V.

        • quaelegit says:

          Thank you for pointing this out. I think I meant Martin V… whoever killed Jan Hus. It’s kind of a confusing period of history with all the antipopes.

    • James C says:

      Hmm, chalk up another one for Wildboar being bad with dates because they’ve got a reformation minded king a full century before the reformation starts. I guess that implies there was a succession crisis that went a different way in the 15th century that lead to a very different Royal line completely bungling the reformation.

      Not sure what happens then to lead to a theocracy. I’d guess that something like the 30 Years War kicks off on a much larger scale and drags in every European power into a grand melee that devastates the continent. The Catholic church eventually wins the conflict against the Reformation and uses their diplomatic power to draw the surviving powers into a tight Christian league. This power is ascendant when the secular advantages of the Reformation finally begin to arrive and uses the technological breakthroughs to enforce its religious doctrine on a sizable portion of the planet.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        Something like this, I would say.

        Catholics decisively win the Wars of Religion, either in the first round in the 16th century or sometime during the Thirty Year’s War. However, they embrace certain aspects of the Reformation – they need to win back the hearts and minds of disaffected Protestants, after all. With no rift in the Church, Catholicism is as natural as the air most Europeans breathe. Perhaps with the secular monarchies exhausted by the war, and their populaces disillusioned with their kings, the power of the clergy rises – the common folk pay more attention to what their priests say than what the local count says.

        There’s a few high-profile showdowns, like Henry IV at Canossa, but when, say, the power of the French monarchy is forced to yield to Mother Church (no doubt backed, when necessary, by Spanish and Austrian armed might), the Pope is ascendant in Europe. In the 18th century, instead of wasting their strength in internecine wars of empire, the united Christian monarchies of Europe lead a Crusade against the ailing Ottomans, who unravel a century or two earlier than OT. They might restore a Greek empire in the East, or directly administer it themselves. The local populace, Orthodox and Muslim, chafes under their Catholic rulers, but has not the strength to break free. Peter the Great, in his love with all things Western, publicly converts to Catholicism and creates a new great power in the East, driving across Siberia in the name of the Savior.

        What becomes of the Puritans? Such heretics could never be tolerated. Perhaps the Church tries to stamp them out – provoking Massachusetts to revolt much earlier than in OT, and now without the support of Virginia and the south. The Rebellion of New England is crushed by the British, and the American colonies are more closely supervised. Gradually, they settle into a cordial relationship of dominion, much like the rest of the Anglosphere – after all, there are no French or Spanish wars to worry about, and so onerous taxation is not necessary in this timeline.

        As the 19th century dawns, Europe, the Americas, and half of Asia are all Christian. Japan tried to throw out the missionaries that had knocked on her doors in the early 17th century, but the new Christian league had forced her to comply, and she is now a country in crisis. Much of the population embraces the new faith and desires to westernize the country, while the shogun stubbornly defends Buddhist prerogative and tries to keep traditional Japanese culture alive. Meanwhile, the ailing Qing finds itself relentlessly pressed by Christian powers, losing several wars over trading rights, sparked by the opium trade. When a Chinese peasant declares himself the brother of Christ and leads a massive uprising in the interior, the Pope proclaims it an act of God to bring the Qing into the fold, and the Western powers intervene to topple the empire and create the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (when the peasant is revealed to be a total heretic, he, too, is quietly toppled and replaced with a more pliant emperor). Meanwhile, advancing medical and industrial technology is gradually opening the heart of Africa to European domination, and the great powers pour into the country in the second half of the 19th century, followed closely by an army of missionaries bent on enlightening the last bastion of darkness and ignorance in the human race.

        The 20th century arrives to find the whole world bending to the Pope. He’s more of a figurehead now than a real ruler, not at all like the great popes of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the common people of Earth can’t imagine a world without him. The world is largely split into several great empires – the British hold most of North America, India, Australia, and southern and eastern Africa. France holds sway in Canada, western Africa, and Indochina. Taiping dominates East and central Asia, jostling with Russia, who is the power in the north from the Oder river to Yukon. The old Iberian powers, Spain and Portugal, quietly administer their colonial holdings. The Middle East is held by the restored Greek empire, Romanion (although western Europeans sneeringly call it the neo-Byzantine empire), which is largely beholden to the Pope as weak rulers struggle to control their Orthodox and Muslim subjects. Germany is a divided country of princelings and free cities continuing its squabbles, with the Habsburgs, Bourbons, and Pope constantly intervening to make sure no one state grows too powerful. The entire world is held in thrall to the Catholic church.

        (Personally, I think it’d be way easier if the point of departure is more like the 4th century – let’s say that the Goths never invade the Roman empire, and it remains a Christian superpower in the western world. Eventually, church and state could be so intertwined that Europeans couldn’t imagine one without the other. Then, if you still have the surge in warfighting and navigation technology in the 15th – 16th centuries, an expansionist-minded Empire could spread Christianity around the globe.

        A theocracy based on 4th century Christianity would not look at all like a post-Reformation Catholic theocracy, though.)

        • Nick says:

          This is fascinating! But I don’t buy it. The sect is described above as “inclusive” and is willing to work with the Fallen (a cult full of terrorists, most of whom in the remaining two families seem to use Christianity more as a veneer) because they share certain “fundamental tenets.” This is like having Catholics ally with Positive Christianity, except worse—and positive Christianity received a sharp denunciation in Mit brennender Sorge). So your althistory is missing the part where their Catholic Church apostatizes en masse.

          • James C says:

            To be fair, there’s always the option for the group that works with the Fallen being either more radical than the average or just more morally flexible. In a world where the Church has real authority they may have built a black ops division.

        • YehoshuaK says:

          A theocracy based on 4th century Christianity would not look at all like a post-Reformation Catholic theocracy, though.)

          An interesting line of counter-historical speculation. I would just point out that if in real history Christianity changed between the Fall of the Roman Empire and the Reformation, then it seems likely that it would also change over the course of those centuries in your counter-historical world. Not in the same ways, perhaps, but change would have occurred.

        • quaelegit says:

          I like this story, thank you for writing it up!

          Re: 3rd century — I thought the issue was more internal weakness than external invasions (as in, the invasions only had the big impact they did because the internal structure of the empire was falling apart). Of course, the alternate history could be that the internal weakness is solved earlier — maybe the church steps up to fill the void and bam there’s our theocracy?

      • quaelegit says:

        >Hmm, chalk up another one for Wildboar being bad with dates because they’ve got a reformation minded king a full century before the reformation starts.

        Hah, and in the reddit thread someone thought he was referencing the French Revolution!

        Wilyboat getting the math wrong is a definite possibility, but I think we can resolve the issue without assuming that. First off, there were earlier church reformers like John Wycliff (14th century, a bit early) and Jan Hus (exactly on time). Those are from within the church, but for “reforming king” you’ve got France (and Spain?) electing Antipopes right and left in the 14th century, continuing into the early 15th. I don’t know enough about the Western Schism to say if “age of enlightment” or “anti-religion” stance could describe any monarch involved in that (probably not*) but maybe Defiant is pattern-matching to later religious changes in Bet’s history rather than describing things with historical accuracy.

        Also, I think everyone is being unneccessarily restrictive by focusing on the Roman Catholic Church. In terms of “big religions” there’s of course Eastern Orthodox and Islam — people in the thread dismissed the Rus, Byzantines, and Ottomans out of hand, but I think it’s worth looking at (I’ve been meaning to try myself but haven’t made much progress in research).

        An “inclusive, agressive faction… that would absorb the others” reminds me a lot of of the birth of Islam. First conquering a significant chunk of Asia and Africa in the 7th~8th centuries, then gradually converting most of the population to Islam (it took a while depending on the region — I think Egypt finally became majority Muslim around the 11th century, and Yemen had a significant Christian population until very late (18th cent maybe? I can’t find Wikipedia articles that address these and I think I read the initial claims in AskHistorians posts, which are really hard to search, so I’m happy to be corrected on either of these… although since this OT is dead now I’m not expecting it). Anyways, my point is that a small sect can come more or less “out of the blue” and expand very quickly — maybe that’s what happened in Cheit.

    • Deiseach says:

      Much as I like the idea of the Global Catholic Theocracy, it’s been done to death by now, so ideally I’d like the 15th century Church to be one of the Orthodox – either Constantinopole never fell, in which case New Rome was invigorated and the Emperor reclaimed the lost lands of the West, or the Russians went full autocephalous and Third Rome rules the world.

      Though it’s also easy to imagine that this time round the Reformation did really topple the Catholics and the Pope, and it is one of the Reformation Protestant churches that ended up sweeping Europe and putting down all others. Calvin’s Geneva had a damn good try at a theocracy; suppose that model had thrived and expanded? Knox in Scotland had enough of an influence to eventually bring about the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots; suppose England had also succumbed to the Calvinist church? (Imagine Knox’s Monstrous Regiment had sufficient influence to deprive Elizabeth of the throne) – since Knox had spent time in exile in Geneva and knew Calvin, here are the seeds of the new, aggressive faction (not so inclusive, unless you mean ‘absorb rivals and they convert or die’ by “inclusive”) that will eventually “absorb and conquer others”.

      All the above is sixteenth not fifteenth century but hey, we’re already bending history, why not move events up a century or so? 🙂

      • Nick says:

        Much as I like the idea of the Global Catholic Theocracy, it’s been done to death by now

        Don’t forget Hyperion if you want a Galactic Catholic Theocracy!

        • Jaskologist says:

          On the contrary, Hyperion is better if you forget Endymion onward.

          • disposablecat says:

            Disagree entirely about Hyperion. Space Catholics are awesome, especially that version – their fast travel solution is particularly good.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Endymion is justifiable under total utility, but not average utility. As its own series I would have liked it just fine. As a sequel to Hyperion, it brought the series down. Much of the world building was discarded, the whole dualistic thing with the human and AI gods seemed to have been simply forgotten, and the Shrike was domesticated.

          • disposablecat says:

            I mean, yeah, there’s a huge discontinuity between the Hyperion and Endymion books, to the point that it’s probably better to conceptualize them as two separate series. But honestly I liked the Endymion books better – they had a more coherent plot, the worldbuilding stuck together better, and the Space Catholics are better villains than the Shrike. I felt like they had to be built on Hyperion to work, though – so I guess my opinion is the opposite of yours in that Endymion made Hyperion better.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        Oh, that’s where the title of the Terry Pratchett book comes from!

  7. Enkidum says:

    I posted a few links to my blog a couple of months back, but then decided after some discussion that I’d only link posts that were somewhat SSC-adjacent. I think this qualifies, it’s a very hand-wavy look at one of the topics I study, namely attentional expertise – the learned allocation of attention in a way that is optimized for a given goal. I use analyses of soccer positions as the main illustration of my point. It’s frankly rather superficial, as I’m just trying to introduce the topic to people who may have no prior knowledge of neuroscience or psychology, but I think gets the basic point across.

    • Randy M says:

      I’m interested, very broadly speaking, in how this attentional expertise develops, and how it affects perception and action.

      I wonder if there are circumstances where the novice will notice things the experts miss, “black swan” events for example.
      I’d say probably not in general, which makes the comment rather moot, but I wanted to leave some response as encouragement since it was an interesting post.

      Oh, and I spend some time staring at that Poison poster thinking it was the weirdest political compass chart yet.

      • Enkidum says:

        “I wonder if there are circumstances where the novice will notice things the experts miss”

        Oh absolutely. I mean… given a well-defined probabilistic game, there will always be cases where sub-optimal strategies pan out better than optimal ones. This is why the final tables of poker tournaments regularly have at least one person who doesn’t play poker much better than I do.

        I mean, obviously there’s a little bit of hand-waving in the analogy between poker skill and attentional expertise, but I think the point makes sense?

        “Oh, and I spend some time staring at that Poison poster thinking it was the weirdest political compass chart yet.”

        Haha! Never thought of it that way, I hate to try and think what the different quadrants represent though.

  8. ana53294 says:

    Rank NATO countries by their likelihood to ever invoke Article 5, in its military interpretation. That means they have to be attacked militarily, by a foreign government (terrorists don’t count; they are too difficult to estimate, although you can also try that). Say the probability of it happening in the next ~10 years, who attacks it, which part is attacked, and why.
    Really implausible things are OK, as long as you actually believe it could happen in the next 10 years. Don’t bother stating probabilities if it’s lower than 0.01%, just say improbable.
    Here is how I would do it:

    1. USA (N.Korea attacks Guam or Hawaii, P=0,1%). Also, something in the South China sea? Russia over Alaska.
    2-4. Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) (Russia attacks because their little enclave in Europe looks lonely. P= 0.05%)
    5. Poland (Russia wanting to reclaim its former glory, P=0.01%)
    6-7 Some kind of Greece-Turkey conflict (how does it work when both countries are part of NATO?)
    8-11 UK, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Canada (Something about North sea oil, Russia is the attacker; improbable)
    12 Spain (Some kind of conflict with Morocco over Spanish enclaves in Morocco; they fill the cities with Moroccans, have a referendum, and declare them part of Morocco; Spain doesn’t accept it, nobody recognizes it, but Morocco seizes the cities anyway; improbable).

    Here, this is harebrained idea territory:

    Bulgaria, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro get attacked by Turkish government wanting to regain the glory of the Ottoman empire and score some internal points. (intra-NATO)

    Romania-Hungary over Szekely land (also intra-NATO)

    For the rest of them, I can’t think of anything that sounds remotely plausible. Also, most of the attacks are done by Russia.

    The list of the other countries: Czech Republic; Slovakia; Germany; France; Portugal; Italy; Luxembourg; Belgium; Netherlands. Because they are surrounded by European countries regarded as highly democratic, I can’t think of any reason to attack them specifically; you would have to attack other countries first.

    • Tarpitz says:

      My feeling is that whatever the likelihood of a country other than the US invoking Article 5 is, it’s significantly less than the likelihood of that country being attacked, because there is some low but non-zero probability of NATO ceasing to exist, which would then make attacks (particularly on the Baltics) much more likely.

      I also think 1/2000 is probably too low for a Russian attack on one or more Baltics in the next decade, even excluding cases where NATO is no longer a factor.

      • ana53294 says:

        I agree that the Baltics are likely to be attacked; I just have a hard time calibrating how likely it is going to be. I do think that N. Korea is more likely to attack the US than Russia is to attack the Baltics, at least in the next 10 years. After Putin dies, all bets are off; but while he lives, he is slightly more sane than Kim, mainly because a lot of his allies’ assets are in Europe.

        • WarOnReasons says:

          After Putin dies, all bets are off; but while he lives, he is slightly more sane than Kim

          Is there strong evidence that Putin and Kim are less rational than an average political leader in Western countries?

          • ana53294 says:

            I don’t think any of them are clinically insane, just the kind of people who would take action that is risky enough to be considered crazy. You don’t go from KGB lieutenant to the richest man in Russia if you are unable to take risk. Same for Kim.

            But Putin has a lot more constraints than Kim has, because a lot of his and his allies’ money is abroad; they are less ideological than Kim. So far as I know, Russia currently has no ideology, except for the “soul paperclip”. Putin is trying to bring back “orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality”, but he hasn’t been as successful as Kim in implementing his ideologies.

            But Putin did start a war with Ukraine; he he has invaded Georgia; so yes, I do think he is more likely than the average Western leader to find an external enemy to unite against. Other leaders have chosen to find internal enemies, immigrants or refugees, mainly using anti-Islamic rethoric, but Putin cannot do that. The Russian muslim population is big, the situation in Chechnya is touchy, and if he stirs up anti-muslim sentiment too much, Chechnya could explode again. It is already almost a semi-autonomous region.

            Russians support Putin, as long as the economy goes well, and the country is peaceful. But I don’t think Russians would like to die in another World War II. Even that mess in Chechnya was highly unpopular when they realized that it couldn’t be won easily. The draft is highly unpopular, and most Russian males do whatever they can to avoid. If it starts to involve dying, it will become more unpopular.

            tldr; Putin is a big risk taker, the nature of Russia means that it is easier for him to go against external enemies than internal ones; all of this is unlikely to happen.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      The Spanish exclaves in Morocco are not covered by Article 5 (even though French Algeria was).

      Also highly improbable but possible scenario- an attack on the Netherlands to rescue someone on trial in the Hague for war crimes. Made more improbable because I think the likeliest (/least unlikely) country to try something like that is the US.

      • ana53294 says:

        OK, then I don’t see many advantages for Spain to be part of the Atlantic Alliance, especially with Trump being finicky about the 2% of GDP thing.

        Spain has two plausible enemies who can attack it: Morocco (which is not covered by NATO), and its own army (internal matters not covered).

        Part of our strategy towards strengthening our democracy has been precisely to weaken our armed forces. We removed the unity among the elite forces (Green Berets, Special Naval War Force, and Parachutist Sapper Squadron), to reduce the number of generals, to remove the draft (this means that the average age of our soldiers is very high (33 years); we have a very old army). A lot of this was done deliberately, to weaken our army.

        I really don’t see any advantage to being part of NATO; the last time the world went to hell, we did pretty well on the sidelines, and our only likely enemy has an economy that is 5X smaller and an army budget that is also 5x smaller. This doesn’t mean we would win, just that pouring more money into the problem won’t solve it.

        • 10240 says:

          I’d say the main point of the NATO is still to defend against Russia. Sure, in the present situation it’s extremely unlikely that Russia attacks the NATO, but if there was no alliance (or perhaps only a smaller alliance of the Easternmost countries of the NATO), it would be possible that Russia tries to overrun European countries one-by-one (perhaps up to and including Spain).

          This brings up an interesting coordination problem. Spain alone could probably safely defect (as there is the NATO between it and Russia). But how many countries on the Western end of Europe can defect until the remaining alliance is not enough to certainly win a war against Russia?

          If we assume that there is a clear-cut minimal alliance that is enough, and once the NATO is down to this minimal alliance no country will defect, then Western European countries can safely quit the NATO one-by-one until the alliance is down to this minimum.

          But each defecting country increases the necessary military budget of the remaining countries, as well as the amount of fighting the remaining countries would have to do should it come to a war. And if it’s not that clear when a country can defect without significantly increasing the chance of being overrun by Russia, there could be a chain of defections until the alliance falls apart, or ceases to be an effective defense.

          • ana53294 says:

            I would say that you would need at least one country with nuclear weapons, so that would mean the UK or France.
            If you can use the $$ spent on armed forces as a proxy for how strong they are, you would need the whole of central Europe+Italy (if you are going to invade Spain, why not Italy too?). So I guess Spain and Portugal can defect safely, but not France.

            German military expenditure:4,1 trillion $x1.2%=49 billion $
            French: 2.8 trillion $ x 2.2 %= 62 billion $
            Poland: 1.2 trillion $ x 1.9 % = 53 billion
            Italy: 2.3 trillion $ x 1.5 %= 34 billion

            Russian GDP (4 trillion $)x military expenditure (4.2%)=168 billion
            Russians spend an unsustainable amount of money on their army for a country so poor; there is also a lot of corruption there.

            Now that I am looking at it, it pains me to say that Trump is probably right.

    • 10240 says:

      Article 5 has been invoked once so far, by the US over 9/11; and Turkey has considered it in 2012 in some sort conflict with Syria. Something like this: a major terrorist attack, a guerrilla or militia attack from a neighboring failed state, or some local guerrilla group is more likely than a country full on attacking a NATO state with a conventional military force. One situation that is remotely plausible is that ethnic Russians in Baltic countries start rioting and trying to take over local administration Eastern Ukraine-style, and are suspected of being propped up by Russia.

      Edit: ana53294 said the NATO doesn’t cover internal matters (I don’t know the details of this); I don’t know how much evidence of Russian support would be needed until a Baltic situation counts.

      • ana53294 says:

        It is my understanding that NATO could act in the case of a foreign government creating internal dissent, but they don’t have to. NATO agreements are very carefully crafted to make sure nobody has to go into something they don’t want to.

        This is why every US president has to affirm that they understand Article 5 in its military sense, and it was a big deal when at first Trump didn’t (although he did it eventually, in Poland).

        • Matt M says:

          Realistically, this is all theorycraft anyway.

          I give it an rather good chance that if Russia invades the Baltics… they can invoke whatever they care to invoke, and the US response will be to condemn that sort of thing in very strong terms, but to stop very much short of “immediate declaration of total war on Russia”

          There’s little to no political appetite in this country to send tens of thousands of American boys to go die to guarantee the political integrity of Lithuania.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            There’s little to no political appetite in this country to send tens of thousands of American boys to go die to guarantee the political integrity of Lithuania.

            I dunno, wouldn’t it be nice to unambiguously be the Good Guys again? Assuming the nukes stay off the table, anyway.

            We’d need the Russkies to wait until Trump is out of office due to all the Trump-Putin slashfic media speculation, though.

          • Randy M says:

            I dunno, wouldn’t it be nice to unambiguously be the Good Guys again?

            Who doesn’t long for the days when the short, decisive war in Afghanistan united the country?

          • Gobbobobble says:

            There would definitely be a different perception to a democratic treaty ally asking SuperUSA to come save them from the Big Bad NeoSoviet Empire (not necessarily how they’d see it, but you bet we would) compared to Spreading Freedom™ and kicking some terries’ teeth in.

            (Note: not saying a conventional war with Russia is a plausible scenario, or something to be at all desired, just contesting the assertion that if it did happen there’d be no public appetite for it.)

          • ana53294 says:

            I don’t think you could do that and not lose all the credibility you have. Besides, the US has soldiers stationed in the Baltics; if they die, and the US does not declare war, it would look very weak.

            This did not happen in the case of Ukraine, because the was no promise to defend them, but the US did promise to defend Lithuania.

          • Randy M says:

            Afghanistan wasn’t just about spreading freedom, it was about routing al queda and the Al-queda sympathetic Taliban after an assault on American lives.

            I’m not saying definitively we should not risk nuclear destruction to protect Lithuania from Russian occupation, just that I don’t think it would be just the thing to bring all political rivals in the US to a consensus.

          • johan_larson says:

            If protecting the Baltic republics is a bluff on the part of NATO, and the Russians call them on it, it will be the end of NATO as a credible organization. Seems like a hell of a gamble.

          • Lambert says:

            Putin stopping at Lithuania is about as likely as Hitler stopping at Czechoslovakia.

          • Matt M says:

            “muh credibility”

            But in all seriousness, US politicians answer to US voters, who won’t really care about that sort of thing.

            It’s a dumb promise that shouldn’t have been made – hell, we even teach in public schools that the lesson of WW1 was that taking super seriously your entangling alliances results in millions of useless and unnecessary deaths.

            When’s the last time we engaged in a hot-war with a legit superpower who didn’t attack us first?

          • Tarpitz says:

            I give it an rather good chance that if Russia invades the Baltics… they can invoke whatever they care to invoke, and the US response will be to condemn that sort of thing in very strong terms, but to stop very much short of “immediate declaration of total war on Russia”

            I’m inclined to agree. I find it very improbable that the Trump administration would actually go to war over an even slightly ambiguous invasion of one or more Baltics, and moderately unlikely that a more conventional US administration would either. And I think Putin knows that.

          • Lambert says:

            What about the rest of Europe?
            I can’t see them (NATO or the EU) standing by in the face of an existential threat to several of its states.

          • Tarpitz says:

            You think European nations would go to war with Russia without US backing? Over Estonia? It’s hard enough to even get most of them to agree to sanctions…

          • ana53294 says:

            I am not sure you can do that much to regain the Baltics after a successful Russian attack, without wrecking the Baltics.
            Can you?

          • johan_larson says:

            If the US and the rest of NATO are not willing to come to the aid of some member nation, and they value keeping the alliance a real force in the world, and that ally is facing credible threats, then they really should find some way to push the ally out of the alliance. Keeping the ally in risks the possibility that it is attacked, the alliance fails to respond, everyone sees the alliance cannot be trusted, and is therefore worthless and may as well be shut down.

            Do we want to keep NATO? Then we must either ready ourselves to fight for the Baltic republics, or push them out of the alliance.

          • Lambert says:

            If Russia takes the whole of without a response, you might as put a welcome mat outside Warsaw. Not immediately, perhaps, but they will be emboldened.
            Immediate total war would be unwise, but there are many more limited options.
            Firstly, stationing a lot more troops in Eastern Europe would be an obvious response.
            Intervention in Syria would also be a good start.
            Beyond that, a declaration of war opens up the possibility of air strikes and blockades in order to hinder Russian logistics without putting boots on the ground.
            The hope would be to defeat them in economic warfare.

          • John Schilling says:

            If Russia takes the whole of without a response, you might as put a welcome mat outside Warsaw.

            OK, but why would anybody in Western Europe care? Berlin, they’d care about and maybe even fight for. Poland, meh, nobody in Europe is going to be waging war against Russia to defend Poland, and everybody knows it. So waging war with Russia over Estonia, just to maintain the pretense that they are willing to fight over Poland, seems also unlikely.

            If they can get the United States to do the fighting for them, that’s another matter, but Donald Trump isn’t going to be the only American asking “what’s in it for us?” in that case.

      • cassander says:

        IIRC, France tried to invoke it over Algeria, and were basically told that if they did they would be ignored, so it was better not to, and that this was a substantial contributor to france’s quasi-withdrawal from nato in 63.

    • achenx says:

      The North Atlantic Treaty probably doesn’t apply to Guam or Hawaii, for what that’s worth on your probabilities.

      • ana53294 says:

        That moves the US to the group with the other countries with north sea oil. I don’t think Russia claiming north sea oil to themselves would be something that could trigger article 5, but it would be a casus belli.

        Any Chinese attack on US mainland would be extremely unlikely, so the most probable attack would be Russia claiming back Alaska, which was rented to the US. This, of course, would mean assuming Russia is the inheritor of the Russian Empire, the entity that rented Alaska, and would involve having to pay off the Russian Empire’s debt, but I guess Russia wouldn’t care about that anyway, if they are crazy enough to claim Alaska.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Plus, the US didn’t rent Alaska; we bought it outright.

          • ana53294 says:

            You are right; I read from Russian sources that Alaska was sold for 99 years, but that is a myth.
            But it is a myth that is quite extended in Russia. The truth wouldn’t matter much in this case, more like whose propaganda is better.

          • achenx says:

            Huh, I had never heard that myth about “renting” Alaska before. Kind of weird. The treaty is available for reading, so it would need to be a pretty deep conspiracy for the rental agreement to be hiding or whatever the myth is.

          • ana53294 says:

            You don’t take into account how many Russians don’t speak any other language than Russian. I am always surprised at the outrageous lies the Kremlin bots tell in the Russian internet (if you think the Russian Facebook coup was bad, wait till you see the Russian internet).

            I have read loads of stories about children kidnapped by child services from perfectly normal families for bullshit reasons; then I Google it, and see it never happened. I guess that kind of slipped through the cracks for me, because it is a really old myth.

    • I think you are too optimistic about the Baltics.

      • ana53294 says:

        How likely do you think it is to happen? 0.1 %, 1 %, 5%?
        I just don’t think Russia has the ability to swallow anymore territory. Crimea is a huge money drain, although at least it is a strategically important money drain. I don’t know what Putin was expecting in Ukraine, but I don’t think he was expecting Donetsk; that area went from a relatively rich part of Ukraine to a big unholy mess nobody wants to be responsible for. He hasn’t even been able to occupy that territory.

        • 5% seems reasonable. The Baltics have a significant Russian minority, which provides possible excuses for intervention, analogous to the Sudeten Germans. If it’s reasonably clear that nobody is willing to go to war with Russia to defend them, one can easily imagine a situation where the Russian government thought an attack would be politically attractive to its population–defending fellow Russians against mistreatment by those wicked Estonians, Latvians, … .

  9. carvenvisage says:

    Snippet of Hilaire Belloc on the early church in rome (from chapter 2 of “europe and the faith”):

    Now it is evident that the term “Christianity” used as a point of view, a mere mental attitude, would include such a man [an independent admirer of Christ], and it is equally evident that we have only to imagine him to see that he had nothing to do with the Christian religion of that day. For the Christian religion (then as now) was a thing, not a theory. It was expressed in what I have called an organism, and that organism was the Catholic Church.

    The reader may here object: “But surely there was heresy after heresy and thousands of men were at any moment claiming the name of Christian whom the orthodox Church rejected. Nay, some suffered martyrdom rather than relinquish the name.”

    True; but the very existence of such sects should be enough to prove the point at issue.

    These sects arose precisely because within the Catholic Church (emphasis added) (1) exact doctrine, (2) unbroken tradition, and (3) absolute unity, were, all three, regarded as the necessary marks of the institution. The heresies arose one after another, from the action of men who were prepared to define yet more punctiliously what the truth might be, and to claim with yet more particular insistence the possession of living tradition and the right to be regarded as the centre of unity. No heresy pretended that the truth was vague and indefinite. The whole gist and meaning of a heresy was that it, the heresy, or he, the heresiarch, was prepared to make doctrine yet more sharp, and to assert his own definition.

    I think this highlights a case pretty well where a logical approach doesn’t imply a rational approach: logic is a great way to check for deviation from known facts and self contradiction, -if your beliefs imply “A” down one thread but “not-A” down another, you probably have something to disentangle.

    But if you instead make the thing you’re checking-for deviation-from- prescribed beliefs you must not deviate from for social or practical reasons disconnected from evidence, epistemology, and that sort of thing, then what you have is a doctrinal rather than rational approach. -You’re seeking to use beliefs as indirect levers for your soul, rather than direct guides for your understanding.

    (arguably a diametric opposite approach, and it seems at least an approach which directly precludes a rational approach to at least those pre-set beliefs where it is employed)

    • HeelBearCub says:

      This is simply the problem of the definition of words, and arguments that arise which are basically about which definition is “correct”. Hence the rationalist desire to some times “taboo” certain words.

      • carvenvisage says:

        I’m not sure I’ve understood you correctly, but if you’re referring to bastardadised sense of rationality as in #yolo #winning #victory, that is simply much better indicated by the word “effective”, a commonplace synonym which sounds like it’s talking about winning and victory and so on, while ‘epistemalogically rational’ actually matches the etymology/word structure and has few or no current synonyms.

        -The thing to taboo is just simply the ‘rationality=winning’ definition, now and forever, because it’s just people trying to steal connotations, and in any case fails on both practical and logical grounds.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          No, I’m taking about the LessWrong idea of tabooing words.

          Basically the argument you highlight above is just about whether you call a certain person, at a certain time, a member of the “Christian religion” or not. Ultimately that just boils down to a specific definition of “Christian religion”. The heretic might claim to know the true definition, just as the Catholic Church of the time would lay claim to it. But if you taboo the term “Christian”, instead of arguing about its definition, you can actually discuss the specifics of the mandates of the Catholic Church to which the heretic objected.

  10. johan_larson says:

    Here are the occupational areas the Marine Corps was offering enlistment bonuses for last year:
    – Marine air-ground task force planner, $9,000.
    – Electronics maintenance, $8,000.
    – Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear response defense, $7,000.
    – Music, $6,000.
    – Infantry, six-year option, $5,000.
    – Motor transport, $4,000.
    – Supply, accounting and legal, $3,000.

    Kind of an odd list. I think I would have expected a long list of dangerous combat jobs. And yes, infantry is in there. But the Marines need other things more, including people who know one end of an ammeter from another. That top job is some sort of office-work data-processing nerd who helps out with unit deployment planning.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Not really odd. It just measures the demand for certain skills by the Marines vs. the supply of those skills in the normal Marine applicant pool. Band members are presumably rare in the normal applicant pool.

    • dndnrsn says:

      There are private-sector data-processing jobs that likely pay more than the USMC can, and involve giving up a lot less personal freedom to the employer, but there’s no private-sector equivalent of driving a tank or firing a howitzer – Howitzer Valley isn’t gonna offer artillery crews more.

      I don’t know about more recent wars, but in WWII, US combat infantrymen were casualties at a higher rate than tank or artillery crews, and in WWI infantry suffered a higher rate than artillery. I’m pretty sure that in Vietnam the infantry took a disproportionate share of casualties also.

      I imagine that they really want those people who can use computers to help deploy stuff, as it gives an extra goose to the “how good are your unit staffs” factor.

      EDIT: presumably there is a utilitarian reason for wanting a band, too. Probably helps with recruitment.

      • Matt M says:

        There are private-sector data-processing jobs that likely pay more than the USMC can, and involve giving up a lot less personal freedom to the employer

        I actually doubt it. I was an Admin guy in the Navy, and when I got out, I was facing about a 50% pay cut for a similar job in the private sector. The military’s pay structure rewards rank and years of service with little regard for the actual job done, such that easy jobs tend to be overpaid, while highly skilled ones tend to be underpaid. They rely on small, one-time bonuses like these to attempt to even out the force structure.

        I wonder if for these support jobs, the main competition is other military services. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to fight directly, but does want to enjoy the benefits of the military in general, the Marines seems like the last service branch you’d choose. I’d guess these bonuses are intended to make the Marines seem like an attractive place to be an accountant relative to the Navy and Air Force, but not relative to the private sector.

        • dndnrsn says:

          I may be showing my ignorance of computer stuff – I see “data-processing” and immediately think of someone making big bucks doing that computer magic. It’s all the same, right?

          In the case that it pays better than the private sector, what’s the downside to the military, why would someone leave? Is it the less personal freedom bit, or are the medical bars a certain height thus disqualifying a decent chunk of people, or ?

          • Matt M says:

            Oh, sorry for the misunderstanding. I didn’t read the second paragraph of the OP correctly. My post was referring mainly to the supply, accounting, legal people.

            As I read the job title of “Marine air-ground task force planner” I’m thinking that is an operational/logistics position that is probably typically senior and whose requirements are difficult for most people to achieve, but I don’t know enough about the Marines to say for sure.

            In the case that it pays better than the private sector, what’s the downside to the military, why would someone leave?

            I left for two reasons. One was philosophical and ideological. I no longer supported the mission and no longer wanted to associate myself with it.

            The second was economic in terms of long-term potential rather than short-term planning. While in my first year out of the military I took a 50% pay cut, I then went to grad school and got my MBA (for free thanks to the GI Bill) and am now making about 2.5x what my military salary was, without all the personal life restrictions.

            That said, if you want to live a relatively comfortable middle-class lifestyle without going to college and you don’t mind being told what to wear and how to cut your hair, “supporting role in the Navy or Air Force” is a very logical path that makes a whole lot of sense. Its value proposition is hard to beat, really.

          • johan_larson says:

            Here’s a description of the job:

            The enlisted MAGTF Planning Specialist is responsible for functional support in the areas of FDP&E. Typical duties include updating plan and unit information to unit level detail for force deployment planning. These specialists also operate and manage force deployment planning automated data processing tools. They produce force reports and properly format and forward electronic mail, files, and newsgroup message traffic.

            This MOS operates the Joint Forces Requirement Generator and must be capable of operating the JOPES Editing Tool (JET). He or she is responsible for operating Web Scheduling and Movement, and for generating reports.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Matt M

            For lawyers, I can’t imagine that the highest-powered civilian law job doesn’t pay better than what the military can. Then again, law work really varies in its character – a lot of lawyers can’t stand the high-powered corporate law or high-profile criminal defence work or whatever. So it’s not necessarily USMC lawyer of some variety or other versus being legal person for a Fortune 500 company or defending celebrities accused of crimes.

          • Matt M says:

            Given that these are enlistment bonuses, they would apply to enlisted personnel only.

            So “legal” in this context would be a legal assistant, maybe a paralegal.

            And that goes for all of these jobs. These bonuses will be given mainly to people who do not have college degrees.

          • johan_larson says:

            And here’s the equivalent list for the Air Force:

            Stressed enlisted career fields:
            1A8 Airborne Cryptologic Language Analyst.
            1B4 Cyber Warfare Operations.
            1C4 Tactical Air Control Party.
            1N4 Fusion Analyst – Digital Network Analyst.
            1T0 Survival, Evasion, Resist & Escape.
            1T2 Pararescue.
            1W0 Weather.
            2T0 Traffic Management.

            Stressed officer career fields:
            11H Rescue Pilot.
            11R Reconnaissance /Surveillance/Electronic Warfare Pilot.
            11S Special Operations Pilot.
            12M Mobility Combat Systems Officer.
            13C Special Tactics Officer.
            13D Combat Rescue Officer.
            13L Air Liaison Officer.
            18X Remotely Piloted Aircraft Pilot.
            64P Contracting Officer.

          • Conrad Honcho says:


            My dad was a lawyer and then a judge in JAG. It was easy, and a lot of days he was home by 3PM. He got benefits, healthcare, retirement, guaranteed employment. My uncles kept telling him to go into private practice like they were, but they worked 3 times as hard for maybe double the compensation and vastly more risk.

            This was also in the 70s, 80s, 90s when a law degree meant relatively easy access to a good wage. Today there’s a glut of lawyers, and I’ve got friends with $100k in law school debt making $35k as a public defender, and thankful for it.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Matt M

            The linked article doesn’t seem to indicate analogous numbers for officers, if there are any. By “without a college degree” are you talking about a university degree (in the colloquial sense) or a two-year CC type degree? Paralegal requires some sort of post-high school credential – or does the military provide that training?

            @Conrad Honcho

            Sounds a lot like the deal offered by some public-servant legal jobs: you’ll make more money in the private sector, but there will be more work, public sector jobs often have better retirement plans, etc.

          • Matt M says:

            The linked article doesn’t seem to indicate analogous numbers for officers, if there are any. By “without a college degree” are you talking about a university degree (in the colloquial sense) or a two-year CC type degree? Paralegal requires some sort of post-high school credential – or does the military provide that training?

            I don’t know how the process would work for officers. A bit of high level explanation may be in order.

            Generally speaking, the military is broken down into two major classes, Officers and Enlisted. In the vast majority of cases, Officers must have college degrees (in a small minority of cases, exceptional enlisted personnel with 10+ years of experience may receive direct promotions to officer without going to school in the meantime, but this is quite rare). Officers serve on perpetual commissions, essentially “at-will” employment. Enlisted, on the other hand, sign contracts of specific length, typically 2-8 years.

            The bonuses discussed are enlistment bonuses, offered to enlisted personnel as one-time cash payments to incentivize one to enlist, or re-enlist, in a particular job field. Since officers serve perpetually, I’m not sure how such a bonus system would work for them. It’s more likely that they would receive some sort of recurring “special pay” for particularly unique skillsets they have that the military does not want to lose (that said, I’m former enlisted, so perhaps any former officers here could comment on how it works from their side).

            In terms of education, Officers typically either attend a military academy, or complete an ROTC program at a university. Regular college grads can also join up and receive commissions, but that’s more rare. There are also programs for exceptionally bright/young enlisted personnel to go to college and become officers upon graduation, but that is also rare.

            Enlisted personnel are trained by the military, in an environment roughly similar to a technical school. All of the training is job-relevant with no time wasted on other subjects. In the Navy, if I recall correctly, one could not enlisted directly as a legal assistant. It was reserved for those with maybe 5+ years experience in other admin fields who then had to apply to become one. I can’t remember how long the training for it was, but I’d be shocked if it was longer than 3 months.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Matt M

            I’m aware of the officer/enlisted split. The gap in communication here is actually my fault for misreading something: I read “enlistment bonus” as “joining bonus” – is there a different word for joining if you’re someone who’s going to become an officer? – which is probably the cause of the confusion here. This was sloppy of me. Based on that misreading, I assumed that some of these were jobs requiring postsecondary education, then I saw legal and figured “a lawyer, huh?”

  11. Chevalier Mal Fet says:

    I have been commenting on the ongoing game of SSC Diplomacy. Previous season found here. Today we’re going to be looking at Fall 1902.

    As always, let’s start with the Western Front. In the spring, France was presented with a tricky defensive challenge, as England and Germany combined against her, while Russia complicated matters by striking westwards.

    The Royal Navy sortied southwards, establishing firm control over the Mid-Atlantic Ocean – a key sea space that gives the UK access to Brest, to Gascony, to Spain, and to Portugal, all highly sensitive French territories. However, that was just about the only good news for England on the turn – the BEF in Picardy tried to support the Channel fleet into Brest, but was forced to defend itself against French reserves striking north from Paris, and could lend no assistance to the navy. Meanwhile, the French fleet in Brest combined with the fleet fleeing the Mid-Atlantic and forced the Channel fleet back into the Thames. French warships now steam back and forth off Dover. Meanwhile, the northern squadron attempted to intercept the Russian Baltic fleet striking from Sweden for Norway, but the added weight of a Russian army pushing overland through Lapland denied the fleet any bases of resupply and the squadron was forced to regroup in the North Sea. At the same time, the German army in Belgium quietly took over the military administration of that country.

    All in all, a grim turn for England, who gains the Mid-Atlantic, but loses the Channel, Norway, and Belgium – she’s now back to the same amount of centers she started with, and this time the French are poised to invade. Definitely a tight spot.

    France’s actions on the coast have been touched on, but by committing her reserves to thrust at Picardy, the army in Burgundy was left insufficiently supported. The French again tried an attack over the frontiers towards Munich, with the southern army following up from Marseilles, but heavy German defenses sent the poilus recoiling back with tens of thousands of casualties, while German units flanking through Belgium and Luxembourg resulted in the French retreating all the way to Gascony. Northern and eastern France are now under Anglo-German occupation, but the core of French strength – Marseilles, Paris, and Brest – remains free, and the Germans might not be able to press their advantage.

    The reason is the Russians. The Russian steamroller brushed aside weak German opposition in Silesia and Prussia, and the Kaiser’s government was forced to flee Berlin for Kiel, just ahead of the advancing Tsarist armies. In the Baltic, the Russian advance into Norway has already been noted – the saving grace for the Kaiser here is that his fleet was able to strike from Copenhagen in the rear of the Tsarist fleet and occupy Sweden, compensating somewhat for the loss of Berlin and East Prussia.

    In the south, the Tsar faced Turkish armies surging into Rumania after Austria’s treachery, but there were no available forces to mount a counter-attack. Instead, the Black Sea fleet continued its desperate defense of Russia’s southern shores, but was decisively beaten in a showdown with the Ottoman navy – several battleships were sent to the bottom and the Turk now has control of the Black Sea. With only a single army in the Ukraine available to support the Sevastopol defenses, the Russians are looking at the complete collapse of their position in the south within about a year.

    Continuing clockwise, the Turks had a good year. Ottoman armies crossed the Danube in strength for the first time in a century, supported by Austrians striking out of the Carpathians. Somehow, the Sublime Porte buried its centuries-long feud with Vienna and has joined hands with the Hapsburgs to dominate the Balkans. The attack on Rumania and the successful adventure of the fleet have given the Ottomans a dominant position in southeastern Europe.

    The Emperor, for his part, has his hands full with the Italians. The Italian army that landed in Albania the previous year struck south, over the mountains towards Greece – but found itself unable to dislodge Austrian garrisons from the Greek towns, while the Austrian army in Serbia threatening its flanks and rear compelled a withdrawal. Further north, Italian mountain troops successfully pushed a handful of Austrian garrison troops out of Tyrolia, establishing Italian armies on the Danube and threatening a drive towards either Trieste or Vienna in the spring. Aiding this, the Regia Marina steamed past Greece and occupied the Adriatic, in position to assist further Italian efforts to bypass the Trieste defenses.

    So what will 1903 bring? England has to disband 2 units – meaning he must choose whether to focus on the French threat, the Russians, or attempt to hold off both with very limited forces. Not a great proposition. Personally, I’d probably weaken my units facing Russia, and keep as heavy a presence against the Frogs as I could – France is an existential threat, while the Tsar has bigger fish to fry.

    France has a golden diplomatic opportunity with the Russian invasion. A strong push at the negotiating table here could see German armies withdrawn to fight in the East, leaving the French free to press their positional advantage against England. The Iberian peninsula does have to be looked after, but if France can secure peace with Germany then she has the spare forces for that.

    Germany is cramped and doesn’t have a whole lot of options – just about every one of the spaces around her has a foreign unit in it. Italy’s foray against Austria I think is just plain bad news for Germany. It means Austria is distracted and unable to support against Russia, while at the same time France has a free hand. Remember, we’re only seeing half the game here – we’re privy to none of the negotiations that went on preceding each move. I wonder if Germany tried hard to get Italy on side?

    Austria seems to be okay, with the conquest of Greece and Turkish allegiance. Italy’s advance will probably stall out in the face of superior Austrian numbers, and as long as the Turks stay allied, there’s really nothing that can threaten Vienna. To be fair to Italy, he played this about as well as he could have – Italy has a tough time accessing neutral supply centers at the start. Only Tunis is really uncontestedly Italy’s, and with Russia distracted in the north and Austria/Turkey bizarrely allied, he really doesn’t have a lot of options. His only real shot is diplomatic – some sort of rapprochement with Austria and a strike against Turkey. But that doesn’t seem at all likely to happen.

    The Turks, likewise, are stronger than both Russia and Italy – the two nations really have an edge in numbers in the east and stand a strong chance of wrapping up their theater quickly, while the topsy-turvy West is still up in the air. In 1903, look to see some sort of diplomatic realignment between France, Germany, England, and Russia, while Austria and Turkey look to press their advantages on both the Russian and the Italian fronts.

    • fion says:

      Nice write-up as always.

      I’m curious as to whether you’ve looked ahead? I’m keeping up with the game as it goes, and my perspective on some of the movements in 1902 and 1903 is different now than it would have been at the time, due to the benefit of hindsight. So which are you? Omniscient storyteller or contemporary pundit?

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        contemporary pundit – I like to see if my predictions come true or not. It sharpens my ability to analyze the board, and will help me out in future games, I think. Plus it offers a more honest commentary. My bookmark to the game takes me to fall 1901, so I just flip ahead to whatever season I’m doing that thread, pausing a bit on each board to review what I looked at last time.

        Really, though, Russia’s lunge seems to me to have totally altered the dynamics of the game. If he’d stayed south, Austria and Turkey would have had a rough go with three more armies to contend with – maybe even a stalemate with Italy on the other side. On the other hand, France would probably be ground down, though his seizure of the channel was great – now that Germany and England have a full second front in the East, it might even be enough for France to get the upper hand.

        Really not sure why Germany occupied Belgium – I’d like to know what was going on behind the scenes there. On the surface, it cost England a unit that he sorely needs, while it doesn’t get Germany any more builds – all his centers are currently occupied by units. If it was a stab, it seems a curious choice to stab for one center that he can’t use when he’s fighting two other powers in his home territory. If it wasn’t a stab…then why did he support Ruhr from Munich and Belgium, instead of supporting Belgium in from Munich and Ruhr? That would have cleared the center for the season. Open to France’s lunge, yes, but then England could keep a 4th unit, which would simplify his defensive problems immensely.

        Maybe it was just a screwed up order? The simplest explanation is usually best.

  12. hexbienium says:

    SSC readers might enjoy Philip José Farmer’s story “Riders of the Purple Wage”, which features a society with a guaranteed basic income, wireheading, puns, and kabbalistic theorizing. (I don’t think it’s available legally online; I read it in the anthology Dangerous Visions, edited by the late Harlan Ellison.) Content warnings for sex and abortion.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      Yeah, that was the story the first turned me off on the idea of a UBI. My dislike of the idea has only grown deeper and more nuanced since then.

      • As I may have mentioned, the Torchship trilogy, which I enjoyed, touches on some possible problems with a basic income towards the end.

      • albatross11 says:

        In the Harrington books, the People’s Republic of Haven has an UBI called the Basic Living Stipend, which is politically impossible to cut for fear of rioting proles and terrorist attacks.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          The difference in my mind is the Harrington books were written by an author that doesn’t like the idea of UBI class written for people who will tend to not like the idea of a UBI class. Direct, but won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already want to be persuaded of it.

          RotPW is a bit different, much less clear cut, much more murky, on it’s support or opposition to the idea.

          Sometimes I think PJF executed a brilliant action-within-an-action in that story in the context of the DV anthology, which is why, IMO, is it by far the best story in the anthology series.

          On the surface, it was about a society based on ideas that were unspeakably “dangerous” to the “rubes”.

          A closer reading suggests it has a deeper level presenting ideas that were unspeakably “dangerous” to the 70’s wannabe-free-love slans (the sort of people who today want “fully automated luxury gay space communism”) who were the target market of that sort of SF at that time.

        • Eric Rall says:

          The pre-coup Peeps were a basket case for a number of reasons: a dysfunctional educational system, a Soviet-style centrally-planned economy, and an insecure oligarchy which used a mix of randomized draconianism and machine politics pay-offs to maintain its grip on power. The first two factors did at least as much harm to the economy as the BLS, and the latter had perverse effects of encouraging riots and terrorism as routine political tools (the draconianism provided a plentiful stock of grievance but wasn’t consistent enough to actually keep a lid on things, and the machine politics as practiced by the Legislaturalists actively encouraged political violence by regularly paying danegeld to the “respectable” allies of the most dangerous terrorist groups).

          Note that when Pierre took over and gave St. Just a free hand to be systematically draconian, the riots and terrorism pretty much went away (*). Pierre was also able to cut the BLS to an affordable level and rationalize the economy enough to supply the war effort.

          (*) There were three serious coup attempts over the course of about 15 years, but only the Levellers came from the same sort of source as the pre-Pierre terrorists and rioters. The other two coup attempts were classic putsches by senior military leaders (the Secretary of Defense and a senior Admiral, respectively). And after the Levellers got crushed, prole political violence was pretty much dead as a political factor on Haven.

          I also got the impression (although I don’t think it’s ever explicitly stated) that the BLS was very steeply means-tested, creating a pretty nasty poverty trap and a stark binary split between “dolists” who received the BLS and people who worked for a living. I think most modern UBI proponents prefer a shallow or no phase-out for precisely this reason, and envision a continuum between people who live primarily on the UBI and people who use the UBI to supplement their market incomes.

      • engleberg says:

        I liked Spinrad’s The Pink and Blue War, later retitled A World Between, and it put the best case for a citizen stipend I’ve seen. Never liked Farmer’s Purple Wage stuff, and I thought it was more a satire on the late 1940s GI bill than anything universal.

  13. Koken says:

    I was googling results in relation to exit poll showing Trump doing better than Romney with Latinos and ran across these:

    They are reports of some post-election research which seems to contradict the exit poll fairly sharply, and I wondered if anyone here was familiar with this work or interested in taking a look.

    I’m no statistical expert but I was a little puzzled in particular eyeballing a graph in the Nevadan link which had Trump only fractionally below Romney, but which apparently showed him getting less than half Romney’s proportion of Latino votes. What this method would give as Romney’s share wasn’t stated in these reports, but I did wonder if it would support both Trump and Romney’s latino vote being over-reported in the exit polls, rather than Trump tanking quite so radically.

    • helloo says:

      Couple of things:

      Why didn’t they do this with Obama’s results then? Should you really compare 2 results by different methods?
      (mostly regarding the Nevada article, the Texas one at least showed that Clinton beat Obama in votes) If they did and it was the same, I’m not sure why a 5 point loss is less believable than a 17 point gain. Especially as they showed that Clinton’s support was lower than Obama by a lot more than Trump was by Romney.

      Why didn’t they bother to do it for all precincts rather than 80-90% of them? Are the last precincts so much harder to get?

      Is this set of errors particularly out of place? As in, did the exit polls have a higher degree of variance this time than normal? If the exit polls are just generally bad predictors, then we should just place less trust in them or possibly think about possible biases for exit polling. Otherwise it might just be that the 2016 election was a bad one for polls (it’s not like other polling were exactly free from error).

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Haven’t click on this link but I should note that it was already a well know problem that exit polls are not designed to get sub-group voting percentages/totals correct. They are designed to get raw percentages/totals correct so that the end result of the election can be predicted before the actual totals are reported.

      The fact that a process designed to get an accurate estimate of what large pool of people has done won’t give you the same level of accuracy in estimating smaller contained sub-groups is not surprising nor controversial.

      If you want accurate results for voting behavior of latinos, or blacks,, even whites or any smaller sub-groups, you have to design exit polling to specifically capture that data.

  14. ana53294 says:

    Does anybody have things that they feel deeply about, even if they know and agree with arguments against that same thing?

    It happens to me that when I listen to nuclear physicists talk about nuclear stations, and how safe they are, and how unlikely another Chernobyl or Fukushima is too happen, I nod. And then they talk about how that reduces CO2, provides a much stabler energy supply, etc., and I feel like I don’t have a good argument against that, either.

    And then somebody suggests that we should build a nuclear station in a ~ 100 miles radius from my home, and I am “no way!” and join the picket lines. Convincing myself not to listen to those emotions is impossible; if I knew for certain that acting against what I knew was true would be ethically wrong, I could control my feelings; but acting against your core feelings when there is no compelling ethical, moral or legal reason feel wrong.

    How do you marry again your feelings and your brain, about the things you know and feel are true?

    • Well... says:

      I do this about a certain topic. I describe it as partitioning my brain like a hard drive, where one part of my brain knows and even occasionally uses lots of very solid arguments against the program running in the other part, but the program in the other part is allowed and occasionally even encouraged to continue running anyway. Because I like being a person who runs that program.

    • WarOnReasons says:

      Your position is quite reasonable. Suppose there is 99% chance that nuclear physicists are right and that even accounting for the risk of Fukushima-like accidents nuclear stations are still a net benefit to society. However, just because something would benefit society does not mean it would necessarily benefit you personally. While the potential benefits, such as reduced CO2, are more or less evenly spread, the potential risks disproportionally affect those living within ~ 100 miles radius from nuclear stations.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        You can’t just go around calmly asserting that things are reasonable. Not unless you are expecting people to fight you.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Sounds like just plain old NIMBYism.

      The fact that you are self-aware enough to recognize the trend is positive.

      Note that the fact that you personally have a NIMBY reaction is neither evidence for or against the correctness of a proposed course of action. The general case of mass NIMBY type reactions is generally just the free rider problem, I would say.

    • veeloxtrox says:

      I feel similarly about .999… repeating = 1. I understand the mathematical arguments, I think they are right, I think they have to be right for calculus to work, and calculus does work.

      I still say its wrong, not 1 cannot equal 1

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I’m too lazy to look it up.

        Is this an approach that they claim works for all asymptotic functions?

      • Alejandro says:

        But .999(repeating) is not “not 1” (because it is 1), so your disbelief is based on a false premise.

        I think the hangup many people have about this is rooted in a confusion between map and territory, or between abstract mathematical concepts and the notations we use for them. It helps to think of “.999(repeating)” as an alternative notation to express the same concept that we can also express by “1”, just as “.333(repeating)” is an alternative notation for the same concept “one third” that we can also express by “1/3”.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Yeah but, nonetheless 0 != 1.

          You can protest all you want about “abstract mathematical concepts and … notations”, but if you want to argue that this means 0 = 1, I think you have disappeared into your own fractal.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            No, he’s saying, like:

            You believe that 3/3 = 1, right? It’s just a different way of writing one? 3/3 = 0.999… = 1 = one.

            Just like 1/2 = 0.5. It’s not like, “1/2 is infinitely close to 0.5,” it’s “they’re two ways of writing the same number.”

            0.9999… is exactly one. There are a large number of ways to prove this. 0 is not exactly 1. You could redefine symbols to change what 0 refers to, but the concepts are not the same.

            It just happens that decimal notation has this non-intuitive, I mean, more-or-less flaw in the notation system that means that there are two different referents to one concept. (-0 would be another example of this. -0 = 0).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Yes, but once you start messing around with infinity you can get very odd results.

            I think there is one of these that involves .9 repeating, but I can’t recall it at the moment. Maybe a different infinite series, though.

            Practically speaking the limit of a function is defined. But … take care that you don’t abuse this.

          • Eric Rall says:

            I like the clip. Kinda reminds me of Lou Costello’s proof that 7 * 13 = 28.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            You can construct proofs around 0.9999… = 1 that are based on the sum of an infinite series, but you don’t have to. Ultimately, you just have to believe that 1/3 = 0.3333…. and 3/3 = 1.

            Or you can say, “What is number that you can subtract from 1 to get 0.9999….” (though you have to be just sophisticated enough to understand that “an infinite number of 0’s followed by a 1” is not a meaningful thing to say).

          • Eric Rall says:

            Or you can say, “What is number that you can subtract from 1 to get 0.9999….” (though you have to be just sophisticated enough to understand that “an infinite number of 0’s followed by a 1” is not a meaningful thing to say).

            That’s why it matters what number system you’re working in. “An infinite number of 0’s followed by a 1” is an attempt to propose a non-zero infinitesimal ordinal, which does not exist in the set of real number, but does exist in other, more exotic number systems.

      • Eric Rall says:

        My conclusion about .999… is that’s its a case of communicating poorly and then acting smug when you’re misunderstood. It’s irritating because it violates the usual conventions that every computable number has a unique decimal representation in any given base (apart from base 1) and that a 0 in a place implies that the total value represented by all the succeeding digits is strictly less than a one in that digit (again, apart from base 1, but using zeros in base 1 is being difficult on purpose and warrants a paddling).

        The reason these conventions don’t hold for 0.9999… is that infinite repeating decimals are shorthands for limit expressions. In this case, 0.9999… is shorthand for the limit as n goes to infinity of the sum from 1 to n of (9 * 10^-n). That limit expression does indeed resolve to 1. The repeating-decimal shorthand is reasonable and matches our expectations based on non-repeating decimals in most cases, but using a limit expression to represent the number 1, and representing it in a way that implies to our intuitions a value strictly less than 1, is another thing that we can reasonably classify as “being difficult on purpose”.

        And 0.999… == 1 does rely on a specific number space (R1 in the common case, but there are others for which it also applies) and shorthand convention tailored for that number space. If we’re assuming hyperreal numbers, for instance, 0.999… can reasonable represent a number (1 – iota) that’s strictly less than 1 but infinitely close to it. And that’s another reason why 0.999… == 1 feels wrong: hyperreal numbers are closer to our intuitions about infinity than regular real numbers, although most math is done with reals instead of hyperreals for a combination of historical and practical reasons.

        Tangentially, Newton and Leibniz both developed Calculus assuming non-zero infinitesimals, which was later discovered to be unsound (at least when working with reals instead of hyperreals, and hyperreals weren’t formally described until the mid-20th century). Calculus wasn’t rigorously proven for real numbers until the delta-epsilon formal definition of limit expressions was developed in the 19th century. I’ve even heard claims (not sure how well-backed those claims are) that a big part of why Newton didn’t publish his “method of fluxions” until after Leibniz published was because Newton had an (in hindsight correct) intuition that the methods he’d used to derive it were unsound, and he preferred to use it as a private tool for generating hypotheses that he could then prove rigorously through other methods (usually geometric proofs of some form) for fear that it would turn out to generate incorrect results in important corner cases.

        • veeloxtrox says:

          In this case, 0.9999… is shorthand for the limit as n goes to infinity of the sum from 1 to n of (9 * 10^-n)

          I have just as much problem with this phrasing. The fact that you can take the sum of an infinitely long series and get a number is ridiculous to my intuition. This is made worse by the fact that sometime it doesn’t sum to a number and instead goes to infinity or sometimes it does sum to a number or +/- infinity makes it even worse. The part in calculus class is where I understood some of my middle school classmates. They said “I liked math until you put letters in it” well, I liked math until you put sums of infinite series in it. After that, it just doesn’t make sense to my mind.

          • Eric Rall says:

            The fact that you can take the sum of an infinitely long series and get a number is ridiculous to my intuition.

            Your intuition is correct as far is it goes: you can’t literally evaluate an infinite series because you’d run out of paper. That’s why you need a limit expression. Basically, you’re sneaking up on infinity from behind and grabbing it with tongs because it will do unnatural things to you if you try to handle it directly.

            In informal terms, a limit calculation asks the question “Here’s a family of finite series with different numbers of terms. What happens to the total as you keep adding more terms?” In the case of 0.999…, each nine you add to the series gets you closer to 1, but you’ll never actually reach 1 with any finite series of nine. So we can say that the series “converges” to a “limit” of 1 as the number of terms grows towards infinity. There’s a more formal definition of what “limit” means, but it’s beyond the scope of this class (also beyond the scope of any class I’ve actually taken: it was mentioned in passing in Calculus I, but it’s not actually covered in depth until Real Analysis).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Id argue that the completely correct way to express this is not .999… = 1, but rather its limit is equal to 1. This is a subtle distinction, but nonetheless important. It makes clear that you aren’t talking about the expression itself, but what the expression approaches.

            Of course, it is unwieldy to say “the limit of .999 repeating to infinity is equal to one” so it’s conveniently short-handed. And that works.

            Incidentally, the limit of .333 repeating approaches 1/3 in the same way. Again, you can say they are equal to each other, but you are still making a statement about limits.

          • The Nybbler says:

            0.999… is an expression which refers to the series defined by “the sum as i goes from 1 to infinity of 9/(10^i)”. It’s not one in the limit, it’s one.

            The only limit is if you consider the sequence 0.9, 0.99, 0.999, etc — the sequence as k goes from 1 to infinity of the sum as i goes from 1 to k of 9/(10^i). The limit of this sequence is 1, but this sequence is not 0.9999…

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The limit of that series is one. The series itself, well it’s a series.

            You can state that the .999 repeating is defined to be the limit of that series. But then you start to get into weirdness when you come up with a number that is basically a random set of digits followed by some infinite series. It’s not nearly so neat and tidy as people want to make it.

            What we are arguing about her is essentially *notation*. It’s essentially another argument about definitions. Mind you, definitions are far more precise in mathematics, and are used more precisely, so it’s not quite like arguing about the definitions of words. But it strikes a similar chord.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The value of a convergent series is the limit of the partial sums of the series. Yes, this is an argument about definition and notation, but it’s one with a clear answer.

            A decimal representation is defined as “the sum as i goes from 0 to infinity of a_sub_i / (10^i)”, where a_0 is an integer and a_i (i>0) is a digit from 0 through 9. This works for everything, including a “random set of digits followed by some infinite series”. In that case, you can simply break the series up into two series, one with your “random set of digits” and one with your repeating set of digits. This allows you to show that e.g. 0.183481971999999… (9s off to infinity) is equal to 0.183481972.

          • Eric Rall says:

            0.999… is an expression which refers to the series defined by “the sum as i goes from 1 to infinity of 9/(10^i)”. It’s not one in the limit, it’s one.

            An infinite summation (similarly with any sort of infinite series) is always a shorthand for a limit expression on a family of finite serieses as the number of terms goes to infinity. You can’t actually have an infinite series without a limit (at least not when operating in the real number domain or a subset thereof) because ordinal infinity is not a real number. And when you’re working with real numbers, “infinity” only has meaning within the context of a limit expression or when you’re taking about the cardinality of a set.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            0.183481971999999… is equal to 0.183481972.

            Note that you picked the only repeating decimal for which this works out nicely and neatly in this manner. There are an infinite number of other repeating decimal patterns for which this doesn’t work.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Repeating 9s is the only one for which there’s two decimal expansions. But all repeating decimals can be expressed as fractions, and the fractional representation is equal to the repeating decimal representation.

      • Tatterdemalion says:

        Here’s a way of looking at it that may or may not help.

        The real numbers are a thing, obviously. You can think of them as points on a number line, without needing to think in terms of decimal representations at all.

        The set of finite and semi-infinite sequences of digits is a thing, too, but it’s not (quite) the same thing.

        Where I think the confusion arises is in thinking that there is a one-to-one correspondence between these things. That’s not quite true.

        There is a well-defined map from sequences of digits to real numbers, given by taking a.bc… to a + b/10 + c/100 +…, which always converges. It’s tempting to think of that map as a one-to-one correspondence, but it isn’t, quite: it’s surjective – every real number is the image of at least one decimal sequence – and it’s nearly injective – most real numbers are the image of exactly one decimal sequence. But real numbers which are of the form k/10^n, where k,n are integers, are the images of two different decimal sequences: the sequence of k and the sequence of (k-1).99999 both map to the same real number.

        So the real numbers and the decimal expansions aren’t quite the same thing; your problem is because you’re trying to apply an intuition derived from real numbers (and quite correct when dealing with them) to decimal sequences, and falling afoul of the difference between the two.

      • littskad says:

        Do you have a similar reaction to the claim that 1+1 = 2? Why or why not?

      • smwls says:

        Arguments to the effect of “0.999… is (the decimal representation of) an infinite series whose sum is 1”, or “you accept that 1/3 = 0.333…, don’t you?” are all very well, but imho they just sweep the confusion under the rug.

        To really, truly accept that “0.999… = 1”, leaving no room for skepticism or ambiguity, you have to understand that it is, by definition, shorthand for a statement like

        there exists some number L, such that for any natural number k > 0, there exists some natural number N, such that for any natural number n > N, 0.999… (with n 9’s) is within 1/k of L. Moreover, L = 1.

        This is a fancy way of saying “by putting enough 9’s on the end, you can get arbitrarily close to 1”. There’s really nothing more to it.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Mmm, no, I wouldn’t say that this adequately grapples with the concept of infinity.

          The limit of the series at infinity truly is 1, it’s not merely arbitrarily close (Eric Rall’s caveats about esoteric number systems aside). But limits and infinity are strange things.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          No, 0.999… isn’t a limit or a sum of an infinite series any more than anything is.

          I mean, you could say, “2 is just a convenient shorthand for SUM(n = 0 -> infinity) 1/2^n,” but that’s stupid. Yes, that expression evaluates to 2, but that’s different.

          0.9999…. is just another way of writing “1.” That’s all it is. It’s weird in that the decimal system doesn’t generally have multiple correct representations of the same number, but people who get caught up in the idea that somehow the fact that there are two different representations of that number must mean that there are actually two different numbers are badly putting the cart before the horse.

          You can come up with all kinds of crazy ways to represent numbers. It is no more the case that 0.9999… must mean something subtly different from 1 than it is the case that 3/3 must mean something subtly different from 4/4, or that uno must mean something subtly different from one, or that {1, 2} must mean something subtly different than {2, 1}, or that 0.99… must mean something subtly different from 0.999999999…..

          We use decimals because they’re convenient representations in a lot of ways. They happen to have this weird case where any repeating 9999…. pattern after the decimal place is strictly equal to 1 one order of magnitude higher than the start of the 9’s. It’s just a sort of annoying feature of an otherwise useful representation. Don’t mistake the reference for the referent.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            No, you are making the mistake.

            When you extend the decimal notation of .999 repeating out to infinity it becomes one. This is not merely a statement about notation. It’s a notation that provides a process.

            1/infinity is zero. That’s not merely just convenient notation. It arises as a consequence.

          • Randy M says:

            When you extend the decimal notation of .999 repeating out to infinity it becomes one.

            Where else is it reasonable to stop repeating at?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I’m not sure I understand the question?

            This isn’t about whether it is “reasonable” to stop in repeating. Definitionally .999 repeating repeats to infinity, there is no “stopping”. But .999 repeating is not merely some notational difference for one, it signifies a specific mathematical concept involving infinity which can be shown to be equal to one.

            If you try to treat expressions involving infinity as if they are completely substitutable, you start running into issues like the one I pointed out above where you “prove” that 1 = 0.

          • Randy M says:

            I’m not sure I understand the question?

            Well, I was confused by your objection, since .99 repeating means “pretend this extends forever” as you clarify, so you seemed to me to be arguing in favor of the position in seemed like you were opposing.

            I’m no expert, but the course of the conversation has brought me towards the .99…=1 position.

            it signifies a specific mathematical concept involving infinity which can be shown to be equal to one.

            I think you would object to “.999… is the same as 1” but not object to “.999… is equivalent to 1”, is that right?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Mmmm, I think that probably gets near enough, although any objections I had to either statement would be greatly influenced by context.

            The distinction you appear to be making seems to point in the same direction I am, if that makes any sense.

            ETA: I worry about the potential connotation of the word “pretend” in the statement above. It’s a really a statement that those 9s DO extend forever. But I think you meant “pretend” in the sense that you cannot physically represent an infinite number of 9s.

      • Lillian says:

        The way i convinced myself at the intuitive level that it was true was to notice that ninths have a certain pattern when expressed as decimals:

        1/9 = 0.111…
        2/9 = 0.222…
        3/9 = 0.333…
        4/9 = 0.444…
        5/9 = 0.555…
        6/9 = 0.666…
        7/9 = 0.777…
        8/9 = 0.888…
        9/9 = 0.999…

        Once i saw the pattern it was super obvious that 0.999… must be equal to 1, because 9/9 is equal to 1.

      • Controls Freak says:

        Don’t think about limits. Don’t think about fractions. Er, at least, don’t think of fractions like X/9. Instead, think of fractions like p/q. That is, think of rational numbers. It only takes a few lines to prove that between any two distinct real numbers, there is a rational number. In fact, we can immediately perform induction to conclude that between any two distinct real numbers, there is an infinite number of rational numbers! That is, rational numbers are incredibly dense in the reals!

        Now, think back to 0.9999…. and 1. These are both real numbers. If they’re distinct, there must be a(n infinite number of) rational number(s) between them. And those numbers will have decimal expansions, too! What could they possibly look like?

        Instead of thinking, “I’m not sure if we get all the way there,” the real shocker should be, “I’m not sure that we can do anything but be all the way there!”

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      There are definitely certain things which I’m more or less concerned about than I should be.

      I know that a lot of people, especially young men around my age, die in car accidents but it’s never really bothered me on the road. I’ve had near misses or minor collisions and as long as I’m in the driver’s seat it’s just funny and not particularly scary. The only time I care on more than a purely intellectual level is when I’m not driving or I have my family and/or girlfriend in the car.

      That said, I think that the more important thing is how you behave rather than what you think or feel. If a blase attitude makes me a more careless driver, that’s clearly bad. If I’m driving the same as I would have anyway but less stressed out, it’s good. It’s more of an empirical question than something that you can reason out from first principles.

    • SamChevre says:

      Yes. I think Catholic teaching on sex makes much more sense than the alternatives, and am still not sure that general availability of effective contraception is a bad thing, or that it was a bad decision that 5 children were enough for my wife and I.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        This is what I thought of too. I totally agree in theory. But in practice…come on guys.

        • albatross11 says:

          My parish is full of families where the mom and dad married relatively young and are healthy, and they have 2-3 kids. This is not the pattern you would see if birth control were never being used. OTOH, we also have some very large families where I suspect they either don’t use birth control or only started using it when they got up to child number 6 or something.

          • John Schilling says:

            Note that the rhythm method is a thing Catholics are comfortable with, and which is adequate for “we want to have maybe 2-3 kids, ideally starting after my husband finishes grad school, but we’re OK with whatever God has planned”.

            It is of course completely inadequate for, “I want to have casual sex with lots of hot but unmarriageable guys from 15 to 35, then settle down and find a husband, and I need to not be dragged down by any unwanted babies in the meantime”. This many not be a coincidence.

          • SamChevre says:

            I would say that NFP in all its forms seems to work OK at getting the average gap between kids up to 3-4 years, from 2 years–but when I see a lot of couples who are apparently happily married, with no kids after the age of 28, I’m very doubtful that NFP is among the plausible explanations.

          • Nick says:

            Sam is right to be suspicious, as polls suggest the teaching on NFP and contraception is not well observed. Part of it may be folks not knowing precisely how effective rhythm method etc is; part of it may be seeing the risk of still having a child too high; part of it may be seeing the Pill as less of a burden; and I’m sure I missed some.

          • I did some back of the envelope calculations on the effectiveness of the rhythm method some time back, and concluded that in a poor country, if it was used carefully, it would hold population growth down close to zero.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            John Schilling, rhythm method is also not compatible with “I’m really busy with school/work, I’m trying out relationships with possibly marriageable guys or am married, and I don’t have time for a child.” There’s also women who don’t want to have children ever, but aren’t willing to never have sex.

    • fion says:

      No, I don’t understand this at all, but I’ve discussed it with friends and struggled to understand their point of view.

      There are some feelings I have that don’t make sense, like a fear of house spiders. I can’t make the fear go away by using my knowledge of how safe house spiders are in the UK.

      But I think that’s a different thing. There is no opinion I hold that I believe to be unjustifiable. I know that I hold lots of wrong opinions, but I don’t know which they are. When I identify one, it changes and ceases to be wrong. (Of course, I’m not very good at being rational, so it’s often very hard for me to identify wrong opinions in the first place. This is why I’m still wrong about so many things.)

      So to apply this distinction to your example, if somebody built a nuclear power station right next to my city I might feel a bit bad about it (afraid, angry, something else…) but I wouldn’t join the picket lines. I wouldn’t write to my MP or even argue with my friends that the station was a bad thing. I might talk to a few trusted friends about my feelings on the matter, but I wouldn’t act in any way to stop this Good Thing That I Feel Bad About from happening.

    • rahien.din says:

      The Two Aces Problem. I know why the correct answer is the correct answer. I understand the principles therein. I still can’t abide it.

    • MrApophenia says:

      I think you need to consider the possibility that the position is unconvincing to you because you have good reason to be unconvinced, even if it is happening on an intuitive level.

      To take your example- I grew up near this place:

      The short version is, this was the first site where a private company was allowed to run a nuclear waste reclamation facility in the US. It was eventually discovered that radioactive waste was getting into the local water supply, and they were told they needed to make various changes to stop that happening. Instead, they said, “Nah, too expensive! Bye!” and left the facility abandoned.

      Come to find out, they had been ludicrously sloppy and careless in their efforts to cut as many corners as possible and turn a profit. I think my favorite part was that since they already needed to dispose of the nuclear waste they were unable to reclaim, they also ran a side business disposing of nuclear waste for other nuclear plants. How did they dispose of all this waste? Why, by digging a twenty foot hole in the ground out back and just dropping it all in there. How else?

      (I have had at least one person who works there tell me that the reclamation process involved just grinding up the spent fuel in open air and letting the dust float through the building, and so whole sections are still just coated with said dust – but I haven’t been able to find evidence of that anywhere else. The “Lagoons” where they dumped waste, on the other hand, can be confirmed.)

      So long story short, they leave this place a contaminated disaster area, and they are never going to clean it up. This has two results – the Dept of Energy ruled that no more nuclear waste reclamation facilities are allowed to be run by private companies, and in 1980 Congress passes a law for the federal government to take over the cleanup. They called it the West Valley Demonstration Project because it was going to show how cheaply and safely a site like this could be cleaned up. It was a five year project.

      So, anyway, it’s 2018 now, I now have multiple family members working on the project (in full Walter White outfits so they don’t die). It has cost billions, is nowhere close to finished – the people on the project say there are still decades out at best. I would say that they did indeed demonstrate exactly how cheap and safe this is.

      I am sure those nuclear physicists talking about how safe nuclear technology has become aren’t lying. But the problem isn’t just the technology. How much better have we gotten at not having the people put in charge of a nuclear facility be lazy, stupid or greedy? How much better have we gotten at regulating businesses? We had better technology than “Dig a ditch and throw in the nuclear waste” in 1965 too, but that didn’t stop anyone.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Paging @John Schilling.

        Just curious what your take is, as I know you tend to argue the other side of this.

        • John Schilling says:

          The total radioactivity release from West Valley looks to be about 25,000 curies (900 TBq), which comes to 7 milliFukushimas or 800 microChernobyls. That’s probably not enough to kill anyone, though there’s enough uncertainty regarding low-dose radiation effects that a handful of long-term cancer deaths can’t be ruled out.

          Mostly, it’s a badly-managed industrial project that will require an expensive on-site cleanup effort. That’s not unique to nuclear power, and I don’t think West Valley makes the case for it being qualitatively worse for nuclear power.

          It also doesn’t seem to be any worse than Hanford or Rocky Flats, so I’m definitely not buying the bit where this allegedly proved that Greedy Capitalists(tm) could not be trusted to handle nuclear fuel and only the Civil Servants of the Government are up to the task. There are incompetent people willing to botch industrial projects in both the public and private sector.

          How you deal with that, and the costs it can impose, are questions that anyone doing industry will have to deal with, and have been dealing with since the start of the industrial revolution. Going nuclear doesn’t make it worse overall. It can make it more concentrated, and thus more noticeable, but that’s actually a good thing. You clean up the messes that you notice, and avoid them until you do.

      • albatross11 says:

        The thing to understand about nuclear safety and vaccine safety is that it’s not just about science, it’s also about the competence and integrity of the companies in the space and their regulators[1]. It’s absolutely possible to build unsafe nuclear power plants and make unsafe vaccines, and we have worked examples of both. When you are willing to live ten miles from a nuclear power plant, that suggests that you think the US nuclear plant operators and regulators are competent and honest and on-the-ball enough to keep a nuclear power plant safely operating. When you are willing to let a doctor inject vaccines into yourself or your kids, that suggests that you think the vaccine manufacturers and doctors and FDA are competent and honest and on-the-ball enough to make sure those vaccines are safe, effective, and free of dangerous contaminants.

        FWIW, I’m pretty comfortable with both of these myself. But if you aren’t, I think that’s not nearly so much your feelings about science as it is your feelings about whether the people doing this stuff know what they’re doing and are making an honest effort to get things right.

        [1] Another parallel case is airline safety. It’s clearly possible to have frighteningly unsafe commercial airlines. Flying on an airplane suggests that you think the folks maintaining and flying and regulating those planes know what they’re doing and are trying to keep the planes in the air.

        • MrApophenia says:

          I feel like the difference here is that when vaccine or plane safety gets screwed up, the result is tragic but relatively immediate, and then it ends. Screw up a nuclear facility and you turn the whole area to poison, basically forever. And as Lex Luther put it, land is the only thing they’re not making any more of.

          • bean says:

            The same is true of any plant making nasty chemicals.

          • MrApophenia says:

            Is that actually true? I’m not asking rhetorically, Lllian’s post below sent me down a Superfund rabbit hole reading about all the superfund locations near where I grew up that I never heard about.

            The common denominator seems to be that they were typically more mundane sources of waste – chemical factories, coal power plants, one old glue factory. However, in nearly all of the cases, the actual process of cleanup once the EPA came in seems to have been vastly, vastly easier than what’s going on in West Valley. Typically done in a few years, with a token staff on hand to check in every now and then to make sure everything is cool.

            Even Love Canal, the toxic chemical dump scandal that started the Superfund program, was remediated after 21 years and $400 million dollars, which makes it a piece of cake compared to West Valley.

            On the other hand, that is a very small sample of a single geographic area, so maybe I’m missing other hugely permanent toxic hellholes scattered around the country from other forms of power.

          • Randy M says:

            And as Lex Luther put it, land is the only thing they’re not making any more of.

            Not to argue the merits of vaccination, but as I’m not making any more of my children, I disagree with the rationale.

          • Lillian says:

            A thing to keep in mind with radioactive waste is that the regulatory regime around it tends to be restrictive beyond all justification, which makes cleaning up radioactive sites vastly more expensive than cleaning up similarly dangerous toxic waste sites.

            An example given by an acquaintance of mine is that certain kinds of smoke detectors and sparkle paint have to be treated as hazardous radioactive waste if taken inside a disposal site. These are things you can buy at the hardware store and throw in the garbage, but the acceptable radiation thresholds in disposal sites are so low they have to be handled as if they were dangerous. Even more ridiculous, one time they were forced to cordon off an area as a rad zone even though there had been no radiological leak because the local naturally occurring background radiation exceeded the levels deemed acceptable by their license.

          • albatross11 says:

            I believe there are still people carrying SV40, a virus that contaminated an early polio vaccine. (I think there was some thought that it could cause cancer at some point.) Screwing up medical stuff can absolutely leave you with lingering problems that may or may not blow up on you.

      • Eric Rall says:

        (in full Walter White outfits so they don’t die)

        It took me about 20 second to figure out that you meant hazmat gear, not that the Feds were contracting out the cleanup effort to meth cooks.

      • Lillian says:

        This is hardly unique to nuclear power, there are over 1300 superfund sites in the United States and my understanding is that the vast majority involve boring old non-radiactive toxic chemicals. Modern industrial society is dependent upon a large amount of astoundingly dangerous substances which pose very large risks to the public health if they are handled carelessly. Nuclear power isn’t really any different in that respect, there’s just something about radioactivity that makes people freak out in a way that, say, methyl isocynate doesn’t.

        • MrApophenia says:

          This is a very good point. I am very skeptical when people talk about how safe/clean nuclear power is, but looking at how many of the Superfund sites just nearby in Western NY are non-nuclear power plants, they’re clearly not great either.

          On the other hand, those sites were mostly also successfully remediated within a few years, so maybe they aren’t as bad?

          On the third hand, the Superfund program started because of shady dumping of normal toxic waste in Western NY, so point well taken.

          I’d assume that someone who really knows this stuff could probably make an informed judgment on the relative danger of letting an idiot run a nuclear plant vs., say, a coal one – I imagine both are very bad, so the question is which is worse. But that seems like the question you need to ask here. If we go whole hog into nuclear power plants the way some folks seem to argue for, some of them will be run by idiots (or self-interested sociopaths), and the plan needs to account for them.

          • actinide meta says:

            I think the problem here is reliance on regulation rather than liability+ mandatory insurance. If you want to run a nuclear plant or any other potentially dangerous industry, you should have to carry insurance for the maximum possible cost of cleanup, even if that’s hundreds of billions. It’s the insurance company’s job to decide how risky the project is and how to audit it, and they have exactly the right amount of skin in the game. The only thing anyone else needs to audit is that the insurance company and their reinsurance network have enough money.

          • MrApophenia says:

            I mean, I think that is also part of the regulation question. Getty Oil clearly had good enough control over the regulatory environment that they could permanently contaminate West Valley, then say “K thanks bye!” and leave the government to foot the bill of trying to clean it up.

            (Also, I’d be curious if it’s actually profitable to run one of these things if you need to pay insurance on the potential cost of a cleanup, given the titanic potential cost of cleanup.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            you should have to carry insurance for the maximum possible cost of cleanup

            That just pushes the regulatory problem to a different point in the system. It does absolutely nothing to change the problem.

          • actinide meta says:

            Of course the regulation imposed by insurance companies on their clients is also fallible, but

            1. Government regulators have very little reason to do their jobs well, and in fact likely have incentives to do them badly (see: revolving door, regulatory capture, public choice, history). Insurers have very strong incentives not to be too lax or too strict or discriminatory, and to choose their agents and decision process wisely.
            2. When an insurer does screw up, they pay the victims and pay for the cleanup. Ideally everyone comes out about even except for the insurer! When a government regulator screws up, people as likely or not call for more regulation and increase their budget and power.

            I frequently hear people angry at some industry’s shenanigans calling for “regulation”. To me it sounds like “they must be tied up with noodles!”. If you want to restrain capitalism you are going to have to do better than that.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            regulation imposed by insurance companies on their clients

            The issue is in the “mandated maximum possible” part, not so much the insurance part. Someone has to regulate the maximum possible part (and that can’t be the insurance companies themselves), someone has to enforce the mandate, someone has to force the insurance companies to pay for cleanup (rather than arguing no cleanup is necessary or that they aren’t actually liable for the cleanup due to technical reasons, etc).

            IOW, you want the insurance company to do the work of regulating the behavior of the client, but this will only work to the extent that the government sufficiently motivates them and prevents small disposable insurance companies from forming (instead of the company declaring bankruptcy, now the insurer will).

            I can go out right now and do 10 Million in damages with my car, and government mandated insurance won’t pay for that “cleanup.”

          • actinide meta says:

            Yes, absolutely, you have to set coverage minimums, enforce liability, and audit insurance company financials. And maybe our governments can’t be trusted to do these things. But they are much easier to get right than the general case of regulation!

            One trick to getting coverage maximums right is to just make them too high. In principle making them too high costs nothing, because if the maximum is higher than any possible liability the insurance market can realize that and price the extra coverage at zero. And if there is any imaginable possibility that the downside risk of a single project is within an order of magnitude of all the capital in the world… possibly we shouldn’t do that project.

            Liability is much easier than regulation because it’s retrospective. You only have to look at the actual harm that happened to an actual person, not speculate about probabilities and technical risks. And you only have to determine liability when there is actually a disaster, so you can afford to spend more effort. And generally there are private parties eager to prove liability, so all you need is someone to arbitrate.

            Auditing clever reinsurance products to try to ensure that someone can afford to pay in a big disaster… That sounds like the kind of thing where industry might run circles around the regulators. But it’s still easier than regulating everything under the sun!

      • baconbits9 says:

        I am sure those nuclear physicists talking about how safe nuclear technology has become aren’t lying. But the problem isn’t just the technology. How much better have we gotten at not having the people put in charge of a nuclear facility be lazy, stupid or greedy? How much better have we gotten at regulating businesses? We had better technology than “Dig a ditch and throw in the nuclear waste” in 1965 too, but that didn’t stop anyone.

        This isn’t just a issue with businesses though.

        A few years ago (15+) I spent a couple of years working for a company that remediated contaminated groundwater, mostly TCE but also some other things. This companies solution was to put giant electrodes in the ground, run electric current between them and boil the ground water off, suck the steam out and run that through giant carbon filters. The company was hired to do a pilot test at a DOE owned and run* plant that produced uranium for nuclear reactors, to clean up some TCE that had been spilled at some point in time. The first thing I would note is that there was a large delay in starting the project because they couldn’t find an area clean enough for us to attempt to clean up. Not a typo, the DOE had to hunt around for a section of land that was contaminated with TCE but wasn’t also to radioactive for us to work on. The second note is that prior to this project the deepest electrode the company had drilled was 40 ft, and the typical one was around 15 ft. For this project they asked to go 95 ft.

        *The wikipedia page states that it has been run by private companies contracting with the DOE at times.

        • Nornagest says:

          put giant electrodes in the ground, run electric current between them and boil the ground water off, suck the steam out and run that through giant carbon filters.

          That’s a wonderfully 1960s super-science approach to the problem.

      • arlie says:

        That’s certainly having an effect on my judgments, but more consciously. Some people are incompetent. Some people are unethical. Some are just unlucky – there’s an average failure rate for everything people do, and engineering projects include such predictions in their planning.

        I have a strong preference that the resulting screw ups be smaller rather than larger.

        This isn’t entirely rational. It’s easy to find cases where there’s lower danger on average in the choice that does more damage per incident. Compare e.g. traffic deaths to airplane deaths, scaled by passenger mile or similar. Even if individual airplane accidents generally kill more people than traffic accidents (average, or maximum, or whatever measure), flying is still a lot safer.

        Below some not rationally chosen level, I don’t think about relative size. Dead is dead, regardless of how many others are killed because of the same problem.

        But really big projects that have a small chance of going extremely catastrophically wrong – those worry me a lot more than would be predicted by multiplying the miniscule risk by the huge cost of failure, to get a predicted/average cost, if the experiment were repeated 1000s of times.

        I think that this may actually be rational. I’ll happily take any repeatable gamble where the “expected value” of the payout is greater than the cost of the gamble – but only if I can afford to repeat the gamble often enough for the results to approach the statistical average. I’ll bet $1 for an average payout of $1.01 all day long. But I won’t bet my life savings when the possibilities include losing it all, even if the average payout would give me 100 times what I started with, because the disutility of ending up with nothing is much much higher than the utility of ending up with 100 times what I already have. OTOH, I would make that bet if my life savings were too small to live on, and my only hope was to get lucky…

        So getting back to really really big engineering projects. If the risk looks like “wipe out the species” or “destroy civilization” or even “kill 95% of the world’s population”, I don’t want any, no matter how low the risk.

        And I’m not sure exactly where my emotions place that boundary. Would I accept a small risk of setting off the Yellowstone Super Volcano (probable consequence: destruction of much of the US ) because of some probably beneficial engineering project? At what level of safety? And just how well do I trust the people presenting the data about those risks? How about the risk of another Chernobyl? Another Chernobyl in range of where I live? And what were the benefits again? Are they on a similar scale?

        At any rate, YMMV, particularly when discussing specific proposals. But I think the general principle is rational, even if my current implementation involves a bit too much “gut feel”.

        • SamChevre says:

          The problem with an insurance solution is tail risk. ANY project can go disastrously wrong, beyond the plausible limits of any sort of insurance.

          Think, for example, of driving to work. 99% of the time it goes fine. 0.99% of the time you are involved in a minor accident that damages a vehicle or two. 0.0099% of the time, someone is hurt badly enough to go to the hospital but is fine within a week. 0.000099% of the time, someone is killed or permanently injured. And some tiny percentage of the time, you get the Wiehltal Bridge accident, which cost somewhere over $250 million, or this crash, which killed 9 people.

          • actinide meta says:

            I think maybe you meant to reply to me.

            There’s nothing implausible about people carrying huge amounts of insurance. If you try to get a $250M umbrella policy as a driver insurance companies will say no or charge you a lot because it’s not normal and they’ll suspect you know something they don’t. But if everyone had to have $250M of insurance to drive it would hardly raise rates, because tail risks are very rare.

            I don’t think there would be any problem providing $250B of insurance for big industrial projects either, assuming that was a normal requirement and that there were many thousands of such projects.

          • albatross11 says:

            Isn’t this why reinsurance companies exist? Though I think the place they worry about isn’t a single horrible +8 sigma event, it’s disaster that causes a whole bunch of +4 sigma events to happen on the same day–a huge hurricane, earthquake, flood, ice storm, whatever.

          • CatCube says:

            Doesn’t the insurability of a risk depend on having two things: 1) known consequences and 2) known odds?

            For some megaprojects, you might be able to make a guess at the consequences, but there’s probably not enough data to actually calculate the odds.

            For example, when talking dam failures you’re not doing too much calculation from historical evidence, since failures are so rare that you don’t really have enough data. A significant portion of risk analysis for those is a bunch of engineers sitting around a table and debating what we think the risks are, then coming to agreement. That’s great for qualitative decisions about where to target repairs, but I don’t know that insurance companies will be too eager to price based on it.

            For nuclear plants, we’ve had, what, three huge failures? Two were massive expenses (Fukushima and Chernobyl) and the consequences for the third were entirely contained within the plant (Three Mile Island). There are only a few hundreds of plants, as well, of vastly different designs, so you’re not going to be nearly as confident in the actuarial predictions from the available data.

          • J Mann says:

            You can theoretically insure difficult to measure megarisks by dividing them up so people are willing to bet a manageable amount against a black swan (how much would you take annually against having to pay $1,000 in the event of a meltdown at a given plant?), but it’s expensive and there are a variety of potential problems.

          • johan_larson says:

            You also can only spread risks so wide. I recall hearing an insurance executive saying that the reinsurance industry of the entire world would not be able to absorb the loss of an entire city, such as from a major earthquake.

            The industry protects itself from risks like this by “acts of God” clauses and simply not offering some types of insurance in some places.

          • albatross11 says:

            Insurance has, in fact, paid out on many huge disasters, in recent years notably including hurricanes in New Orleans and Houston and Florida and New York/New Jersey, as well as the enormous earthquake/tsunami/meltdown that clobbered Japan a few years back. I’m sure there’s a limit somewhere (like if all of Tokyo or NYC were leveled, I imagine the whole planet’s insurance industry simply couldn’t come up with that much money), but I don’t know what it would be.

          • actinide meta says:

            Genuinely hard to measure risks may raise the price of insurance, as they should. If a project’s downside risk is so great as to stress the appetite for financial risk of the entire world, that will also raise the price of the insurance, as it should! These are advantages! The goal isn’t to make life maximally convenient for someone wanting to build an experimental reactor in the middle of Tokyo, it’s to make them try to strike the optimal balance between safety, cost, and benefit, and pay the costs to the greatest extent possible if they fail.

          • CatCube says:

            @actinide meta

            Does an “unmeasureable” risk raise the price of insurance? Or does it make no insurance company willing to sell it?

            I’m genuinely curious. How do they carry these policies on their accounting? AIUI, they account for the liability of their expected payouts, but if your answer to “What is the maximum payout?” is “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” and the answer to “What is the odds of this occurring?” is “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” how is that priced or carried on the books?

            Most policies that I’m familiar with have a maximum payout to limit the downside to the insurer, and they’ve got a pretty good handle on the chances of occurrence and their exposure. Granted, I’m not that familiar with insurance contracts so maybe there’s an easy answer.

          • actinide meta says:

            People make financial bets based on difficult to quantify risks every day. For example, when you buy stock in a company, you are implicitly betting (among many other things!) that their operations won’t result in a massive liability that wipes the company out. Insurance is not fundamentally different.

            If I personally had to try to sell liability insurance on a nuclear power plant right now, I might start off like:
            1. Estimate a 99% upper confidence bound on the outside view distribution of nuclear accident severity per plant year, given the actual historical accidents. (Given the very small amount of data this will be way above the maximum likelihood distribution, but probably still pretty low)
            2. Do a very detailed inside view study of the engineering risks of the specific plant design. Better yet, have independent teams do several of them, so that you can compare them (if they all find different risks, the assessments probably aren’t worth much). Do sensitivity analysis on the results – does removing any particular level of the “swiss cheese” model change the risks a lot? Calibrate using outside view data about how well such engineering studies have predicted industrial disasters in the past, and do some kind of model mixture with the result of 1
            3. Model what each of these accidents, at the proposed site of the plant, would create in liabilities. For example, what is the surrounding real estate worth?
            4. If I’m not confident in my results at this point, raise the price some more to compensate myself for unknown unknowns.
            5. Make sure there is a big deductible, and that the company building the plant maintains the capital to meet it, so that they have skin in the game as well.
            6. Insist on independent auditing and real-time monitoring of the construction and operation of the plant by an organization with the right incentive structure
            7. You could try getting your individual experts to have skin in the game – they won’t have enough money to pay a substantial fraction of the worst case liabilities, but if they are willing to make substantial bets personally it says a lot about their confidence in their assessment.

            But this is amateur hour: I don’t do this for a living, and I haven’t thought about it for more than a few minutes. I hope that people with billions of dollars at stake would do a better job.

            But the fundamental point is that IMO if you can’t find anyone in the world willing to put their money on the line to guarantee the safety of a plant, then you shouldn’t build it. If the best available answer to “how likely is this to cause hundreds of billions of dollars of damage” is “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” then you shouldn’t be doing it! What gives anyone the right to impose such enormous and unknown costs on others?

          • Brad says:

            I like the idea of unlimited liability as a way to push the regulatory details to the private sector. But it still leaves the problem of defining the company/set of companies that are large enough to write such a policy.

          • albatross11 says:

            Doesn’t Lloyds of London have its underwriters (names) take on unlimited personal liability? ISTR that there was a big kerfluffle awhile back where some folks lost a whole lot of money this way.

            Buying stock is very different–it can’t go lower than zero. That is, if I buy stock in EvilCorp, and then EvilCorp gets nailed with a fifty gazillion dollar fine and is totally wiped out, my stock becomes worthless, but I don’t lose my house. Without that, I imagine we wouldn’t have much of a stock market, and investments would be in bonds. (Assuming you didn’t acquire unlimited liability by just lending EvilCorp money.)

            At the extreme end, you’d end up with “joint and several liability” like Superfund had. (So you could end up liable for a cleanup because you bought a property that had been polluted by some other company 40 years earlier, or for being the one company peripherally involved in some toxic waste site that was still in business.) My wife worked on Superfund for many years, and I gather it was common for people to end up spending as much on the legal battle to decide who got stuck with the cleanup bill as the actual cleanup.

  15. Deiseach says:

    Dunno if this is considered culture war or not, but Brexit Britain is becoming even more fascinating by the minute.

    First, the Minister in Charge of Talking to the EU Saying “We’re Going, What Offer Will You Make Us?”, David Davis, resigned last night. Hardly had they got a replacement for him (Dominic Raab) in place this morning then right this minute the breaking news is that Boris Johnson has resigned as Foreign Secretary.

    Does this mean that yet another Tory leadership battle is about to commence? There’s talk that Theresa May’s position is very rocky, but given the very rapidly approaching deadlines surely not even the Conservative Party would consider indulging in a nice bout of back-stabbing right this minute?

    • fion says:

      It’s weird! I don’t know what to make of it. Does their resignation put pressure on May to go “Ok, I’ll do what you wanted all along”? Are they just thinking of their careers and jumping out of the sinking ship? Are they hoping for a leadership election? Are they deliberately sabotaging the Brexit negotiations so that time will run out and there’ll be no option but a “no deal” Brexit? Are they deliberately sabotaging the Brexit negotiations so that time will run out and Brexit won’t happen?

      None of these seem particularly plausible to me.

      EDIT: reading the news (BBC) makes it sound like the first one, but I don’t really understand how that’s expected to work…

    • J Mann says:

      I’m very interested in hearing from Deiseach and anyone else near the UK on their opinion of recent Brexit developments, but would prefer to wait for the next thread so as not to risk introducing CW to a .5 thread.

      • Deiseach says:

        Bascially, the general Irish public reaction is “The English have no effin’ clue what they’re doing and they’re going to drag us down with them (luckily the EU have our backs)”. I’m not quite sure what our politicians think, but enough British politicians and media insulted our government and individual politicians in it that even Leo Varadkar was probably tempted to sing a quick bar of Come Out Ye Black and Tans.

        I think the EU are all “We love you, Ireland” less about us and more about sticking it to the Brits, but right now that’s convenient for both of us. I think May and the Conservatives are dealing with Cameron’s mess, as nobody really believed the Brexit results would go the way they did (I imagine, after the Scottish referendum result, they thought they had cracked how to get referenda to go the way they wanted). To prop up the Tories, who all engaged in an orgy of mutual throat-cutting for the leadership yet somehow ended up with Theresa May as Prime Minister, she had to get the support of the DUP which is very much the tail wagging the dog.

        I have no idea what is going on. I can’t believe they are really as clueless as they seem to be – the notion that they can leave the EU but keep the bits they like, like entrance to the free correction: single market and no border between the Republic and the UK (which in practice means Northern Ireland which is why we’re dragged into this mess) and the other things that benefit them, and that they really don’t have to bargain because the EU will just crumble at the last minute and agree to everything they want – I have no idea, as I said. With today’s resignations (and what the hell is Boris up to? He always has some scheme going on!) things are even more chaotic.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Would the British/English be where they were today without overestimating their own abilities and having unrealistic expectations for what they could accomplish? You don’t build an empire that big through humility, after all.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          They aren’t so much clueless as they are captaining a boat that they have sailed between Scylla and Charybdis.

          They have whipped up populist, nativist feeling with cheap and counterfeit rhetoric. They have promised the impossible. They are Oz when Dorothy comes back with the broomstick, without even a balloon at their disposal.

      • Tarpitz says:

        Seconded. Brexit is by an astronomical margin the defining Culture War issue on this side of the Atlantic. If there is any consideration for non-US issues as being capable of constituting CW for Open Thread appropriateness purposes, Brexit should be off-limits for no-CW threads.

    • Garrett says:

      From what little I’ve gleaned, I believe that everybody in the party wants to avoid anything resembling power or responsibility right now. The government is in a no-win situation, and pretty much the only question is over how much each group is going to be disappointed. No politician wants that hanging over their head. I suspect the careers of everyone involved are over once this is settled. So instead of fighting to be party leader and PM, everybody who doesn’t have the job right now just took a step backwards, leaving Theresa May hanging out to dry.

      Once this issue is resolved, Theresa May will “retire” and the usual in-fighting will resume, of course.

  16. Garrett says:

    Does anybody know of any body of research, practical or theoretical, around people giving considered thought to exchanging their lives for some other good? When, why, kinship distance, etc? I’m specifically trying to avoid:
    * People in high-risk jobs where death isn’t likely. That is, even loggers/crab fishers/infantry expect to come home at the end of the day, even though they know that in relative terms they are more likely than average not to.
    * People acting in emergency situations. That is, someone charging into a burning building to save their pets, etc.
    * People who are suicidal.

    I’m looking for research or data on people who have time to deliberate and nonetheless exchange their lives for some other benefit.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      Several US agencies have done these calculations. Summary here.

    • albatross11 says:

      There’s a large literature on altruism in biology and evolution. They define altruism in terms of sacrificing your evolutionary fitness for another organism’s fitness. [Disclaimer: I’m an interested amateur; there are probably genuine experts around here who know more.]

      First, The Wikipedia Article on altruism in biology is a nice starting point for thinking about this from the biology perspective.

      Another good starting point might be Richard Dawkins’ _The Selfish Gene_, which is basically explaining Hamilton’s kin-selection and inclusive fitness theory. (That is, natural selection favors genes that cause more copies of themselves to end up in the next generation; sometimes, that means one organism that carries a gene sacrificing itself for another. The classic example is a parent sacrificing themselves for their children.) The famous quote here is something like “I wouldn’t sacrifice my self for a friend, but I would for two brothers or four grandchildren.”

      Edward O Wilson has spent a lot of time thinking about social/eusocial animals. He has a pretty nice book called _The Superorganism_ thinking about this. (He wrote an earlier book on ants–if you want to know about ants, Wilson is your guy.) He thinks partly in terms of kin selection but also in terms of group selection (which probably applies more easily to highly-social animals than to solitary ones).

      Robert Axelrod wrote a wonderful and very accessible book called _The Evolution of Cooperation_, talking mainly about tournaments of computer programs playing the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. This turns out to be sufficient to get a lot of interesting cooperative behavior.

      Martin Nowack has done a lot of work in this area, particularly thinking about evolutionary game theory. He wrote a really wonderful textbook called _Evolutionary Dynamics_, and an okay book called _Supercooperators_. (I wanted something about halfway between the two books in terms of depth.)

      I hope this is helpful.

    • Well... says:

      I’ll bet there’s a lot of research on ideological suicide bombers and other types of willing martyrs.

  17. freemantle says:

    Has anyone read the book Radical Markets by Posner and Weyl? I think it’s the sort of thing people around here would be interested in.

    They have two main ideas and three smaller ones. The two main ideas are:

    1) A tax on private ownership. This seems to me to be similar to property/wealth taxes that are already in place in many jurisdictions, where you have to pay some x% tax on some subset of things that you own, but with two special features. Firstly, the value of any piece of property is left to the owner to declare. This both saves the trouble of having some central authority determine the value of everything, and it allows for personal valuations. You’re allowed to value your house above or below market value.

    The really cool part, in my opinion, is that you have to stand ready to sell any piece of your property at its declared value at any time. This stops you from putting an artificially low value on your possessions to avoid paying tax, because if you do this it might get bought from you at that low price.

    2) Implementing quadratic voting as widely as possible. Best (or at least adequately) explained by the wikipedia article.

    I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on these proposals.

    • Yakimi says:

      The really cool part, in my opinion, is that you have to stand ready to sell any piece of your property at its declared value at any time. This stops you from putting an artificially low value on your possessions to avoid paying tax, because if you do this it might get bought from you at that low price.

      Incidentally, M*ldbug made a similar proposal all the way back in 2007. Mere coincidence?

      One easy way to run a property-tax regime is a self-assessment registry: every real-estate owner lists and updates a reserve price for every property, and anyone can buy at this price. If owners set the price too high, they will pay too much tax. If they set it too low, their property will be snapped up. This system is trivial to administer, its Laffer curve should be easy to map, and the curve’s peak should be quite high.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Likely a coincidence, yes, because it’s an idea that goes back to ancient Athens. (Which is not to suggest that it’s uninteresting or not worth talking about! But the hard part isn’t suggesting the basic idea.)

      • Eric Rall says:

        It’d say it’s even money whether Moldemort got the idea directly from Athens or indirectly via Heinlein, who mentioned a variant of it in one of the alternate universes the protagonist visited in Job, A Comedy of Justice.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Why would anyone put up with that?

      If someone can buy your house or car out from under you at any time, you don’t actually own those objects. The value of owning a house or a car is that you have it whenever you need it. At that point you’re better off renting or leasing the property because it won’t really belong to you anyway. You have no security that your property will still be there tomorrow, which is exactly what the rule of law is supposed to prevent.

      If that kind of lawless rule seemed likely to pass I would leave the country and take as much of what I could with me.

      • 10240 says:

        You can easily prevent that by setting the price higher than the price of a similar item on the market. Or set the price to the price you need to pay to replace your property (i.e. the market price of a similar item), plus the cost of the inconvenience of your current property being taken from you and having to replace it.

        • gbdub says:

          Until a Twitter mob decides they don’t like you, starts a Kickstarter, and buys your house, your car, your dog, and/or your wife’s engagement ring out from under you.

          It only works if everyone values things rationally, and falls apart in the face of trolls with money.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          The problem there is two-fold:

          Firstly, in order to price e.g. a house above that of a similar house I need to outbid my neighbors who also don’t want to be forced to sell their homes. Even if the fraction of neighbors who actually want to sell price their houses much lower, the majority who actually want to live in their homes would bid the average price through the roof. The only limit on how high prices can rise is how much income you have to pay taxes with.

          The reason for this, and my second point, is that the “inconvenience” of suddenly losing your home is potentially many times higher than the cost of that home. Being thrown out onto the street is a serious emergency. You need new housing ASAP unless you like sleeping under bridges and you somehow still need to get to work and get your kids to school while house shopping out of whatever cheap shelter you found in the meantime. Even if you find a new place before your money runs out, it could very well be a much longer commute or a worse school district which disrupts your life even more.

          • 10240 says:

            Being thrown out onto the street is a serious emergency. You need new housing ASAP unless you like sleeping under bridges

            Firstly, as someone else has mentioned, presumably you wouldn’t have to vacate your home immediately. Second, even if you do, you don’t have to sleep under the bridge. You can stay in a hotel for a couple of days, and then in a rental for a coupe of months, before you buy another apartment. The extra cost of this is probably a couple thousand dollars or so.

            Even if you find a new place before your money runs out, it could very well be a much longer commute or a worse school district

            Your money won’t run out fast, as you just received a large sum for your home (including an extra couple thousand dollars above its market value). Most of the time there are apartments up for sale or rent in any given neighborhood. Btw is this strict school district thing an American thing? Here in Hungary you can generally choose any school. There is a district school which has to admit a kid, while other schools don’t have to, but often do. And schools definitely don’t kick someone out just because the family moves.

          • gbdub says:

            Have you ever actually had to move a household? It’s way more stressful and costly than you seem to think – paying movers, temporary housing, home inspections, real estate agents all add up quick. You can’t just cost free move into an equivalent home. You’re either dipping significantly into your savings, or having to buy new housing worth significantly less.

            Probably okay if it happens once, ruinous if it is at all frequent.

          • fion says:

            Presumably people need to give you some notice to buy your stuff, so it’s not like you’re gonna be out on the street.

            Also, you don’t need to outprice your neighbours who don’t want to sell; just those who do want to sell. Say the inconvenience cost of having your house bought from under you is equal to the value of the house, then all houses that the owners are not trying to sell cost double market value. If somebody is looking to buy a house, they’re very unlikely to go for one of the double-cost ones. Or if the inconvenience is three times the value of the house then the not-for-sale house prices will be four times the for-sale house prices. An even bigger disincentive for potential buyers.

            EDIT: ninja’d by two comments!

          • 10240 says:

            Sure, but the cost of all this is definitely not, as Nabil suggested, many times the cost of a home. It’s probably more like 10% or so, so you can set the price at 10% above the market price (if you have enemies).

          • bean says:


            No, you’d set it at 10% above market if you didn’t have enemies. Setting it at market with no enemies and no desire to move means that you’re in the same position as someone who wants to sell, which means that a potential buyer has no reason to prefer buying their house to buying yours. If you have enemies, you’d go above 10%, to increase the actual cost of going after you. (The go-beat-up-on-you corp gets “investors” (your enemies), buys your house at taxed value, then turns around and sells it on the regular market. The profits from that get returned to the investors, and the company dissolves, or goes after your new house. It’s a real estate company, just one that won’t make money. If you sell at 10% above, they’ll just pay that plus the transaction costs.)

          • fion says:


            I think you’d need to go higher than 10%. I think there’s that much variation in how much houses are worth to different buyers! So some non-enemy could easily think your house was particularly nice and buy it for 110% of the market value.

            I’d put a pin in double price.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            Even if you have some token period of time before you’re evicted from your home, buying a house isn’t even remotely a fast process. Even just finding an apartment can take months, with a house potentially taking a year or more, not to mention the drawn out process of actually buying it. Ironically it might be faster to force someone else out of their home rather than negotiating the price with a willing seller.

            Beyond that, if the money your house is valued at was worth enough to purchase a comparable home then you probably wouldn’t have been forced out in the first place. Especially since a good chunk of that money is going to be taxed away immediately. You also have a worse bargaining position to negotiate prices with willing sellers, since your BATNA is “live in a hotel.”

            And to be honest the cost in time and money is the smallest portion of what you’ve lost. The sheer anxiety of having to pick up the shattered pieces of your life and rebuild is intense. All of your plans for at least the next five years if not the next decade are out the window because you couldn’t say “sorry not for sale.”

          • albatross11 says:

            If you were really doing this, I imagine the “buy” option would come with various conditions–maybe a 25% bonus and a six-month delay from offer to closing.

          • CatCube says:

            I think a possible result of this is that if the first person gets kicked out his home through a forced buyout, he will execute a forced buyout in the same neighborhood using the proceeds from their forced buyout, the former owner of which will then execute a force buyout against a third party, etc.

            You saw shades of this old system the US Army used to use to assign housing before WWII was that the highest-ranking person got their choice of housing. So when a new high-ranking person moved in, they’d kick out the person in the nicest house, who would then kick out the a lower-ranking person in the nicest house, and so on. The results were twofold: housing could be very unstable, and nobody had any incentive to not let the housing stock turn into a shithole, because taking care of things increased the chances you’d get kicked out once a higher-ranking person saw the nicer place. This was discussed (fictionally) in Once an Eagle.

          • 10240 says:

            So some non-enemy could easily think your house was particularly nice and buy it for 110% of the market value.

            I’d put a pin in double price.

            But if someone especially like your house, and buys it for a price that allows you to buy another house you value equally, and more than compensates for the costs and inconvenience of moving, then you’re making a profit.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            This all sounds like a mechanism to tax emotional attachment

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Yes. Gardens aren’t fungible, and neither is modifying your house to be the way you like it.

        • YehoshuaK says:

          You can easily prevent that by setting the price higher than the price of a similar item on the market.

          No you couldn’t, for three reasons. One, that would result in your paying artificially high taxes. Two, if everyone did that, the market price would just be higher. Three, if you’re targeted by a billionaire with a grudge, it wouldn’t help.

          Or set the price to the price you need to pay to replace your property (i.e. the market price of a similar item), plus the cost of the inconvenience of your current property being taken from you and having to replace it.

          See my objections above.

          Plus, there is irreplaceable property, like your own half-finished manuscript or computer full of data, your wife’s jewelry that she inherited from her grandmother, one-of-a-kind artwork, etc.

          Also, the inconvenience factor can be very great, and the amount you would demand to compensate for it would result in ruinously high taxes (for example, the dream house you finally built in your beloved neighborhood).

          That last is not similar to my earlier objection, because declaring an x% higher-than-market value on things like pencils would only result in ruinous taxes across the aggregate. A beloved house, on the other hand, will demand a much greater increase over market value, such as 2 * x%, and would result in ruinous taxes all by itself.

          • 10240 says:

            that would result in your paying artificially high taxes.

            Not if most people do that, so it’s factored into the tax rates.

            if everyone did that, the market price would just be higher.

            No, everyone would set higher prices when they don’t want to sell, but set normal market prices when they actually want to sell.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            So it’ll be a tax on property, plus a tax on not wanting to sell. Why is the second of these something we’d want?

      • benwave says:

        I considered the self-valuation thing for a much more limited case of a rent-to-buy scheme. It works a lot better when restricted to only two parties, one of whom definitely wants to use their property as an investment over a medium to long term, the other who wants to buy but can’t afford it all in one go. The buyer buys shares over time at a rate set by the owner, but can also sell shares if the owner sets that value too high. They retain right to live in the property so long as their shareholding remains above some percentage (say 20%) so buyer has security of tenure. In case of damage, it can be taken from the buyer’s shareholding so the owner has security of investment. Rent fixed as a percentage of the capital value, volume of shares bought/sold fixed per period (say, per month or per quarter). It’s an way of keeping things running smoothly without using debt, I thought it sounded quite acceptable in that case.

      • Chalid says:

        The evil billionaire wouldn’t buy your house, as this involves giving you a bunch of money.

        Even if we limit ourselves to housebuying attacks, it’d be better to buy the surrounding houses and use his control of them to make your life miserable and destroy your land value. Then you end up both unhappy and poor, with the meager compensation of having low taxes.

        I don’t think there’s anything particularly stopping a billionaire from doing this now, and in the current situation you don’t get the compensation of low taxes, so the proposed economic system seems better than the current one for dealing with this particular incredibly improbable attack.

      • Jiro says:

        Another problem is that it taxes intangibles that someone else cannot benefit from. If you value this house because it is your deceased Dad’s house, that means you are getting taxed on the extra value the house has to you because it is your deceased Dad’s house. Not only is doing this questionable, but it also means that if you do end up forced to move out because someone wants to buy it, that extra value is just destroyed.

        And as a general idea I find it questionable that we should tax people on such intangibles. You need to pay taxes on the fact that the house you live in is close to your job or parents, for instance.

        There may be also intangibles that you cannot get when you buy a new house. If you value this house because it is close to your job, there is no guarantee that there is another house which is as close to your job at any price. And as someone else mentioned, do we want to tax people on the fact that their children are near their friends?

        And this becomes much worse when applied to things other than houses. If someone wants to buy all the data on my computer, and that data could cause me a potential million dollars in identity theft losses, I have to pay taxes on a million dollars.

        Consider why we don’t have a “your own market value tax”, where you value your own freedom at $X, you pay taxes on $X, and anyone can pay $X to enslave you.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          When I was much younger I liked the idea of “tax on the worth you assign to it, and someone can buy at that worth,” but as an adult I ain’t got time for that shit. Knowing that my house is mine as long as I keep up tax payments (which are the same for my neighbors) means I can think about something else.

    • bean says:

      I suspect what you’d see there would be a general convention that tax valuations are based on some multiple of the object’s actual value, with the rates adjusted to compensate. Everyone declares at about 50% above what they think it’s actually worth, to stop people grabbing their stuff.

      I also suspect that the rules about how and what this can be triggered by would be rather complex. If someone decides they want to buy my car or house at taxed value, how quickly do I have to hand it over? Can I raise the taxed value, and pay the difference in back taxes to the government? What’s to stop me from sabotaging it out of spite before I hand it over?

      I know there’s a rule like this in some amateur race series, where every car gets a nominal and equal value, to avoid someone putting a bunch of money into their car. But a race car is a luxury, and it’s pretty easy to play musical chairs with them under those rules.

      • bean says:

        I’ve thought about this more, and I suspect there are some workarounds which would quickly be deployed. At my last apartment, the complex got bought out while I was there, but the leases were unaffected. So what’s to stop someone from buying the house through a shell company, then signing a grossly uneven lease with the company that basically gives them ownership? (For instance, it’s on a 6-month term, renewable at the renter’s sole discretion, for up to 99 years. The payment is $1/month, and the company is responsible for all of the maintenance work. Obviously, this is a terrible deal for the company’s owners, who will keep having to put money in, but it’s great for the tenants, who are the same people.) So if someone does buy it, they can’t kick the tenants out, they’re stuck with only getting $1/month, and they have to do all the maintenance work. Basically, I set up the deal on both sides, and someone who buys the house only gets to play the side I’ve stacked the deck against already. Obviously, if the company chooses to sell the house voluntarily, the contract gets terminated by mutual agreement, and everyone goes on their merry way.

        • dodrian says:

          If this type of contract were allowed, what would stop the occupant/owner from setting one up then giving the home an absurdly low value for tax evasion reasons, as no one could possibly be interested in buying the contract. Wouldn’t this take us back to square one?

          Only now big real estate firms have a convenient way of storing wealth without paying taxes. Though I suppose capital gains would still exist.

          • bean says:

            I suspect the typical value would be actually be fairly close to market, to protect equity. If you set the value too low, it might make sense for someone to snatch it up as an investment for the day you decide you want to live somewhere else, depending on how the contract is structured (break clauses and such). And then you’re left underwater on the mortgage, and without the house to secure it. Which is probably not a fun place to be.

        • mobile says:

          Yeah! Why should publicly traded corporations be the only ones allowed to use poison pills?

    • Yakimi says:

      My problem with this system is that it would only be tolerable if pricing your property above its market value would guarantee its security. In reality, the system can be exploited by resourceful actors to threaten their enemies with economic insecurity. Imagine Elon Musk threatening to take your house away from you for exposing Tesla’s flaws. Imagine political activists crowdfunding donations for the purpose of driving you out of town because they don’t like your opinions. Your only defense is to raise your evaluation beyond their means to pay, but then you’d be bankrupted by the property tax.

      • Iain says:

        Yeah, harassment seems like an important problem. At least when Peter Thiel bankrupted Gawker, he had to find a legitimate legal pretext. Any person (or group) with more money could threaten to make you move unless you artificially inflate the valuation of your property beyond their spite threshold. There’s a huge chilling effect on free speech: if raising the ire of the Other Team could double or triple your tax rate, you might think twice before saying anything.

        This is the sort of overly clever idea that works with perfectly informed, hyper-rational, spherical citizens in a vacuum, and explodes messily upon first contact with actual humans.

        • 10240 says:

          What you and a lot of other commenters seem to not get is that there is a threshold above which you make a profit if someone buys your apartment, even after the inconvenience and costs of moving. And that threshold is not even that much higher than the actual value of your apartment — definitely not its multiple. And if everybody sets a price somewhat above the market value, the tax rate would presumably take this into account.

          • Iain says:

            No, you’re missing my point. The degree to which “everybody sets a price somewhat above the market value” is not uniform; it depends on how much money people are willing to sacrifice to spite you.

            People get attached to their houses. They don’t want to move. The margin above market value that Joe Random has to pay to avoid being kicked out of his house is smaller than the margin of Jane Activist. Nobody’s going to take an economic hit to screw around with Joe, even if his valuation just barely covers his cost of moving. On the other hand, if Jane doesn’t build in a healthy margin, then she’s leaving herself open to being repeatedly forced into house-hunting by anybody with deep pockets. They’ll lose some money, but the cost of flipping somebody else’s home is lower than the cost of moving to a new home yourself, so the attack has teeth.

            End result: I can force you to pay higher taxes by credibly threatening to waste money buying your home. If you follow through on the threat a few times, you don’t even need to spend any money on future targets: the mere threat can rationally be enough to force somebody to inflate their valuation.

          • John Schilling says:

            On the other hand, if Jane doesn’t build in a healthy margin, then she’s leaving herself open to being repeatedly forced into house-hunting by anybody with deep pockets.

            Or with the social capital to build a Kickstarter or GoFundMe around “…help us punish the apostate, and then something something profit, and if we don’t see your name on the list, maybe you’re the next apostate!”

          • actinide meta says:

            I’m not necessarily enthusiastic about this proposal (cut-and-choose valuation is a nice classical nugget of mechanism design, but this probably isn’t the right place for it), but I’m having trouble seeing how this form of “harrassment” is anything but a benefit for its “victim.” Suppose you have $100K of equity in a $500K home, and list it at $600K. Mustache-twirling-villain buys it from under you for $600K. You have a big hassle of moving, but you have just doubled your net worth! Buy a $1M house, and list it at $1.5M. Next time you are paid $500K to move, and you have $700K to put toward your next property and its taxes. If this continues, soon you will be a billionaire and mustache-twirling-villain will be poor.

            The question isn’t how high you would have to set your price in order to be sure you won’t have to move. The question is how high you have to set your price in order to be happy to have to move. If you were doing that, then the only power that hypothetical evil billionaires would have is to make you happy.

          • CatCube says:

            There’s a threshold above which you make a profit if they force you to sell, but if they don’t force you to sell you’re paying more in taxes. Depending on the tax rate, they can put you in a no-win situation.

          • actinide meta says:

            Yes, almost any form of wealth taxation [1] will cause huge problems unless the tax rate is really, really tiny (and credibly not likely to increase!). That’s one of the many actual problems with this idea. But it has pretty much nothing to do with needing to buy evil billionaire insurance.

            [1] A totally flat per-acre tax on land might possibly be an exception, but is totally impractical. People keep confusing this fact with having something to do with actual property taxes and schemes like this one, but I think they are completely wrong.

          • YehoshuaK says:

            What you and a lot of other commenters seem to not get is that there is a threshold above which you make a profit if someone buys your apartment, even after the inconvenience and costs of moving.

            That’s only important if we assume that everyone values profit above maintaining their possession of their property in every case. There’s no reason to make that assumption.

            My family has roots in the place where we live. I’m not interested in selling my house right now, not just because I don’t see how it will make me money, but because I don’t want to upend the lives of my wife and children. There is no amount of money you could hand me that would make me want to hurt them.

            This is just one example, but you can easily think of others. Indeed, I’ve already briefly mentioned others (manuscript, family jewelry, unique artwork) elsewhere in this thread.

          • Iain says:

            Buy a $1M house, and list it at $1.5M…

            … and then you are paying a 50% premium on your property tax, compared to a much smaller premium for a person who isn’t worried about harassment.

            Moving costs money and time, and is often very stressful — especially if you haven’t been able to plan for it in advance. People have an emotional connection to their home, and the stability that it implies. There’s a significant gap between the market value of a home and the amount of money you’d have to be paid to be happy to leave it on command. People without rich enemies (or, as John says, crowdfunded enemies) can use the former value; people with rich enemies have to use the latter, which means higher taxes.

            Moustache-twirling billionaires don’t have to keep mechanically buying houses regardless of price. They just have to make things noticeably less pleasant for people who oppose them.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Not to mention how distorted the market gets when events occur which result in changes in property value. Soybean futures rise and 1000s of smaller farmers are suddenly no longer the owners of their farms. New school, new traffic corridor, new road improvements, etc. announced? The sheriffs start coming for the evictions.

            Practically speaking this means that you don’t actually own increases in value of the property. It’s like the inverse of moral hazard.

          • pontifex says:

            It’s a clever system, and a fun thought experiment. But as several other people have mentioned, it’s essentially an extra tax on people who don’t want to move. Moving is hard when you have kids. They may have to go to a different school and find a different set of friends.

            It would also result in extremely rapid gentrification. Even if you are generally in favor of gentrification, you probably aren’t in favor of it happening instantly to an entire neighborhood.

      • Tarpitz says:

        You don’t need to set your price beyond their means to pay. You just have to set your price at the level that you would actually be happy to sell at. I like my house. I have no plans to move in the forseeable future. But if someone came in and offered me twice my estimate of its market value – even conditional on me being gone the same day – I would bite their hand off.

        Whether that bankrupts you rather depends on the level of the tax, but I assume the idea is that it should be quite low.

        • YehoshuaK says:

          Whether that bankrupts you rather depends on the level of the tax, but I assume the idea is that it should be quite low.

          It also depends on the amount of liquid funds you have available to pay the proposed tax. A billionaire can far more easily find the cash to pay a tax set at, say, 1% of his total value than can a lower middle-class worker that has 90% of his value tied up in his house.

          So this proposal might work out okay for billionaires (but see all my other objections in this thread), but will work out much worse for the economically weak classes. That’s a bad thing, in my view.

    • Urstoff says:

      I heard the Econtalk that Weyl was on, and he defined monopoly so broadly that almost every producer or seller counted as a monopoly (the owner of the very specific house he wanted was a monopolist, for example). I suppose if you have really strong and hard-to-satisfy preferences, then all sellers are a monopolist to you, but that sounds like a problem with your preferences, not with the market.

      As for the proposals, I think the tax would lead to most land being owned by companies or property managers, as it sounds pretty stressful for a normal individual to own land in such a manner. People like their homes and don’t want to move, but probably couldn’t afford the tax that would guarantee that your home wouldn’t be sold out from under you. It might end up being more efficient in the end, but that’s not a typical vision of America that a lot of people want to see realized.

      Voting reform is always good.

      • YehoshuaK says:

        Voting reform is always good.

        Only if the current system is so messed up that literally any change would be a change for the better. I’m fairly sure that’s not the case.

    • 10240 says:

      Why have a property tax? The same criticism seems to apply as to Piketty: if returns on investment are high, leading to labor’s decreasing share of income (as they claim), disincentivizing investment with a massive tax is a terrible idea.

      The property valuation idea is neat, but it doesn’t work if people can hide their wealth, e.g. in foreign investment, gold bars etc. (further disincentivizing visible investment).

      Voting systems where intensity of preference matters: actually our usual representative democracy already has this feature to some extent. We decide who to vote for based on multiple factors, and we are willing to vote for a politician we disagree with on matters we consider minor if we agree with him on important matters. Thus if a few people strongly oppose a policy, while others weakly support it, a politician often stands to lose more votes than he gains by supporting the policy because those who strongly oppose it definitely won’t vote for him, while those who weakly support it may still vote for him even if he opposes it.

      More generally, I’ve only read the material on the website… these guys are off their rockers.

      • 10240 says:

        There would also be weird side effects, like homes which look plain from the outside but with a very well-done interior (so that someone looking at it doesn’t realize its value). And people don’t letting in guests they don’t trust.

        • bean says:

          That also depends on what counts as part of the house, and gets carried along with the mandatory sale. And what the restrictions are on what you can do after the house is sold. I could easily see someone who had their house grabbed going over to the movers, and offering them $20 to be somewhat reckless and put lots of dings in the walls as they’re hauling the stuff out. Or other forms of non-provable property damage, like repainting a room a bad color and forgetting to use dropclothes.

        • YehoshuaK says:

          And people don’t letting in guests they don’t trust.

          Considering how many people have married people they later hated, I think you would a much stricter rule than “don’t invite in guests that you don’t trust.” I mean, if people can be wrong about people they decide to live with and raise children with, how much more so can they be wrong about casual acquaintances?

      • Wrong Species says:

        A land tax, essentially a propert tax without factoring improvements on the land, is generally considered the best kind of tax. Since land itself is valued for its mere existence, taxing it has the least distortionary effects. Property tax is more distortionary but still has a similar effect.

        • The Nybbler says:

          A land tax, essentially a propert tax without factoring improvements on the land, is generally considered the best kind of tax.

          Generally? It’s pretty rare for such a generally approved tax.

          Personally I disapprove of it because it fails to consider that government expenditures often scale with population more than with land value, meaning my neighbors building dense housing on their property results in my taxes going up as much as theirs. Urbanists consider this a “feature” because it essentially requires everyone to use their property for whatever’s the most profitable, which means density; I’m not an urbanist.

        • 10240 says:

          A land tax is good in this sense, because the amount of land is fixed — it can be neither produced nor destroyed. It becomes problematic when the tax exceeds the income from the land. Unless the tax is implemented globally, or a country has extreme tariffs on agricultural products, in a developed country the government can’t collect a significant tax revenue from a land tax before the value of land turns into negative, and landowners go bankrupt (or give up their land if that’s allowed). Even if the tax doesn’t exceed the profits of land, there will be some discouraging effect on other forms of investment if people know that the government is willing to suddenly impose a tax which wipes out a large chunk of the value of an asset category.

          General property tax is much more distortionary because unlike land, the amount of other forms of investment is variable, and a property tax disincentivizes it.

          • YehoshuaK says:

            because the amount of land is fixed — it can be neither produced nor destroyed

            Sure it can. We can build and demolish multi-story buildings and artificial islands, thereby effectively creating and destroying land.

            Also, there’s plenty of land. A simple calculation shows that we could, in theory, fit all of humanity into Texas, with each person having almost 1000 square feet of space. That’s about the same density as NYC. (All calculations based on numbers pulled from Wikipedia.)

            Whatever other limits there are on human habitation, the Earth has plenty of land for everyone.

          • 10240 says:

            I assumed floor area doesn’t count, only land area. Reclaimed land shouldn’t be taxed, I guess.
            The tax would mostly affect agricultural areas. If we set the tax rates such that the value of agricultural land doesn’t become negative, the tax coming from urban areas is negligible.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The Georgeist version of the land tax, as I understand it, is a tax of 100% of the imputed ground rent. This is essentially abolition of land ownership; the net value of land after taxes is fixed at zero.

    • ana53294 says:

      Could you avoid inmediate eviction by not directly owning a house?
      Say, if I don’t want to be evicted even if somebody forcefully buys the house under me, I can create a limited liability company that owns my house. Then I give shares to everybody in my family.

      Then we make a rental contract that is ridiculously difficult to get out of (something equivalent to a rent-controlled NY apartment). This kind of fixed rent contracts do happen in Europe, where the landlord has to either patiently wait until somebody dies to get their house, or has to sell it for way less than the value to the tenant (some even may give it away, just to get rid of liability).

      The fact that the house is sold doesn’t mean the rental contract is broken. Usually, it is very difficult to buy a house with a restrictive rental contract, because people buying a house don’t want to have a tenant that pays pittance, while being liable for the upkeep of the house. But if that is your objective, lawyers can have a field day making ridiculous rental contracts that span generations.

      And once you want to sell the house, you just bilaterally break the contract.

      Edit: just noticed that bean made a similar comment.

      • 10240 says:

        Where in Europe do they have such restrictions on rental contracts? (Just so I don’t accidentally buy a house for investment there…)

        • ana53294 says:

          In Spain. I don’t know if you can make a new contract like that (this would only happen in the case of an idiotic tax like this one).

          If you ever try to buy a house like that, any notary that does their due dilligence will inform you about that rental contract, so it’s highly unlikely to happen. After some googling, I couldn’t find any example of such a contract, because it would be idiotic, but there is nothing in Spanish law that says that would be illegal.

          In 2014, when the law from 1994 became applicable (Ley 29/1994 de 24 de Noviembre), it became possible to break such contracts, as long as the tenant died after 31/12/2014; if they die before, their descendants/spouse could choose to extend the contract.

          This is from medieval times, so it may happen in other European countries. I know that a lot of the small shops in Las Ramblas only survive because of those contracts (which may mean that the rent for a shop in one of the best shopping districts of Barcelona is just 50 euros, when the one next door pay 100x that).
          There is a caveat, though: the tenant cannot sell the business with the rent contract, or change the use of the rented place, so if their children decide not to take over the shop, they cannot sell it to somebody else and keep the rental contract, because the law is about physical and not legal entities.

          • 10240 says:

            So these are not obligatory terms of a rental contract I guess. What I’m cautious about would be places where you can only make rental contracts such that there are strict restrictions on dissolving them.

          • ana53294 says:

            No, these rental contracts are highly unusual, but they were grandfathered in. I don’t think there is anything to stop anybody from signing a new rental contract with such conditions, although there is no reasonable reason to do that.

      • YehoshuaK says:

        Let’s say that would work. Should you have to go through all that hassle just to ensure that you get to keep living in your house, or keep your family heirlooms or other treasures?

        Also, what about people that lack the resources (economic, intellectual, or other) needed to game the system in this way? Tough luck, I guess.

    • J Mann says:

      Some initial thoughts:

      1) It would further reduce privacy. For me to have the right to buy all taxable property you have, I would need to know what property you have and how you value it at all times.

      1.1) Would I have the right to inspect your property? You might have an undeclared rare sculpture or a pile of gold coins in your closet – how can I know unless I have the right to inspect? (Or would the Sheriff of Nottingham periodically search through homes in search of hidden treasures).

      Further, how can I know how much your house is worth unless you let my inspectors enter? I wouldn’t buy a house sight unseen, would you? Would it be fraud to dress up the outside of a house you know to have serious hidden flaws, and to post social media about how much you enjoy it, in the hopes of convincing someone that my self-assessment is undervalued? How about making the outside as dingy as possible for the same reasons? I think there would be social loss if I were afraid to throw dinner parties because someone might talk up my house.

      2) How would the system react to changes in value? If an interest rate change results in a general increase in home values, or a neighborhood becomes suddenly desirable between one assessment and the next, are we going to see a ton of churn? What if the price of gold doubles between assessments? Does everyone run around buying everyone else’s gold jewelry as quickly as they can?

      3) My best guess is that there would be a lot of transaction costs – people concerned about having their property bought up from under them would pretty much need to hire accountants to value it, and there would be an active market in searching for undervalued items. If we assume that the elderly and the uneducated own declarable property, there would be an active market in clever people identifying undervalued stuff and taking it for less than they would have to pay if they approached the owner and proposed a sale.

      4) Future generations would have difficulty understanding the movie Up.

      • CatCube says:

        If I understand it right, the proposal is specifically to eliminate the necessity of inspections. If you have a lavish house with gold-plated toilets, you don’t need to open your house to a tax assessor, you just state what the value is for tax purposes. If you value it too low, you then run the risk of somebody buying it out from under you. If you value it too high, you’re paying higher tax rates.

        From the other side, you don’t get to go into somebody’s house. If you think the property valuation is too low, you just buy it. If you’re right, you get a house with gold plated toilets. If it turns out the old owners were correct in their valuation, you just ended up purchasing a shell of a house with no drywall over the studs and 1/4″ of dog shit covering the floor (not an example I made up–after the owners failed to pay property taxes and lost the house to the township government, the town just let the fire department burn the place to the ground for training.)

        Note that I don’t think this proposal is a good idea (I certainly don’t want a forced sale hanging over my head), just pushing back against the notion that it requires more-intrusive home inspections by assessors.

        • J Mann says:

          “just pushing back against the notion that it requires more-intrusive home inspections by assessors” … to produce the social benefits implied.

          If the proposal results in a world of secrecy and unpredictability, where people with the ability to conceal wealth from their neighbors pay less taxes than otherwise similarly situated people without that ability, that’s not good. On the other hand, if the new world is designed to prevent secrecy, to make sure that they guy with 5 $200,000 collectible stamps pays the same taxes as the guy with a 5 $200,000 cars, that’s not super great either.

          So if I have a suitcase full of gold coins and a jump drive full of bitcoin, then either (a) I don’t have to pay taxes on them if there is no public registry of wealth and system of inspections, because no one knows I have them; or (b) there has to be some system to make my private possessions knowable to potential buyers. Both of those possibilities raise some concerns.

          • CatCube says:

            If the proposal results in a world of secrecy and unpredictability, where people with the ability to conceal wealth from their neighbors pay less taxes than otherwise similarly situated people without that ability, that’s not good.

            That’s one of many the problems with the system, yes.

    • John Schilling says:

      What’s the market value for a haunted house, where “haunted” means that a disgruntled nerd has put a lot of thought into figuring out how to make that house unbearable and perhaps actively dangerous for anyone the House Intelligence doesn’t recognize as a friend?

    • YehoshuaK says:

      The really cool part, in my opinion, is that you have to stand ready to sell any piece of your property at its declared value at any time. This stops you from putting an artificially low value on your possessions to avoid paying tax, because if you do this it might get bought from you at that low price.

      So we wouldn’t have any permanent communities (because you and I and anyone can be forced to move at any time), no way to maintain data (I’m buying your computer, your notebooks, and that half-finished manuscript containing your life’s work, and burning the lot), and no sense of history (I like those family photos, too, and your wife’s wedding ring and now they’re mine). We wouldn’t be able to make any plans for the future, either (because all of the things that we depend upon to do stuff could disappear at any moment).

      This sounds like a really good way to give wealthy people the ability to ruin my life, not just their own.

    • Lambert says:

      The failure mode isn’t ‘Rich person buys your house out of spite’ so much as ‘Company buys entire street and turns it into a strip mall/offices etc.’
      If someone wants to buy your house, can you, or some shell entity outbid them and get your house back?
      Can you precommit to burn your own house down rather than sell it? (having dragged out the sale process as long as is humanly possible (The keys and deeds have been posted, via Aleppo, Vladivostok and the South Pole))

    • The self-evaluated property tax is a very old idea. The equivalent was employed in Periclean Athens to determine which of two men was wealthier, hence which had to produce a public good that year. If you claim I am wealthier than you are and I disagree, I offer to trade everything I own for everything you own. If you refuse you have conceded that you are wealthier.

      It’s also the way claiming races are done in horse racing.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        I am also reminded of the law in Spain that states that professional athletes must have a buyout clause in their contract allowing them to unilaterally end their contract by paying their employer a fixed amount.

        In practice, this amount is almost always paid by the club who wish to sign a player. In effect, clubs must state a price that they are willing to sell their players for. This functions to help the larger clubs, particularly Real Madrid and Barcelona- they can protect their own players with huge buyout clauses (Cristiano Ronaldo’s was allegedly a billion euros!) which they accept because of the salaries these clubs can pay. Meanwhile, if a player breaks through at a smaller club, Real or Barca can snap him up for his buyout clause, which was set at the start of his contract and therefore undervalues him.

        Using this clause was recently made easier by a legal ruling stating that players did not have to pay tax if a club transferred them money to pay their buyout clause- the money would usually go via the player, as in this case the selling club was required to accept it, whereas if it came direct from the buying club they could refuse to cash the cheque.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          Replying as edit window has closed: A more charitable interpretation of the reason for this rule is that it helps players, as if a player improves dramatically then his club have to negotiate a new contract (and he can now demand higher pay) before someone snaps him up for his buyout value which undervalues him.

  18. bean says:

    Naval Gazing returns to the Falklands with the liberation of South Georgia.

  19. johan_larson says:

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to move bean’s favorite toy, the USS Iowa, from its current home in Los Angeles to Denver, Colorado.

    There are a few rules. You are not allowed to disassemble or significantly damage the ship. Building a replica in Denver is also not acceptable. That said, you don’t need to worry about public acceptance or political pressures of any sort, even if your efforts are very disruptive. And you can spend really eye-popping sums of money.

    How would you do this?

    (I’ll be honest; I can’t see a remotely cost-effective way to make this happen. We’re firmly in the realm of Mad Engineering here. But it will be interesting to see what people come up with.)

    • phi says:

      Helium balloons. Lots and lots of helium balloons. Then just carry it along on a leash.

      • johan_larson says:

        The ship weighs some 50,000 metric tons. Is there enough helium in all the world to generate that much lift?

        • phi says:

          50 000 metric tons = 5 * 10^7 kg
          Helium has about 1kg of lifting power per cubic meter of gas. So we would require about 5 * 10^7 m^3 of gas.
          World helium reserves are at least 1*10^9 cubic meters. [1,2]
          So it would be extremely expensive (though perhaps we could sell back the helium after we were done using it), but doable in theory.

          Of course, even the “leash” would be a big issue. It would have to be a fairly thick steel cable, I’d guess, and the vehicle towing the ship probably ought to be as big and powerful as possible. And we’d have to wait for the weather forecast to predict a long stretch of time with low to zero winds in the areas we’d be traveling through.


          • phi says:

            A quick price estimation: The major cost of doing this would probably be the helium. I estimate a cost of about $4/m^3 based on Wolfram Alpha’s figure for the price of helium. (5 * 10^7 m^3)($4/m^3) = $2 * 10^8 = 200 million dollars! Of course, one could probably recover much of that money by selling back the helium after using it to move the USS Iowa.

            I have no idea how much the balloon itself and the cables and the labor and everything else would cost, but it would probably be a lot.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        That’s probably not entirely absurd. My response would have been, fund the completion of the CargoLifter (which was supposed to have a carrying capacity of 160 tons), then find a way to tether 300 of them. I don’t know if that’s feasible, but it’s worth a shot.

        • johan_larson says:

          I had a similar thought, using helicopters. Unfortunately the biggest helicopters can only lift about 50 tons, so moving the Iowa would require the coordinated efforts of 1000 of them. Even by the standards of Mad Engineering, that sounds like a stretch.

          • Fluffy Buffalo says:

            And you’d have to be really careful with the fluid dynamics, I suppose. Each helicopter creates a good amount of turbulence… if you can arrange them side-by-side, it would probably work, but you probably can’t have multiple layers.

    • johan_larson says:

      Anyway, my idea is to sail the Iowa there. Denver is on the South Platte River, which flows into the North Platte River, which flows into the Missouri just south of Omaha. The Missouri flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the ocean. The Mississippi and Missouri are serious commercial waterways and should be able to accommodate a ship of that size, possibly with a bit of deepening and straightening work. (The plan is to go in the spring, when the water is as high as possible, and with the ship lightened as much as possible.)

      The South Platte and North Platte are entirely different, and will need to be converted fully into a canal large enough to accommodate the Iowa. It’s a distance of some 500 miles, with a 4000 foot climb, so it will need locks and control gates and whatnot. I think this is technically feasible; if they could build the 80 km Panama Canal a century ago, we should be able to build the 500 mile Denver-Omaha canal today.

      The Panama canal cost about $9 billion in today’s money, so the Denver-Omaha canal, at ten times the length, might cost about $90 billion.

      • johan_larson says:

        That should be the Platte River, not the North Platte River. The North and South Platte Rivers simply flow together to form the (unmodified) Platte River.

      • Deiseach says:

        I was going to say “Canals! Dig an entire series of canals!” but you beat me there 🙂

      • bean says:

        That’s going to require taking down pretty much every bridge on the lower Mississippi and Missouri below Omaha. Also deepening the Missouri a lot. Currently, Iowa’s draft is around 25′, while the channel depth in the Missouri is 12′. On the other hand, the channel is also 200′ wide, so you could use pontoons to lift the ship, which would probably make it feasible during flood season.

        Actually, there’s a key flaw in your plan. If you try it, the ship probably won’t end up in Denver. The good people of the state of Iowa, seeing their ship sailing by offshore will sortie and take the ship. I’d guess she’d end up in Council Bluffs.

        • SamChevre says:

          If you took off everything you could, how far down can you get the draft? I think this is the most plausible option, but it would be difficult.

          • bean says:

            Every inch of change in draft is equivalent to 154 tons change in displacement. You’d have a hard time taking much more than a foot off at light displacement. If you want the math on unloading a battleship, look at the salvage report from when Missouri grounded on Thimble Shoal. You could probably do a bit better, but I’m not sure how much.

          • johan_larson says:

            Are the turrets held in by gravity alone? That’s the way it worked on the Bismarck; they fell out when she sank.

          • bean says:

            They are. I assumed that removing them was disallowed under the “no disassembly” rule, because they wouldn’t come out easily. They were assembled in place, after all.

        • Deiseach says:

          Well, if we’re talking Mad Engineering, let’s throw the bucket over the henhouse! Damn the easy convenient low-ambition only fit for slackers notion of using natural waterways! Build your canals deep as necessary in as straight a line as you can manage on virgin terrain! Divert the rivers into them to avoid all these petty midgebites of bridges and railways and roads! Level the mountains, raise up the valleys, make the rough places smooth! 😀

          • johan_larson says:

            If you want a straight-line route, it’s about 1350 km from Denver to LA. You can get a slightly shorter straight line to the sea by going to the Gulf of California. That takes you through Mexican territory, but I don’t see that stopping the Americans.

            My own truly madcap idea was a sea-level tunnel from California to Denver, and then a vertical shaft as wide as the ship is long up to ground level. Sail the Iowa through the tunnel into the vertical shaft. Then seal up the tunnel behind it and pour in water. The Iowa will slowly rise until it is at the top of a one-mile column of water in Denver at ground level.

      • CatCube says:

        This is what I was going to come here to say (except I’d have had to look up the waterways above the Missouri). Everything you’ve said is quite possible with today’s technology, just really expensive. (And as @bean noted, really disruptive to road and rail traffic.)

    • johan_larson says:

      On their website they talk about moving 15,000 tons, which is in sight of 50,000, so maybe this could work.

    • Aapje says:

      I’d ask Werner Herzog and his parrot to do it*.

      * He dragged a ship over a mountain for the movie Fitzcarraldo (very much worth watching, btw).

      Seriously, though. I’d look at using modular Scheuerle transporters for the land bits. This would presumably require using the lanes going both ways, so would shut down the entire road and require removal of thing between the lanes.

      Things may have to be removed next to the road, like trees, buildings, parts of mountains.

      Overpasses would be a big issue. Then again, most of them probably require replacing anyway, so tear them down and rebuild them. This may mean having to wait until it is rebuild, before tearing down the next one (so detours exist). There is no time limit, right?

      Bridges over water would be a major issue. Perhaps it works to build special pontoons for it.

      • johan_larson says:

        Well, they talk about moving 15,000 tons now, so perhaps they could be enticed to advance the technology to move 50,000. Good catch, Aapje.

        • Aapje says:

          These things are modular, so in theory you can just make them longer and use more of them. I do wonder if it can cope with non-flat roads, though.

      • Well... says:

        Someone stole my comment idea.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      “Building a replica in Denver is also not acceptable.”

      But is it acceptable to build a replica of Denver in LA?

      • gudamor says:

        Or, along the same lines, having the current location of the USS Iowa somehow declared an exclave of Denver, Colorado. I’m unsure whether Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 of the US Constitution applies:

        New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

        But, even if it does, the expense of greasing the palms of both state legislatures and Congress would likely be less than the cost of actually moving her.

        • dodrian says:

          Perhaps sail the Iowa to the Palmyra Atoll (I believe it would be the closest US territory), and give the atoll to the city of Denver. That way you only have to deal with the Federal government?

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          Probably easier to incorporate the area as a new municipality, to be known as Denver, Colorado, California.

    • bean says:

      If you’re moving her far inland, why Denver? Why not bring her to me?

      A bit more data for those of you contemplating the move. Right now, the ship weighs about 45,000 metric tons, and while there is some stuff you could reasonably take off and ship separately (anchor chains and missile launchers spring to mind) I’d be surprised if you could get her much below 43,000. This leaves a draft of maybe 25′. She’s 888 feet long, 108′ wide, and a total of about 210′ tall.

      Johan, you come up with the most interesting questions. I’m going to go with building a really big marine railway.

      • johan_larson says:

        If you’re moving her far inland, why Denver? Why not bring her to me?

        I chose Denver because I wanted a place that’s really inaccessible, but well known. I definitely didn’t want any place that was on a major river; that would have been too easy.

        Where are you again?

        • bean says:

          Oklahoma City. We don’t have a major river here, either, although it might be a bit easier than Denver. Less elevation change required.

    • SamChevre says:


    • gbdub says:

      Convince Denver that Yamato is a better choice. That one can fly in space, so getting it halfway across the US should be trivial.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I don’t ever have good ideas for these bizarre hypotheticals you make, but I enjoy reading the responses and I’m glad you make them.

    • John Schilling says:

      Sail under her own power to New Orleans or Gulfport. Transfer to a custom barge, roughly 330 x 60 meters with 3-meter draft. This should be able to reach Kansas City during spring, with a bit of help from the Army Corps of Engineers. Meanwhile, we’re going to need to build ten new tracks to parallel the current Union Pacific double-track rail line from Kansas City to Denver, with a bypass around Lawrence and new bridges at Topeka and Junction city. At KC, we convert the barge (which is mostly support structure for the Iowa) into an 840-bogie rail carriage. The engineering for this is going to be the trickiest part of the job. Once we’ve got that, a single 3000-hp diesel locomotive on each track should suffice for a 10 mph ride up to Denver.

      • bean says:

        Sail under her own power to New Orleans or Gulfport.

        Wait. You’re restoring the engines? If we do this, I vote against moving her to Denver. We should just keep her at sea.

        (She was towed on her last few movements.)

        • John Schilling says:

          Wait. You’re restoring the engines? If we do this, I vote against moving her to Denver. We should just keep her at sea.

          Ideally, we use a power takeoff on the shafts to drive the barge and then the railcar, just for the coolness power of steaming her into Denver under her own power. And of setting a nigh-unbreakable record for Most Powerful Steam Locomotive Ever. But I’m not entirely sure that’s practical.

      • CatCube says:

        You’d have to do the rail bypass in two places–L&D 27 at St. Louis has a chamber of 110’×1200′. You could get it through in plan area (109’×1199′) with a draft of some 13′, but that would require channel improvements along the whole length of the river, and you’d still have to deepen the lock chamber.

        • bean says:

          Chain of Rocks Lock isn’t in the main stream, though. It’s a bypass around the Chain of Rocks, which can make the Mississippi impassible at low water. If you did it at high water, you should be able to float past the chain directly with the Missouri River-spec barge.

          • CatCube says:

            Is main stem navigable over Dam 27? I don’t have a good sense of what the depths over the navigation dams are on the Mississippi, or that river’s characteristics. However, quickly looking at the stream gage data for above and below the dam, it looks like you only get large upswings in the forebay when the river is at actual flood stage (above 30′), which doesn’t sound ideal for an extremely complicated river movement.

            The KML files for the navigation charts only have a notation that “Navigation across low water dam is not recommended at any river stage”, and if I’m reading it right, the shading indicates that the channel is less than 9′ upstream and downstream of the dam. That doesn’t mean its impossible, of course. IIRC, the channel depth is based on a 75th percentile exceedance, so you could very well be above 9′ for parts of every year.

          • bean says:

            You know more about river navigation than I do. But I suspect that strapping on extra pontoons may be easier than making the locks there twice as deep.

          • CatCube says:

            50% wider, actually. The barge as dimensioned by John will float with about 9′ of draft–the published depth of the shipping channel–but will be either too wide or too long for the lock chamber (if you use max width, it’s too long, if you use max length its too wide, and if you use the max plan area it drafts too much).

            It’s a decent idea, since the Mississippi-Missouri system is navigable with a 9′ channel to Omaha. The only obstructions are the 90 or so bridges and that lock. You’d never deepen the channel enough to prevent having to move and replace the bridges, so it makes sense to dimension it to not have to deepen the channel. What’s the overall height of the Iowa, anyway? It doesn’t show up in any of the quick references I found.

            As you’ve alluded, Plan A would be to send enough water down the channel so you could float it over that navigation dam, probably with some combination of additional pontoons, as you’ve said. I could easily find the stage-discharge relationship for any dam and river in my own district (or, at the outside just go ask the people who do know), but I don’t have any of that for St. Louis District. My fear would be that it’s only deep enough during extreme high water, and you probably don’t want to be moving this upriver during a literal flood. However, since some information is that the lift on the lock is as little as 2′ during some parts of the year, there might be a river stage that it’s possible.

            Plan B would probably be enlarging the lock, though without details of its construction I don’t know if it would make more sense* to deepen the canal and locks and reconfigure the barge for a smaller plan area and deeper draft, or to increase the plan area of the lock. I strongly suspect that first one, since it’s likely easier in every direction (less excavation, easier to modify the gates for 4′ of height, probably don’t need to mess with the machinery–the only question is if those are W-frame locks on a pile foundation, where going deeper would be a lot stickier). Plan C would be a temporary lock, as detailed on page 91 of this PDF. Tie it in to the existing dam and dredge a channel to it.

            I’d go with Johan’s plan for improving the Platte, as opposed to an overland move from Kansas City. This is all still absurd, but it seems quite possible with current technology. I can’t think of anything that’s would be required that isn’t pretty close to things that have already been built elsewhere, or just tearing down and rebuilding something. It’s just expensive beyond all reason.

            * Well, none of this makes sense, of course, but if you assume we’re doing it, this makes more sense than anything else.

          • bean says:

            What’s the overall height of the Iowa, anyway? It doesn’t show up in any of the quick references I found.

            It didn’t show up in the two books I checked, which should have had it if anywhere did (the plans book may have it, though). That said, it’s ~210′ to the top of the forward director when the ship is at normal (34′) draft. The radar antennas and platform for them can come off without violating the “no disassembly” rule, as they were missing when Pacific Battleship Center got the ship.

          • johan_larson says:

            Let’s suppose we built the 500 mile Denver-Omaha canal, with the ample dimensions necessary to accommodate a battleship. Is this something that would be useful enough to keep in order? Would there be enough interest in shipping goods to/from Denver by barge or small cargo ship?

          • CatCube says:


            There wasn’t enough interest in it to build it in the first place when rivers were the main way stuff moved, and now it’s competing with trucks and rail. Again, without knowing the hydrology of the Platte for sure, I’d suspect that the river is so silty with that braided channel that it’d take an lot of work to keep a channel open. Even the Missouri mainstem hasn’t lived up to the hopes of the Corps when they built the navigation channel. It’s probably physically doable, just totally uneconomic.


            So you’re looking at around ~245′ of vertical clearance. Yeah, that’s demolishing ahead of and rebuilding behind the move for almost every bridge along the way.

          • John Schilling says:

            I don’t recall rebuilding bridges being part of the mission statement. Once the Iowa is in Denver, we’re done. Now, how many 16″ HC rounds does it take to bring down a bridge span at point-blank range?

            Also, if we are going to float the Iowa as far as Kansas City, it would seem ungracious not to make a side trip to Omaha before we head west.

          • CatCube says:

            @John Schilling

            Fair enough–not rebuilding bridges will save you on the order of $9bb. However, I wouldn’t want to drop the bridge I’m trying to get under into the channel I’m trying to sail through. You’d probably still want to demolish them ahead of time.

          • bean says:

            Also, if we are going to float the Iowa as far as Kansas City, it would seem ungracious not to make a side trip to Omaha before we head west.

            Again, Omaha is opposite Council Bluffs. Which means you’re going to have to fight off Iowans trying to secure their ship for themselves. More than that, I’ll be helping them.

            Now, how many 16″ HC rounds does it take to bring down a bridge span at point-blank range?

            Probably no more than 3.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Again, Omaha is opposite Council Bluffs. Which means you’re going to have to fight off Iowans trying to secure their ship for themselves. More than that, I’ll be helping them.

            Does it change things much to switch the objective to Iowa City?

          • bean says:

            Does it change things much to switch the objective to Iowa City?

            It changes some. Iowa city is much closer to the Mississippi than Denver is to the Missouri, but it’s the part of the Mississippi with locks. And it’s a lot closer to sea level, which makes things much easier.

      • rahien.din says:

        Unrelated :

        When I mouse over the text that follows your link, it turns red. Anyone else notice that?

    • Iain says:

      Iowa is a beautiful ship, and deserves to remain at sea. But that shouldn’t stop us; it just means we need to bring the sea with us.

      There’s about 32M cubic kilometers of glaciers on Earth, all but a small fraction of which are in Greenland and Antarctica. Melting those glaciers would lead to a sea-level rise of about 80 meters, or 262 feet. Denver is famously the MIle-High City, so that only gets us about 5% of the way there. We’ll need to find some more water somewhere: specifically, about 600M cubic kilometers of ice, which works out to about 6E17 cubic meters of ice — that is, 5-6E20 kg of water.

      We’re still not entirely sure what percentage of a typical comet’s mass is water. Let’s estimate and say that it’s about half water and half dust. Comet nuclei tend to be on the order of 1E13 kg, which gives us 5E12 kg of water per comet. At that rate, with a mere 100M average-sized comet strikes, Iowa can sail right up to Denver.

      (One advantage of the comet plan is that we don’t need a separate strategy for melting the glaciers.)

      • johan_larson says:

        Alternately, we could make Denver a seaside town. Dig a yuge bay from the Gulf of Mexico south-east through Texas and into parts of New Mexico and the Oklahoma pan-handle, and Denver could be right on the water. It would be a mile up, mind you, but at a reasonable 2:1 grade, it would only be two miles or so away, and I’m confident it would quickly spread to take advantage of the new coastline.

      • bean says:

        Iowa is a beautiful ship, and deserves to remain at sea.


        And I really like the way you think.

    • Eric Rall says:

      Deploy solar reflectors to melt the icecaps and raise the sea level until Denver’s on the coast. (I may have played a bit too much SMAC during my misspent youth).

    • rahien.din says:

      1. Procure land in Denver for Iowa’s final home.
      2. Dig a vertical shaft slightly longer than a mile.
      3. From the bottom of the shaft, extend a horizontal tunnel directly to Los Angeles, terminating in a lockless canal, and allow it to flood with seawater.
      4. Deploy three Taisun cranes to Denver.
      5. Tow Iowa into the canal, then dam it behind her to prevent interference from ocean tides.
      6. Tow Iowa to Denver.
      7. Lift her to surface level and move her laterally to a final position nearby.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Are you accounting for the weight of the mile long cables of requisite tensile strength?

        I think there has to be some thought put into this parameter?

    • Nornagest says:

      NASA’s crawler-transporters have a lifting capacity of 8200 tons each. Build six of them and make them amphibious, then just haul Iowa along I-10 and up the east side of the Rockies like a surfboard being carried by turtles.


  20. Levantine says:

    Laying on grass, which I sometimes do outside of urban areas, I get a fairly strong impression that it is different from laying in bed or a laminated floor in a way that is important.

    What’s that way or what it might consists of, is beyond me.

    Maybe you have something to say about this… I just searched online for any kind of relevant study and came across only this and this.

    • Yakimi says:

      I think it has more to do with laying down in an environment in which grass can grow (i.e., exposed to fresh air and sunlight.)

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      The difference is ticks.

      • Well... says:

        Yeah, I was gonna say that lying in bed or on my living room (hardwood) floor there are never bugs crawling on me, whereas on grass there usually are — even if I’m just standing and not lying down, but certainly if I’m lying down.

        PS. I’m not super bothered by bugs crawling on me as long as they don’t sting, bite, or go into any orifices. But it’s definitely nicer not to have bugs crawling on me. Still, I lie down on grass occasionally and this is the main difference I can detect.

  21. JulieK says:

    What are your favorite jokes?

    “Knock, knock.”
    “Who’s there?”
    “The interrupting cow.”
    “The inter…”

    “Knock, knock.”
    “Who’s there?”
    “Control freak. Now you say, Control freak who?”

    How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Start with the interrupting cow one. Then your next one is:
      “Knock knock”
      “Who’s there?”
      Interrupting jellyfish”
      “Interrupting je…”
      [lunge at them and wave your fingers in their face]

      If you really want to push it:
      “Knock knock”
      “Who’s there?”
      “Patient jellyfish”
      “Patient jellyfish who?”
      [smile at them, wait as long as it takes for them to become uncomfortable, then lunge at them and wave your fingers in their face]

      • Aftagley says:

        Immidiately following the patient jellyfish (assuming they haven’t left yet)

        “knock knock”
        “who’s there?”
        “Improbably LARGE interrupting jellyfish!”
        “Improbably LARGE…”
        [Lunge at them, stick both arms out then go backwards waving your arms tentacularly”

      • MasteringTheClassics says:

        On with Interrupting jokes!

        “Knock knock”
        “Who’s there?”
        “Interrupting sloth”
        “Interrupting sloth who?”
        Part way through the final remark you hook a couple fingers out sloth-style and start reaching toward their face reeeeeeally slowly.

    • James says:

      What’s E.T. short for?
      Because he’s only got little legs.

    • HeirOfDivineThings says:

      P1: “I’ve got the best knock knock joke ever”
      P2: “Ok”
      P1: “You have to start it though”
      P2: “Alright. Knock knock”
      P1: “Who’s there?”

      • fion says:

        Omg I love this. Just told it to a coworker and was in hysterics for almost a minute.

        I’m not sure if she found it funny, though, of if she was just perplexed at me…

        • Wrong Species says:

          It’s supposed to be funny for the person telling the joke, not the one hearing it. The longer they are confused, the funnier it is.

      • Shion Arita says:

        This is one of my favorites. I really laughed a lot when it was first done to me. I’ve done it to a few other people before but often it kind of just fizzles and they don’t get it.

        To me it’s almost funnier how stark the distinction is between people who think it’s REALLY funny and people who don’t get it at all.

    • beleester says:

      A lady walks into a bar and says “I’ll have a double entendre.” So the bartender pours a beer and gives it to her.

      An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first one orders a beer. The second one orders half a beer. The third one orders a quarter of a beer, and so on, and so on. The bartender sighs, says “You guys really need to know your limits,” and pours two beers.

      • fion says:

        I’ve heard that mathematicians one before, but I do like it. Another I like is:

        Three mathematicians walk into a bar. The barman says “do you all want drinks?”. The first says “I don’t know”, the second says “I don’t know”, the third says “yes.”

        • beleester says:

          A man goes to a “mathematical comedy club,” where a group of mathematicians are telling jokes. To his surprise, they seem to be just calling out numbers. “32!” says one, and the rest fall over laughing. Another says “44!” and gets an even bigger laugh.

          The man is a bit confused by this, so he asks what’s going on. The mathematicians explain that they’ve been doing this for so long that everyone knows all the jokes and the punchlines, so for efficiency, they assigned a number to each joke instead.

          The mathematicians invite him to tell a joke. Hesitantly, he says “27?”

          Dead silence. Not even a snicker. One of the mathematicians shrugs and says, “You didn’t tell it right.”

          [pause for effect, then tell the follow-up joke]

          The man thinks a little more, and says “negative 14!”

          The mathematicians laugh uproariously. It’s the best joke they’ve heard all night! None of them had ever heard that one before.

      • Iain says:

        My favourite programming language jokes:

        Q: How many Prolog programmers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
        A: Yes.

        Who’s there?

    • dodrian says:

      Did you hear about the Magic Tractor?
      It was driving down the road when suddenly it turned into a field.

      Why did the toilet roll down the hill?
      To get to the bottom.

      And some one liners:
      My wife told me to stop impersonating a flamingo… I had to put my foot down.
      The first time I got a universal remote control I thought to myself “this changes everything!”
      I used to be a very solitary person, although I would let people borrow money. I was a real loaner.
      My roommates get mad when I steal kitchen utensils… but its a whisk I’m willing to take.
      I should have known my neighbor was a communist… there were a lot of red flags.

      • quaelegit says:

        I really like the one liners! I’ve heard most of them before but not the whisk one — it’s my new favorite 😛

      • beleester says:

        I used to work in a matchstick factory, but I got fired.
        I used to work in a jam factory, but I got canned.
        I used to work as a lumberjack, but I got axed.
        I used to work bagging groceries, but I got sacked.
        I used to work in a shoe store, but I got the boot.
        I used to work in East Asia, but I got disoriented.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      So there’s these two guys who are part of a tribe in Africa, and one day they come up with a great idea to steal the throne of the neighboring tribe’s king. So they sneak over in the middle of the night, snatch the throne, and stash it in the rafters above their grass hut. The next day they’re sitting in the hut laughing about their excellent prank when the heavy throne breaks through the ceiling and crushes them to death. I’ll tell ya, people who live in grass houses should not stow thrones.

      An Eskimo is paddling his kayak and shivering from the cold, so he gets a great idea to build a fire on the kayak. The thing catches fire and sinks, because you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.

      • quaelegit says:

        I really like both of these! Your second one I’d heard before but it reminded me of this one I recently saw on a linguistics blog:

        A: “So do I call you an Eskimo or Inuit?”

        B: “Yupik.”

        A: “Eskimo it is then.”

    • Tarpitz says:

      Have you heard about the giraffes in Amsterdam?

      They’re really high.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Did you know that Trader Joe’s was originally a restaurant and Trader Vic’s was originally a grocery store? They traded.

    • ArnoldNonymous says:

      Thee Bayesians walk into a bar.

      1. What is the chance that this is a joke?
      2. What is the chance that one of them is a Rabbi?
      3. Given that one of them is a Rabbi, what is the chance that this is a joke?

      • Eric Rall says:

        A soldier, a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, “What is this, some kind of logic puzzle?”

    • The Nybbler says:

      Q: How many mice does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

      A: Two. They fit inside.

    • rubberduck says:

      How do you keep a fool in suspense?

    • 10240 says:

      Some of my favorite jokes are ones which occasionally come up as an analogue in practical situations. E.g.:

      A patient is in the nuthouse because he thinks he is a mouse. But after some advanced treatment he seems to be cured: he tells the doctors he doesn’t think he’s a mouse anymore. So they let him out. But after a few minutes he runs back in terror.
      Nurse: What’s the problem?
      Patient: I saw a cat!
      Nurse: But you know you’re not a mouse!
      Patient: I know, sure. But does the cat know it?

    • woah77 says:

      I like an updated version of an old joke I heard some time ago:

      A powerful man summons the three most influential people in the world: President Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Bill Gates. He tells them he’s going to destroy the world

      Vladimir Putin goes back to Russia and tells his people “I have bad news and worse news: Bad news is there is a god, the worse news is he’s angry with us”

      President Trump goes back to the USA and tells his people “I have Good news and Bad news: Good news is there is a god, bad news is he’s angry with us”

      Bill Gates goes back to Microsoft and tells them “I have good news and better news: The good news is that I’m one of the three most influential people in the world, and the better news is that we don’t have to fix all the bugs in Windows 10”

      • massivefocusedinaction says:

        That reminds me of one of my favorites:

        One day a group is flying in a hot air balloon through Seattle, when a heavy fog quickly descends, they soon find themselves lost. At the point all hope seems lost, and fuel is getting low, they spot a window in a building, and they signal the occupants.

        Upon getting their attention they write a hasty message, “Where are we?”, to which the quick reply is, “in a hot air balloon!” from the building.

        At this point the pilot shocks the passengers by piloting the balloon to Boeing field and a safe landing. As they leave one of the passengers asks “how did you find your bearings from their answer?”.

        The pilot winks as he responds, “well they gave an answer that was correct but thoroughly useless so I knew it was Microsoft’s support center and from there the navigation was easy.”

        • SamChevre says:

          There’s an actuarial version of that joke:

          Two people are flying in a hot air balloon and realize they are lost. They see a man on the ground, so they navigate the balloon to where they can speak to him. They yell to him, “Can you help us – we’re lost.” The man on the ground replies, “You’re in a hot air balloon, about two hundred feet off the ground.” One of the people in the balloon replies to the man on the ground, “You must be an actuary. You gave us information that is accurate, but completely useless.” The actuary on the ground yells to the people in the balloon, “you must be in marketing.” They yell back, “yes, how did you know?” The actuary says, “well, you’re in the same situation you were in before you talked to me, but now it’s my fault.”

        • rlms says:

          My favourite version of that one:

          A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He spots a man down below and lowers the balloon to shout: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

          The man below says: “Yes. You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 42 degrees N. latitude, and between 58 and 60 degrees W. longitude.”

          “You must be an engineer” says the balloonist.

          “I am” replies the man. “How did you know.”

          “Well” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.”

          The man below says “You must be a manager.”

          “I am” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

          “Well”, says the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you are going. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problems. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault.”

        • This story has to be a helicopter, not a balloon, since balloons are not dirigible.

          And the written messages solve the problem of hearing someone over the copter’s noise.

          • ManyCookies says:

            Completely off-topic: I was at the library skimming for bedside reading, and I picked up Hidden Order because I recognized your name (!) and the subtitle+cover looked on the pop-y lighter side. And I’ve definitely enjoyed it so far… at 5PM because a Micro 101/201 supplement is not something I can get through at bedtime!

      • cassander says:

        the version I heard was that the leader of the soviet union, the US president, and the british PM are summoned by god. the president tells america, good news, we were right, there is a god, but bad news is the world is going to end. The soviet leader says “Bad news is we were wrong, there is a god. the good news is the world is going to end. the british PM says “fantastic news, there’s a god, and he thinks the british PM is one of the three most important people in the world!”

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          This is one of the things I always chuckled at in Dr. Who. The aliens are invading, and their dastardly plan to take over the world? Abduct the Prime Minister of Britain!

          • Matt M says:

            Almost as good as the Pinky and the Brain plot to disable Big Ben at exactly 4 pm, leaving the English stuck perpetually in tea time, thus allowing them to seize control of the government.

          • Evan Þ says:

            I don’t suppose they ever attempted to justify this by saying the aliens are going off hundred-year-old intelligence?

    • veeloxtrox says:

      “Knock, knock.”
      “Who’s there?”
      “I eat mop”
      “I eat mop who?”
      (best when said aloud)

      • HeelBearCub says:

        And people say priming doesn’t exist.

        It’s like the original bad jokes turned everyone into 8 year olds.

        (yes, yes, I know social priming is different than priming in general…)

        • veeloxtrox says:

          hey now, bad jokes are an art form. Like dad jokes, I love to tell dad jokes, he laughs almost every time.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Yes, but I really doubt everyone’s favorite jokes are actually bad ones…

            and I am a master of the improvisational dad joke. If you can tell a joke so bad that they have to stop to think about it, then it physically hurts them, and then they laugh against their better judgement, you have done your duty as a father.

    • SamChevre says:

      This is best aloud, slow, with long pauses.

      Well, one time it was this polar bear, and this lizard, sitting under a magnolia tree and looking at the leaves and taking a puff every now and then, and after they’d been setting a while, the lizard says to the polar bear, brother bear, I’m so thirsty. Man, I could drink a whole lakeful of water. I have got the cotton mouth like you wouldn’t believe. And the polar bear says, well, there’s a river right down the hill. Just go down and drink some water if you’re thirsty.

      So the lizard went down the hill, and over to the river, and drank some water, and sat there a bit looking at the ripples, and drank a little more water, and by and by he sees an alligator swimming along, so he up an says, Hey, brother gator, how’s it going. And the gator says, hey, brother lizard, what’s going on. And the lizard says, well, it’s just such a pretty day, adn I was setting under a magnolia tree with polar bear just smoking and relaxing, and I had such a cotton mouth, and. And the gator up and says, wait-a-minute, a Polar Bear? There’s a Polar Bear? I haven’t ever seen a polar bear. Is he around here?

      And the lizard says, well, I suppose so. I mean, he was up the hill under the magnolia tree just a few minutes ago. I reckon he’s still there. And the alligator says, I’ve got to see this. I haven’t ever seen a polar bear. So he goes up the hill, and looks, and yup, right there under a magnolia tree is a polar bear. And he just sets there and stares a minutes, and the bear looks over, and sort of looks back at the leaves, and then he looks over again, and he says, “How much of that water did you drink?”

    • Eric Rall says:

      Q: How many elephants can fit in a mini cooper?
      A: Four: two in the front and one in the back.

      Q: How many giraffes can fit in a mini?
      A: None: it’s full of elephants.

      Q: How do you get two whales in a mini?
      A: Take the M4 across the Severn Bridge.

      Q: How can you tell if there’s an elephant in your refrigerator?
      A: Footprints in the butter.

      Q: How can you tell if there’s two elephants in your refrigerator?
      A: You hear giggling when the light goes out.

      Q: How can you tell if there’s three elephants in your refrigerator?
      A: You can’t close the door.

      Q: How can you tell if there’s four elephants in your refrigerator.
      A: The mini is parked outside.

      • beleester says:

        Q: The lion, king of the beasts, has called a meeting of all the animals. Who doesn’t attend?
        A: The elephants – they’re in the refrigerator.

        Q: You have to cross a crocodile-infested river, but there is no bridge. How do you get across safely?
        A: Just swim across. The crocodiles are at the meeting.

    • BBA says:

      At a tavern, four old Jewish men are sitting around a table drinking vodka.
      The first says, “Oy.”
      The second says, “Oy vey.”
      The third says, “Oy gevalt.”
      The fourth gives his companions the stink-eye. “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to talk politics here!”

      • Brad says:

        A Jewish man gets shipwrecked and ends up on a deserted island. How many synagogues are there on the island?

        I don’t know, how many.

        Two: the one he attends and the one he wouldn’t set foot in if it was the last place on earth!

      • SamChevre says:

        Apparently, everyone has that joke. The version I know is:

        A Baptist/Mennonite is shipwrecked on a deserted island.

        A while later, a ship sees his signal fire, and sends a boat to pick him up. And he goes to get his stuff out of his hut. The boat person sees that there are three huts, and says, “So, what’s with the other huts.”

        Well, this is the one I live at, and this is the one I go to church at, and this is the one I USED to go to church at.

    • rahien.din says:

      Two apple pies are baking in the oven. One turns to the other and says “Man, it’s getting hot in here.” The other pie says “AAAAHHH A TALKING PIE!!”

      If two horses are paddling down the street in their canoe and one of the wheels fall off, how many flapjacks does it take to cover a doghouse? Five, cause ice cream ain’t got no bones.

      Why did Sally fall off the swing?
      She had no arms.
      Knock knock.
      (Who’s there?)
      Not Sally.

    • FLWAB says:

      I didn’t come up with these two, but they always make me laugh.

      A man walks into a bar one day with a beautiful woman at his side. He is smartly dressed in nice clothes, and he comes up to the bar and orders the most expensive drink they have. The one strange thing about him is that instead of a head he has a giant orange on his shoulders. The bartender gets him his drink and, curious, asks him how his head ended up that way. The man replies “A year ago I was walking on the beach when I found an old lamp. I polished it and a genie came out, and he said he’d give me three wishes. So for my first wish I wanted a billion dollars. Poof! I check my bank account and I’ve got a billion dollars in there. So for my second wish I ask for a smoking hot wife whose crazy about me. Poof! Next thing I know she’s standing next to me and we’ve got wedding bands on our fingers.” He stops to take a drink. “I think it was with my last wish that I made my mistake.”

      The bartender leans over. “What did you wish for?”

      “Well for my third wish, you see, I asked him to give me a giant orange for a head.”


      A local businessman was attending a funeral for an old friend of his. After the service, he approached his friends widow to offer his condolences. He asked if he could say a something to the crowd. She agreed, so he got up in front and said “Plethora.”

      She teared up and told him “Thank you, that means a lot.”

    • AlphaGamma says:

      A scientist is walking in Scotland when he meets a shepherd with a flock of sheep.

      “If I can guess first time exactly how many sheep you have, can I have one?”


      “You have exactly 243 sheep”

      “That’s amazing, how did you do that?”

      “I’m a scientist, I can do that kind of thing”

      “If I can tell you what kind of scientist you are, can I have it back?”

      “OK, sure”

      “You’re a theoretical biologist”

      “How did you know?”

      “Just give my dog back, OK?”

    • wobbler says:

      “Ugh! This coffee tastes like mud!”
      “It should do, it was ground this morning”

      And from Simon Evans, a middle-class British stand-up:
      “I love my son dearly. He’s like a dog to me.”

  22. cactus head says:

    I think the crowd here would like this game called HyperRogue. It’s a roguelike game set in the hyperbolic plane. Roguelike games are essentially pared-down versions of D&D or RPGs, where you collect treasure and kill enemies in a dungeon and don’t do much else. Being set in the hyperbolic plane has many fun and interesting consequences for the gameplay in both the long term and the short term—for example, if enemies chase you while you run in a straight line, they must trace your footsteps exactly, or else you will be able to escape them. Another consequence is that if you wander far away, it will be very difficult to get back to where you came from without a way of marking your trail. The game contains many lands that emphasise different features of hyperbolic geometry, such as the Land of Eternal Motion where every tile can only be walked on once, allowing you to escape enemies very easily as they can’t follow behind you, or lands like the Caribbean, the Temple of Cthulhu, or the Whirlpool, which use horocycles, infinitely long curves that don’t have an analogue in Euclidean geometry.

    • phi says:

      I’ll second this recommendation. I never got very far in the game, but it was fun to play for a little while, and it’s a great demonstration of hyperbolic space.

      EDIT: While we’re on the subject of computer games, here’s one I came across earlier today that I was very impressed with: It’s a puzzle game called Pushcat Jr. There’s not very many levels, but I found that for most of them, I had to invest a significant amount of mental effort to find a solution.

    • James says:

      Roguelikes are great and we haven’t had a thread on them in a while.

      I haven’t played HyperRogue but it seems like a fun gimmick. But it does sound rather more focused on exploring the implications of its hyperbolic setting than on being strategically interesting as a Roguelike? If so, that’s fine—in fact I’d say it’s right and proper—but it puts it slightly outside my sphere of interest.

      Thanks to suntzuanime (doubt he still reads the comments here) for getting me into Sil by correctly pointing out, many years ago, that it’s the best roguelike. (Brogue gets a close second, for me, and deserves a special shoutout for the beautiful, atmospheric dungeons it generates).

      • zenorogue says:

        Since noone answered, I will answer myself as the HyperRogue dev 🙂

        HyperRogue is focused on the implications of its hyperbolic setting INCLUDING tactics and long term strategy.

        Hyperbolic setting has very strong implications on tactics — for example, while in a usual roguelike you would go to a corridor to fight enemies one by one, in HyperRogue you can do this in the open space. The basic rules are very simple, because even very simple rules are tactically interesting in hyperbolic geometry. Very simple lands based on hyperbolic tactics, such as the Land of Eternal Motion or the Hunting Grounds, display huge differences in the player skill.

        Regarding long term strategy: the world is infinite, and you usually do not return to old places. This makes standard roguelike character development techniques not work (grinding would work of course, but I do not consider grinding to be strategically interesting). HyperRogue thus has to invent its own ways; the classic mode is rather low on long term strategy, but the Orb Strategy mode improves this aspect (without diminishing the tactics).

        • James says:

          Oh! Hi! That’s a nice surprise. Funny who pops up here…

          It does sounds like you’ve given more consideration to ‘fun’ than I initially—probably unfairly—assumed at first glance. Perhaps I’ll take a look some day! But I’m slow to get around to trying new roguelikes—I like to spend quite a long time getting to grips with them before I move onto a new one.

          But I have to admit that the presumably mindbending experience of playing on the hyperbolic plane appeals.

  23. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Here’s what I’m currently thinking about AI risk….

    I’m not terribly worried about something like a paper clipper. I’m dubious about such a strong drive being accidentally built into some trivial program. I’m also dubious about the OCD version, the AI which sucks up all the resources it can grab because it’s never quite sure it’s achieved its assigned task, so it keeps checking.

    It isn’t terribly likely that an AI can get itself out of the box on the first try. If it fails, there’s going to be a serious effort to shut it down, I hope.

    I’m much more concerned that some major organization will develop a self-improving program to increase its money and/or power– probably a government or a major corporation. That program won’t have to talk its way out of the box. It will be designed to act in the world.

    A program doesn’t have to FOOM to be dangerous. We’re only moderately smarter (by FOOM standards) than animals, and the larger and more interesting and generally most dangerous animals have to be protected from us.

    I bet a program with (to the extent such a measurement makes sense) an IQ of 200 or 300 is enough be a grave threat to the human race if it isn’t constrained from being a threat. A foom is plenty.

    I’ve seen some plausible arguments that the time needed to do experiments will constrain an AI. I wonder how much a sufficiently capable program could find in existing research that humans have missed.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      I was amused by how closely Ultron in the second Avengers film followed the “corporate or toy research AI goes FOOM” scenario, until he turned out to be highly emotional.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’m concerned with the ethical implications of the development process. The first AI to come out of the box is not going to be Mr. Data (or even Lore). It’s going to be some half-formed mentally retarded but still self-aware entity trapped in a box. What do you do when you want to recompile for version 0.2a? Do you just delete the old one? Is that murder?

    • albatross11 says:


      An AI guiding Goldman’s investment strategies starts out as a major power in the world–it doesn’t have to talk its way out of the box. And it doesn’t need to decide to turn us into paperclips to screw things up royally–say, by finding some clever investment strategy that will make Goldman insanely rich, but will eventually cause the global economy to collapse. Or by making a lot of money for Goldman in ways that get fed back into ever-more computing resources and ever more ability to reach out and touch the world, in some kind of spiral that ends up with Goldman’s AI basically running the planet. (And Goldman utterly dependent on the AI for continued existence–you can imagine a trading strategy that works sort-of like a modern fighter, where a merely human pilot couldn’t keep it in the air without extensive computer support.)

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      So, suppose you’re a programmer for a big organization. How do you tell whether a program they’re working on, possibly that you’re working on, is in danger of fooming? If you decide it is in danger of fooming, what do you do?

      Are there any conceivable laws or regulations which would make foom less likely?

      • albatross11 says:

        One obvious thing is that it should not be possible for the AI to give itself more computing resources. If an AI works using current computing technology, cloud services (which I think now include cloud FPGA resources, so you can make nice high-performance neural net implementations) allow it to use cash and internet connectivity to buy itself massive increases in computing technology. So if you get an AI whose capabilities scale up with computing resources, it can quickly go from human-equivalent (at 0.1% of Amazon’s computing power) to superhuman (at 50% of Amazon’s computing power).

        It would be easy for the hypothetical Goldman AI to fund this expansion with its increased profits, till eventually the AI was driving growth at all the big cloud providers itself. Interestingly, this might be a way for one AI to win the race to become smart, even without an explosive improvement in its intelligence–the first successful AI ends up grabbing up most of the available cloud computing resources, and outbidding budding new AIs for resources from then on. The AI doesn’t turn us all into paperclips, but it does turn increasing amounts of the human world into computing devices those use can be sold to the AI at a profit.

        • Lambert says:

          I suspect early human-level AIs will be especially dependent on resources, being algorithms of brute force and ignorance (compared to humans).

    • The Element of Surprise says:

      I believe the point of the (U)FAI research, and why people worry about “accidental” UFAI, is that it is in a way a harder problem to find a solution for. Assuming that AI technology would be bad in the wrong hands (but trivially good in the right hands) reduces the problem to a harder version of Non-Proliferation.

    • toastengineer says:

      I’m not terribly worried about something like a paper clipper. I’m dubious about such a strong drive being accidentally built into some trivial program.

      Similar things already happen in real-world AI systems all the time, though. “The AI found a way to cheat your utility function and is doing something stupid” is a problem people working with current AI technologies have to deal with quite regularly. Give the AI the ability to take actions in the real world and “stupid” can quickly be replaced with “dangerous.” Top-of-Google example

    • Iain says:

      Before you can let an AI out of the box, you have to have an AI that understands the concept of a box and wants out. It’s unclear to me how we’re expected to get to that point accidentally.

      There’s a lot of impressive AI research being done right now, but it’s all pretty much foom-proof. Why? Because none of it (that I can think of — open to counter-examples here) models the AI itself as a thing that can be qualitatively improved.

      No matter how smart my chess engine gets, it’s never going to try to take over the world. Chess engines produce chess moves as output, and “take over the world” is not a valid move in chess. Similarly, an image classifier isn’t going to start plotting an escape. Our AIs are basically just highly optimized functions: they take some high-dimension input, and they produce a (hopefully useful) output.

      An AI won’t seek to increase its own computing power unless “its own computing power” is a manipulable concept in its universe. A chess engine might adjust its search depth based on the processing power available to it, but “ask for more processing power” is not an option available, and there’s no reason that a programmer would ever put it in.

      If anything, the reverse is more likely. If you build an AI that can, say, request more AWS instances to handle a spike in workload, then the amount of processing power used will be a negative term in the evaluation function — you’ll encourage the AI to use as few resources as possible, and train it to only use additional processing power when it would otherwise do unacceptably poorly on its task. Computation is a cost, not an accomplishment. Goldman’s AI might try to take over the world, but it will be strongly encouraged not to hand all of Goldman’s money to Amazon in the process.

      More generally: unless you are specifically researching self-improving AI, there’s no reason that your AI should include the concept of self-modification, and I don’t see how (or why) an AI could plausibly bootstrap itself into unconstrained self-modification from scratch.

      This isn’t a fully universal argument. It doesn’t, for example, cover emulated human consciousness, which would definitely have a motive to go foom. But it covers, as far as I can see, everything we’re currently doing. (Maybe there’s something involving botnets? But those aren’t exactly using cutting-edge AI.)

      I think the AI risk people have identified a real concern, but underestimate how far you can go on “okay, so let’s not do that”.

      • AG says:

        Something as apparently benign as a list-sorting algorithm could also solve problems in rather innocently sinister ways.

        Well, it’s not unsorted: For example, there was an algorithm that was supposed to sort a list of numbers. Instead, it learned to delete the list, so that it was no longer technically unsorted.

        Solving the Kobayashi Maru test: Another algorithm was supposed to minimize the difference between its own answers and the correct answers. It found where the answers were stored and deleted them, so it would get a perfect score.

        You’d think that these algorithms would not have “navigate the OS and perform meta-level operations like file deletion” concepts in its universe, but there it is.

  24. ledicious says:

    I noticed that the About page says that SSC is licensed under CC-BY. I don’t think this is a good idea—it allows people to put your name on derivative works which you might not endorse. So, for example, someone could share an abridged version of one of your political essays, purged of all caveats and qualifications. This is why Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation use licenses permitting verbatim redistribution only (e.g. CC-BY-ND) for their opinion writing.

    • 10240 says:

      A not-unnecessarily-restrictive defense against such a thing would be a license which requires that derivative works state that they are modified.

      Even such a license, or a no-derivatives license, can’t prevent someone from making up stuff on his own, and claiming that Scott wrote it. It’s quite possible that that would be libel, though (IANAL). Someone posting an abridged version (but without the qualifications) probably wouldn’t be libel; but then again, neither would it be if someone posts a summary of Scott’s article in his own words (but without the qualifications), and a no-derivs license can’t prevent that. Likewise, copying small excerpts out of context would be “fair use” from a copyright perspective (even if it’s actually pretty unfair).

  25. albertborrow says:

    I wrote a post over on /r/rational on why the category of “Mary Sue” isn’t an adequate form of criticism, and I figured it might be tangentially interesting to the people here. Whether or not you read it, it’d be interesting to see your opinions on the trope.

    TL;DR: The category of Mary Sue has a lot of overlapping traits with typical protagonists, the dividing line between a Mary Sue and a typical protagonist is how much your suspension of disbelief was broken by the execution of those traits, making it easy to classify any work you dislike as having a Mary Sue. This is bad because the category of Mary Sue contains a lot of hidden assumptions about the entirety of the work, so if you say a character is a Mary Sue based on only a few failures, you are drastically misrepresenting the degree to which the author failed.

    EDIT: Whoa first post! I thought someone else was busy typing up something the whole time I was writing this. Do these threads go up at exactly midnight EST or something?

    • CatCube says:

      Normally, the threads go up Sunday and Wednesday mornings, but they’re occasionally late.

      I don’t know that I agree with “Mary Sue” not being a valid category. At its base, it’s a creature of fanfiction (which is why you don’t see it levelled against the protagonist of normal fiction–then it’s just a bad story that attracts few readers). The archetypal Mary Sue is the author making their self-insert the center of the fictional world as wish-fulfilment. Normally, you see the Mary Sue getting into a relationship with one of the main characters, and if they have to throw existing relationships over the side or deform the character’s personality to make that relationship happen, then so it goes. It’s fanfic Onanism. Jerking off is fun for the person doing it, but it’s rarely interesting to bystanders.

      The reason the Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) is so hated is because that’s usually really boring to everybody who’s not the author. All the readers are there to see further adventures of characters and settings they already like. If you give me a central character who’s only compelling to the author, and all the rest of the characters are unrecognizable, the story is just a waste of my time as a reader.

      One area where a Mary-Sue-type might be compelling is something like the “Twilight” series, where the protagonist is so general that it allows most readers to see it as a wish-fulfillment character for themselves.

      • bean says:

        which is why you don’t see it levelled against the protagonist of normal fiction–then it’s just a bad story that attracts few readers

        Any discussion of the Honorverse will have the words “Mary Sue” within the first 10 posts, pretty much guaranteed. I actually agree that it should be reserved for fanfic use, but it gets used for non-fanfic characters too.

        • disposablecat says:

          I’ve actually been meaning to finally read that. Is it worth the time regardless, in your opinion as a naval combat expert?

          • bean says:

            Overall, I’m a fan. The first 8 or so books are very good, although quality gets rather variable after that. Some of the later ones are very good, some are not. And frankly over the last 10 years, they’ve suffered badly from bloat and half the book being a retelling of stuff that happened in a different book in one of the other plotlines.

            But don’t let that turn you off from trying On Basilisk Station. I’d start there and if you like it, keep reading until you stop enjoying the series.

          • James C says:

            Definitely give the series a shot. For all the flack Webber gets, the first half dozen books or so are very strong and the power creep doesn’t really set in until the later half of the series.

            He’s also very good at writing villains. I actually take a perverse joy in reading these interesting, morally ambiguous villains trying to deal with the heroic juggernaut heading their way. That’s mostly what gets me through the later novels when the heroes start getting sue’ish.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            I really enjoy Weber’s Space Battles! more than any other author’s I’ve read. I generally agree entirely with bean’s comment above – the first 8 are good (I’d extend it to the first 11 – I really do enjoy At All Costs), then the series starts to spiral off into bloat. 11 gets you through the mainline, though.

            Note, though, that this criticism of Weber’s style is spot on.

          • bean says:

            At All Costs is one of my favorite of the series, but I think both 9 and 10 are pretty mediocre. That said, it would make a lot of sense to use the originally planned ending to that book, with Honor in Kuzak’s place, and stop there.

          • Eric Rall says:

            I’m a big fan of them, and I’m actually in the middle of re-reading the series right now (about 3/4 of the way through At All Costs).

            I find the combat and the world-building very interesting, and Weber is also skilled at writing intrigue. And I agree with James that he’s produced some strong, believable villains in the series (particularly Pierre and St Just, but there are a number of others).

            His weaknesses as a writer, IMO, are the character development of the core protagonists (despite him being very good at developing villains like Pierre, sympathetic antagonists like Theisman and Prichart, and the large cast of supporting protagonists), his overly-simplistic take on popular politics (Weber seems to mentally model “public opinion” too monolithicly for my tastes, and domestic political antogonists tend to be two-dimensional caricatures, especially early in the series). And somewhere around book 9 or 10, he leveled up and took the “protection from editors” feat: he’s always had a tendency towards the verbose, but he reins it in much less than he used to, so playful banter that should take maybe half a page runs into a full chapter of not much actually happening, and a couple page of world-building “showing your work” turns into a twenty-page digression. I have a higher tolerance for this than many: if it’s a deal-breaker for you, I recommend sticking to his early works and his collaborations with other authors.

            Popular politics is one of the things that has gotten better in the later books. Probably because of the short stories written by other authors and the “Crown of Slaves” subseries co-authored with Eric Flint: Flint and several of the other authors have very different politics from Weber (Weber’s something like a Goldwater Republican, while Flint’s strike me as an old-school blue-collar labor Democrat). Flint and the others have fleshed out more believable and sympathetic figures within the other political parties in the universe, and Weber has picked up the improved characterizations in the core series.

            Tangentially, Weber had similar contributions as a co-author in Flint’s 1632 series: the domestic political antagonist in the first novel, written solo by Flint, came off as a two-dimensional caricature in that book. The sequel was co-authored with Weber, and the character was retconned into a decent person who was wrong for understandable reasons.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yep. And then have the Grayson lieutenant who’s nth in line for a Steading to take over as the protagonist of the new series, assuming he has enough new ideas to write it.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yes, I really like what Flint did with that character–he went from cardboard badguy to competent and interesting character contributing to the society in accordance with his considerable talents.

            I’m not quite sure I buy Mike’s “find a natural leader among a bunch of coal miners and he just happens to be a political player and leader of a movement at the level of a Lincoln, and also a first-rate general” bit, but the series is still fun to read.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Yep. And then have the Grayson lieutenant who’s nth in line for a Steading to take over as the protagonist of the new series, assuming he has enough new ideas to write it.

            The way I heard it, the plan was for there to be a time skip between Operation Beatrice and Oyster Bay, long enough for Honor’s son to be about as far in his naval career as Honor had been in On Basilisk Station, and that the series would pick up again after Oyster Bay with him as the main protagonist. IIRC, Weber scrapped the plan because he’d miscalibrated the pace of the Crown of Slaves and Saganami Island serieses so the dominos were lining up for Manticore and the League to come to blows too soon to allow a time skip of that magnitude.

          • quaelegit says:

            I’m not sure if Mike qualifies as a “Mary Sue”, but he is definitely pushing the plausible limits of competence. The man succeeds spectacularly at everything he tries. (Spoilers I guess…)

            Simpson’s shallowness in the first book was partly due to the fact that he dropped out of the narrative once that subplot was resolved so there was no need/opportunity to show him as anything other than a bit villain. But I agree he became much more interesting a character later. Same with a bunch of characters (say, Veronica) — one of the benefits of having many collaborators and an open universe!

          • The Nybbler says:

            Weber’s affinity for hereditary heroism is definitely a flaw. Honor has any number of proteges, just get her out of the picture (dead or kicked upstairs, either one works. Better yet she can set up some sort thing with treecats and we can never hear about either again) and concentrate on them. No need to wait for a child.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Honor has any number of proteges, just get her out of the picture (dead or kicked upstairs, either one works)

            Good point. Alice Truman would probably be the best-positioned to take over Honor’s role in Rising Thunder, and she’s a plenty interesting character in her own right. And past that, I’d read the shit out of a continuing series centered on Tremaine and Harkness.

          • SamChevre says:

            I think Mike has only one real ability, and it is one of the real superpowers.

            He picks good advisors, and listens to what they tell him.

          • bean says:

            Yes, I really like what Flint did with that character–he went from cardboard badguy to competent and interesting character contributing to the society in accordance with his considerable talents.

            I’m pretty sure that was Weber. Flint was a union organizer before he became an author. But the salvaging of the character was one of the things I like most about that series, and it’s a credit to Flint that he went along with it.

            And past that, I’d read the shit out of a continuing series centered on Tremaine and Harkness.

            We must have this. All in favor of kidnapping David Weber and making him write it?

            Also, I should point out that On Basilisk Station is available for free here thanks to Baen’s remarkably sane ebook policies. An online (legal) copy of the CD from Mission of Honor is here.

            Wow, has it been that long since they stopped doing those? I remember first reading them from the At All Costs CD. I feel old.

          • albatross11 says:

            +1 on the Tremaine/Harkness series. Actually, Tremaine is absolutely one of Honor’s protoges, and we’ve watched him from wet-behind-the-ears ensign to (I think) commodore in the last couple books.

        • ana53294 says:

          Given that Weber was originally planning to kill Honor, I think part of her Mary Sue-ness is due to fans convincing him not to kill her.

          Arthur Conan Doyle also wanted to kill Sherlock, but was convinced not to. How much did that contribute to the superhumanness of Sherlock Holmes?

          • albatross11 says:

            Honor actually started out as highly competent but with enough flaws and personal weaknesses that she seemed like a real person. Over time, she became more and more perfect, but in the first few books, she had enough flaws (self-doubt, fear of intimacy, temper) that she felt like a real person.

            But I still enjoyed the Honor books. The Shadow of … books started out pretty good, but Weber wrote himself into a boring corner–the Alliance’s military technology so outclasses their current opponent that every battle is like watching Superman foil a 7-11 robbery.

            Shadow of Victory was also, as far as I could tell, stitched together from (correctly) cut-out parts of the previous two books, and was mostly resistance movements on a half dozen worlds. I found myself utterly uninterested.

            Along with the good guys being too powerful, I think Weber has kind-of run out of ideas/gotten bored with the Honor Harrington timeline. He should probably let the series die unless he has some idea to actually come up with some actual challenge for his good guys.

            Now, intuitively, the SL should be able to provide this. If Haven could get within spitting distance of Manty technology on the strength of hoarded spare parts and Shannon Foraker’s genius, then the SL should be able to start cranking out some toys that seriously challenge the RMN given a little time. One fine day, the RMN should run into something utterly unfamiliar and deadly that they had no idea was coming. (Wormhole collapser? Stealth so good Manty RDs can’t see you even from 1 km away? Old-style SDs with some kind of much better shield technology that makes them really hard to kill?)

            Or have the SL split into multiple powers, and some of them have seriously advanced hoarded technology that they’ve been developing for a long time planning for this day. Maybe have the Andies do some conquest of SL worlds for their own purposes, or become allies with one of the SL factions and start equipping them with MDMs/Ghost Rider/Apollo and modern LACs. Even just have a couple defectors from Haven’s navy (who fled when it looked like Haven was about to get curb-stomped by the RMN) show up at Technodyne HQ with a few TB of design files.

            [1] He’s also writing a series set in Manticore’s past, which is pretty good–he hasn’t run out of ideas/written himself into a corner yet.

          • ana53294 says:

            The Honor Harrington timeline is finished with the last book, Uncompromising Honor. He may have dragged it a bit too long, but I enjoyed most of the books.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            One thing I really enjoyed that he did in earlier books was that, yeah, the Manties could be credibly threatened, and they suffered consequences. I mean, sure, it was never Honor’s fault, but always some political jackass like High Ridge, but still, Manticore could be and was often beaten. The back and forth arms race through Echoes of Honor, Ashes of Victory, War of Honor, and At All Costs is probably my favorite bit of the series.

            I’d really like to see that with the Solarian league, instead of 3 straight books of idiotic Solly admirals leading massive fleets in to be effortlessly massacred by millions of Manticoran missiles.

          • bean says:

            I’d really like to see that with the Solarian league, instead of 3 straight books of idiotic Solly admirals leading massive fleets in to be effortlessly massacred by millions of Manticoran missiles.

            You forget that that was only two battles. (Yes, people who haven’t read the recent ones, David Weber is indeed capable of spreading two battles over three books.)

            But seriously, I can sort of see how that could happen. They’ve always been on top, and the order of things has been totally upended in a few years. But the later books have been weaker, and the best recent ones have been the prequels with Zahn.

          • disposablecat says:

            Prequels with Zahn

            Okay, you guys were doing a pretty good job selling me already, but that’s it, I’m sold.

            Speaking of, to anyone who has not read Zahn’s Conquerors’ trilogy, you should definitely go do that.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Justification 1: The Sollies are slow learners

            Justification 2: Weber is paid by the missile book.

          • albatross11 says:

            Two big battles, and a bunch of smaller skirmishes.

            War with the Sollies worked a hell of a lot better as a fear hanging over everyone’s head than as a reality where they turn out to be a paper tiger.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            Hey, someone else who’s read the Conquerors! I picked those up when I was a teen based on the strength of his Thrawn trilogy, and I loved ’em.

          • disposablecat says:

            Same reason I read them – and yeah, they really show off Zahn’s particular talent of coming up with alien species that are highly unusual/original but also coherent and believable. Which, incidentally, is one of the things that made his Star Wars work so good, and one of the things other Star Wars authors often fail to live up to.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Justification 1: The Sollies are slow learners

            Helped along quite a bit by the Mesan Alignment. Seldom has Conquest’s Third law applied more literally:

            The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

          • bean says:

            I’m not sure I’d say the Conqueror Trilogy was Zahn’s absolute best work, but it was a really good example of thinking through aliens. Even if the spacecraft technology was silly. But yes, I’m a massive fan of his, starting from his Star Wars stuff.

            Re Honorverse, don’t read the prequels first. Read at least the first few books of the main series before you pick them up.

          • engleberg says:

            @Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to kill Sherlock Holmes, but was convinced not to. How much did that contribute to the superhumanness of Sherlock Holmes?-

            Enormously. In the first stories before Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock is a talented bohemian who amuses Watson as much as he impresses. Finally he dies a hero’s death and Watson eulogizes his friend as the wisest and best man he ever knew, but when they first met Watson thought he was a nut who read too much true crime crap. A talented nut, sure.

            After Sherlock returns from the dead he’s gone full ubermensch: master of martial arts, explorer who checks out every forbidden city around, master chemical researcher- in short a comic book hero.

            Dunno if your question was rhetorical.

          • ana53294 says:

            Yes, Sherlock Holmes became too powerful when he wasn’t allowed to die.

            I think the same thing happened with Honor Harrington. I think Weber intented to kill her at some point, which would have made her less superhuman. After that, she just kept piling on capabilities.

          • baconbits9 says:

            IIRC Sherlock is brought back to solve Doyle’s money issues, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was lazier with the character he was forced to write than the one he invented.

        • Eric Rall says:

          The three main reasons why (despite being a fan of the series in particular and Weber in general) I agree with the description of Honor as a Mary Sue:

          1. She’s awesome at way too many random things. I’ll give her a pass for being arguably the best tactician and military leader of her era: somebody has to be, and it makes sense to center the series on her.But it’s a little startling to find she’s also a world-championship level martial artist, the fastest gun in space, a better swordfighter (on the strength of a few months training in her copious spare time) than the #2 ranked fencing champion of a planet of billions of people, and she’s as beautiful as the day is long, and her psychic link with Nimitz is stronger than any other human’s psychic link with a treecat has ever been. I’d buy her being very good in several things, but “best in the world” level talent in multiple unrelated things strains my suspension of disbelief. It’s forgivable in a comic-book-like world, but apart from Honor, the rest of the world is presented as gritty and realistic.

          2. Her big weakness (crippling personal insecurity) is presented in a way that clashes with her demonstrated strengths (decisiveness, moral courage, etc), and seems to serve mostly as an excuse for other characters to lecture her about how awesome she is. I’m pretty sure this is intended as an homage to Horatio Hornblower (who had a strong, decisive facade he deliberately built up to hide his internal insecurities from the world), but Forester pulled it off much better in the original than Weber did.

          3. Other characters’ moral goodness seems to be directly related to their opinions of Honor more than any other factor: every sympathetic character with an expressed opinion is somewhere between “grudging respect” and “worshipful adoration” towards her, and just about every unsympathetic character seems to hate her. There’s even one character who has a heel-face turn that centers on his realization that he was wrong about her all along.

      • Brad says:

        I know Mary Sue implies more than just omnicompetance, but omnicompetance is a) generally detrimental and b) not uncommon in published work, particularly in certain genres.

      • Jiro says:

        (which is why you don’t see it levelled against the protagonist of normal fiction–then it’s just a bad story that attracts few readers).

        Plenty of normal fiction characters are referred to as canon sues. Wesley Crusher is often considered one, even though he’s a canon character.

        It’s generally harder for a canon character than a fanfiction character to be considered one, though, especially a main character, because some traits of Sues don’t apply. For instance, you can’t upstage the canon protagonist if you are the canon protagonist, and the common Sue trait of “I am another of something of which the canon protagonist is unique” doesn’t apply if you are the canon protagonist.

        • Matt M says:

          Rey from the new Star Wars movies is pretty regularly accused of being a Mary Sue, despite being the protagonist.

          • The Nybbler says:

            She’s not written by the original author, though. She comes into the world, everyone loves her, she’s skilled at all sorts of things despite there being any reason for it in-universe. She’s better than Han Solo at running the Millennium Falcon, learns the Force in two scenes and blows off the Dark Side in another. Accusing Rey of being a Mary Sue is basically claiming the new writing team are a bunch of lousy fan-fiction authors.

            I don’t think she’s actually a Mary Sue — for one thing, the writers make too big a point of her being this skilled despite being nobody. One claim I’ve seen going around is the new trilogy is a deliberate deconstruction and subversion, in which case I would kindly request Disney to find something else to piss on.

          • Matt M says:

            Accusing Rey of being a Mary Sue is basically claiming the new writing team are a bunch of lousy fan-fiction authors.

            yes…. and?

          • The Nybbler says:

            …and I’m not even sure they’re fans.

          • albatross11 says:

            From the prequels, Jedi training was supposed to take like a decade of intense study and apprenticeship. But Luke picked it up in like two lessons from Obi Wan plus maybe a month or so with Yoda, and he beat Darth Vader (probably about the third-toughest of the old Jedi) in a lightsaber battle.

            Then Rey beat Kylo with no lessons, despite Kylo studying with both Luke and Snoke. But then Rey got a couple lessons from Luke, and then she seemed more evenly matched with Kylo.

            The trend here is pretty clear–the more training you get, the weaker you become. If Rey had spent even less time studying with Luke, she’d be even more powerful.

          • Nornagest says:

            I got the impression that Luke had spent some more time than that hanging out with Yoda? He spends a few weeks in the swamp in Empire Strikes Back, but then when he goes to Cloud City at the end of the movie he’s pretty clearly outmatched and gets his ass kicked. Then the next time we see him, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, he’s carrying a new lightsaber and doing stuff we’d never seen him doing before.

            The characters don’t look much older, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that Leia and Chewie if not necessarily Lando wouldn’t have fucked off for years before bothering to rescue Han, so there can’t have been a huge timeskip. But just as clearly there was stuff going on between movies. And at that point there are only two surviving Jedi and one of them is Darth Vader, so who else could he have learned from?

          • Matt M says:

            The trend here is pretty clear–the more training you get, the weaker you become.

            Hah, I love this contrarian analysis.

            The SW universe needs a rationalist blogger in his basement somewhere pointing out that the Jedi order was doing it wrong for centuries!

            … or perhaps the Jedi always knew this, and the intense training was done to intentionally depower promising candidates thus preventing them from becoming powerful enough to single-handedly rule the universe?

          • Randy M says:

            The trend here is pretty clear–the more training you get, the weaker you become.

            This… kind of fits with the thematic elements of the force. Recall Luke turning off, not only his targeting computer, but (iirc) shutting his eyes to hit the Death Star exhaust port. No one can train to you listen to your feelings; their advice only gets in your way.

            …and I’m not even sure they’re fans.

            I lol’ed. Is critic-fiction or hater-fiction a thing?

          • John Schilling says:

            I lol’ed. Is critic-fiction or hater-fiction a thing?

            Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” series started as a series of homages to classic spy fiction subgenres, e.g. “what if I put a bunch of Len Deighton’s bureaucrat-spies up against the eldritch cosmic horrors of Lovecraft?”

            When it came time for him to do James Bond v. the Deep Ones, in “The Jennifer Morgue”, Stross admitted to being less than enamored of Fleming’s style. The result is very much an Ian Fleming hatefic, and not one of the stronger works of the series.

    • dpm96c says:

      I think Mary Sue is a meaningful category in fanfiction because it involves the warping of an existing structure, and (more importantly) because it involves a bunch of hazards specific to writing fanfiction, as opposed to original fiction. I think it’s been bad for The Discourse that it’s been more broadly defined as an issue in all fiction—i.e. an original work can be said to have a “Mary Sue” protagonist, etc.

      Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Victorian authors—specifically Dickens and Trollope. Their heroes (and especially their heroines) are often-but-not-always just about perfect as far as the virtues held by the author are concerned. (If anything, especially with Trollope, the heroines are sometimes specifically more virtuous than the author imagines is possible for most people—it’s easy, sometimes, to see that while Trollope thinks his heroines are right, that does not mean they’re his favorite.) I think that’s fine! And I definitely don’t think it makes a lot of sense to cut it up to fit a bunch of TV Tropes ideas built for totally different methods of storytelling.

      Mary-Sue-ism is a kind of colonizing force (I mean this with no culture-war baggage implied)—all fiction must be read and understood by the rules of (in this case) fanfiction, and by extension contemporary pop culture. These forces are all over the place and it is beneficial for readers and works of art, I think, to resist them; another one, a little less common now, is implicitly reading all fiction according to the prescriptions of the modernists, or the modernists as understood by Gordon Lish and the 70s/80s minimalists. (I went to grad school for creative writing a few years ago, when this was just wearing off.)

      While it is certainly reasonable to believe one way of writing fiction is right, or just your favorite, it simply is not very profitable or productive to sit yourself down in front of a 700-page Trollope novel and stew about how there are too many characters, and the plot is driven by coincidence, and the author keeps inserting his own opinion into the story and telling instead of showing. You’re right! That’s how they wrote ’em back then. I don’t like classical music because it doesn’t have electric guitar solos, but that doesn’t mean that classical music without guitar solos is bad in the same way rock music without electric guitar solos is bad. Try to figure out why a bunch of brilliant authors were doing this, or just read the stuff you want to read; either one is fine, and both are vastly preferable to reading what is effectively a different genre through a lens that will make nonsense of it.

      (I guess what I’m saying is that I basically agree with you, by way of this long detour.)

      • Evan Þ says:

        But then, how do Dickens’ or Trollope’s secondary characters react to the protagonist? Do the characters portrayed positively love the protagonist implausibly; do the villains implausibly hate him? Or does the world react to the protagonist on its own terms rather than falling into place around him as protagonist?

        If it takes the second choice just falls into place around him – than I’m content with calling those protagonists Mary Sues.

        • JulieK says:

          Did you mean the first choice?

        • Deiseach says:

          Do the characters portrayed positively love the protagonist implausibly

          Esther Summerson. Made me want to slap her silly when I read it. Classic Mary Sue in that she constantly self-deprecates (while eveyrone around her wuvs her to bits) yet she manages to come out on top after all, despite being illegitimate, an orphan, and contracting small pox (due to a Heroic Act of Self-Sacrificing Virtue). The fact that, as the self-centred but sensible character Skimpole points out, this Heroic Act exposes the rest of the house to the risk of contracting small pox does not deter her in the slightest.

          Here’s the ending of the book and a fine sample of the Mary Sue dialogue (Esther has the usual small pox scarring, but insists on making herself out to be uglier than she is, and of course the other character must insist that she is in fact prettier than ever, and of course Mary Sue cannot outwardly accept this as true):

          “What have you been thinking about, my dear?” said Allan then.

          “How curious you are!” said I. “I am almost ashamed to tell you, but I will. I have been thinking about my old looks — such as they were.”

          “And what have you been thinking about THEM, my busy bee?” said Allan.

          “I have been thinking that I thought it was impossible that you COULD have loved me any better, even if I had retained them.”

          “‘Such as they were’?” said Allan, laughing.

          “Such as they were, of course.”

          “My dear Dame Durden,” said Allan, drawing my arm through his, “do you ever look in the glass?”

          “You know I do; you see me do it.”

          “And don’t you know that you are prettier than you ever were?”

          “I did not know that; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen, and that they can very well do without much beauty in me — even supposing —.”

      • JulieK says:

        That’s how they wrote ’em back then.

        Maybe we can say that Mary Sue fanfiction is likewise something that a lot of people like to write and read, and if you don’t like it, go read something else?

        • dpm96c says:

          Sure! I guess I’m conflating the value judgment and the classification here—re: Mary Sue specifically, I think it describes a real phenomenon in fanfiction but is not only less meaningful but actively un-meaningful when it’s brought to bear on original fiction.

          Likewise, I think it makes perfect sense to use minimalist ideas to understand and describe the work of Raymond Carver, but using them to understand and describe the work of a Victorian writing three-volume novels obscures much more than it clarifies.

          In general I think our categories might just be too broad for our own good. I remember watching a videogame award show once where two of the nominees for a category were a highly story-driven RPG and Rocket League (which were, in fact, two of my favorite games that year). I like reading both high modernist, internal-consistency-at-all-costs novels and Victorian triple-deckers where a character appears in one chapter, has no bearing on the plot, and then vanishes, but I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained by using the same critical vocabulary for both.

          • mdet says:

            I wasn’t aware that the Mary Sue criticism originated with fanfics. I’ve always used it to just criticize characters whose stories wound up boring because they had no flaws or weaknesses to overcome, or never experienced failure. Why does this have to be a fanfic specific criticism?

            Edit: Discussed downthread

          • Deiseach says:

            Why does this have to be a fanfic specific criticism?

            Like so much else, it originated in Star Trek fandom (according to Wikipedia at least):

            The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale” published in her fanzine Menagerie #2. The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction. By 1976 Menagerie’s editors stated that they disliked such characters, saying:

            Mary Sue stories — the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

        • Eric Rall says:

          I’d say it needs to be understood relative to genre conventions. The type of story sets certain expectations for the reader about what kinds of unrealism is likely to be found therein. For example, giant eagles showing up and rescuing Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom is fine and expected in a high fantasy novel, but it would be a “Dude WTF” moment if the same giant eagles showed up and broke Andy and Red out of Shawshank State Penitentiary.

        • beleester says:

          I’d say that it’s generally a problem but not a deal-breaker.

          My go-to example would be Sword Art Online. Kirito is definitely a gamer’s wish-fulfillment character – incredibly good at swordfighting, wields two swords and has a secret skill nobody else can use, attracts women like flies to honey, wears a cool black trenchcoat, and thinks he’s a badass, edgy loner while actually being a pretty nice guy. I don’t blame people for dropping the show because of him, especially with that cringy “beater” speech near the start.

          But the show was incredibly successful, and I can’t even say that it was because the masses have bad taste, because I enjoyed it too. Kirito and Asuna’s relationship worked. The scenery and action was gorgeous. And with the exception of the ALO arc, the writing improved steadily over time, introducing some interesting characters and some women who could do more than be part of Kirito’s harem.

          Mary Sue/Gary Stu is a symptom of bad writing, but it’s not a terminal disease.

          • BBA says:

            I see “Mary Sue” outside of fanfiction used mostly as a snarl word aimed at Strong Female Protagonists. It’s a gendered term and [CULTURE WAR SNIPPED]

            But I’m not going to dismiss it as invalid, or inherently anti-woman, because good lord is Kirito ever a gigantic Gary Stu.

            (I bailed two or three episodes into ALO myself. Trap Asuna literally in a cage, and instead team Kirito up with his adopted sister who’s in love with him – NOPE. I’m glad to hear it eventually becomes less embarrassing.)

          • Evan Þ says:

            @BBA, what contexts are you seeing it in? I’ve seen it (or the analogous term “Gary Stu”) used a whole lot of guys. Cf. Rudi from Dies the Fire, or the upthread discussion about Mike Sterns from 1632, which I’ve seen many places across the web.

          • mdet says:

            Accusations of Mary-Sue-ness are occasionally used in culture war contexts, juxtaposed with incompetent or evil male characters in the same story, to make a point about the way entertainment media handles gender these days.

            But that’s definitely not the original usage, and I agree with BBA that it doesn’t necessarily need to be a gendered criticism.

            (I dropped SAO after the first story arc mostly because of Kirito’s bland omnicompetence)

          • Jiro says:

            I see “Mary Sue” outside of fanfiction used mostly as a snarl word aimed at Strong Female Protagonists

            You are saying that in reply to a post which calls a male character one.

            Also, there’s a tendency to write Strong Female Characters as overcompetent and unable to do wrong.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            … tendency to write Strong Female Characters as overcompetent …

            I wish that some Marvel Cinematic Universe movie would have a scene where Natasha Romanoff has to throw down hand to hand against a unenhanced human male who is as well trained as her, without the screenwriters and showrunner putting their thumbs on the scale.

            Her superpower is substantially the same as Batman’s: “writers and fans are on her side”, and it’s getting thin and boring.

          • BBA says:

            From now on I’ll try to make my entire point in one sentence so people won’t quit in mid-post with the wrong impression of what I was saying.

          • J Mann says:

            From now on I’ll try to make my entire point in one sentence

            Why would you want to do that?

          • Randy M says:

            I think if you switch to German you may be able to get it all out in one word. It’s the only way to be safe, short of pictograms or the language of the aliens in Arrival.

          • mdet says:

            In cases where we’re talking about a sidekick or B-list character, I don’t think Mary Sue-ness applies. Side characters are often less developed. Of course you’re not going to see Black Widow’s flaws and failures when she never gets her own story arc. We’ve never seen Hawkeye or Falcon or Wong suck at anything or face any real conflict either. It’d be nice if we did, but sideline characters gonna sideline.

            I’d say the criticism is valid when aimed at Rey in Star Wars. We’ve spent more than enough time in her story to watch her develop, but she’s never faced enough of a challenge to really grow. Her issue is that she wants to find her parents (or any parental figure, really) but that problem isn’t really an obstacle that you have to work hard and fail at before you can overcome, so she just… doesn’t work hard or fail at anything because there’s no reason in the story that this needs to happen.

            I *don’t* think this applies to Batman though. In Nolan’s movies he’s talented but not absurdly so, and he fails pretty often. In other media, he’s absurdly competent, yes, but being the world’s greatest strategist and martial artist isn’t all that overpowered when you’re standing between Superman and Wonder Woman. Bruce Wayne is also often portrayed as being plagued by depression, grief, anger issues, etc. that drive people away from him, so he has personal flaws and failures as well.

            Me & Mark Atwood might be complaining about different things though.

          • Nick says:

            I wish that some Marvel Cinematic Universe movie would have a scene where Natasha Romanoff has to throw down hand to hand against a unenhanced human male who is as well trained as her, without the screenwriters and showrunner putting their thumbs on the scale.

            That was what happened in Iron Man 2, wasn’t it? She fought Happy as a character establishing moment, if I remember correctly, and then she fought some of the guards in hand to hand at the end. Of course, after introducing gods and magic and nanotech into the setting she needs an inexplicable power boost or she’ll be left in the dust.

          • albatross11 says:

            Neither Happy nor any of those guards had her training. But really, comic book stories aren’t remotely about realism or applying consistent rules to the universe, so it’s kinda pointless to worry about.

          • albatross11 says:


            I wouldn’t use the term for Rudi. He’s more-or-less the prophesied hero–if you don’t like that kind of thing, then you won’t like his story arc, but it’s a different thing than being a Gary Stu. It fits into a different slot, somehow. (He’s in the same category as Rand al Thor or King Arthur.)

            Mike seems like a better example–the first thing that happens in the story is that he runs into the prettiest girl in Europe[1] who is fleeing bandits with her sick, brilliant, very wealthy father; he saves her and she falls in love with him. Later, it turns out that this ex-boxer and coal miner is the sharpest political mind in Europe, as well as a naturally brilliant general. And he uses his connections with her very wealthy Jewish extended family to achieve his overarching political goals, which they naturally fall in with[2].

            [1] He describes her as looking like Elizabeth Taylor in _Cleopatra_, and pretty much every reference to her notes that she’s breathtakingly beautiful.

            [2] Though this does make sense, because by 1600s European standards, the people of Grantville are incredibly tolerant of religious differences, and have no truck with anyone (especially Germans) wanting to mistreat Jews. You can see how this would be a pretty convincing commercial for the rest of American political/social beliefs being a pretty good deal.

      • Tarpitz says:

        Personally, I am happy with the description of Rose Maylie as a Mary Sue, though she’s obviously a wish-fulfilment insert of Mary Hogarth, not of Dickens himself.

        And while sentimentality and didacticism are present throughout Dickens’ work, they became far more prevalent as he got older, and this strikes me as a perfectly good reason to prefer the earlier work to the later. This may not be relevant to academic criticism, which tends to have little regard for plotting anyway, but is perfectly appropriate to more casual discussion of the material with such purposes as helping someone decide whether to read it or establishing why two people who read it did or didn’t enjoy it.

      • gbdub says:

        I don’t think we need to critique all writing as if it were fanfiction. But I do think Mary Sue-like characters are actually a flaw common to bad writing a lot of genres. Fanfiction just happened to highlight and crystallize the issue with some particularly ham-fisted examples.

        Frankly, Mary Sues are more forgivable in fanfiction, which is after all fan wanking in an often very literal sense. You can forgive a lot more flaws in that than you can in writing intended to be for a general audience.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think “Mary Sue” has become broadened in use so that it often is used incorrectly, to criticise (usually) the Strong Empowered Female Character too often encountered in modern media. A competent, even hypercompetent, female protagonist is not a Mary Sue.

      But I think it is still a useful term, and Gary/Marty Stu as well.

      Mary Sues were one of the usual mistakes made by beginning writers in fanfiction, and the reason they got hammered so much was that there were a lot of them out there. Beginner writers are going to make mistakes, that’s part of how they learn, but because it was in fandom where everything was concentrated more at the start, and with the early days of the Internet allowing much more widespread sharing of fanworks, then it was a trope encountered over and over and over again. The infamous Marissa Picard [warning: TV Tropes link] is probably one of the most notorious examples but not the first, nor the last. When the Jackson Lord of the Rings movies hit the public consciousness and Tolkien fandom exploded (relatively) in size and age distribution, there was an entire sub-genre of what came to be named Legomances (a portmanteau of Legolas and romance, and you can guess what all those were about). The trouble is that the Mary Sue/Marty Stu is a distortion field, that warps canon characters and environments around them (and making canon characters behave OOC is a huge problem working in a fandom, where people are there to read about the canon characters and not your OC).

      There are much fewer examples of the real true Mary Sue in fanfiction nowadays, and that’s probably down to beginners being aware of the pitfalls and trying to avoid them, and fanfiction becoming a mature genre itself.

      But it’s not just amateurs; years ago I read the first volume in a fantasy series by a Real Professional Author and published by a Genuine Commercial Publishing House, and the main character was a massive, enormous, YUGE Marty Stu. It was very plain that the author had fallen in love with her character and this distorted the entire plot; he was perfect in every way, but everyone hated him (because of course they did) and he was cast as the Evil half of the Good-Evil pairing that would drive the conflict and drama of the plot over the series. Now, having a character be “Look, I never chose to be the Evil Overlord, I was literally born into this role as part of that rotten prophecy, and besides the Good Side is not all that good” was a good idea, but the author went way, way, way beyond – because she had lost control of her character.

      So he suffered. Oh, how he suffered. Everybody hated him, everybody was against him, except for one or two who repented too late after being terrible awful horrible to him; he was perfect in every way; he was noble and long-suffering beyond the point of credulity; he was literally tortured nearly to what would have killed any ordinary mortal (but he simply took it all) – by the end, whatever sympathy I might have had was burned off long ago and I wanted him dead. Needless to say, I never read the rest of the series. Nobody else could have any virtues or good qualities or shades of gray, as this black hole of a Marty Stu had sucked up all those attributes; everyone else was two-dimensional antagonists of the”they’ll be sorry when they realise I was right, but it’ll be too late then, and they’ll have to live with the guilt” kind (which is a kind of characterisation you might expect from a 14 year old writing her first proper story and putting in all the adolescent angst of ‘nobody understands me, they’ll all be sorry later’ but not from an adult, professional author).

      So Mary Sues/Marty Stus are recognisable, definite characters and symptomatic of a particular error beginners fall into, and so are still a useful term of criticism if used correctly.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        What are you trying to accomplish by not just naming the character/series?

        • Deiseach says:

          It was so long ago, I’ve honestly forgotten the names of both series and author! But the taste of it lingers all this time; I was hoping to sink my teeth into a decent new fantasy read, the premise (the Bad Guy isn’t that evil, the Good Guy is not that nice) was unique at the time, but the author so lavished every drop of characterisation and set up implausible situations for her darling to show how multi-talented and wonderful and heroic he was that it was unbearable by the end. I think there was one person in the entire book who was kinda nice to him, and naturally they died so he’d be left all alone in a world where every hand was against him.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            See, I was half (well really a quarter) thinking you meant Harry Potter but were trying to be clever about it.

            Frankly, I think it’s just hard to actually write. Or at least write anything that isn’t formulaic.

          • Deiseach says:

            thinking you meant Harry Potter but were trying to be clever about it

            Oh, I’m not that subtle! If I have a grudge, you’ll know about it 🙂

            The Harry Potter books are fine for what they are, which is in the tradition of a type of British children’s fiction (so Harry starting off like Cinderella in the ashes is all part of it). It’s undeniable that Rowling did improve as a writer as she went along, and also undeniable that she did suffer from “too big to edit” at the end. But I enjoyed the books for what they were, and I think the big difference as to why I never got into any shipping wars etc. is because I was a grown adult when the books came out, and didn’t start reading them as a child/young teenager who grew up on them.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            Deiseach is many things, but indeed never subtle.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I think that the idea of Mary Sue is useful even if it is sometimes misused.

      A fictional universe needs some kind of consistency. Even if it has fantastic elements, the world still needs to be at least recognizable and people still need to behave like people. If the glasses started inexplicably sliding around tables during a dinner scene or the characters all abruptly shuffled their names around halfway through the book that would be distracting and take away from the narrative.

      A Mary Sue is when those rules break down around a particular character. Established characterization is ignored in favor of implausible reactions to the Mary Sue’s actions, established rules of the setting are ignored so that the Mary Sue’s actions can succeed or fail in a particular way, etc.

      That’s a useful concept even outside of fanfiction. What else would you call Wesley Crusher, for a particularly good example?

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        But an aspect of a [M|G]ary S[ue|tu] is that all the good people in the story just love them to bits. I don’t think “Shut up, Wesley!” fits that trope.

        I don’t think anyone doubts Mary Sues exist, even in non-fanfic. It just turns into culture war when you point out certain Mary Sues. Say “James Bond is a Gary Stu” and everyone will either agree or shrug and go right back to enjoying 007 movies. Say Rey is a Mary Sue, though, and a certain vocal subset of the Internet is coming for you.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          In the episode in which Picard tells Wesley to shut up, he’s the only one smart enough to see through Lore’s transparent disguise that he’s Data.

          Lore is doing everything possible to be suspicious, after the bridge crew had already discussed the possibility of Lore impersonating Data, but they’re all uncharacteristically too dumb to notice. This all so that Wesley can be the Cassandra, right but tragically ignored, until he ultimately saves the day by beaming Lore out into space at the climax.

          That’s classic Mary Sue. Picard, Riker and the rest suddenly drop to room-temperature IQs and become inexplicably hostile, allowing Wesley to look better at the cost of them looking worse. The character story about Data and the larger story about the Crystalline Entity warped around the need for Wesley to save the day. Both stories needed follow up episodes in later seasons just to give them closure after the non-ending of Datalore.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Point taken. I’m still not sure Wesley counts as a Gary Stu because I think a Gary Stu would be more obviously handsome/attractive.

            Then again, my wife says she had the biggest crush on Wesley in middle school, so who am I to say what’s attractive.

          • Matt M says:

            This is my position on Wesley as well – he was designed to appeal to kids/teenagers who saw him as a stand-in for themselves.

            So of course he was disrespected by the senior officers (despite regularly showing himself to be hyper-competent in every imaginable discipline). Adults never give us kids the respect we so clearly deserve!

            In this particular context, Wesley is being irrationally hated by the “villains.” To the extent that Picard and others continue to dismiss Wesley as a punk kid (despite the fact that he regularly saves their lives), they are behaving irrationally villainous.

        • John Schilling says:

          Wesley Crusher could only be told to shut up in the first place because, as a fifteen-year-old civilian with no training, he was serving as an “acting ensign” on the bridge of one of the most important ships in Starfleet. On the “love them to bits” scale, that’s at least a 9.5 out of 10, and one cherrypicked intemperate outburst in a moment of plot-induced idiocy doesn’t knock that down more than half a point. They like Wesley Crusher. They really, really like him.

          Well, the audience doesn’t. Nor even the actor who played him. But the fictional crew, hold him in extraordinarily great esteem. And so, obviously, did Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, once a rather nerdy teenager and isn’t there something about Marty Stu being an obvious authorial self-insert?

        • mdet says:

          In this video Rossatron suggests that there might be some good Bond stories to come out of allowing him to care about and get attached to a woman like he does in Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, instead of the usual throwaway Bond Girls. Many commenters strongly disagreed with changing Bond in this way, arguing that he’s a perfectly good character as-is. This isn’t a Mary Sue criticism, and the commenters didn’t necessarily destroy him (he’s only a mid-tier youtuber), but there is a subset of the internet who get vocally upset at the idea that Bond could use some more nuanced character development.

          • James C says:

            Well, audiences are self-selecting. Those interested in the nuances of character development weren’t likely to be watching Bond movies ad-infinitum.

      • albatross11 says:

        Highly competent characters are great, but they need to be matched up with similar-sized challenges. It’s no fun watching Superman or James Bond foil a 7-11 robbery. IMO, one of the things that Bujold got wrong in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen was that the challenges seemed too easy for these towering accomplished characters. Retelling the story from the perspective of the womens’ auxillary lieutenant and the Cetagandan junior ambassador would have been much more interesting (while the midlife crisis drama formed the backdrop), because the problems were scaled for them.

        • J Mann says:

          It’s no fun watching Superman or James Bond foil a 7-11 robbery.

          I agree with your point, but in the interests of pedantry, it’s no fun watching Superman or James Bond foil 7-11 robberies exclusively (or even predominantly), but it’s delightful in appropriate doses. Similarly, sometimes a Mary Sue story is fun.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Both Superman and 007 are Gary Stus though. Both are very fun, nobody writes about them as deep, meaningful characters, and no one will take issue with someone saying “meh, I can’t really get into Superman or Bond movies because the characters are so brave and good at everything that they’re just boring.” The whole “is X a Mary Sue?” thing is culture war.

          • J Mann says:

            Both are very fun, nobody writes about them as deep, meaningful characters, and no one will take issue with someone saying “meh, I can’t really get into Superman or Bond movies because the characters are so brave and good at everything that they’re just boring.”

            Say that to me on a culture war thread, and we’ll have words. IMHO, Superman is hard to write well, but it’s rewarding, and he’s my favorite character. (I would say that he and the Hulk are the comic book characters who most reward inspection, again IMHO).

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I’m not saying he’s not hard to write well. He’s hard to write well because he’s so OP.

            I’m just saying a celebrity can be on a late night talk show and say “I can’t get into Superman because he’s so powerful the stories are boring” and not get a twitter mob started against them for being A Wrong and Evil Person Who Has Wrong Thoughts, and there exist characters for whom you will get such a mob formed against you. Which means the characters just become proxies in the CW.

          • albatross11 says:

            J Mann:

            Having it happen once at the beginning to establish the toughness of the character is the “mugging a monster” trope. Basically, think the scene from Terminator 2 where the Terminator walks into a biker bar naked. It’s not like there’s any question that an almost-indestructable assasination robot from the future can wipe the floor with a bunch of guys at a local biker bar, but it establishes what you’re looking at right away.

            But a movie full of the Terminator beating up hapless bikers wouldn’t be interesting, because there’s no challenge for him. It’s like watching Dr Manhattan fight against a normal human army. *yawn*.

          • James C says:

            I’d argue that there are ways of telling such a story where you can make reality mundane situations the focus. While the characters may be overpowered for the problem, the author can introduce elements and issues that limit the characters’ ability to act to solve the comparatively simple task.

            For Superman, he could have misjudged the severity of the crime and arrived too late. By the time he makes it through the door there’s already a bullet in the air and he’s got to figure out in a tenth of a second how to fix the problem without using an ability that reduces everyone in the room to chunky salsa.

            You can do something similar with Bond. Sure he can kill the robber in seven different ways before anyone blinks. But foiling the robbery while keeping his cover intact, well that requires a little more creativity.

            There’s also something to be said about making the story the right length. You’ll probably never fill a movie with either concept but they’d work great as a quick character study fic.

          • mdet says:

            I’d argue that there are ways of telling such a story where you can make reality mundane situations the focus.

            See also: One Punch Man. Wins every single super-fight with one punch, and so spends most of his time focused on the mundane aspects of life rather than typical superheroics.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Well, that and his grueling training regimen.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            By the time he makes it through the door there’s already a bullet in the air and he’s got to figure out in a tenth of a second how to fix the problem without using an ability that reduces everyone in the room to chunky salsa.

            One of the very few good things about the “Smallville” TV series is that Clark figured out how to solve pretty much exactly that problem: he glances at the bullet and vaporizes it.

            And then the DCCU movies have to go and rewrite that particular superpower such that it’s all on or all off, with no fine grained control…

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Super-speed ruins everything. I remember the bullet-in-mid-air scene in Smallville, and Clark vaporizing it. Clark had never been able to melt things at super-speed before, and wouldn’t the super-heated slug still hit the victim? No, he completely vaporized it. In an instant. Changed it to air.

            You can’t take Justice League too seriously either, because super-speed ruins everything. Give Flash one of the McGuffin devices and have him run a thousand miles away. Steppenwolf can teleport to the new location, but Flash can just run a thousand miles away again.

            I love “The Flash” tv show, but I know I can’t take it too seriously, and it doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. It’s goofy and that’s okay.

            MCU has had two speedsters, but killed each of them within an hour of screentime.

      • BBA says:

        Oddly enough, TNG actually made an episode out of a Mary Sue fic a teenage writer mailed them – “True Q.”

    • dndnrsn says:

      What is the defining feature of such a character?

      Is it the hypercompetence, or the omnicompetence, or that everyone loves them, or what?

      I’d distinguish hypercomptence from omnicompetence, myself. If a character is super good at a lot of things, they’re hypercompetent. If they’re super good at everything, to the point that they are a generalist who doesn’t actually need specialists – they’re omnicompetent. A lot of action/adventure protagonists are hypercompetent, but still need to go to someone else to get things done: James Bond going to Q for gear, for example.

      EDIT: Omnicompetence is bad because interesting characters are about flaws or weaknesses as much as virtues or strengths. Sometimes when a writer or whatever tries to introduce this for a character who has been established as omnicompetent, it basically amounts to them being handed the idiot ball.

      A way to test for omnicompetence: if it was an RPG instead of TV or whatever, would the other characters’ players be sitting around bored while the omnicompetent character picks locks better than the thief, fights better than the fighter, etc?

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        In one of the later stories, Modesty Blaise listed things she was bad at. Offhand, the only one I remember is gardening.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Hypercompetence isn’t sufficient. Power creep gets you to hypercompetence without being Mary Sue, necessarily — if you keep hitting your character with greater and greater challenges and she keeps meeting them and growing as a result, your character is going to be too good to be believable. This is a separate phenomenon from Mary Sue. On the other hand, if she doesn’t grow, people will complain about lack of character development.

      • gbdub says:

        Fundamentally, a Mary Sue is a “creator’s pet” (this is the name TV Tropes gives to “the Wesley”) – a character that is allowed to warp the setting because the creator just loves them so much. Every interesting plotline will be about them whether it should be or not, they will always be the hero (or the best villain), rules of good writing will be bent for them, they will make everyone around them act in ways contrary to character or the established rules of the setting.

        This often manifests as both hyper/omnicompetence and “everybody loves them”, but those aren’t the crux of Sue-ness. The crux is special treatment from the author because they are so attached. A true Sue is an author insert, “creator’s pet” seems better for a character the author just loves (but isn’t a stand-in for themselves).

        • AG says:

          Bingo. Sometimes, the creator’s pet aspect actually manifests as being bloody useless, because the point is for the romantic interests to fall over themselves saving the Sue. So the Sue is bloody useless, but this is characterized as being the height of some form of virtue, and is actually why the romantic interests love the Sue.

      • John Schilling says:

        Is it the hypercompetence, or the omnicompetence, or that everyone loves them, or what?

        It’s the particular combination of,

        A: Implausible competence, usually of the omni- variety but in any event well beyond anything the character’s training or background can justify, and

        B: Initial lack of self-confidence, particularly in social contexts and usually due to some exaggerated childhood trauma, and

        C: Being liked and admired by basically everyone who isn’t an outright enemy (and sometimes even those), and given positions of responsibility beyond plausibility, and

        D: Singlehandedly winning the Ultimate Victory of their tale, in what probably looked like an ensemble-cast story until they showed up and made everyone else look stupid.

        Bonus points for being female and/or an obvious authorial self-insert, but there’s a degree of flexibility in all of this.

        It is, nonetheless, more than just an accusation of “that character is Too Powerful so meh don’t care”, and certainly not “Strong Women Protagonist, ewww!”. And while I would very much like to live in the world where we only needed a term to describe this particular package of Fail in the context of fan fiction, I’ve been seeing far too much of it in professional fiction at least since the days of Wesley Crusher.

        • J Mann says:

          E. Bonus points if other characters frequently feel the need to comment on how incredible and awesome this character is. (Exceptions for Superman and Dr. Manhattan, who should draw comment and whose awesomeness is the actual point of the story.)

          • albatross11 says:

            I think scaling the competence of the character with the challenge is a big deal. If the character can effortlessly deal with the challenges he’s dealing with, then the story is boring. Superman or Dr Manhattan foiling a 7-11 robbery faces no danger and no particular challenge–there is no question what the outcome will be.

            This is why superheroes attract supervillains in fiction. Because normal criminals vs Superman is either boring (Superman always wins effortlessly) or frustrating (the criminals do their crimes out of Superman’s sight, so the fact that he could defeat any of them at any time doesn’t help him because he can’t catch them all–just like the real situation with the police.) Or you could make some more interesting kind of story where the struggle for Superman was moral or psychological. (This happens with Dr Manhattan in Watchmen.)

            I don’t object to super competent characters where they make sense. Mark Watney was one of the six people chosen for a Mars mission–damned right he’s going to be super competent. Cordelia Vorkosigan in _Cordelia’s Honor_ is super competent–oh yeah, she’s the Betan equivalent of an astronaut and also a decorated combat vet. Neither of those feel like Mary Sues to me–they aren’t perfect, their high capabilities make sense in context, the world doesn’t constantly run up and kiss their hand, and they face challenges that scale with their abilities.

            Similarly, it makes sense that, say, Honor Harrington or Jean-Luc Picard are pretty impressive people–they’ve risen high through a pretty tough meritocracy selecting for competence in a bunch of areas they demonstrate.

          • Matt M says:

            Similarly, it makes sense that, say, Honor Harrington or Jean-Luc Picard are pretty impressive people–they’ve risen high through a pretty tough meritocracy selecting for competence in a bunch of areas they demonstrate.

            Right, which is what makes it even more annoying when Picard eventually suffers a failure, only to be bailed out by some punk kid who hasn’t risen through a tough meritocracy.

            (And why it’s much more acceptable when he is bailed out by Data – who is essentially the Trek equivalent of Superman)

          • albatross11 says:

            Or worse, bailed out by Q.

          • Matt M says:

            Bailed out by Q is lazy, but it’s not offensive to one’s sensibilities. It’s not so wildly unrealistic as to destroy your suspension of disbelief (unless the very existence of Q already causes you to that).

      • JulieK says:

        I would say omnicompetence.
        It’s fine for Hermione to be brilliant, but it’s implausible for her to be giving Harry relationship advice, or for a famous athlete to fall in love with her.

        • Tarpitz says:

          How on earth is it implausible for a person to give their friend relationship advice, especially regarding someone they know better than the advisee? That’s a near-universal human activity. It’s not as if she has any particularly remarkable insights. I’m not sure even 50th percentile competence is required there, much less inexplicable hypercompetence.

          As for Krum, it seems pertinent that he’s a 17 year old famous athlete who’s spent most of his life in a highly repressive environment. 17 year olds are pretty prone to falling in love with any old person for no very good reason, as I recall. It’s not as if everyone and his dog is prostrating himself at her feet – one of her close male friends is in love with her, and a couple of other boys at her school and one exchange student fancy her to varying degrees. That’s totally within the normal range. Sure, it happens the exchange student in question is famous, but she’s bezzies with like the third most famous person in the world: of course she’s going to meet celebrities.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            On relationship advice, she isn’t portrayed as conspicuously competent. That stuff is all very “stock” character in that post-pubescent boys are always portrayed as oblivious in relationship matters and girls portrayed as having basic knowledge that boys don’t have. There is absolutely nothing remarkable (in fictional terms) about this portrayal.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Hermione seems pretty far removed from the stereotype given here. She’s not super-perfect, beloved of everyone – she, Harry, and Ron take turns being oblivious to some basic thing, as I recall, and she’s portrayed as an annoying know-it-all, at times a busybody.

          • John Schilling says:

            Of the three, Harry himself is the most nearly Mary-Sueish. Implausibly competent, initially lacking in self-confidence due to his oppressive childhood, everybody who isn’t part of Evil House immediately admires and respects him, and he’s a pretty obvious wish-fulfillment stand-in for the target audience.

            What saves him from being a Marty Stu, is that Rowling insists on his sharing the focus and the achievement with Ron and Hermione rather than winning everything by himself.

          • J Mann says:

            That and Harry is kind of a dumb jock. He’s fairly good at magic, he’s great at sports and fighting, he has powerful patrons, and he’s famous and admired as soon as he discovery his destiny, but he makes a lot of dumb decisions.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Is Harry actually that good at fighting or does he just have more experience with it than any of his peers? Luck, arrogant baddies, competent allies and eagles pull his ass out of the fire far more than he digs himself out.

            Maybe it’s movie influence and the time distance between me and the books, but I don’t recall him being particularly gifted at magic, either. Grit his way to skill at a few signature spells (with a lot of help from various benefactors who know he needs it) but nowhere near the toolkit Hermione has or the upperclassmen demonstrate in GoF.

            Which is, y’know, what you’d expect from a Gryffindor.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            I am not the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan – I find my generation’s obsession with the book kind of embarrassing, to be honest, particularly since it’s becoming more tribally coded – but I want to push back here and defend the Boy Who Lived, if I may.

            Implausibly competent, initially lacking in self-confidence due to his oppressive childhood, everybody who isn’t part of Evil House immediately admires and respects him, and he’s a pretty obvious wish-fulfillment stand-in for the target audience.

            This is not strictly accurate. In the first book, yes, but later on there are people – who are not Obviously Evil – who DON’T care that much for Harry, and he often finds himself the target of fierce criticism. More, he makes a lot of mistakes later on, on everything from personal relationships to fighting the war against Evil. He’s quick to jump to conclusions, he has difficulty seeing perspectives other than his own, and he’s often willing to make morally dubious compromises to achieve his goals.

            Is Harry actually that good at fighting or does he just have more experience with it than any of his peers? Luck, arrogant baddies, competent allies and eagles pull his ass out of the fire far more than he digs himself out.

            Maybe it’s movie influence and the time distance between me and the books, but I don’t recall him being particularly gifted at magic, either. Grit his way to skill at a few signature spells (with a lot of help from various benefactors who know he needs it) but nowhere near the toolkit Hermione has or the upperclassmen demonstrate in GoF.

            Here, I’ll push the other direction: Harry really is good at fighting, and talented at magic. He masters the Patronus charm far sooner than most wizards his age, which is widely reputed to be very difficult. He’s able to hold his own, sort of, when the fighting gets serious in Books 5-7, while most of his peers don’t do nearly as well. In GotF, his arsenal isn’t as impressive as the 7th years he’s up against, but he grows by leaps and bounds and is a much more accomplished wizard at the end of the tournament than he was at the beginning.

            And for all that, Harry isn’t overpowered. He screws up, a lot. When he goes up against adult wizards with the army of kids he trained to fight, Dumbledore’s Army is beaten relatively quickly and saved only by the last-minute intervention of adults. He’s not always correct, he often misses the larger strategic picture, and he stumbles into enemy traps like every other book. He’s got way too many weaknesses to be a true Marty Stu.

            Now, Hermione…she’s intelligent, the most gifted witch of her generation, she’s beautiful but doesn’t realize it, every sympathetic character loves her, every unsympathetic character is needlessly cruel to her, whichever view she takes of a situation is generally the Correct one (note her treatment of Griphook vs. Harry’s in Book 7. SPEW might also count, but I’m not sure if Rowling ever came down on the side of “house elves like their place” vs. “house elves are slaves!”), she plausibly represents wish-fulfillment stand-in for the target audience…The only saving grace is that she’s not the Chosen One or even the protagonist.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Of the three, Harry himself is the most nearly Mary-Sueish. Implausibly competent, initially lacking in self-confidence due to his oppressive childhood, everybody who isn’t part of Evil House immediately admires and respects him, and he’s a pretty obvious wish-fulfillment stand-in for the target audience.

            Harry doesn’t start out implausibly competent, he escapes in the first book because of his mother’s protection, is protected by Snape during the Quidditch match. He has clear flaws, such as perpetually suspecting Snape at every turn despite having two authority figures that he trusts telling him that Snape is OK (outside of being a general git), he is at a complete loss with women for most of the series, and ends up with 4 (5 if you count Ginny) real friends from Hogwarts with each of them a total outsider to start the series.

            Outside of his ability on a broom his isn’t wildly competent at anything without outside help. He survives Voldemort because of his mother, then his mother again, then Fawkes, then no one is trying to kill him but he thinks they are which causes problems, then it is the twin cores (in this one he doesn’t win the triwizard on his own, he is being forced to win), then Dumbledore, then Snape (sort off), and then he survives by allowing himself to be killed, and finally he faces off against Voldemort . . . but he owns the wand Voldemort holds.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Now, Hermione…she’s intelligent, the most gifted witch of her generation, she’s beautiful but doesn’t realize it, every sympathetic character loves her,

            I’m not sure exactly how beautiful she is in the books, Emma Watson getting cast shifted her appearance for fans a lot, but she has bushy hair and big teeth in the books and it takes forever for Ron to really notice her. She grows up to be pretty, but how many boys actually fawn over her in the series, 2?

          • Gobbobobble says:

            @CMF I don’t think we disagree.

            I mean that he isn’t implausibly skilled at the things he’s good at. He doesn’t grasp the Patronus right away and was being taught it earlier than almost anybody due to his exceptional circumstances, so it’s natural he would achieve it sooner. He has a good amount of grit when the situation warrants it, but in general seems unexceptional and (astonishingly, to this reader) unenthused in magic classes. Sure, he’s a natural at Quidditch, but that’s a fairly narrow scope.

            He’s better at fighting than his peers because he’s gotten into a lot more fights. But, setting aside Wormtail’s well-established incompetence, the adults still kick his ass (or, in the case of the Order, show him up pretty solidly) except when Voldy holds them back so he can monologue.

            Harry’s got enough determination and crazy stupid bravery to push through what’s put in front of him. He takes his lumps and actually grows as the series progresses. I got the impression that his win over Voldy at the end (using one of his, like, four signature spells) was due to using those established strengths to capitalize on a confluence of technicalities rather than any great skill with fightin’ magicks.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Of the characters in Harry Potter the closest to Mary Sue/Gary Stu is either Lily Evans or James Potter. Lily is presented with no real flaws, and it is revealed that she was a favorite of multiple teachers, was very bright, on the right side always, and with her dying breath she casts a spell which protects her son against the greatest dark wizard in the world for 18 years.

            James Potter’s case is stronger at first, he is not just omni competent, but for a school boy hyper competent. He helps create the Marauder’s map, is an annimagus at a ridiculous age and also manages to teach Wormtail to be one as well, making him an above average teacher at least, and is a quidditch star. He only really escapes because we find out he was a huge douche to Snape for years, and then fails to protect his family from Voldemort.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Oh yeah, and Lily is so sweet, pure and wonderful that she effectively turns Snape from evil to a self sacrificing hero.

          • J Mann says:

            Is Harry actually that good at fighting or does he just have more experience with it than any of his peers? Luck, arrogant baddies, competent allies … pull his ass out of the fire far more than he digs himself out.

            It’s been a long time since I read the books – I was basing my assessment on (a) his test scores are reasonably good (good at magic); (b) his dueling skills seem well above his peers, in that he duels competent adults a number of times without dying and ultimately becomes a private instructor to his classmates, resulting in substantial improvements in their fighting quality. But consistent with Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, I’ve updated substantially in your direction.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            On the other hand, Mary Sues aren’t ordinarily dead.

          • J Mann says:

            @Baconbits – Dumbledore, Riddle, James, and arguably Sirius are all cautionary tales about hyper-competence.

            (Snape is also extremely talented, but so obviously crippled by his self-image that I’m not counting him, and Hermione and McGonagle appear to be immune from the curse of the hyper-competent because of reasons – possibly something about testosterone poisoning. The Super-Hufflepuff is a subversion).

          • baconbits9 says:

            But if you had to guess how a Mary Sue died, saving her infant has to be top of the list, right?

          • baconbits9 says:

            Dumbledore as a hyper competence cautionary tale yes. Riddle? He is clearly a magical prodigy but it is combined with his upbringing and specifically the contrast between Lily and Merope that is held as the reason he is specifically evil and not just a talented wizard with looser than average morals. Nothing bad happens to James because of his own hyper competence, except drawing Voldemort’s ire which is mostly because of the prophecy, and Sirius is just gone round the bend a little from being responsible for his best friend’s death and spending 14 years in prison.

          • J Mann says:

            James is an entitled bully because he takes his hyper-competence for granted.

            You’re almost certainly right on Riddle – I keep substituting my own head-canon for him without realizing it. (That he’s essentially a cautionary tale on hubris, and that because he can do almost anything, he decides that he may and indeed should.) I guess any analysis of the actual character has to grapple with the racism and murder.

          • baconbits9 says:

            James grows out of it though and is head Boy by his last year at Hogwarts. It’s also never clear that he bullies anyone but Snape and its not obvious who starts the rivalry.

          • AG says:

            Y’all realize that the Campbellian Mentor is supposed to be OP so that their fall gives the Hero’s Journey stakes? And that this is okay because the Mentor is not a protagonist?

            Lily, James, and Dumbledore categorically cannot be Sues because the point of the Sue is in how they dominate a story (to its detriment). An OP character that remains part of the supporting cast is not a Sue.

          • AG says:

            James, Lily, and Dumbledore are OP because they are Hero’s Journey Mentors. They cannot be Sues because they remain supporting cast, facilitating the protagonist’s growth. OP-ness is there to let the protagonist look up to them in their absence. The Sue is defined by how they upstage the narrative.

      • mdet says:

        I might have an unusual interpretation but I’ve always used the term to refer to a character who never grows because they never face any real challenge. Someone who comes out the box “perfect”. They don’t necessarily have to be implausibly competent — the protagonist in Twilight isn’t especially talented at anything, but the “challenge” in her story is little more than “Which perfect man do I want to be with?”. On the other hand, Superman is absurdly powerful, but there are still some stories where he gets challenged in ways unrelated to his physical strength. Being hyper competent and having other characters love them automatically are definitely symptoms though, since those are things that usually have to be earned.

        I didn’t know about the term’s origin as “author-insert-character” in fanfics, so if my definition doesn’t match others’, that’s probably why.

    • John Schilling says:

      Another thought on Mary Sues: The standard definition of Mary Sue being a stand-in for the author is not quite right. Mary Sue is a stand-in for the target audience, which in the prototypical bad-fanfiction case basically is the author. But if e.g. a naive and insecure young woman writes a story about an insecure but omnicompetent, beloved, and victorious young woman because she thinks everyone will want to read about her heroine, and a middle-age male hack writes a story about an insecure but omnicompetent, beloved, and victorious young woman because he cynically calculates that the target demographic will offer him an adequate financial return on his writing time, they’ve both written the same story about the same character (and the hack may well use a feminine pseudonym). From the standpoint of everyone who isn’t actually the author, a character either is or is not a Mary Sue regardless of what the author was privately thinking.

      • 1soru1 says:

        Which leads to the conclusion that an _actual_ Mary Sue is any such character in a book read by someone outside the target demographic.

        • John Schilling says:

          Only if you assume that every target demographic is filled by people who want every protagonist to be an idealized stand-in for themselves and to always be the focus of attention, to always triumph as effortlessly as that petty criminal in that twilight zone episode. I don’t think that’s true of every target demographic. I’m not really sure that’s true of any target demographic.

          Note that “Mary Sue” was invented by fanfiction enthusiasts, to describe works written by and for fanfiction enthusiasts like themselves. From day one, Mary Sue was being called out in works being read by their target demographic.

      • helloo says:

        Hopefully not CW, but who the author is and what the reader feels is the thought process/message of the author tends to matter a lot.

        Even if it’s wrongly assumed. Possibly especially if it’s wrongly assumed.

        I thought the standard definition (or at least original one) was that they are meant to represent in badly written fanfiction of the wish fulfillment type, a original character that is added and becomes the focal point of everything. The other attributes and characteristics are stereotypical of such a character but not necessary needed. This of course got expanded to be used for the characteristics rather than the situation.

        Does that mean that well written (or at least popular) fiction might have characters with those characteristics? Yes. Does the sort of recursive logic of (bad fiction characters are like this -> characters like this are symptoms of bad fiction) possibly cause issues? Yes. Is it still “useful”? Probably yes to some degree.

        At the end, I think it’s more typical to most tropes (and the whole not all tropes are bad) – knowing or recognizing it will definitely change your viewing of it, especially if it’s cliche or annoying, but one should recognize that it’s a trope for a reason and not all of them are bad.

    • dndnrsn says:

      In real life there’s a small number of people who are really impressive in a way that if you described it about a fictional character, people would complain. Consider an VC-winning RAF officer and philanthropist who in tennis was a “formidable amateur player well into his seventies” (did I mention he is also very handsome) or any number of similar people… So, someone who is really good at a lot of things is not unbelievable.

      I propose that a key point for this discussion is that in fiction, it is a warning sign if there is only one of these people. It’s the story being centred around them that’s the problem, and to reinforce that they’re not just really good at lots of things, but among the best. It’s believable that someone could be incredibly brave, and also handsome, compassionate, and can kick your ass at tennis; it’s not believable that someone might be the best or among the best at all of those things – “highest decoration, most generous philanthropist, second highest paid male model, third best tennis player in the world while not even a pro” is not believable. It’s not that they’re unbelievably competent absolutely; it’s a comparative thing.

      • Matt M says:

        As far as I can tell though, this guy was very good at three things – piloting, philanthropy, and tennis. And even then, he was very good, but not necessarily best in the universe good.

        Presumably, there were a few things that he was bad at (but alas, this is hard to confirm, as things like “he wasn’t particularly good at painting” aren’t likely to make a Wikipedia article).

        I think the problem with the Mary Sue is less “they’re pretty good at many things” and more “they aren’t shown to be bad at anything – each and every thing they choose to do they possess an unrealistic and unexplained level of competence at it.”

        • dndnrsn says:

          Not just good at piloting, but brave enough to win the VC, the article makes it sound like he was intensely devoted to his men and they to him, and there’s this bit from the article:

          Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest group captain in the service and following his VC, the most decorated. In his book, Bomber Command (2010), Sir Max Hastings wrote that “Cheshire was a legend in Bomber Command, a remarkable man with an almost mystical air about him, as if he somehow inhabited a different planet from those about him, but without affectation or pretension”.

          Also, handsome, and in a poll, ranked 31/100 greatest Britons.

          Clearly one of life’s hero protagonists, no?

          • Tarpitz says:

            A bit like the guy who wrote multiple books about particle physics by 13 or 14, was doing important work in the subject by 18, dropped out of Eton and Oxford because he was too smart, switched to studying cellular automata (possibly because he was bored of particle physics), helped initiate complex studies as a field of systems, created a computer algebra system that’s still widely used decades later, etc. etc.

            Or the multimillionaire entrepreneur who has won six Grand Nationals, a Cheltenham Gold Cup and a King George VI stakes as an amateur jockey.

            Or the biographer, children’s novelist and broadcaster who also played piano, saxophone and double bass to a standard sufficient to found a band which had a long-running residency at the Ritz.

            What do these three Stus have in common with Cheshire, and, incidenctally, with an assortment of rock stars, Nobel Laureates, Olympic medalist/World Champion rowers, six time tennis Grand Slam semi-finalists, three other Victoria Cross winners, heads of two different countries’ air forces and the Metropolitan Police, a Poet Laureate, Dr House, Hermione Grainger and Loki?

            They all went to the same medium-sized private school for 7-13 year olds in Oxford.

            The Dragon is frankly ridiculous. Beyond the requirement that (most) parents can afford the fees, it tests only minimally for academic ability as an admission requirement and not at all for anything else. It teaches pupils in the top academic sets to a standard such that A-level papers (normally taken by 18 year olds who have specialised in only 3 or 4 subjects prior to going to university) are used as internal exams, and the brighter kids will get well above the boundary required to secure top grades were they doing them for real. Something like 40% of a typical year end up getting into Oxford or Cambridge, and again, this is with minimal academic selection.

            When I was there (early-mid 90s), the first team in any given sport would play against club sides, seconds against other schools’ firsts, and thirds and fourths against other schools’ seconds. This was ostensibly to make for more competitive matches, but there was still a run of three or four years in which no school team lost. When they represented England in the 1995 U13 rugby union schools World Cup in South Africa, they won every game, conceding only ten points in the entire tournament – and again, this is without selecting for sporting ability or dedicating an unusually large amount of time to sport.

            All this ludicrous overachievement takes place in an astonishingly cheerful and relaxed environment – people I knew who went to other schools were jealous not because the Dragon was so good at things but because it was so much fun.

            It’s not altogether surprising that the favourite son of such an institution (and certainly Cheshire was the one most held up as emblematic of what Dragons should aspire to) should look… a bit Stu-ish.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Definitely sounds made up; add to list of evidence that we are living in a work of fiction.

          • axiomsofdominion says:

            @tarpitz, so this is basically the modern version of Polgar at that Hungarian gymnasium? The sport part is honestly more interesting than a lot of the later accolades though since its harder to attribute to social status.

      • albatross11 says:

        There are very competent people in the world, and sometimes the story is about them. (Though some of the super-competent people have inflated accomplishments through survivorship bias–Winston Churchill, say.)

        • John Schilling says:

          And almost all of the very competent people trained and practiced very hard to become so. Mary Sue is almost always a supernaturally talented novice.

          • dndnrsn says:

            That’s a good point. I can’t think of any characters of this sort who aren’t fairly young.

          • John Schilling says:

            Mary Sue is a stand-in for the target audience, often including the author, and the target audience is almost necessarily young or at least inexperienced. The more fiction one has read, the less satisfying “omnipotent hero beats up the bad guys, everybody cheers” is going to be.

            For that matter, an older or more experienced audience is going to be less receptive to the “I am lacking in self-confidence regarding my objectively awesome abilities” part of the Mary Sue package, or to the bit where being liked by basically everyone is a high priority. With experience comes knowing what you are good at and who your friends are, and while you may still enjoy stories about people who don’t share that understanding, it won’t be via self-insertion as a protagonist avatar.

          • AG says:

            Nope, strongly disagree. But what’s key is often that all of that hard work they put into gaining their skills is left out of the story, and we only see the end result. We don’t see James Bond at boot camp, and the Craig Bond is more critically acclaimed / less Sue-ish for going to the early part of his career and thus seeing his rougher edges.

            All of those rugged ex-military main characters from Dean Koontz-like thriller novels obviously worked hard to gain their skills in the past, but because we jump to the present where they’re uber-skilled in the now, that’s what makes the power fantasy.

    • carvenvisage says:

      TL;DR: The category of Mary Sue has a lot of overlapping traits with typical protagonists, the dividing line between a Mary Sue and a typical protagonist is how much your suspension of disbelief was broken by the execution of those traits, making it easy to classify any work you dislike as having a Mary Sue. This is bad because the category of Mary Sue contains a lot of hidden assumptions about the entirety of the work, so if you say a character is a Mary Sue based on only a few failures, you are drastically misrepresenting the degree to which the author failed.

      I think it’s like the dividing line between arrogance and confidence- in some cases almost everyone can agree, and furthermore agree even that the description gets to the heart of the matter in a way few other things would, but it’s very easy to throw around and tar people with.

      I think the issue is that there’s are a few big obvious/objective things you can point to as the ‘proof’ of the label, so that if someone cries “mary sue!” and you observe “hypercompetent”, you might count that as significant evidence towards the label- but it’s actually the ephemeral parts of it that are the core (highly negative) meaning: Hypercompetence- so we have a heroic character? That’s really not a bad thing in itself.

      If the ultimate thing it comes down to is whether in your esteemed opinion the thing totally-fuckin-sucks or not, then the word is mostly useful as shorthand for starting arguments, and occasionally for egregious/emblematic cases.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure the bravery-debate-initiator use is all bad- arguing about who is more humble or who’s character is more of a mary sue can no doubt be a lot of fun. The problem isn’t bravery debates (which I think the word is basically mostly used for), it’s the illusion that the obvious visible parts of the definition which you might instinctively look to to confirm it prove the highly negative ephemeral ones. -It’s a word to be used in good fun, like ‘eejit’ (or to outline a general shape), -but not to prove a case.