OT106: Alexios I Commentos

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

1. I had originally asked teams in the Adversarial Collaboration Contest to be done by today. I would like each of the fifteen teams who originally signed up to check in (as a reply to the first comment on this thread) and tell me whether you’re done, whether you need more time, or whether you’ve given up. If done, please send your finished product to scott[at]shireroth[dot]org.

2. I’m going to write some posts soon that reference Conflict vs. Mistake, but I’m not entirely happy with it as some people said they thought it was wrong in important ways. I tried talking to those people and didn’t get a good feel for what they disliked, especially whether they rejected the idea that there was a dichotomy at all or just thought my post misrepresented one side of it. I would be interested in having someone who does think there is a dichotomy but thinks I misrepresented it rewrite the post, changing it as little as possible except to correct what they thought the misrepresentation was. If anyone does a good enough job of this I’ll post it on here as a new post and link the original to it.

3. Comments of the week are by bbeck, a drug patent lawyer who explains how a melatonin patent could incentivize supplement companies to sell the wrong dose, and how drug dosing patents work more generally.

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1,105 Responses to OT106: Alexios I Commentos

  1. Scott Alexander says:

    Teams, please report your adversarial collaboration progress here. Please nobody else reply to this comment.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      We are finishing up tonight with the intention of having it submitted before midnight.

    • TracingWoodgrains says:

      We have finished and submitted our collaboration.

    • lamaybe says:

      We’re done the bulk of our adversarial collaboration, but I have some time conflicts preventing me from completing my part. I just asked my adversary if he’d be OK with a two-week extension.

      • sclmlw says:

        We’re working on a draft. Shouldn’t have a problem getting this done in the next two weeks.

    • maintain says:

      My argument was that porn makes you lose motivation. The guy I was supposed to be collaborating with (who loves porn) lost the motivation to collaborate. I’m not sure if this counts as a victory for me.

      • vaaal888 says:

        This would be really interesting. Maybe you could post/send me your part of the argument?

      • R.G. says:

        As an (unfortunately) porn-addict who works pretty hard: would be interested to see the argument

      • jeray2000 says:

        Could I try taking over as your partner? I’m a bit reluctant since I don’t think I’d do a very good job, but if there are only three other teams that’s a 25% chance at $1000.

    • Erusian says:

      My partner was under the impression the deadline had passed and stopped replying to me.

    • Keller Scholl says:

      Not ready, unlikely to be ready in the immediate future, and intent on finishing regardless of eligibility status.

    • tayfie says:

      We couldn’t make our schedules work in June and I haven’t heard from my partner since.

      Don’t expect a report from us. We both did a decent amount of research, but never synthesized it into anything readable. I still enjoyed it though and would love if this became a regular thing.

      • tailcalled says:

        I think one problem that normal adversarial collaborations might have is that getting a platform for them might be hard. Competitions like this help motivate it because there’s a good chance for the result to be read by a lot more people.

      • fion says:

        Since you’ve done the research, if you still don’t hear from your partner would you consider writing up what you’ve learned and posting it in an OT some day? Obviously it’s a shame to not get an adversarial collaboration out of it, but it also seems a shame for your research to go to waste, and well-informed one-sided persuasive essays are good too.

        Just a thought. 🙂

      • dlr says:

        What was your subject?

    • a reader says:

      My partner-adversary abandoned at the very beginning, after two email exchanges, without giving an explanation – just stopped responding to my emails.

      The collaboration was about transgender children, if they should transition in childhood and take puberty blockers or not.

      I gathered a lot of documentation (mostly studies, but also some press articles and parents’ experiences), so, if somebody else is interested to be my “adversary”, to advocate for transition in childhood, and Scott gives the two-week extension lamaybe & sclmlw asked, I am still interested to do it.

    • Soeren E says:

      We signed up to collaborate on investigating if AGI could be developed within 1000 years.

      Unfortunately, the adversary had some stuff come up in real life, and forgot about the project. I wrote down some of my thoughts, but I was not satisfied with the quality of my work. This (and lack of time) caused me to not remind him actively.

      I’ve sent a reminder now, and maybe we will continue.

    • tailcalled says:

      My adversary pretty much abandoned the project after writing some initial notes. I’ve tried getting a new partner some times during the timeline, but have had no luck. I don’t seem to be able to get one, and even if I did, we would have to start from the beginning.

    • JRM says:

      We will not complete, sadly.

      • toBoot says:

        Sad indeed! It’s been a pleasure bouncing thoughts around though – let me know if you want to pick this up someday when life is less hectic!

  2. Scott Alexander says:

    Suppose I want to become more Cultured by having read more of the Great Books that will often come up in conversation or debate. Which books are highest-yield for this?

    By high-yield, I mean books that frequently come up, are impressive to have read, are relatively short, at least a little readable/fun-to-read, teach you important things you wouldn’t learn by reading the one-page summary, and might be educational for me personally (eg are from exotic traditions other than Anglo-American liberalism which I might not otherwise be exposed to).

    (if it helps to have an example, the dialogues of Plato and Beyond Good And Evil both seem to fit the bill, but I’m also looking for literature, economics, etc, not just philosophy)

    • Well... says:

      Heart of Darkness is probably one.

      • blacktrance says:

        Anti-recommend – one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Despite being short, it was still a struggle to get through, and without any payoff besides being able to say that I’ve read it.

        • frenris says:

          Yeah not a fan of Heart of Darkness though I really enjoy Joseph Conrad as an author. Loved Nostromo, Lord Jim, and the Secret Agent.

          I wonder if part of the reason Heart of Darkness is conventionally more respected is because it has more anti-colonial politics. It also feels like it tries to be more literary than either Nostromo or Lord Jim.

    • Charles F says:

      I think none of us are in as good a position as you to answer that question, since I don’t know what comes up in your conversations, and it probably varies a lot from person to person. (e.g. from @Well…’s comment, I’ve heard of Heart of Darkness, but don’t remember it ever coming up in conversation).

      Things that I get a lot of mileage out of are:
      The Brothers Karamazov
      The Intelligent Investor
      The Story of Civilization series (still working my way through it, slowly)

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        What Charles said – this is a question that seems only answerable if we know that you’re going to tour the entire world, giving talks about, say, Great Books. In reality, though, you’re probably going to spend most of your time in the Bay area.

        OTOH, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer about this, and really, the more I think about the question, the more I enjoy it. For example, in my current circles, the Great Book list would probably be:

        the Torah
        the New Testament
        The Gulag Archipelago
        Atlas Shrugged
        The Handmaid’s Tale (I don’t know what the cutoff for Great is, and I know it’s especially hot now because of television, but it might have legs)

        …and just looking at this list, I can see that my circles might be a tad depressed…

      • frenris says:

        When I was halfway through Brothers Karamazov I thought it would be my favorite book of all time. When I got to the end I thought it was in the bottom half of my top ten. Great book, but arggh.

        • zoozoc says:

          If it helps, I believe that Dostoevsky was planning on writing a sequel to the Brothers Karamazov, but died before he could do so.

    • theredsheep says:

      The Brothers Karamazov is an enormous slog, like all Dostoyevsky novels, but The Grand Inquisitor section is sometimes released separately (including on Project Gutenberg) and I find it fascinating. It’s one chapter, but needs to be paired with the preceding chapter, “Rebellion.”

      • Protagoras says:

        “Notes from Underground” is not an enormous slog. It is always the Dostoyevsky I recommend for that reason, though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea in every respect.

        • frenris says:

          It’s a short slog. A portage through waist high swamp for a few hundred meters.

          Great story and better than an all day hike if you’re going to visit the marshlands for the first time.

          I wasn’t able to enjoy Crime and punishment. I could recognize it was a great book, but it was too dark for me to have fun reading it. Brothers Karamazov I enjoyed much more.

          • g says:

            I have several times had the following experience: Start reading “Crime and Punishment”. Think “wow, this is an astonishingly good book”. Have to put it down for some reason. Somehow never feel like picking it up again.

            (After a few iterations of this, I did eventually get myself to finish it. I still think it’s an astonishingly good book, though at times it felt as if there was more authorial axe-grinding than I would like.)

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        “The Gambler” is pretty short and very readable.

      • DavidS says:

        Agreed (I actually think “Rebellion” is far more interesting: it’s one of the core literary texts for me on the problem of evil, along with the obvious Candide and the less obvious Brave New World (the bit near the end where people ‘claim the right’ to starve, get diseases etc.)

      • Chiffewar says:

        The ‘highest-yield’ works in classical Russian literature are probably Gogol’s short stories — I’d start with “The Overcoat”, “The Nose”, and maybe “Viy”, which I think might be right up Scott’s alley. And I’d agree that Brothers K is not the best place to dive into 19th century Russian lit. Crime and Punishment, however, is the highest of high-brow detective stories, and both useful and fun.

        • WashedOut says:

          Crime and Punishment, however, is the highest of high-brow detective stories, and both useful and fun.

          Do you say that tongue-in-cheek or do you really view it as a detective story? I’ve never heard it framed that way, presumably because a) the central ‘crime’ has no mystery to it apart from asking the reader to examine multiple complex motives; b) there is an inevitability about Porfiry’s investigation that bypasses most of the intrigue of a standard whodunnit.

          As you probably know, the Russian version of the title is closer to ‘transgression’ than ‘crime’, which steers the reader toward the book’s moral/philosophical questions rather than it’s plot events.

          • Chiffewar says:

            Tongue in cheek! That’s how the professor in my first Dostoevsky class tried to sell it to us. But it is very readable, and a lot of that is due to plot events. It’s pretty action-packed.

          • sclmlw says:

            And hilarious! I feel like this book doesn’t get enough credit for being something of a page-turner. Sure, it has a couple of slow points, but it makes good on them.

            Dostoevsky really knows how to write “talkative drunk” convincingly.

            I usually frame this as a “psychological thriller”.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          Checkhov’s short stories are excellent as well. I have never met anyone else who has read any of them.

          • yodelyak says:

            Yes! I have only read a few shorts and one play, inspired by realizing I’d seen a couple of his plays, not knowing they were his, and added him to my favorites and finally got a copy of a collection of his works.

            The Seagull and The Three Sisters are his plays that I finally got around to reading the originals after realizing I’d seen and loved adaptations, and I’ve read The Lady with the Dog. A veritable butt-load of his stuff is online, which at some point I noticed and flagged to follow-up on, but sadly haven’t yet.

            The play “Stupid Fucking Bird” is a Chekhov adaptation that has been a pretty big success in a few of my circles, I think–I saw it in Portland on a suggestion from a Bay Area friend. It showed in PDX in a packed house, and afterward I was able to talk about it with friends on the East Coast who’d also seen it.

    • Tyrathalis says:

      St. John’s College uses something called The Program, which is based in readings from historic thinkers. The math and science sections don’t have such nice lists, but the history/philosophy/literature section publishes the list read by every student that year. It’s a good summary of some important books and how much of them may be efficient to read, since most of those readings are supposed to be done in three or four days by a college student. This year’s version is available here:


      Also, some specific suggestions:
      Any of Shakespeare’s comedies are easy reads and great to reference in conversation, plus there is a lot of fun trivia about them in the annotated copies. His histories are maybe more quotable, though.
      Knowing just a single book of the bible well gives you a lot of cultural context. Psalms is a pretty good choice for this, since it summarizes a lot of specific advice.
      The Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics are of course somewhat foundational to western thought, although you have to read them in the right way. Socrates and Aristotle aren’t always right, but they have probably already thought of most of the complaints you might have with them.
      Herotodus’ Histories can be very readable. Not very accurate, but often hilarious.
      Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is great, although not very short. Just doing the readings on the list I linked above is much more efficient than reading the whole thing.
      The Federalist Papers are important to American history in particular, and aren’t very long.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        For the Hebrew Bible, I can strongly recommend Robert Alter’s translations, which include commentaries that give useful highlights from a ton of the last thousand-plus years of previous commentaries. I kind of figure you must already know all of this stuff because Unsong, but just in case, he’s really quite engaging. The most narratively interesting of his is probably The David Story:


        The “Wisdom Books” (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) are also super good and quite short:

        And if you are at all a Song of Solomon fan, his translation there is worthwhile too:

      • jrdougan says:

        If you are going to read the Federalist Papers, I’d also include the Anti-Federalist Papers. Significant, and almost no one reads them.

        • engleberg says:

          The Arcana Imperi has a cool title, is referenced in Franklin’s Autobiography, was widely read in coffee shops for a hundred years before the Constitution was written, and is still a good read. But, umm, I don’t remember any cool quotes for upmanship.

          • Joseph Greenwood says:

            I definitely encourage you to read anti-federalist papers if you are reading the Federalist papers, but I dispute the word “the”. Lots of stuff was written by antifederalists, but there is not a canonical anti-federalist text. However, there have been several efforts to organize (some) anti-federalist writings in a way that is symmetric to the Federalist papers, and I second the recommendation to read some of them.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        One thing that drives me nuts is that people treat the Republic as a political treatise, instead of an ethical/philosophical book. Plato isn’t talking about a literal Republic, guys, he’s talking about your soul! What is the best way to live?

        but every few months I see someone joke about philosopher kings as if the Republic was meant to be consulted when writing the Constitution or something. Bah.

        • Tyrathalis says:

          Recognizing that the republic he describes is largely and explicitly metaphorical is definitely the sort of thing I was talking about. Plato means a lot of different things with his examples, and he almost certainly means some from a political perspective, but it also isn’t necessarily accurate to say that he literally thinks infanticide is the foundation of a healthy society, for instance.

          In a more general sense, though, I think it’s important to recognize that Plato and Aristotle are not necessarily saying the answer they think is most /true/, they are saying the answer that they think is most /useful/, and specifically most useful for the individual person they are talking to. The dialogues in particular have specific interlocutors. The answers Socrates gives are meant to guide those individuals closer to the truth. The answer that is right for them is not necessarily the answer that is right for you, and it is definitely not necessarily the answer which is right in a completely abstract sense.

          When Plato or Aristotle writes something, it is intended as a tool to guide your thinking in a particular direction. There are little clues that you can use to figure out what they actually think, but I think it is relatively rare for either author to just explicitly tell you the answer they think is correct. Normally, the answer that they officially give you can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and which way you interpret it says more about you than about the author. Further, I suspect that they often tried to construct the answers such that each person will interpret the answer in the way which will be most useful for the sort of person who would interpret it in that way. I’m not sure they always succeeded at this, but I think they tried, and it can be very useful to work under the assumption that they did.

          So I personally think that the right way to read Plato and Aristotle is to treat the texts as tools for thinking more deeply about problems, and to use the methods of Socrates, not the answers. They are trying to teach specific lessons, but many of those lessons are lessons of thought, not lessons of politics or even ethics. Learning those styles of thinking is much more useful than learning whether a four-part caste system is really the optimal way to arrange a city-state.

        • Viliam says:

          Plato isn’t talking about a literal Republic, guys, he’s talking about your soul! What is the best way to live?


          And so, Glaucon, we have arrived at the conclusion that in the perfect State wives and children are to be in common; and that all education and the pursuits of war and peace are also to be common, and the best philosophers and the bravest warriors are to be their kings?

          That, replied Glaucon, has been acknowledged.

          Yes, I said; and we have further acknowledged that the governors, when appointed themselves, will take their soldiers and place them in houses such as we were describing, which are common to all, and contain nothing private, or individual; and about their property, you remember what we agreed?

          Yes, I remember that no one was to have any of the ordinary possessions of mankind; they were to be warrior athletes and guardians, receiving from the other citizens, in lieu of annual payment, only their maintenance, and they were to take care of themselves and of the whole State.

          So, having wives and children in common, and no private property for soldiers, is not a political program?

          Poor Glaucon seems to have missed the point, and the narrator actively misleads him.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          From Book 2:

          “The inquiry we are undertaking is no easy one but [368d] calls for keen vision, as it seems to me. So, since we are not clever persons, I think we should employ the method of search that we should use if we, with not very keen vision, were bidden to read small letters from a distance, and then someone had observed that these same letters exist elsewhere larger and on a larger surface. We should have accounted it a godsend, I fancy, to be allowed to read those letters first, and examine the smaller, if they are the same.” “Quite so,” said Adeimantus; [368e] “but what analogy to do you detect in the inquiry about justice?” “I will tell you,” I said: “there is a justice of one man, we say, and, I suppose, also of an entire city.” “Assuredly,” said he. “Is not the city larger75 than the man?” “It is larger,” he said. “Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend. If it please you, then, [369a] let us first look for its quality in states, and then only examine it also in the individual, looking for the likeness of the greater in the form of the less.”

          This is the origin of the text that you quoted at me – yes, they’re discussing a city, but as a metaphor. A city is larger and easier to comprehend than a human soul, so looking for what makes a city just will also show you what makes a soul just.

          It’s also worth nothing that the Greek title is Politeia, which may be variously translated as “Civic Matters,” “Public Affairs,” or, my preference, “Governance.” Cicero translated it to res publica, hence English The Republic. But there are shades of meaning in the Greek that are largely lost in the English associations of republic as one particular form of government. The Greek is rather just referring to the ways that polis might be organized – and by analogy, how a human soul likewise is to be governed.

          I say again: It’s an ethical/philosophical text, not a political treatise like Locke or Montesquieu.

        • Viliam says:

          This is the origin of the text that you quoted at me – yes, they’re discussing a city, but as a metaphor.

          Maybe I am dumb here, but could you please unpack for me the meaning of the metaphor “wives and children in common, and no private property for soldiers; that’s the perfect State”? What specifically does this advise about governing one’s soul?

        • yes, they’re discussing a city, but as a metaphor.

          That’s not what I get from the passage you quoted.

          It sounds as though they are using political philosophy as a tool to understand the individual. You figure out what the ideal city would be like, then consider the ideal person as a scaled down version of that.

          So the first step is political philosophy. If, in the ideal city, people would not have things in common, then anything deduced from an imaginary city where they do will be a poor picture of what the ideal man would be like.

        • Enkidum says:

          The Republic is a political treatise. It’s also an ethical treatise. For Plato, the two were inseparable. Yes, there are aspects of it that are probably metaphorical. To read the whole thing as a metaphor is to have completely missed Plato’s point.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          Maybe I am dumb here, but could you please unpack for me the meaning of the metaphor “wives and children in common, and no private property for soldiers; that’s the perfect State”? What specifically does this advise about governing one’s soul?

          Consider the entire context. The city/soul as described by Socrates (Plato) is divided into three parts: The rulers (the much-derided “philosopher kings”), the soldiers, and the producers. Each part of the soul is governed by a different nature. The rulers are rational and wise, using reason to determine the best course. The soldiers are brave, spirited, driven by passion. And the producers are driven by appetite – for food, sex, wealth, status, what have you.

          The unjust polis/soul is one where these are out of balance. There’s a lot of discussion of the character of tyrants in Book VII – in all cases, the city/tyrant’s soul are governed unjustly, usually by one passion or another run amuck. Plato analyzes each form of unjust government in this light, from oligarchy to democracy to timocracy and tyranny.

          So, avoiding this imbalance of passion is a very powerful concern for the man who wishes to be just.

          “One who is just does
          not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale… And when he does anything…, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions. And he believes that the action that destroys this harmony is unjust and calls it so, and regards the belief that oversees it as ignorance.” (443d-444a)

          In other words, you mustn’t let your appetites rule you. In Book V, where the commonality of wives and property amongst the soldiers is described, Plato gives the reasoning: since men and women of the ruling class are to be educated equally, and hold the same pursuits, necessarily they will be closely intimate, and sexual desire will be inflamed:

          And they, having houses and meals in common, and no private possessions of that kind, [458d] will dwell together, and being commingled in gymnastics and in all their life and education, will be conducted by innate necessity to sexual union. Is not what I say a necessary consequence?” “Not by the necessities of geometry,” he said, “but by those of love,87 which are perhaps keener and more potent than the other to persuade and constrain the multitude.”

          “They are, indeed,” I said; “but next, Glaucon, disorder and promiscuity in these unions or [458e] in anything else they do would be an unhallowed thing in a happy state and the rulers will not suffer it.” “It would not be right,” he said. “Obviously, then, we must arrange marriages, sacramental so far as may be. And the most sacred marriages would be those that were most beneficial.”

          In other words, the communal marriage is a means to avoid jealousy and disharmony, which would threaten the rational state. The just polis/soul has all parts working in balance – your reason must temper and control your appetites, you mustn’t be ruled by your appetites (or by your courage untempered by wisdom, like if the soldier part of your soul gained control).

          I am willing to concede Atlas’s criticism – the polis Plato describes is really complex and detailed, and I will grant that Plato probably did indulge himself in imagining a utopian, ideal state. What I want to emphasize, though, is his purpose in doing so: it’s to teach individuals how to live. It’s not meant to be a guide to a Constitution, that’s not what he was writing. If that’s all it was, the Republic would be remembered as a silly little exercise by an ancient philosopher who had other, stronger works.

          But there’s a reason it’s still considered one of the greatest works of Greek philosophy – it’s one of the earliest and most coherent ethical treatises ever written. Contrast it with a lot of the Jewish wisdom literature being written at roughly the same time (I’m not an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures, I don’t know the specific chronologies on the individual books). Lots of ethical injunctions, yes – but totally different foundation. Relies a lot more heavily on the Word of the Lord, divine commandments, while Plato purports to be reasoning his way to the ideal soul from first principles.

        • Rob K says:

          With the caveat that I know a lot about that period of Greek history and only a bit about Plato, this angle strikes me as too clever by half.

          Part of what’s great about the Greeks is that they thought big, and had wildly different examples of how to organize a society packed into a tiny area to draw inspiration from. I see very little reason to believe that Plato wasn’t largely serious – the 150 years of Athenian history leading up to his time saw several great constitutional shifts, and the city’s great rival Sparta had a vastly different constitution with at least hints of some of the blurring of family and community described in the republic.

          (Also, from my little philosophical knowledge, this isn’t some crazy outlier take; Popper at least takes Plato at his word.)

        • quanta413 says:

          Also, from my little philosophical knowledge, this isn’t some crazy outlier take; Popper at least takes Plato at his word.

          How trustworthy is Popper as an interpreter of Plato? I’ve been very, very far from impressed from what I’ve gleaned about Popper as a philosopher of science (it’s possible this is not all Popper’s fault but partly the fault of summaries), so I’m reluctant to trust him in an area where I have no expertise (ancient philosophy).

        • Philosophisticat says:

          The Republic is about a lot of things – besides ethics and political philosophy, for example, it spends a lot of time on the metaphysics of the forms and the nature and structure of the soul.

          All of these things are related for Plato, and even if it’s in some sense true that his driving interest is in how to live, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to treat it as in part a political or metaphysical treatise. Plato wants to illuminate justice in the soul through analogy with the city, but this doesn’t make the discussion of the city “merely metaphorical” in any sense that contrasts with it being a serious presentation of Plato’s substantive views about ideal political organization.

        • Protagoras says:

          Yes, Popper is an outlier in his Plato interpretation. To understand Republic, one of the first things to keep in mind is that Plato absolutely hates Homer. He is surely unfair to the nuances in Homer, but it is true that Homer treats his warrior-aristocrats, his “heroes,” as the only people worth writing about, and Plato was in a position to know how this influenced those who heard Homer over and over again growing up. All the little Greek boys wanted to be Achilles. And Plato is convinced that this is a horrible model, that nobody should treat Homer’s warrior-aristocrats as in any way admirable or worthy of emulation. Evidence of Plato’s opinion of Homer is most blatant in book X, but it’s really all over the place in Republic.

          But perhaps we should start at the beginning. Socrates and Thrasymachus engage in a lightning-fast debate. Another key element of Plato; he thought anything people couldn’t figure out for themselves they didn’t really understand. He did not favor giving out the answer key, for fear it would become a set of worthless platitudes. He always wants you to work to figure out what’s going on. And it takes a lot of work to figure out what’s going on in the Socrates/Thrasymachus debate. And in the end, somewhat surprisingly, the person who seems to understand it second best, after Socrates himself, is Thrasymachus; his moves, while ultimately futile, are clearly calculated to respond to the arguments Socrates is actually making, indicating that he has a pretty good sense of what the arguments are. He still doesn’t completely get it; he concedes when he runs out of tricks, and never seems to get that Socrates isn’t actually trying to trick him, that Socrates wins because Thrasymachus is actually wrong.

          Glaucon and Adiemantus also do not get it. They tell Socrates they are not convinced, and present their attempt to elaborate and strengthen Thrasymachus’s view (a totally unnecessary effort; as Socrates insists, he knows what Thrasymachus’s view is, and doesn’t need the elaborations). A non-trivial amount of their inability to understand seems to come from their early Homeric brainwashing. And yet they claim to be in sympathy with Socrates, and just want him to be clearer about things. So Socrates embarks on a very long discussion which is carefully calculated to pander to the prejudices of people like Glaucon and Adiemantus, and to try, with luck, to dislodge a few of their errors and nudge them a tiny bit closer to the truth.

          There’s a lot more going on, of course, but again, to emphasize the obvious, Plato has one of the very few dialogues where Socrates has anything to say about politics be one where he is talking to politically ambitious young members of the Athenian elite. Socrates hardly looks much like a philosopher king, and if Republic tries to present a philosopher king as something appealing, it is because being like Socrates himself is too alien to have any hope of being something that he could sell to the likes of Glaucon and Adiemantus. And even at that the text doesn’t make it sound like one would particularly want to be one of the described philosopher kings. The main message is that there is something very much wrong with the ideas Glaucon and Adiemantus (and really everyone) have about what is desirable, and Socrates is pushing anywhere he can to dislodge the incredibly deeply ingrained errors people have in that respect.

      • SamChevre says:

        My recommendation for the Bible is “read the whole thing, in the KJV”; but for a single book of the Bible, I would recommend Isaiah. It is realistically utopian, hugely influential for both Jewish and Christian thought, and very poetic with awesome imagery.

        And the strong shall be as tow, and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.

        they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

        Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet:

        For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly:

        • sclmlw says:

          As someone who loves Isaiah, I have to disagree with your recommendation. It seems like Scott is looking for something that you can easily sink your teeth into without having to make a huge study of it. That’s the exact opposite of what you get with Isaiah. If you have extensive knowledge of the political, cultural, and literary background of Isaiah’s time period, it’s a very enjoyable read.

          If, on the other hand, you don’t have the time to put in all that work, aren’t interested in it from any religious perspective, and want something you can get through quickly to better understand and apply cultural references, Isaiah isn’t what you’re looking for.

          Isaiah is like marzipan, an acquired taste well worth cultivating but not immediately recognized as enjoyable. It’s not like a Costco-sized bag of Reese’s.

          • Aapje says:

            Is marzipan an acquired taste???

            It seems better to use wine, coffee or licorice as an example.

          • outis says:

            Indeed, marzipan is naturally good. Conversely, Reese’s is an acquired taste (acquired by growing up in the US, like Capri Sun), though not worth cultivating.

          • SamChevre says:

            Hmmm. It’s hard to factor out that I have read the Bible a lot, so I may be missing the importance of background. I think, though, that Isaiah stands on its own as a literary work, which is referenced over and over again in American popular culture (The picture The Peaceable Kingdom“, “The Grapes of Wrath”, swords into ploughshares, etc.)

          • Matt M says:

            When I attempted to read the KJV cover to cover, I recall Isiah being among the most boring and hard to get through parts.

            I much preferred Hosea. Something about “in order to show you how wicked you are all being, I am going to marry a whore” made for a much more compelling narrative!

          • sclmlw says:

            The first trick to Isaiah, for the uninitiated, is to understand that in general he’s talking about the historical context of 7th-6th century BC Israel’s threatened invasion crisis. At the same time he’s generally considered to also be prophesying about the future, and often with Messianic themes.

            The second trick is to understand Isaiah is that his preferred form of ancient Semitic poetry heavily relies on parallel structures. You say something, then you repeat it again in a similar way. Or you reverse it. Or you say the opposite.

            “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

            Even if you understand the historical context, if you don’t understand the basic poetic forms, it makes the book nigh unreadable. There was good reason to write like this back when few people could read, and most reading was done aloud for the benefit of others who would rely solely on their memory to recall concepts later on. But it’s not a literary style we’ve needed since most people became literate and books became cheap.

            Once you get the hang of it, you can forget that for most people who just pick up the Bible Isaiah is very difficult and doesn’t immediately appear like it will yield dividends. The same goes for marzipan and sushi. Most people need multiple exposures to get used to the flavor bitter almond or raw fish. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile. I love all three of these, but they are an acquired taste for most – including myself.

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            My theory on “acquired tastes” is that they’re addictive substances that taste bad, but win you over by the addiction.

            I don’t know of many counter examples.

          • Aapje says:

            @Squirrel of Doom


          • Joseph Greenwood says:

            +1 for this comment

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I loved marzipan from my first taste. It doesn’t taste bitter to me.

            And I love sushi with no effort.

            I’ve gradually gotten used to peanuts, which seem to be an easy default for most people.

            As for Isaiah, I thought parallelism was easy rhetoric for most people, and I’ve seen a claim that if was providential that it was a sort of poetry which is easy to translate.

      • Zeno of Citium says:

        I strongly recommend against reading Shakespeare if you’re looking for the best effort to reward ratio. Watch a well-reviewed movie version instead. Almost everything has a good movie, and most plays have multiple good movie versions. Despite having been, historically, read a ton (there are print runs of Shakespeare’s plays there are no extant copies of because they’d literally all been read to pieces), they’re simply not designed to be read – they’re plays, they should be watched. Live on stage is best, but that’s a lot of effort for most people, and a good movie is not far off.

        Top plays to watch if you want to get cultural references are:
        1. Romeo and Juliet (which, if you haven’t been exposed to it since you read it in highschool, is rather different when you’re an adult.).
        2. Hamlet (ditto, also Hamlet is dense and strange and IMO overrated. Worth watching just so you can then watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which is a parody of sorts. Has three or four incredible speeches referenced in tons of places. The Laurence Olivier movie is only okay overall, but Olivier himself is great in it).
        3. Macbeth (short, bloody, and to the point. IMO the most fun tragedy – it’s neither as emotionally or morally complex as e.g. Hamlet and that’s part of the fun).
        4. The Merchant of Venice (often played as a tragedy focusing on Shylock, but also a very funny comedy. The 2004 version with Jeremy Irons is reportedly very good, with a focus on the tragic aspects).
        5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (bawdy, absurd comedy. Absolutely delightful).
        6. The Tempest (A lovely comedy that includes magic, drunken antics, and romance).

        If I had to pick one play to start with, I’d go with The Tempest. It’s not quite as rich with things that have entered our cultural lexicon as Hamlet, but it’s up there, and I think The Tempest is one of the better comedies which I’d expect almost anyone to enjoy. Macbeth is the easiest tragedy to understand, and it’s the shortest (this is not a coincidence). If you only watch one tragedy, pick Macbeth. Hamlet is referenced more – a lot more – but it kind of drags, and because there’s 2 major versions of the text, it’s a crapshoot which version, or more commonly which portions of each version, you get.

        • AG says:

          Co-signed, but more in that Shakespeare’s words are so much more dependent on actor/director interpretation than anything else. The same line can be delivered in completely different contexts, depending on the text-extraneous action that is unique to every production.

          I actually recommend first watching adaptations not using the original text (for example, Throne of Blood for Macbeth) in order to get a sense of the plot and characters, so that when you are listening to the text you have a preexisting model for parsing the language. Actually, you can’t go wrong with the Wishbone versions.

          Much Ado About Nothing is a personal favorite. I’ve seen more than 3 versions of it now, and every one has taken very different approaches to the material. Whedon >>> Branagh don’t @ me

        • Fahundo says:

          Romeo and Juliet (which, if you haven’t been exposed to it since you read it in highschool, is rather different when you’re an adult.).

          How so? I really hated this one in high school.

          • theredsheep says:

            A major subtext is that kids are stupid jerks who make things worse with their impulsive decisions. High schools tend to downplay this, and the part where Romeo barely knows Juliet and the Friar only goes along with the stupidity because it beats the way their two families normally treat each other.

            I assume that’s what Zeno was getting at. But I don’t much care for the play myself. I’m a King Lear kinda guy.

          • Fahundo says:

            A major subtext is that kids are stupid jerks who make things worse with their impulsive decisions.

            Oh, I picked up on that the first time and that’s why I hated it so much. At 14 I thought the titular characters were so moronic they deserved to die.

          • Matt M says:

            Did they really “make things worse” though?

            In the long run, their actions may have led to the end of a destructive feud between two powerful families that would have had unknowable future costs.

            Utilitarianism suggests that their sacrifice may have been net beneficial to humanity overall!

          • Fahundo says:

            Does a red check mark where the report button usually is mean I’ve reported the comment? If so, I might have accidentally done that to Matt M.

          • John Schilling says:

            In the long run, their actions may have led to the end of a destructive feud between two powerful families that would have had unknowable future costs.

            You know what else would have ended that feud(*)? A nice public wedding between Romeo and Juliet, with the heads of both houses in joyful attendance. And note that Capulet is already on record as saying,

            1. That he accepts the Prince’s decree ending the feud, and doesn’t want any more killing,

            2. That Juliet is not going to be forced into loveless diplomatic marriage with someone like Paris any time soon, and

            3. That Romeo is such an admirable young man that it’s OK for him to crash our parties even if he is a Montague.

            So, Plan A: talk to Capulet and say “We’re madly in love with one another, can we please get married?”. Or Plan B: stupid idiotic teenage drama, whining about “forbidden love” that basically every adult not named Paris would support if they knew about. Shakespeare was in on the joke; those two morons died because they were too stupid to live.

            * Aside from the Prince of Verona saying “this feud is over, or I’m having the lot of you killed”. Act I, Scene I.

          • Fahundo says:

            You know what else would have ended that feud(*)? A nice public wedding between Romeo and Juliet, with the heads of both houses in joyful attendance.

            It’s a shame Thanksgiving didn’t exist back then because that would be the perfect counter to this.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Fahundo: too bad no one today can imitate Shakespeare’s style at length. An alt R&J with a Thanksgiving feud would be amazing.

          • Zeno of Citium says:

            At 14 I thought the titular characters were so moronic they deserved to die.

            Okay, maybe it’s not different for everyone. The way it’s generally taught to teenagers is a sappy story about twue wuv, the way I studied it in college was much more complicated. Romeo and Juliet are two hormone-addled teenagers, sure, but Shakespeare’s age really believe in love at first sight and all that, so there’s a tension between the classic story of forbidden love and the comedy of errors that occurs in the last act when they kill themselves. Yet somehow, all the hokeyness and coincidences don’t matter when you actually see it staged, even though the plot and characters are all kind of dumb on paper.
            I don’t know. I like it – it’s a great play – but for tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice is better, for (semi-)forbidden love Othello , for major characters being stabbed Macbeth is better. Also, it’s completely wasted on teenagers, most of whom don’t get it even a little bit.

            I’m a King Lear kinda guy.

            Yessssss. Lear is the purest, most tragic tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote. No one in all of Shakespeare falls as far as Lear, no one is as pathetic (in the sense of having pathos) as Lear. It deserves to be on the level of Hamlet. Maybe Lear isn’t as popular because it doesn’t have any memorable soliloquies and Hamlet has about three.

          • AG says:

            I disagree that Shakespeare was trying to write a “teens are stupid” morality play. He wrote the characters as they are. Take the Baz Luhrmann film adaptation, which sets the aesthetics (visual framing, pacing, acting direction) from the view of the hormone-addled teenager, where everything is apocalyptic. Or are we going to say that FLCL is also sneering at adolescence now, as it, too, acknowledges the ways in which teens lack perspective?

            (Ironically, the anime adaptation of R&J rejects the tragic ending.)

            R&J continues to be referenced again and again because it explores how passion (love or hatred) drives us all, and so infinite stories can use it as a touchstone. Universal emotions and all that.
            What elements of R&J criticized here still apply to West Side Story? One of the things made more clear (via the Officer Krupke song and the Lt. Schrank character) is that the kids are what we’ve made them. The teenage impulsiveness that would be harmless in one world lead to needless death in another because the adults have constructed the context where kids can cause such chaos in their actions. Teenage rashness is inevitable, so the adults bear the burden of having stoked those flames for their own selfish pride, instead of letting them be silly safely.

            R&J can continually be re-skinned to whatever factional conflict you can think of, and it will still remain compelling to most people. (After all, the Bard already stole the plot from someone else.)

          • Tarpitz says:

            For my money, Lear’s the greatest piece of writing/thought/poetic expression of ideas, but Othello’s the most successful qua stage drama – the best play.

        • Cliff says:

          Well, if you watch a play you’re not going to understand what the F anyone is saying. You really need an annotated written copy to understand more than about 50% of it even if you’re pretty damn smart and have a strong vocabulary. Yeah you can get the gist of what is happening, but for me I want to understand the words. There’s all kinds of jokes and wordplay in there that you just aren’t going to get without it being explained to you.

          I would say read first, then maybe watch it acted out. They’re not that long to read.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’ve almost had the opposite experience. At this point in my life I can usually get through Shakespearean English without too much trouble, but back when i had more trouble with it, a well-done play would give me all sorts of context cues that the text wouldn’t. The “country matters” line delivered with a pause and a leer is way more salient than the line alone, for example.

            It does have to be a good play, though, put on by actors that know the text well.

          • AG says:

            Exactly. A footnote saying “this line is a bawdy joke about the butt” is not nearly as illuminating as watching said bawd character toss the line out and Slappin’ Dat Ass.
            Similarly, the intent of any given monologue is entirely up in the air dependent on the extra-textual elements chosen by the director and actors. What is a wistful musing on a subject in one production becomes an angry rant in another, stemming from very different characterizations for what is the same character and the same lines in the text.

            Kyle Kallgren’s video on Richard III talks about a very clear example, where the “Winter of Discontent” monologue begins as a public speech to in-play characters, but then switches to an airing of unspoken inner thoughts to the audience, which therefore demonstrates how the character is two-faced. The annotated text may tell you what the words mean, but they don’t do the literary heavy lifting for you, which is effortless conveyed by the live/visual framing. Picture, thousand words, etc.

          • Zeno of Citium says:

            YMMV, but I’ve seen a few plays blind and they’re easy enough to follow. I even saw The Tempest some time in middle school, before I’d read any Shakespeare, and loved it. Words that seem archaic on the page jump are full of emotion and context in a play.

            Exactly. A footnote saying “this line is a bawdy joke about the butt” is not nearly as illuminating as watching said bawd character toss the line out and Slappin’ Dat Ass.

            There’s a section in Macbeth, right after Macbeth murders the king, where to cut the tension a porter comes out and make some dick jokes. This is none too subtle on the page, but most stagings have hand gestures.

      • warrel says:

        I think the point about ‘wives and children in common ‘ is more like saying :
        — family ties are problematic for governing because they divide people’s loyalties. ..
        BUT ,
        in order to get rid of this problem, you’d have to take radical measures that are a) completely impossible and b) probably not desirable.
        A better regime has some way of fighting nepotism/etc. but will never be perfect at it barring
        some extreme experiment that will likely not happen or would involve too many other harms to implement.

    • SteveReilly says:

      The Wealth of Nations fits some of your criteria, and you get to win debates with people who refer to things like “the theory of the invisible hand” and quote some other famous bits that get taken out of context by people who I assume have never read the book. It’s also just good to read to know the history of some ideas. Keynes’s General Theory is decent for similar reasons, though a bit harder to read.

      Literature’s tougher to recommend since “readable” depends so much on your taste. I tried Death in Venice today and I found myself vaguely wishing an underreported contagion will kill me on a beach somewhere in Italy. If you like poetry, Elizabethan plays? Some of those longer works by the Romantics?

      • SamChevre says:

        I will second The Wealth of Nations; it’s not short, but it’s skimmable, and the common quotes represent it poorly.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          Is there a representative summary of it somewhere? I started reading it a few years ago, and was pulled away by other projects somewhere around the halfway mark. I’d be inclined to finish it someday, and then check my understanding of it against the summary.

          I know I could just search for one (and I have), but I think I’m looking for something between CliffNotes and the full text.

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        Third Wealth of Nations, since there’s plenty that can be skimmed or skipped. Like the digression on the price of silver.

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        “I tried Death in Venice today and I found myself vaguely wishing an underreported contagion will kill me on a beach somewhere in Italy.”

        Is that a recommendation?

      • engleberg says:

        Keynes was the twentieth century’s most brilliant essay writer: every lucid phrase slides smoothly into the next and points to the essay conclusion like a cherished 1880’s pump in your beloved family ever since with a slide like oiled glass, a balance Maat could salute, a stock your shoulder loves and a bead that never obscures the target it always points to perfection. His complete works are stuffed of pearls for upmanship, and the General Theory has lots. As well as a much more saleable title than Disjointed Bunch of Brilliant Essays That Never Amount To A General Theory Because Marshall Did Keynes’ General Theory For Him. Essay collections don’t sell.

    • johan_larson says:

      A few months back I did a bit of research to create a list of famous novels I aspire to read. I’ve read some of them, but so long ago they would be worth a reread. Perhaps the list contains some with good value per page.

      USA – 10
      My Antonia — Cather
      Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Twain
      Portnoy’s Complaint — Roth
      To Kill a Mockingbird — Lee
      The Great Gatsby — Fitzgerald
      Moby Dick — Melville
      The Call of the Wild — London
      The Sound and the Fury — Faulkner
      The Sun Also Rises — Hemingway
      Invisible Man — Ellison

      British – 10
      Heart of Darkness — Conrad
      Never Let Me Go — Ishiguro
      Atonement — McEwan
      Nineteen Eighty-Four — Orwell
      Pride and Prejudice — Austen
      Frankenstein — Shelley
      Jane Eyre — Brontë
      Great Expectations — Dickens
      To the Lighthouse — Woolf
      Kim — Kipling

      Canadian – 10
      The Handmaid’s Tale — Atwood
      Who Has Seen the Wind — Mitchell
      In the Skin of a Lion — Ondaatje
      Fifth Business — Davies
      Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — Leapock
      Two Solitudes — MacLennan
      The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — Richler
      The Orenda — Boyden
      How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired — Laferriere
      A Fine Balance — Mistry

      French – 5
      The Three Musketeers — Dumas
      The Hunchback of Notre Dame — Hugo
      Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — Verne
      Dangerous Liaisons — de Laclos
      Madame Bovary — Flaubert

      Russian – 5
      Crime and Punishment — Dostoevsky
      War and Peace — Tolstoy
      The Master and Margarita — Bulgakov
      Fathers and Sons — Turgenev
      A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — Solzhenitsyn

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        Of that list, Portnoy’s Complaint, Gatsby, 1984, and 20,000 Leagues are all easy reads with definite high value per page.

        • FoxLisk says:

          Strong disagree on Portnoy’s Complaint, which, in my opinion, is almost exclusively an attempt at shock that feels paper thin in $CURRENT_YEAR now that so little of it is shocking. For context, though, I also read American Pastoral (also by Roth), which is not at all like Portnoy’s Complaint, and also thought that sucked, so… I might just not like Roth as a rule.

          • j1000000 says:

            I love American Pastoral. Read it a year ago and thought it anticipated the current era by kind of noting how all of that 60s cultural upheaval stuff was still simmering under the generally calm surface of the 90s. But I never like other Roth.

      • Aapje says:

        From that list I would highly recommend:
        Pride and Prejudice — Austen
        Jane Eyre — Brontë
        Nineteen Eighty-Four — Orwell
        The Three Musketeers — Dumas
        War and Peace — Tolstoy

        I found this one OK:
        To Kill a Mockingbird — Lee

        Bored out of my skull (I was young when I read it though, perhaps I would enjoy it more now):
        The Great Gatsby — Fitzgerald

        Book that doesn’t fit the criteria, due to being very unknown, but is excellent:
        The Darkroom of Damocles (analogy: Fight Club for WW 2 resistance)

        • Hanfeizi says:

          The Great Gatsby is a book that is wasted on high school and college students, who are often bored out of their skull by it.

          I’m glad I didn’t read it until my early 30s, when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d just witnessed half a dozen Gatsby-like rise and falls in my late 20s spent in roaring Shanghai, myself just a Nick Carraway witnessing them.

          For my part, it’s a better take on the universal lie of the “American Dream” (which goes a lot further than just the US) than Death of a Salesman.

        • Joseph Greenwood says:

          I second this entire comment.

      • Deiseach says:

        Just beware when reading Frankenstein, if you’re expecting anything like the movie versions, it’s not like that. Long dramatic speeches by The Monster on the lines of Satan’s monologues from Paradise Lost are more like it.

        • albatross11 says:

          Definitely worth reading, though, as long as you’re not expecting it to be like the movies!

        • The Nybbler says:

          Now you’ve got me imagining Al Pacino as the Monster, which is ridiculous.

          • John Schilling says:

            No, it isn’t, and now I want to see that version. Pacino’s still in good enough shape to make it, I hope?

      • thirqual says:

        If you read Flaubert, read Bouvard et Pécuchet, not Madame Bovary. It is an immensely superior book, and its subject should be dear to this audience.

        • Simon says:

          I read Bovary last year and while I would not recommend it as an answer to Scotts question I found it a highly enjoyable read and very funny if you just accept that Emma is an absolutely terrible person.

      • “Frankenstein” is really, really a great book, but you’d have a hard time trying to recognize it from the countless movie interpretations. The book is much, much deeper than the movies. Mary Shelley might have been a genius.

        “Never let me go” is also a great book. Each chapter is like another blow to the head. You think: that’s ghastly, but surely from now on the characters’ lives must become better. And time and again you’re proven wrong.

        • Nornagest says:

          Frankenstein was good, but it’s the only one of the classic monster books that I really liked. Bram Stoker, for example, was a hack.

    • WashedOut says:

      Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. It doesn’t get discussed explicitly all that often (at least in my circles) but it’s rich in themes that do. I once read a great article in Quadrant that explored psychological parallels between the underground man and Julian Assange’s personality and circumstance. I’ve found Crime and Punishment to be excellent for similar reasons, and whilst it fails your “relatively short” criterion, I don’t think this should matter much.

      Not part of the Great Books canon, but Taleb’s Antifragile is fun to read. Although it is long, it’s a good gateway to ancient Arabic and middle-eastern schools of thought re: economics and philosophy.

      If you’re interested in the apprenticeship/journeyman model of learning, and want to know more about 16th century Italian life, I highly recommend the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini – an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, musician and soldier.

      For a story of human suffering and achievement, you can’t go past Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World, which describes Scott’s second (and terminal) scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1910.

      • Estera clare says:

        Aaah someone else has read Notes From Underground?? I love it but I can never find anything about it outside of Sparknotes and a few sentences from David Foster Wallace. (Just looked it up, and an article from the New Yorker I guess.)

        I also want to recommend avoiding the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation—I usually like them but in this book they made the terrible decision of translating the word that is usually translated as “spiteful” as “wicked” instead, which almost completely undercuts the whole book imo.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’ve read “Notes from Underground”, but I’m not sure I can intelligently comment on it.

        • sustrik says:

          Russian Existentialism, if ever such thing existed. If you liked it you may also enjoy Austro-Hungarian existentialism: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke.

        • Chiffewar says:

          Who would you recommend instead? AFAICT, Pevear/Volokhonsky are still the most faithful to the text. But I haven’t read any English translation in full, so I couldn’t really say.

          • Estera clare says:

            The only other translation I’ve read is Constance Garnett, which is not great but it’s passable. (Alternatively, you could do what I did, which is cross out every instance of “wicked” in P/V and replace it with “spiteful”).

          • Chiffewar says:

            Looking at the original, Pevear, and Garnett translations side by side, I think I like ‘wicked’ better than ‘spiteful’. That might just be because Garnett’s is so clunky. Neither really captures the slyness and whimsy of the original. ‘Sick’ and ‘wicked’ don’t go together nearly as well as ‘злой’ and ‘больной’ (though better than ‘sick’ and ‘spiteful’.) When I read ‘wicked’, I think of a ‘wicked smile’, which is not necessarily as cold and malicious as a ‘spiteful smile’, and maybe has some humor in it … Spite also makes me think of particular grudges with explicable reasons, whereas ‘wickedness’ is innate, inexplicable — the narrator just is that way, deal with it.
            Would you never translate ‘злой’ as ‘wicked’, or just not in this situation?

          • SteveReilly says:

            Anyone have thoughts on the Guerney translation? It’s a revision of the Garnett translation, available in his Treasury of Russian Literature. I have it on my shelf and have been meaning to get to it. Just curious what people think of it.

          • Estera clare says:

            (replying to Chiffewar) I guess I can see the appeal of “wicked,” it just seems vastly out of place for me. (And I am very much not coming at this as an expert in translation, just going by what I think works in the text). In their foreword P/V talk about how the word zloy is associated with evil witches and the opposite of a “good fairy”, and this doesn’t fit with my conception of the Underground Man, who I think of as someone primarily reacting to his society. I think our different understandings of spiteful might be doing a lot of the work here—when I think of spitefulness I’m more likely than not to imagine a grudge against society, or even against existence or abstract concepts—like the way the Underground Man keeps railing against “two and two makes four.” Starting with the Underground Man being wicked feels like it throws the book out of step. If the matter is that he’s just immoral, on a basic unchangeable level, then what’s the point of discussing the Crystal Palace, or anything else? Would he just be this way no matter what society looks like?

            (There’s also the rather more minor fact that I think “wicked” makes for some confusing sentences, like “I refuse to be treated out of wickedness.” I can imagine not going to the doctor because you’re spiteful and as willing to turn that on yourself as anyone else, but because you’re wicked?)

            I think it’s possible that I am just missing an entire reading here—”substituting the psychological for the moral,” as P/V say—and I may have overreacted in completely disrecommending (contraindicating? what’s the word for that anyway?) P/V’s Notes just ’cause of that, but in the way I understand the book, the Underground Man can’t be separated from the society he lives in, and that’s exactly what the word wicked does.

          • laughingagave says:

            My father was reading Notes From Underground and talking about just that translation problem a few days ago.

            Since it’s a single, important word, the most obvious solution seemed to be to teach the reader the Russian word somewhere in the introduction, in all its depth and nuance, then use it in the text, as is often done with podvig, nous, and others.

            At the same time, I’m not sure that wicked is altogether out of place. “I refuse to be treated out of wickedness” makes some amount of sense. His wickedness is the mirror image of Elder Zosima’s holiness (from Brothers Karamazov) — whereas Zosima shows his holiness by being careful about everything and everyone, considering himself responsible for the sins of all and praying for suicides just in case it might do some good, the Underground Man exhibits his wickedness by being slothful and negligent of everything and everyone, even very normal human goods like his own health.

    • sflicht says:

      Not sure how impressive it is, but a non-Anglophone “classics” (?) author I enjoyed a lot and found philosophically interesting (at least years ago when I read his stuff) is Hermann Hesse (most of his novels are short except his magnum opus Magister Ludi).

      I would suggest classical music is also a good thing to spend time on in this vein, in terms of payoff per unit time invested. Find some you like (the big names are popular for a reason) and listen attentively to what seems like the best recording on Youtube (which is rarely the most-watched, but you can often tell from what music buffs write in comments to various recordings). I find it much easier to delineate major artistic movements (romanticism, modernism, etc) through music than through novels, but maybe that’s because I don’t like a lot of classic literature.

      • Of a few Hesse’s novels that I’ve read, I would recommend “Steppenwolf”. Fantastic read. I have never discussed this book with anyone, though, so it may not bring much conversational bang for page read. The band Steppenwolf took its name from this book.

        Some evidence in favor of the utility 😉 of reading Hesse: he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style”.

      • AG says:

        Actually, the synthesis here of classical music and literature would be opera. You even got Shakespeare adaptations!

        Also, imho the easiest in on classical music is often in the famous overtures. Shorter runtimes, an associated story to match motifs to, and written with more of crowd-pleasing bent, since many are previewing the most iconic of the upcoming melodies. Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, one of my favorites, hilariously includes some melodies imitating the donkey’s bray for Bottom. The most famous classical romantic melody comes from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture. I’ve heard it said by some conductors that the two most perfect pieces of classical music are Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Beethoven’s Egmont overtures.

        And then after operas, you’ve got ballets. Sometimes I prefer them to operas, because then you’ve got more of a requirement to keep the rhythms snazzy, following dance style conventions, and still again an associated story to remember things by.

    • Nornagest says:

      Beyond Good and Evil is short and reasonably fun to read, but good God is it not very accessible. Nietzsche is denser than anyone else I’ve read bar maybe Thomas Pynchon, and his style’s very idiosyncratic; most of his books are less like reading Plato or even Kant and more like reading the Book of Proverbs. If you can read one straight through and get a detailed thesis out of it, either you’re a Nietzsche scholar or you’re way smarter than I am. He’s more a “read a few pages, put the book down, and think about them for a week; after you do this a few times eventually a half-dozen related theses will sort of self-assemble” kind of guy.

      • lazydragonboy says:

        Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice I found quite accessable and very good. I have never read any of his other books. I tried The Crying of Lot 49, but I couldn’t get the thread and gave up.

      • engleberg says:

        Jeez, I just read it as standard late-Victorian ‘Ma! Watch me reverse these platitudes and look cool! Ma!’. Samuel Butler and his fan Suzuki, Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris and water, so forth. Maybe in German it’s a masterpiece?

      • Robin says:

        I can’t help thinking that Nietzsche was an evil person. Why not Schopenhauer instead? The Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life (part of Parerga and Paralipomena) are easy to read and full of good ideas.

        I also liked the Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

        Oh, and Franz Kafka! But please, not the “Metamorphosis”. “The Trial” is his best book, I would say, but “Amerika” is also very good, funnier, and must be particularly enjoyable from the perspective of an American. I always imagine it as a slapstick comedy from the twenties.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      I still think knowing about Wittgenstein is important and recommend Ray Monk’s biography on him.
      Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger casts a quiet but long shadow.
      Waiting for Godot and A Man For All Seasons are both great plays to read.

      I think Great Books tend to lean heavily towards literature and philosophy because a literary work has completeness and philosophical work creates conversation. But the daily grind of scientific and mathematical work does neither.

      Read biographies. From them you receive an arsenal of anecdotes, examples, perspectives which add value to conversation. Instead of reading “Great Books” to catch references. Read them so you can have better conversations. I think biographies can do this for you on the cheap.

      Also, I liked the advice that you should pick up foreign books that have been translated into English. They are likely to be very good if that extra effort of translation has been put in.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Narrative poetry probably fits the high-yield criteria. A lot of famous ones are often quoted even by people who haven’t read them; knowing the original context could be enriching.

      A few examples that come to mind are Book 1 of Paradise Lost, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“, and “Evangeline” (the latter is on my summer reading list).

      • Matt M says:

        Probably a little too obvious, but Shakespeare is good in this sense as well.

        I remember the first time I read Hamlet thinking, “Holy crap – half of the idioms I’ve ever heard are from this thing!”

        • Tarpitz says:

          This is completely true.

          The other half are from Top Gun.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Voice Over: In a world of danger, a world of intrigue, a world of murder a man will rise up and avenge his father. Coming this summer to a theater near you

            Top Dane

            Prince Hamlet enters with Lady Ophelia:

            Hamlet (call sign Maverick): I feel the need, the need to be
            Lady Ophelia (call sign Goose): . . . or not to be

            Flashback scene: King Claudius (call sign Viper) drops in behind King Hamlet’s (call sign Ghost) fighter, locks on and shoots him down, allowing him to become the head of Denmark’s fighter academy.

            During training Maverick ‘shoots down’ Yorick (call sign Jester)

            Getting off his plane he turns to Ophelia: Alas poor Jester, I knew… he’d fly right by.


            Hamlet and Ophelia are flying when Ophelia’s oxygen goes out, she starts babbling in rhyme before ejecting and drowning.

            Laertes (call sign Ice Man) to Hamlet: You are dangerous.
            Hamelt: To thine own self be true Ice Man.


            Final scene: Claudius tells Laertes to shoot down Hamlet, but Laertes only wings him, and Hamlet shoots him down. Then Hamlet crashes his plane into the control tower killing Claudius.

          • JohnBuridan says:


          • Tenacious D says:

            Very nice, baconbits9

          • John Schilling says:

            I feel like we need to fit Rosencranz and Guildenstern in here somehow, but I’m not sure there’s match.

            OK, time to rewatch Top Gun

          • Joseph Greenwood says:

            Or from the Bible!

        • tayfie says:

          That, of course, leads to the following joke:

          “There’s nothing special about Hamlet. It’s nothing but a moldy old plot tied together by a million cliches.”

          • dick says:

            “I don’t get why people are so impressed with Bullet – the car chase scenes are pretty much like the ones in all the other movies I saw growing up.”

        • knockknock says:

          “Half the idioms I’ve ever heard” … Not to mention half the titles of Star Trek episodes

      • Zeno of Citium says:

        Beowulf is great, although it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I can’t recommend a translation.

        • massivefocusedinaction says:

          I was really impressed with the Seamus Heaney translation, over whatever translation they gave us in high school.

        • S_J says:

          For Beowulf, I’d recommend either Seamus Heaney, or J.R.R. Tolkien (edited and published by Christopher Tolkien).

          I don’t think it works as “culturally relevant work that can be absorbed quickly”, unless your local social group is dominated by nerds who like Old English texts, and related Germanic myth-traditions.

          • Zeno of Citium says:

            Yeah, it’s probably not as central as The Illiad or The Odyssey in the Western canon, but it’s not that long and it’s still not uncommon to see references to it. Honestly, just reading the first section with Grendel would get you most of the way there, although the whole thing is great.

    • Skeptical Wolf says:

      The field of Chinese literature has been polite enough to identify a very small number of novels as its most influential classics. How quick they are to read will vary (some of them are quite long and translation quality is obviously a factor). My recommendation for this would be Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Water Margin. Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in addition to their historical importance, both cast long shadows on modern media.

      I’ve also seen lists that include one or more of Golden Lotus / The Plum in the Golden Vase (two translations of the same work’s title), and The Unofficial History of the Scholars. But as far as I can tell, the agreement on the importance of the first four is universal.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        In the case of Journey to the West, the 1943* translation into English by Arthur Waley under the title Monkey is perhaps the most available and the one I have read, though I have consulted others. It is a reasonably short (ca. 250 pages) paperback. Waley chose to abridge his translation by cutting the number of episodes in the story but claims not to have abridged individual episodes beyond removing what he calls “incidental passages in verse, which go very badly into English”. His version has 30 chapters to the original’s 100.

        More recently, Anthony Yu has published first an unabridged translation (in four volumes), then an abridged version called The Monkey and the Monk. I don’t know these well enough to compare them to Waley, or to say whether the unabridged version is worth reading.

        *Waley worked on his translation while working in the British Ministry of Information during WW2 as a censor, AFAIK of Japanese business cables. I need to check exactly what these cables would have been and who would have been sending them.

      • onyomi says:

        Of the “big” Chinese novels, most don’t have a high “value per page count” for someone who isn’t e.g. professionally researching Chinese lit, because they’re both very long and often episodic in nature (like the Iliad, Mahabharata, Tale of the Heike, etc., they are heavily influenced by oral storytelling versions of these stories designed to keep you coming back, day after day for an exhaustive telling of the exploits of a big cast of characters; the exception here would be Journey to the West, where a core group of characters engages in a repetitive series of “monster of the week” adventures). This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend them, just that I don’t recommend them on a “bang for your reading buck” basis.

        Plum in the Golden Vase and Dream of the Red Chamber (Story of the Stone; recommend the David Hawkes+John Minford translation) are quite different, much more like Chinese Downton Abbey than Chinese Dragon Ball Z. The former has a reputation for being perverted and indeed includes a lot of kinky sex. That said, it still influenced the latter in terms of its psychological realism and domestic novel themes, and is worth a read.

        Story of the Stone definitely deserves its title of “greatest premodern Chinese novel”; though it’s long, it’s jam-packed with psychological and philosophical complexity, not to mention a kind of intertextual artistry that may be hard to recognize without e.g. first studying Chinese poetry, drama, and Buddhism for years. Also one of those books where if you read it once and then read it again ten years later you will get something totally different out of it because it speaks to so many life stages and aspects of human experience.

        But enough gushing about Story of the Stone. If you really want bang for your premodern Chinese literature buck, read short stories by people like Feng Menglong, Pu Songling, and Li Yu. I especially recommend the short, pornographic novel “The Carnal Prayer Mat.” It’s hilarious but has quite a lot going on in it too, in terms of major themes of late imperial Chinese lit.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      Swann’s Way

    • Chalid says:

      Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Short, readable, full of interesting anecdotes, and relevant to your interests.

      • Viliam says:

        A review: “Kuhn got me interested in the cultural history of science when I read this book around 1971. But the more I studied it, the more I became convinced that Kuhn’s thesis is simple, appealing, and wrong.”

      • Protagoras says:

        There are some interesting ideas, but what always struck me as terrible strawmanning of opposing views. Well, unless historians of science in Kuhn’s day were much less sophisticated than philosophers of science; I can’t help but cringe when he mentions “the positivist” who bears no resemblance to any of the famous positivists in philosophy.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      Thinking about philosophy, it strikes me that the Tao Te Ching and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations might both fit this bill.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Aristotle is quite readable, and for very efficient return on time Asop’s fables are pretty good.

      Shakespeare is surprisingly witty and easy to follow. Despite our modern conception of it being highbrow, he had to appeal to the commoners in the cheap seats and there are plenty of jokes that aren’t hard to get (including crude ones). His writing is also just masterful; his reputation as the greatest writer of the English language is well-deserved. That being said, I dislike reading plays, and think that they are best observed being performed.

      One of my classmates described Lock as “boring”, which isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s only because the modern world is so absurdly Lockean that it can seem baffling that what he claims was ever considered controversial. You’re probably intimately familiar with most of his ideas, as they fall into the category of Anglo-American liberalism, but it’s more than that. Locke is the ur-Liberal, and his works are quite short. You once mentioned that philosophy since the 19th century should be “suffused with Hegelian ideas.” Well, the entire history of the developed world over the last 3 centuries is suffused with Lockean ideas.

      • engleberg says:

        Despite our modern conception of being highbrow-

        Yes, reading Loew’s translations you notice most classical authors aren’t highbrow. Homer wrote war porn and worse, Cicero made Al Sharpton look prissy. Then there’s Marcus Aurelius doing a self-help potboiler, the Neoplatonists were proof 1st century Crack was Bad, and the Bible makes funnymentalists look classy, and after a while you remember CS Lewis’ Screwtape saying that God is very unscrupulous.

    • littskad says:

      Thucydides and Xenophon are very interesting history.
      St. Augustine’s Confessions is one of the most important things ever written, and really very good.
      The Divine Comedy (the Inferno is more fun than the rest, I think).

    • Evan Þ says:

      My first guess is you used one of the words Scott banned because he thinks they cause more heat than light, and he doesn’t want the blog to show up in Google results for them. Feel free to repost using a synonym.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You ended up in the spam filter for some reason. I’ve unfiltered you.

    • scherzando says:

      I love Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov, and I find his writing thought-provoking, but unlike some people in this thread, I’m not sure it’s exactly what you’re looking for with this question. I don’t get the sense that all that many people have read Brothers [edit: in the US, at least – and really this is a guess], though it comes up fairly often talking with people who have; moreover, theredsheep is correct about it being “an enormous slog”, though it’s a rewarding one if you’re ever up for it.

      My suggestion for Russian literature based on these criteria is instead One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – it’s short, viscerally effective as a depiction of the Gulag, and historically important.

      If you haven’t read Hamlet, that’s about as high-yield as anything outside of the Bible in terms of its cultural influence. Another thing I would expect to be high-yield is to get a good poetry anthology and skip around in it – of course, the poems in it will vary a lot on all the axes you mentioned, but some will be high on several of them, and having a broad idea of different eras/poets and their styles is likely to be valuable in itself for these purposes.

      Because I happened to see it on my bookshelf: All the King’s Men is an very good novel and I think it’s fairly well-known – it’s most famously about political corruption and is worth reading just for that, but it’s also interesting as a psychological novel with the narrator’s reflections on personal/family/American history. It’s not especially short but is decently readable.

      • Nornagest says:

        My suggestion for Russian literature is The Master and Margarita. Shortish, very fun to read, influential, and you’ll finally understand the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”.

        • scherzando says:

          This is a good suggestion, for the reasons you mention – and the reimagining of the Jesus/Pilate narrative, which I found especially interesting. I just checked, and I had remembered it being much longer than it actually is – not because it’s at all dull, I don’t think, but maybe because there’s quite a lot going on.

          • Bobobob says:

            The reason you remember it being longer is that Master and Margarita was expurgated under the Soviet regime, and one of those censored versions wound up being translated. Suffice it to say you want the translation with more pages, rather than less. (You may also want to read the book to the accompaniment of the two-disc jazz adaptation by Simon Nabatov.)

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Maybe I’m shallow, but 50% of the reason I find The Master and Margarita fun to read is Begemot/Behemoth.

        • kaakitwitaasota says:

          My favorite Russian novel is Fathers and Sons, which is short enough (though dense, even so) to finish on a longish train trip or airport layover plus flight.

          My all-time favorite novel, The Maias, is similar to Fathers and Sons, but it’s very little-known outside the Lusosphere. That’s a pity, because Eça de Queirós is a masterful writer, and there’s an excellent English translation available. Like most nineteenth-century novels, the plot wanders a bit, but he’s second to none at creating good characters, so it’s never a slog. The plot finally does get its revenge, towards the end of the novel, with a twist that is rather unexpectedly frank for a nineteenth-century tome about high society. Everyone should read it, but since it’s not something everyone has (pretended to have) read, it doesn’t really fit Scott’s criteria. A pity.

        • thedooperator says:

          The Master and Margarita is an excellent suggestion. Let me also add Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is essentially a highly successful attempt to adapt the general literary idea behind the Master and Margarita to the context of recent immigrants to the UK

    • sustrik says:

      1. Stanislaw Lem: Summa Technologie. A collection of futuristic essays. He discusses most of the themes that the rationalists would consider their own. Does so in 1964. https://www.amazon.com/Summa-Technologiae-Electronic-Mediations-Stanislaw/dp/0816675775

      2. Stefan Zweig: Erasmus & Right To Heresy. Portraits of intellectual who tried to stay balanced and calm in the face of fanaticism. Somehow reminds me of yourself. https://www.amazon.com/Erasmus-right-heresy-Stefan-Zweig/dp/B0007JQGES

      3. Heinrich Boll: Group Portrait with Lady. Super detailed picture how life in Nazi Germany looked from inside, for common people, from many perspectives. At the same time it’s very mundane, IIRC it doesn’t mention Hitler or concentration camps even once. https://www.amazon.com/Group-Portrait-Lady-Essential-Heinrich/dp/1935554336

      4. Umberto Eco: Foucault’s pendulum. Postmodernism exemplified. Also, you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about European mysticism. Highly entertaining in an intellectual kind of way. https://www.amazon.com/Foucaults-Pendulum-Umberto-Eco/dp/015603297X

      5. L.J.Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths. Collection of short stories. It has hypnotic effect on rationally minded people, even today.

      From my own cultural area what comes to mind is Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk (Catch XXII from WWI). Lately I read a series of sci-fi novels by chief Czech rabbi (“Altschul’s method”), that reminded me of Unsong, but those are not translated to English AFAIK. Maybe Gustav Meyrink: Golem. An Austro-Hungarian counterpart to Lovecraft.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      By high-yield, I mean books that frequently come up, are impressive to have read, are relatively short, at least a little readable/fun-to-read, teach you important things you wouldn’t learn by reading the one-page summary,

      I assume you’ve read all of the Hebrew Bible multiple times. I’ll name-check the New Testament just in case.
      The Iliad. The Odyssey comes up a lot too, but the Iliad is easily twice as high-yield.
      I’m going to name a bunch of epics, because they’re shorter than a lot of Great Books novels with a higher total yield too.
      Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This should be your primary source for Classical myths if you’re not going to get scholarly about them.
      The Divine Comedy. Don’t stop after Dante and Virgil experience how gravity works on Satan’s body at the center of the earth. Keep going; it teaches you a LOT of important things about traditional Christianity, and Paradise can be as fun to read as Inferno in its own way.
      Paradise Lost I-X. Arguably the second-best verse or prose in our language, and some amazing characters.
      If you buy a Landmark Edition, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides suddenly become high-value-per-page. I can’t say enough good things about how they unpack important texts written with the assumption that you’re a 4th century BC Hellene.
      Wealth of Nations (pretty long, but it’s no Russian novel) and The Communist Manifesto.
      Notes From the Underground or maybe the Rebellion and Grand Inquisitor chapters from the much great Brothers Karamazov, both options I already see recommended.

      Not gonna touch philosophy for the moment.

      • Robert Jones says:

        Metamorphoses is useful to read because it was hugely influential, but great care is required in using it as a source of classical myths, because much of it was Ovid’s invention.

        For the same reason, I wouldn’t recommend the Divine Comedy as a way of understanding traditional Christianity (whatever that means). Where it certainly is useful (together with Paradise Lost) is in understanding popular but non-canonical beliefs about heaven and hell.

        In all three cases, the poet has taken existing beliefs and massively elaborated them. The poetic work has been very widely read and some subsequent writers have been so immersed in them that they’ve taken the poet’s description as accurate. But at least in the case of Christianity, this runs up against the fact that the church literally has canonical beliefs, which are only partly consistent with what Dante says.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Almost nothing Dante wrote was inconsistent with scholastic theology of the time (and scholastic theology is still Catholic canon to a large degree and influential on traditional Protestants), is what I’m getting at. It’s obviously not Scripture (the circles of Inferno are sui generis, and who’s in there is bitter political commentary), but it’s in no way accidentally heretical.

          • Deiseach says:

            Agreeing with Le Maistre Chat. He pushes the theology of the day, and will use a variant theologian to an officially preferred one if it suits his point, but he never veers into outright heresy.

        • Protagoras says:

          The Greek pagans regarded pretty much everything in the form of verse as canonical; it’s all divinely inspired (even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff). I’m not absolutely certain that would extend to material not in Greek, but I’m sure Ovid didn’t contradict the Greek tradition any more than the various Greek poets contradicted one another.

      • FLWAB says:

        Seconding Paradise Lost. The best epic poem I’ve ever read by a long shot.

    • Soy Lecithin says:

      Chalid already mentioned this, but I want to second their recommendation of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This gets talked about a lot in my circles, mostly negatively, so I was surprised at how much deeper and more thoughtful its thesis is than the parody version I had absorbed. To me, it rings true as a description of what scientists are actually doing when they “do science.” But more than this it also hints at profound things about truth, knowledge, and society.

      It is also an easy read, so high-yield.

      • yodelyak says:

        I’ve never read this, but viscerally reacted “no!” and then realized why: I’ve had multiple people (a professor, a boss) include in the stylesheet I was to follow that the word “paradigm” was not to be used even if I was sure I was using it correctly, because (the professor’s reason) they were so tired of it and so despairing of ever getting people to stop misusing it, or just because (the boss now) they’d come to hate it and believe it rotted gray matter merely to say the word, let alone use it to think.

        So, if it was catchy enough that it still has that strong a reaction, then it’s prolly going to have some cache, right?

        • Nick says:

          Not a professor, but I have a list of banned words and “paradigm shift” is on it. I haven’t read Kuhn’s book, I’m just tired of hearing it thrown around by Catholics as a way to lend legitimacy to reversing rather than developing doctrine.

          • albatross11 says:

            The set of people who use “paradigm shift” in conversation or writing is much, much larger than the set of people who have read Kuhn’s book. OTOH, a fair number of people (me included) have read the book, but never use that phrase, since it has been taken over by marketing types and no longer means anything.

      • kaakitwitaasota says:

        David Wootton’s The Invention of Science is more recent and has a lot to say about Kuhn’s view of the Scientific Revolution. It’s also incredibly readable and interesting. For example, everyone knows that the old “everyone thought the world was flat and Columbus proved it was round” saw is a myth–everybody in 15th-century Europe knew terra was round. But what was terra? Aristotle, and his medieval heirs, believed there was a round ball of earth (so terra) inside, and poking up out of, an orb of water, which formed the ocean; these were surrounded by the atmosphere (an orb of air), and then finally the orb of fire, where the fixed stars resided. This was why the ancients believed there could be no land in the southern hemisphere, since the orb of earth was smaller than the orb of water and could only stick out at one end. It’s hard to underestimate just how weird the premodern conception of the world is–as Wootton shows, we keep imposing our own understandings onto it, and read terra as “a round ball of rock, on top of which there are oceans that continents poke out of”. It’s not as simple as that.

      • Ryan Holbrook says:

        Somewhat related, The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler is a great account of the development of Heliocentrism. It focuses especially on Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo. Galileo comes off not quite as sympathetic as often thought to be. (The same author’s novel Darkness at Noon, about Soviet oppression, is also good – and short.)

    • Robert Jones says:

      In terms of “frequently come up”, you should read Crime and Punishment, 1984 and Catch-22. People just love referring to those books, often in quite elliptical ways.

    • Plutarch’s Lives is good if you want to opine on Classical civilization, and it consists of very brief, highly engaging standalone biographies. If you’re really after high-yield, maybe just read the biographies of famous people you recognize.

    • Orpheus says:

      The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Incredibly fun and quotable.

      • SteveReilly says:

        I got married for the second time recently and a friend told me that someone had told him that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience. He thought the guy had made it up and was surprised when I told him it came from Boswell’s Life. It’s one of my favorite books.

    • yodelyak says:

      Hm. I got carried away, and now am short of time to edit this. For what it’s worth:

      If you are talking to programmers who have woke politics:
      Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions has been described to me as “eye-opening” or something like that, in a lowered voice, on both coasts, a decade apart. Bonus: It is very short, and you can ignore anything that seems like it might be a political statement about a very narrow slice of life in another time–that’s what it is.

      If you are talking to energy/industrialists
      The Prize and The Quest by Yergin have stood me well, and been recommended to me variously. I’m not sure it really matters if you read these or something else/something shorter. Really depends if you want to hang with people who explain the importance of the Strait of Hormuz (might not quite get you there by itself).

      If you are talking to high school math teachers who’ve at any point taught Calculus, “The Calculus” by Leithold is the best calculus textbook for wicked-tricky but solvable high-school calculus problems. In my experience, merely being able to recall his name is worth a point, and recalling a specific problem or two from the “wicked-tricky” category, and how to solve them… this is a good example of something for which (as far as I know) no other book or cliff’s notes version does the same thing. You cannot get as good at Calculus with three non-Leithold calculus books as with Leithold alone. Albeit it’s probably very much not something you are likely to need at parties. But if you *do* find yourself talking to a Calculus teacher, who uses any other book, get them to consider getting a copy of Leithold and adding one or two of his harder problems as a bonus problem to students’ usual problems… just to keep the bright kids engaged.

      You can fake your way through any Russian literature conversation if you’ve read The Death of Ivan Ilych (a quite brief short story), Notes from Undergound, and the first half of The Master and the Margarita, or anyway that’s been my experience… mostly people who want to talk about Russian literature want to talk about it, not hear about it. My sense is that if I find time to read more, I’ll really enjoy it, but no more impressive or interesting at parties.

      You can’t avoid having to talk about Freud or Adam Smith (so count me as a 3rd or 4th vote for Wealth of Nations). Or Nietzsche or Machiavelli (The Prince is short!) I’ve never really tried to learn anything much from Cliff’s Notes or whatnot, so I dunno re: those. Also, I’m not really sure which of these are important–I haven’t gotten to enough of them to say, e.g., whether “The Gay Science” or “Beyond Good and Evil” is more deserving.

      Some lesser mentions… Erving Goffman is well-known enough that your site’s spell check knows to tell me that “Irving Goffman” deserves a “did-you-mispel-this” line under “Irving”. Maybe all you need on him is to read about the work he did, and the results he got–not to read his actual writing. Actually this 10-page article and his wikipedia page will do the job. Francis Fukuyama’s a one-trick pony, but a commonly referenced one. Hume is great, and so is Bertrand Russell, though I’m not sure anyone’s wanted to talk about them. Leo Strauss has been pressed into my hands by people very interested to get me to re-read classics with a more careful eye to noticing that most or even basically all classics were written to dodge a censor’s pen, so you have to read much more carefully for the real meaning than when reading, e.g., Thomas Paine.

      I think it is hard to encapsulate what is great about Hemingway (novel: The Sun Also Rises and short story: Hills Like White Elephants); there’s something good there about how to bear up under private pain. I also think there’s something great–really, really great–in “Franny and Zooey”. Uh, the world is hard. Suddenly I also want to say “Catch-22” (but skip everything else by Heller) and Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut (and all the rest is also good, albeit similar). But mostly I think you don’t need any of these, as long as you don’t get “So It Goes” tatooed on your neck without having read any Vonnegut, you can just prove you’ve read a hefty amount of some *other* respectable literature and whoever it is you’re talking to will soon not-so-grudgingly be quite impressed.

      With Christians, the most important *by far* are C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and G.K. Chesterton. Lewis probably beats the others combined, in my experience. Huge bonus if you’ve read something other than “Mere Christianity”, the Narnia series, and the Screwtape Letters. I’ve made a concerted effort to read his whole oeuvre, and I’d say the biggest bang-for-the-buck comment to make about him is to say these things:

      1. His personal favorite of his books was “Till We Have Faces.”
      2. He reported that he did not enjoy writing “The Screwtape Letters” because he couldn’t put anything good in it–no joy, no forgiveness, no grace, no companionship, no real comedy, none of the good stuff.
      3. The best book of his for modern audiences may be “The Abolition of Man”… and maybe just maybe it’s making an argument other than the deontological one. He wrote it explicitly as a defense of virtue even among atheists.

      But all you need from Lewis to get through most parties is either Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. Popehat has a non-Ken-White post, written as Screwtape, Screwtape Embraces the Internet that is great companion reading. A blog post trying to use any C.S. Lewis character except Aslan, the White Witch, or Screwtape is probably doomed to fail–even among Christians not enough will have read it for it to have salience.

      It’s hard to go wrong with great plays or great biographies. Oscar Wilde’s plays are great, and The Picture of Dorian Gray was important to me as a young person, and whenever I want to be charmingly irrascible it stands me in great stead not as something to talk about, but something to channel. [aside: ditto P.G. Wodehouse] De Profundis is reportedly terrible and I’ve never, never encountered anyone who wanted to talk about it. Shaw is great. I’d love to know what specifically it was Shaw wrote/said that prompted Chesterton to (IIRC) disagree with Shaw by name about whether women should be encouraged in their tendency to see through all the complicated philosophies of men as just so much posturing. (Chesterton viewing Shaw as approving of that ‘seeing through’, and Chesterton tending to think that the complicated philosophies of men are load-bearing in some important respect, and not to be ignored, however inclined the gentler sex is to ‘see through’ all of it.)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        In re wokeness and 2 dimensions: Probably doesn’t meet Scott’s specs, but there’s a bit in The Planiverse (a second visit to Flatland, with much more science and, as I recall, without the sexism) where the human who’s been in contact with a 2-dimensional world realizes he’s been thinking worse of 2-dimensional people merely because they’re two dimensional.

        This might be sort of a cliche now, but it hit me as a surprise when I read the book in the 80s.

      • Hanfeizi says:

        My favorites of C.S. Lewis’ work are A Grief Observed and Until We Have Faces; which are also his last, and most doubting, yet still permeated with faith.

        • Fans of Boswell may not be aware that he kept an account of his life, most of which has survived and been published. Not as readable as the memoirs of his contemporary Casanova and not as interesting an author, but still enjoyable as a first hand picture of a different world.

          • engleberg says:

            Boswell’s claim that he studied under an aged blind fencing master is too good to check, and all the better for it.

          • Where is that? My impression is that contemporary duels were with pistols and that Boswell makes it clear he was a coward who went to a good deal of trouble to avoid one.

          • engleberg says:

            @Where is that?
            @Boswell makes it clear he was a coward-

            The internet says it’s from Boswell in Holland and the master was 94, Franz Sircksen. My memory tells me the master was blind, don’t swear to it, but then I thought the story came from Boswell’s memoirs.

            Choosing a fencing master too old to hit hard fits ‘Boswell makes it clear he was a coward’. Humble-brag, maybe.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        Abolition of Man and Till We Have Faces are good recommendations for C.S. Lewis. Perelandra is my favorite, but it’s not for all tastes.

        De Profundis is reportedly terrible and I’ve never, never encountered anyone who wanted to talk about it.

        Then you have the wrong friends. De Profundis is “terrible” in the sense that Chesterton uses the word in Ballad of the White Horse:

        It was wrought in the monk’s slow manner,
        From silver and sanguine shell,
        Where the scenes are little and terrible,
        Keyholes of heaven and hell.

        • James says:

          Yeah, I like De Profundis, though parts of it have an offputting tone that somehow combines the self-aggrandising with the self-pitying. But it’s true that no-one wants to talk about it.

    • ana53294 says:

      Out of Russian literature, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin is short, and easily readable. It is highly influential in Russia, with lots of references to it. Onegin has kind of become an adjective. All other books are much longer, so I would say in degree of influence to length that’s one of the best. Ruslan and Lyudmila is also very influential – and also short. Great way to familiarize with Russian folktales.
      I cannot say which translation is best – I read it in Russian. But I would definitely say, don’t use Nabokov’s translation as anything other than commentary. Part of the big charm of the novel is that it is a novel in verse, and the rhythm, stanzas and the metaphorical language it uses. Nabokov tried translating the verse, said it was mathematically impossible to do literally correctly (which it is), and lambasted anyone who tried (not the nices guy ever, Nabokov).

    • Aapje says:

      That is to say, I think that you often learn the most interesting and useful stuff when you aren’t intending to, sort of like what I understand the Taoist concept of wu wei to be.


    • eliza says:

      Greetings from eastern Europe!

      Solaris, Fables for Robots, The Futurological Congress – S. Lem
      The Magician of Lublin – Isaac B. Singer
      Red cavalry, Odessa Tales – Isaac Babel
      The Captive Mind – Cz. Miłosz
      Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with Bridle – Zbigniew Herbert
      Cinnamon Shops – Bruno Schulz
      The Tenant – R. Topor
      Travels with Herodotus, The Soccer War, Shah of Shahs – Ryszard Kapuściński
      Zama – di Antonio
      One Hundred Years of Solitude – Marquez
      Conversation in the Cathedral – Llosa

      • Do you, by any chance, come from the tribe of Lechites? Cheers from Warsaw 😉

        As for the books: I second reading Lem, who surely would be interesting for the folks around here. Lem discussed things like singularity at least a decade before Vernor Vinge: Vinge’s “The Coming Technological Singularity” was published 1993, whereas Lem wrote “Golem XIV” in 1981.

        • eliza says:

          Ha, ha! Yep, that proud Winged Tribe, no other! I suppose that fact of reading this blog make me kind of magician, since I’m from Lublin;)

          As for author You mentioned: Universe must have great sense of humor to give Jews and Poles their first true prophet in the person of Lem. 😀

          Also, it would be fascinating to study how local culture had influenced his books. Recently I found several old jewish/polish/centraleuropean jokes mixed in his s-f narrations. Besides that, he alone allow to answer in satisfactory way to old question “did our country contribute to world culture?”

    • melboiko says:

      High-yield literature:

      The Nausea, Sartre; Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevski; The Bell Jar, Plath; The Silent Cry, Ōe; your pick of any novel by Kawabata (I like The Old Capital);The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt.

      If you can complete even part of this list, you’ll understand the difference between genre lit (Harry Potter etc.) and “literary” lit, and what is it that we humanities types are always raving about, the Human Spirit and so on.

      As a bonus, these stories are genuinely interesting and entertaining. They might feel a little difficult to “get” at first, in the same way that classical music or exotic cuisine feels weird at first. Just stick with it, re-read paragraphs that seem confusing, and quite soon you’ll find yourself having pleasure with them.

      Once you get used to this kind of reading, try Chekov, Woolf, Raduan Nassar (I hope the translation is half as good, he does… things… with language that seem hard to translate), and poetry (The Iliad + Odyssey being the obligatory picks; it’s very important to read them in verse; ideally you should listen to them sung, but some weird cultural glitch of post-industrial society has made it hard for us to find poetry the way it was meant to be enjoyed, i.e. musically.)

    • Tarpitz says:

      About the industry I work in:

      Adventures in the Screen Trade – William Goldman (film)
      The Empty Space – Peter Brook (theatre)

      Literature not already mentioned:

      Jude the Obscure – Hardy
      Howard’s End – Forster
      The End of the Affair – Greene
      Brideshead Revisited – Waugh
      Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Capote
      Lolita – Nabokov
      Amadeus – Shafer
      Any and all of Larkin’s poetry

    • Ryan Holbrook says:

      Some books with American social history:

      Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger. A Horatio Alger story actually by Horatio Alger.
      The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. About the conditions in meatpacking factories in the early 20c.
      Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. About the breakdown of a Company Man.
      Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Another Company Man breaking down.
      A Traveler from Altruria by William Dean Howells. Socialist Utopian literature.

      Kafka is pretty high-yield: The Metamorphosis (novella), In the Penal Colony (short story), The Trial (novel).

      • Ryan Holbrook says:

        Some other random books with a high impressiveness to length ratio:

        The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. A postmodern detective story.
        Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Essays on literature, Kafka, Baudelaire, Brecht. Hannah Arendt writes the introduction.
        Collected Stories by Robert Walser. Very short stories, somewhat like Kafka, but more innocent-seeming.

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      Shakespeare is immensely referenced and great fun, and comes in chunks much shorter than novels, but not everyone enjoys reading plays rather than watching them.

    • Deiseach says:

      It does depend on the company you are in; for general social chit-chat of a mildly cultured nature, I imagine your best bet is a quick trawl through the New York Times best seller list for non-fiction (I imagine some combination of pop-psychology, pop-science, or pop-history is currently the book in vogue, though right now the soul-searching ‘trawl through the heart of America to see where it all went wrong’ political hand-wringing volume seems to be also popular ).

      I’m going to be very cynical here and say that I don’t think you need necessarily read the latest work en vogue to be able to have a bluffer’s conversation about it, just a quick skim and read the reviews to see what are the talking points.

      For different contexts, e.g. the likes of us on here who do read Old Books by Dead White Males, it’s probably different 🙂

      In no particular order, and you may already have read these:

      – The Divine Comedy. (What a surprise, sez you). All of it, not just the Inferno. In fact, if you can only face one book of it, skip the Inferno, leave the Paradiso aside, and go straight to the Purgatorio. There are decent translations out there in both poetry and prose, what one you pick will be the one that appeals to your own tastes (I’m constantly banging on here about the Hollander translation which I think did an excellent job, but there are other good ones).

      – Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. A good gossipy read, very much subject to the author’s prejudices (and/or the prejudices of the audience he was keeping an eye to as he wrote). A social diarist’s gossip column crossed with a historian.

      – Journey to the West. A Classic of Chinese literature. Again, plenty of translations out there, and you may want to get an abridged one as a lot of the second half of the book is very repetitious; Tripitaka is kidnapped by yet another demon that wants to eat him as the rumour is that eating the flesh of such a pious priest will confer immortality; Monkey has to rescue him; generally this is done by him showing up going “I’m the Monkey King, surrender now or I’ll have the tedious task of slaughtering you all”; they don’t; he slaughters them all; rinse and repeat. The first half is definitely the best, and Sun Wukong is a very appealing character and my second favourite monkey god.

      Dream of Red Mansions/Dream of the Red Chamber/Story of the Stone. Another Classic of Chinese literature, and available in translation. Again, you might want an abridged version. Combination of mythological/metaphysical fable or parable with gossipy tale of high status Chinese household and its ultimate downfall. A memoir by an aristocrat who has come down in the world, lamenting the fall of the elegant days of yore (but carefully tempering it not to appear critical of any Imperial – or even more importantly, the court eunuchs – authority).

      – The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Classics of Indian literature and mythology. Only translations in English I’ve found are 19th century ones which need to be approached by the reader as though on safari through the dense jungle, machete in hand hacking away. Easiest way is to cheat and watch a TV serial instead, which will give you the main points. Ramayana contains Hanuman, who is my first favourite monkey god and an absolute sweetheart, I love him to bits.

      No-one is ever going to ask you this, but sticking up for my own nation – the Táin Bó Cúalgne 😀 (Though it is just barely possible someone somewhere might mention Cú Chulainn, in which case this gives you his background).

      EDIT: I was forgetting! An oldie now, since it was published in 2000, but Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence is great fun, wonderfully gloomy in an Eeyorish type of way and thus very amusing if you have the kind of sense of humour that is amused by long lists of how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket in these degenerate days (all the way back in 2000, God knows what he’d make of 2018), an amazing display of erudition, very good at giving the Continental view of things over the usual English and American philosophy/history we all know, and an absolute door-stopper of a book (if you ever need to bash someone over the head with a blunt instrument, the hardback of this will do very nicely, provided you can lift it that high).

      Personal favourite, but probably nigh-impossible to find easily now: Cephas Goldsworthy’s The Satyr, his biography of Lord Rochester. Hobbyhorses being ridden wildly off in all directions, as some reviews (when they bothered to review the actual book rather than give a ‘greatest hits’ of Rochester’s life) pointed out; Goldsworthy is, if not an atheist, at least not at all approving of organised religion and casts a lot of doubt on Rochester’s supposed deathbed repentance. Starts off with a bang and keeps on going, maybe not the best historically but an enjoyable read.

      • Or you could just read Rochester’s Satyr.

        • Deiseach says:

          Oh, you should do that anyway, though it’s a little sour. But Signior Dildo is just funny (if a little catty about some well-known names of the day) 🙂

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        What’s your favourite monkey god?

        • Deiseach says:

          Definitely Hanuman, as I said 🙂

        • Watchman says:

          I think the key question is what is the rest of Deisarch’s top 10 monkey gods? Or if we’re feeling extensive and slightly esoteric, top 50.

          • Aapje says:

            I better be in there.

          • Deiseach says:

            Don’t have any past my top two; I do have a slightly longer list of favourite smith gods:

            1. Aulë i Talka Marda – yes, even though he had not one but two Maiar go dark side. He is so lovely in the story of the creation of the Dwarves.
            2. Hephaestus – compared to the rest of the Olympians (with the exceptions of Hestia, Athene and Hades) he comes off very well.
            3. Vulcan – yes, I know he’s the Roman version of Hephaestus. Yes, he is still sufficiently different for me to like him separately.
            4. Wayland
            5. Goibniu

      • engleberg says:

        I liked Dorothy Sayers’ version of the Paradiso. If I ever build a space station it will be named The Rose of the Empyrean.

    • Anon. says:

      Start with the Greeks. The Iliad, Herodotus, Thucydides. I assume you’ve read the philosophy stuff already.

    • Lambert says:

      The Tao Te Ching.

      One of the two most important works of Taoist philosophy. Quite short and readable. Much more of a philosophical than a religious text. Some themes should be oddly familiar to readers of War and Peace.

      • Viliam says:

        Seems to me that different translations of Tao Te Ching are wildly different from each other, so if one does not impress you at the beginning, give a chance to another.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think we’re getting off the track of “what Big Name Books can I casually name-drop at dinner party conversation?” but this topic is so delightful, I don’t mind digressions and divarcations.

        If we’re going for the Tao Te Ching, I’d also recommend the Ascent of Mount Carmel – the poem around which and upon which the entire spiritual guide is constructed. You don’t need to read the rest of the book, but if you’ve ever heard the line “casting my cares among the lilies” and wanted to know where it came from? Also an influence on Eliot’s Four Quartets.

        While we’re throwing in poetry – yes, Yeats, Eliot and Auden. Pound as well, for his Cantos, even though he’s what the young people nowadays call “problematic” for his Fascism (the real thing, not the term so lightly tossed about today).

        • ana53294 says:

          If you are going for obscure Spanish Catholic mystics, why not choose one that is not a White Dead Man?

          I find that Saint Theresa of Jesus is a great poet, even if you read it as an atheist. Her love of God sometimes feels very carnal, and her poetry is also very profound. “I live not within myself” is my personal favourite. And, you know, she started the movement St John followed.

          And if you are going for Catholic saints, why not go for the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola? It’s not poetry, but it was really influential.

          • Deiseach says:

            why not choose one that is not a White Dead Man?

            Ah, sister. Do we dispute the petals of the White Rose?

            It’s not poetry, but it was really influential.

            Because I am going for poetry, not spiritual exercises. This is not a contest in who is the more influential! This is about language, beauty, and inspiration!

          • ana53294 says:

            Ah, sister. Do we dispute the petals of the White Rose?

            I think we are talking about different Theresas. If I understand correctly, you are referring to this one, while I am referring to this one*. The French St. Theresa’s poetry is also beautiful, though, from the samples I have found online.
            My favourite of St. Theresa of Avila’s poem is this one. This one is even shorter, but really spiritual.

            *I think I made a spelling mistake. The Spanish St Teresa is without an h. The other one is French.

          • Deiseach says:

            The reference to the rose was not to the Little Flower (though good link), it was to the Rose of the Empyrean where the souls of the saved make up the petals of the rose of light.

            It’s a Dante allusion 🙂

        • Lambert says:

          The Tao Te Ching itself isn’t that name-droppable, but the concepts within are.
          Just this evening I mentioned the whole ‘carving reality at the joints’ thing, which comes from a Taoist proverb.
          ‘Zhuangzi and the butterfly’ is also pithy and deep enough to sound wise mentioning.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I was surprised to find that “Rule a great empire as you would cook a small fish– carefully so it doesn’t fall apart” was from the Tao Te Ching.

          • Protagoras says:

            The idea of carving at the natural joints of reality is also present in Plato (Phaedrus 265e, and I seem to remember he might have said something similar in Cratylus).

    • DavidS says:

      A meta-suggestion with a focus on appearing cultured: sensible thing might be to read (and read about) a lesser-known work by a well-known author. So while you know the basics of Paradise Lost by other people talking about it and so can bluff it, you’ve read Samson Agonistes. Or some of the Shakespeare nobody really reads.

      In my experience, if you know something really random/obscure people assume you know the rest too.

      • Deiseach says:

        Or some of the Shakespeare nobody really reads.

        Pericles, Prince of Tyre if you want to be trendily obscure; Titus Andronicus if you want the early ‘imitating the gore-hound stuff that was popular’ starting off playwright – and the pun that still works and is understandable, four hundred years later (when the empress has just delivered her baby, unmistakably the offspring not of the emperor but of Aaron the Moor):

        DEMETRIUS: Villain, what hast thou done?
        AARON: That which thou canst not undo.
        CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother.
        AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.

      • eightieshair says:

        That was used as a joke in an old 80s sitcom that I can’t remember the name of. A decidedly uncultured character wants to convince a woman he’s interested in that he’s educated and so starts reading Shakespeare. When his friend asks which play he’s reading he says “Coriolanus” , and then adds proudly “No one reads that one!”.

        • Matt M says:

          Hey – I somewhat enjoyed the random modern remake!

        • Deiseach says:

          My sister had to do that one for her Leaving Cert and to this day she’s never forgiven the Irish educational system 🙂

          (I was luckier; being two years older, we did the cycle of Julius Caesar for the Inter Cert and Hamlet for the Leaving Cert).

          The Tom Hiddleston version seems to have been well-received, as well.

        • AG says:

          Well, what does Cole Porter say about this?

          The girls today in society go for classical poetry
          So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
          Aeschylus ans Euripides
          One must know Homer, and believe me, eau
          Sophocles, also Sappho-ho
          Unless you know Shelley and Keats and Pope
          Dainty Debbies will call you a dope
          But the poet of them all
          Who will start ’em simply ravin’
          Is the poet people call
          The Bard of Stratford on Avon
          Just declaim a few lines from Othella
          And they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella
          If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
          Tell her what Tony told Cleopatterer
          With the wife of the British ambassida
          Try a crack out of “Troilus and Cressida”
          If you can’t be a ham and do Hamlet
          They will not give a damn or a damlet
          Just recite an occasional sonnet
          And your lap’ll have honey upon it

          • WashedOut says:

            Best thing i’ve read all day. Thankyou!

          • yodelyak says:

            you skipped the coriolanus line though!

            “… If she says she won’t buy it or like it
            Make her tike it, what’s more As You Like It
            If she says your behavior is heinous
            Kick her right in the Coriolanus
            … “

          • James says:

            Really quite incredible that writing at this level was, at one time, the main stream of pop music. Just amazing.

            “Pop music is dumb nowadays!” is a perennial cliche, but it’s hard to read things like this and not feel like we’ve lost something.

          • albatross11 says:

            What fraction of stuff written at the same time do we remember now?

          • James says:

            If you mean to imply that this is an outlier and that the median song was much worse, well, yes, I agree to some extent, but, though I’m no expert on the period, from what I can pick up it really does seem like there was a level of wordplay and wit that’s been lost. Cole Porter wasn’t the only one.

            Can you imagine something like this getting anywhere near the top forty if released nowadays?

            I guess you can point to rap as something current with a high density of impressive linguistic effects, but it doesn’t seem like that’s doing the same thing, somehow.

          • AG says:

            @James: When it comes to the top 40, lyrical density is and has always been secondary to have a good iconic melody/rhythm/hook. Hamilton wouldn’t have become nearly as popular if the sonic whole wasn’t also super earworm-y. And the song I quoted is accompanied by one of the best melodies you could ask for.

            With the advent of technologies that enable vocal processing, the role of lyrics in shaping vocal timbre is much less important. Voice is just another instrument in the mix, and lowering the diction diversity enables more remixing the same sounds into various patterns. Rhyming in order to achieve the polyrhythm replaced by chopping.

            And the other reason lyrics are not so prioritized is that back in the day, such songs were excerpted from musicals. The songs’ lyrics have a function beyond music, to interact with specific character and plot, imparting information to the audience they wouldn’t get otherwise. In this case, it’s from Kiss Me Kate, in which the characters are putting on a production of Taming of the Shrew. The equivalent today isn’t any one genre, but the case of an artist from any genre putting out a concept album. Probably the most critically acclaimed recent example would be Beyonce’s Lemonade, so perhaps check out the lyrics to the songs on that.

          • James says:


            You’re right that technology has a lot to do with this. Why spend all that effort on creating linguistic effects through your writing now that we have the plugins to produce a catchy, glossy superstimulus digitally? And even though the highbrow/hipster thing is currently to look down on things like autotune as brainless, I love all that stuff too. I’m just equally aware of, and slightly saddened by, what’s been left behind.

            I hadn’t thought of the musical angle—that’s interesting.

            Lemonade‘s an interesting suggestion for a modern analogue, but I didn’t really like it, apart from the track that sounds like weird reggae (“Hold Up”?).

          • mdet says:

            Lemonade is best enjoyed as an artsy short film, I’d recommend watching it over listening to it. (Hold Up is good, Freedom is my favorite)

            But if you’re looking for concept albums with a cohesive narrative, lyricism, and themes, then Kendrick Lamar is unrivaled. good kid, mAAd city’s narrative is so vivid you could straightforwardly adapt it into a movie.

    • zzzzort says:

      For philosophy of science, Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy is impressive relative to the investment required. Lucretius ‘On the Nature of Things’ doesn’t come up that much, but it’s fun to know an early atomist/greek natural philosopher that wasn’t completely wrong about everything.

      For literature, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is super short and enjoyable. Similarly Borges. “The Time Regulation Institute” by Tanpinar probably won’t come up on it’s own, but it’s great, and you can always use it to respond to people talking about Orhan Pamuk.

    • jstr says:

      I very highly recommend the two books by the late Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” (1974) and “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals” (1991). Two philosophical novels with enormous depth and reach, and both highly original, while at the same time connected to important philosophical works of both Western and Eastern tradition. (Also about insanity /mental illness.)

    • Nick says:

      Rod Dreher has been calling Houellebecq prophetic for years now. He brings him up nearly whenever he talks about contemporary France.

    • albatross11 says:

      Jane Austen’s novels are pleasant and easy enough to read, and are widely considered important literature. (I noticed while reading them that I was using my SF-reading skills–inferring the rules and assumptions of this foreign world in which they live and accepting their worldview while still occasionally thinking “no, don’t talk to the local doctors, they’re all quacks!”) There are also a lot of pop-culture references to them (Bridget Jones, Clueless), and film/TV versions of most or all of them that are pretty decent, if that’s your thing.

      I read some of Dumas’ works (The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo) when I was in high school (or maybe early college), and felt like I was totally beating the system–getting social credit for reading Great Literature while I was actually reading these rather trashy romps through French society dodging outraged husbands and plots by Richleau.

      Cyrano de Bergerac is referenced everywhere (to the point of invoking the “Hamlet is Derivative” trope), and is a quick, fun read. (I don’t remember what translation I read.) Similarly, Frankenstein was a quick, fun read.

      • Aapje says:

        Will future generations read 50 Shades of Grey as Literature?

        • The Nybbler says:

          We read 19th century popular trash and 16-17th century fart jokes, so why not?

          • Nornagest says:

            Hard to say. There have been wildly popular novels that sank without a ripple after the fad died — there was a time when every literate household in America had a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, and who do you know that’s read it now? But there were others that are still read today. Not sure what makes the difference, except that I don’t think it’s quality.

          • James says:

            And there are books that no-one read at the time, or for decades afterwards, which are now regarded as classics, like Moby-Dick.

        • ana53294 says:

          I think Harry Potter has a better chance. Or Elena Ferrante.

          • Matt M says:

            Agreed. What’s the old line that all the “best” popular music as selected by critics just happens to be the music that baby boomers loved in their teenage years?

            The millennial generation is going to declare Harry Potter a classic and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it. Once they have full control of the media it’ll be ridiculous.

            The prospects for 50 Shades are much bleaker, because it’s audience already skews older and is exclusively female.

          • AG says:

            So, Harry Potter and Hunger Games are the current frontrunners for millenials’ classics. What else? A Series of Unfortunate Events?
            Honestly, I do think Twilight’s chances are good. And 50 Shades won’t because it’s literally Twilight-derivative.
            Redwall, Tortall, and Young Wizards seem like they’ll become Pern-tier “classics” (Ender’s Game-tier at best), doomed to the genre ghetto. But it is interesting that the mainstream pickings are so thoroughly genre. Do we have a historical fiction or modern day drama that’s anywhere close to Harry Potter cultural consciousness?

            Game of Thrones, lol.

            Will select comics and manga be canonized? Sailor Moon? Naruto? Homestuck? Miss Marvel? Walking Dead?

          • andrewflicker says:

            Harry Potter probably makes it, considering how durably it’s stayed on bestseller lists. Hunger Games hasn’t a chance- it’s already mostly faded and will continue to fade, and never had the sort of market penetration Harry Potter had.

          • Matt M says:

            Will select comics and manga be canonized?

            Dragonball Z has a chance. Nothing else.

          • SpeakLittle says:

            @Matt M:

            I think certain stand-alone Allen Moore works have a chance, such as Watchmen or V for Vendetta. Much as I like The Killing Joke or his run on Swamp Thing, I don’t know that those have the same strength.

            Maus comes to mind as well.

      • Tarpitz says:

        Jane Austen’s novels are pleasant and easy enough to read

        Some of them are pleasant – or even more than pleasant. Some of them are unbearable. Are you really telling me you can get through Mansfield Park without a desire to throttle Fanny strong enough to make you a danger to those around you?

    • Calvin says:

      Of the people who have already commented – I would particularly agree with:

      Kafka – Metamorphosis and The Judgment
      Heart of Darkness (alternatively you can just watch the movie Apocalypse Now)

      I would add the following that I haven’t seen mentioned:

      Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
      Sun Tzu – Art of War

    • Erusian says:

      Frequently come up and are impressive depend heavily on the who. There are few books that are impressive to everyone, and those that are tend to be so well known a lot of people read them (and so they cease to become as impressive). This is true even within the Anglo-American tradition. Literature tends to ‘belong’ to groups, to such an extent that I often find literature is useful as a tribal shibboleth. (Well, if he can actually intelligently discuss the wieszcze he can’t completely be one of those ignorant foreigners.)

      • A favorite of mine, although I’m not sure if it works for the thread purpose, is Casanova’s Memoirs. An extended first person account of 18th century Europe from London to Moscow, servants to sovereigns.

    • Aaron Cohen says:

      Slightly sarcastic, but useful answer: How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard is a short, entertaining book about the (relative) irrelevancy of actually having read many of the books various intellectuals claim to have read cover to cover.

      Honest answer: I agree with some of the other folks saying that reading these books individually with the idea of ‘yielding’ from them is probably the wrong approach — I think it is necessary to start with the question: ‘why have these works survived?’ and my best guess at an answer is not exclusively in their usefulness, but in their ‘artfulness’ or ‘sublimity’ or ‘beauty’ or whatever word you want to use to talk about fuzzy stuff. With that in mind, I’d suggest starting or reading selections of as many of the works as possible, and sticking with the ones that grab you, rather than tactically trying to derive which will be most useful — different books mean very different things to different people. I’d suggest Bauer’s Well Educated Mind as a list from which to pull potential books from, in the Western tradition. Not sure if similar lists exist for others.

      One other thing: I’d argue towards a semi-chronological reading, simply because these books are in conversation in a major way — most of the authors of ‘great books’ were exceedingly well read (and largely lived in times when it was possible to have read ‘everything’ and did so), and so, e.g. I think reading Dante without having read the New Testament, is going to be much ‘lower yield’ than reading the New Testament first.

    • SamChevre says:

      I have a recommendation that I think meets the goal, but not the criterion.

      Dorothy Sayer’s books on Christianity do a good job of summarizing clearly a lot of key points that aren’t original, but they are much easier to read than Aquinas, and much more clear and direct than Chesterton, and more in-depth than Lewis. So, I recommend them highly. And they read really well–she was a professional novelist, and it shows. I prefer Creed or Chaos, but The Mind of the Maker is incredibly worth reading, and it’s available online so you can see if it’s the kind of thing you like before buying a copy.

      The Mind of the Maker

      The village that voted the earth was flat doubtless modified its own behaviour and its system of physics accordingly, but its vote did not in any way modify the shape of the earth. That remains what it is, whether human beings agree or disagree about it, or even if they never discuss it or take notice of it at all. And if the earth’s shape entails consequences for humanity, those consequences will continue to occur, whether humanity likes it or not, in conformity with the laws of nature.

      The vote of the M.C.C. about cricket, on the other hand, does not merely alter a set of theories about cricket; it alters the game. That is because cricket is a human invention, whose laws depend for their existence and validity upon human consent and human opinion.

      A good excerpt from Creed or Chaos is at the link.

      • I can’t tell from this whether she had read “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” or just seen the title. It isn’t a story about people believing that the world is flat.

        • SamChevre says:

          I have often wondered the same. It’s one of Kipling’s best stories in my opinion, but yes, it’s definitely not about people who believed the earth was flat.

          • At a slight tangent … . Orwell wrote a moderately sympathetic essay on Kipling–from which it was clear that he not only had not read Kim, he did not know it existed.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        The Mind of the Maker was called out as one of the best books of the 20th Century by Jacques Barzun, a Franco-American intellectual who lived through most of it.

    • CheshireCat says:

      Surprised you didn’t mention The Stranger by Camus, I see that recommended a lot in rationalist-adjacent circles. I read it, and while it didn’t speak to me like it seems to for a lot of similar depressed loners, I still enjoyed it a lot.

    • Silverlock says:

      I quite enjoyed Machiavelli’s The Prince. And Chesterton is always worth reading, if only for sheer joy in the language. It has been years since I read it, but I still look back fondly on The Man Who Was Thursday, although I do now know whether you would consider that “high-yield.”

      • theredsheep says:

        I want to like Chesterton, but I can’t get past his tendency to say the same damn thing three times, in slightly different ways, for emphasis. He’s enjoyable in small bites.

    • googolplexbyte says:

      Progress and Poverty by Henry George.

    • qwints says:

      Focusing on short, influential and commonly referenced:

      1) John Donne “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” – find out what “no man is an island” actually means

      2) Ernest Hemingway “The Old Man and the Sea” – one of the most defining works on masculinity in the modern age.

      3) Veblen’s – “Theory of the Leisure Class” – one of the most accurate and predictive economic texts with a concept (conspicuous consumption) which is frequently relevant

      • yodelyak says:

        Veblen reaches much the same typology as the authors reviewed in Staying Classy. Veblen’s other stuff is not as good.

        But absolutely I found it very curious that Staying Classy had three other authors who’d reached something that looked somewhat like Veblen’s typology, while apparently independent.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I could be wrong, but AFAICT “readable/fun” and “Cultures” are practically antonyms. The Great Books are not supposed to be read, but rather studied and investigated. Just as you wouldn’t skim a math book for fun without doing any exercises or following along with any of the proofs, you shouldn’t read a Great Book for pure entertainment. You are supposed to analyze it, familiarize yourself with the cultural milieu of its setting, and thus learn the deep philosophical and/or moral truths it is designed to impart.

      In other words, Great Books are much more akin to textbooks than to light fiction.

      • Nornagest says:

        This is what your high school English teacher will tell you, but I have my doubts. I don’t know any serious readers that don’t do it for pleasure, whether they’re reading litfic or SF or Fifty Shades of Gray.

        • Bugmaster says:

          No, my high school English teacher told me that all the Great Books are wonderful and amazing and super exciting. I made my conclusion (above) after investigating such claims.

          But don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not saying that the Great Books are somehow “bad”. They’re not entertainment, but then, neither is your high school Calculus textbook. Does that mean that you should shun it, and read SF instead ? No, obviously not.

      • aientiaerationum says:

        A undoubted exception to the proposition that “high culture ain’t fun” are the justly celebrated Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian.

        Read as ripping yarns of intrigue, romance, and adventure, O’Brian’s novels can’t be beat. Yet simultaneously, pretty much any given episode, in any of O’Brian’s novels, composes an historically accurate, in-depth account of (e.g.) the radical-versus-moderate Enlightenment, and/or the politics of the British Empire, and/or the evolution of modern medical practice, and/or the early roots of modern evolutionary science (etc.).

        When we compare (for example) O’Brian’s character Sir Joseph Blaine with the historical personage of Sir Joseph Banks we find plenty of similarities. And yet, even with zero appreciation of the historical context that O’Brian so scrupulously respects, O’Brian’s tales move along pretty darn entrancingly. 🙂
        PS: the lecture collection Professor Borges: a course on English literature opens further doors to literary appreciation.

        “About two hundred years ago it was discovered that [English Literature] contained a kind of secret chamber, akin to the subterranean gold guarded by the serpent of myth. That ancient gold was the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.

        Hence, to better appreciate Tolkien, read Borges! 🙂

        Generally speaking, both in literature and in critical analysis of literature, what matters most are the “best” works … and it is inherent in the nature of literature, for the “greatest” literary works to be most brightly illuminated by the “greatest” critical analyses of those works, such that appreciation of the critiques, greatly enhances appreciation of the works, and vice versa. This back-and-forth discourse is what culturally distinguishes “great literature” from just plain “stories”.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          I deeply enjoy Aubrey/Maturin, but be aware that some people find them frustrating. I like to put it as: O’Brien knows just about everything about the era, and does not give a fuck if you can keep up. There will be long passages about sailing, and about British marriage politics, and social class indicators, none of which will be explained–you can figure it out on your own or you can sink.

          I enjoy that–though I’d be very happy if someone released an annotated edition with 10+ footnotes/page explaining all the references–but some people don’t. And I can see why. The one I just finished had a major scene at a captain’s dinner party aboard ship during which two people start an extended Latin pun contest. Untranslated. If that doesn’t sound fun, don’t read them.

          • Aapje says:

            I really dislike it when authors sprinkle different languages in their books, especially if it is for no good reason, to show of their erudition. It was really the only dislike I had for ‘Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company*,’ a polemic against the Dutch colony of the Dutch Indies.

            That is actually a book that some people here may like, as it in a way reminds me of War and Peace (published 9 years after Max Havelaar), combining both fictional narratives of people, with non-fictional descriptions (of the colonial system). In other ways, it is more like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a polemic against an unjust system.

            D.H. Lawrence really liked it and wrote a foreword for it.

            * The subtitle is ironic

    • sharper13 says:

      Yeah, the top three I thought of are partially covered by others:
      1. “The Count of Monte Cristo” is my personal favorite (and the Three Musketeers, but the Count is better, get the unabridged Penguin Classics translation, not any of the abridged versions!)
      2. “Art of War” by Sun Tzu is one you have to read (and study) if you haven’t already.
      3. “Collected works of Shakespeare” (mentioned elsewhere) which you could also consume as movies/plays if you have the time

      Not as likely to be well known and probably only brought up in your conversation circles if you bring them up honorable mentions you would learn from:
      1. Thomas Sowell’s Conquest and Cultures: An International History (and the companion books “Race and Culture” and “Migrations and Cultures”, but Conquest is the best one to me)
      2. “Economics in One Lesson” by Hazlitt
      3. “The Law” by Bastiat.
      3. Something by Hayek (Road to Serfdom, or The Fatal Conceit) or Mises (Human Action, perhaps), if only to see what it looks like when someone correctly predicts the outcome of a grand social experiment and is mostly ignored by those conducting it.

      Less classically minded, but very beneficial:
      1. Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” You’ll find this quoted everywhere and much of the management/self-help industry using it as a basis going forward. Supports the field sort of like “Thinking, Fast and Slow” does for behavioral economics or like a modern Dale Carnegie book (both of which you could also read if you haven’t).
      2. “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Wiseman and McKeown. Explains way more about effective people management than anything else out there. One side effect is that you’ll get a lot better at managing groups. Another is that you’ll start to really notice when people are doing it wrong, diminishing others who work with/for them, sort of like once you can hear music better, badly played/sung music sounds worse to you.

      In terms of things to watch you may not have (if you’re younger), you can’t go much wrong with Monty Python shows and movies for sheer intellectual comedy entertainment.

    • tayfie says:

      For all your criteria, The (Anti-)Federalist Papers fit better than anything else I can personally recommend that you might not have considered.

      They are relevant to any topic involving the history or government of the United States, especially relating to the Constitution.

      It’s impressive because many people know about them but few have actually read them.

      They were published in the newspaper. This means that each run of essays had to stand on its own and be approachable for the common man. The downside to this is they start to feel very repetitive if you read them all.

      What I think they most bring to the table that can’t be captured in a one page summary is how the Founding Fathers thought about the gravity of designing a new country, the breadth of ideas and examples that were around at the time, and the incredible detail of all the nuts and bolts of designing a country.

    • J says:

      Bhagavad Gita is short and worthwhile. I liked Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Also, Oppenheimer’s quote just scratches the surface; the surrounding several pages are all quite evocative in the context of nuclear weapons.

      Neil Gaiman just came out with his rendition of the Norse myths. I haven’t read anything to compare it to, but I enjoyed it, and he seemed to be serious about authenticity.

      I’ll second the endorsement of Dante and Vonnegut.

      I don’t think this book is particularly famous, but “Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down” was recommended by Elon Musk, and is a very enjoyable layperson’s introduction to mechanical engineering, ranging from greek arches to bird feathers to animal arteries.

      Also, someone here a long time ago recommended Impro by Keith Johnstone as a book about improvisational theater that’s insightful far beyond theater. I agree, and also it got me into improv which is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I now see the world as consisting of two kinds of people: improv and scripted, who have almost completely non-overlapping approaches to things like dance, music, and even engineering.

    • A good heuristic for finding great books might be to look at the list of Nobel Prize in Literature awards: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_in_Literature

      Some great books from that list that I’d like to especially recommend:
      “Steppenwolf” – Hermann Hesse
      “The Plague” – Albert Camus
      “The grapes of wrath” – John Steinbeck
      “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
      “The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum” – Heinrich Böll
      “Never let me go” – Kazuo Ishiguro

      I think that of these books, “The Plague” gives the biggest conversational return on page read.

    • sclmlw says:

      Lots of people suggesting their favorites, but not necessarily books that are a good fit for Scott’s prompt. One that hasn’t been mentioned that’s fun, full of cultural dividends, and not a Russian novel (sorry Bros. Karamazov, but as much as I love you you’re too long to make this list):


      I’d also add a couple other quick reads, such as:

      Ender’s Game (classic for SF)

    • gemmaem says:

      Seconding Pale Fire. I enjoyed it as a novel, loved the way it messes with your head, wrote a sonnet in response because I felt like it … and I also enjoy it as a way to not talk about Lolita. Nothing like “I haven’t read it, but I’ve read Pale Fire, it was so cool the way Nabokov played with the narration, don’t you think?” to separate the people who like literature from the people who just wanted to be edgy.

    • frenris says:

      Art of war – sun tzu

      Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – Wittgenstein

      Tao te ching (and compare to above, makes far more sense to me as a result)

      On certainty, blue and brown books – Wittgenstein

      True believer – Eric hoffer (Hillary Clinton’s favorite book!)

      Anna karenina or war and peace- Tolstoy. Read Tolstoy for the characters. I think I understand people better because of his books. Usually Anna karenina is advised, but this crowd might actually not be annoyed by the hundreds of pages war and peace dedicates to describing logistics of the Russian army.

      Paradise Lost – Milton. Don’t bother with the whole thing unless you really feel you must. At the very least books 1-4 & 9.
      On the road – Jack Kerouac. Preferably the less edited version.

      Beautiful losers – Leonard Cohen Not sure if it qualifies as significant enough but Leonard Cohen is amazing.

      100 years of solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I need to read this again taking notes, cause there are a lot of similarly named characters with similar slightly different personalities and it’s a challenge to keep track.

      Various Icelandic sagas – comedy! Law! Murder! Where you learn such rules as “it’s not murder if you don’t kill them by surprise and you pay their family afterwards.”

      History of Western philosophy – Bertrand Russell. People who study philosophy hate this book not because it’s bad but because Russell spends half of it trashing various philosophers. Found it quite fun to read given the intensity of the subject matter.

      Decline and fall of the Roman empire – Gibbon. Historians hate these books. Obviously not short. It’s still amazing.

      An enquiry concerning human understanding – Hume. Is/ought. Problem of induction. Hume is a god of philosophy.

    • Urstoff says:

      I assume you’re already reading Moby-Dick every few years like all right-thinking individuals do.

    • pontifex says:

      Solzhenitzen’s The First Circle and the Gulag Archipelago are worth reading.

    • knockknock says:

      Wow, you mentioned two of my faves back to back right there at the end.

      Pale Fire is a riot, the ultimate “unreliable narrator” novel. My favorite writer said it was his favorite novel, so I gave it a shot.

      Long Goodbye is a great read but also valuable as a look at America about to stumble into the modern postwar era of suburban affluence, with its whole new set of dark problems amid the sunshine

    • Nietzsche says:

      You’ve probably read this already, but Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. It is short, brilliant, and I feel both awe and envy every time I read it. For something less philosophical, how about Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb? Easily the most terrifying thing I have ever read–I finished it and wondered why I was alive. It’s longish, though.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      I don’t have not many great books to suggest that have not been suggested above.

      I recall that Scott has already read Lovecraft and other genre fiction. One way to reap more benefits from that (and appear more “cultured” to many if you care about that) is to get knowledgeable about its history.

      How much have you read Edgar Allan Poe? My favorite stories by him include The Gold-Bug, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

      Someone recommended Dracula. If you ask me, it is certainly not great literature, but an example of a possibly worthwhile pick of genre history.

      Then I’m also going to recommend something completely different: in addition to “reading great books”, how much you know about cinema? Especially the films that are significantly older than you? If you pick good ones, I would regard that immensely high-yield activity: each individual work is usually consumed under two hours (which is much shorter time for me than time spent reading a novel of any length; I also realized how silly the current Hollywood standard of making all films extremely long marathon experience truly is), watching it is also enjoyable activity itself, and the visual medium has had a significant effect on the Western (popular) culture. If you go for “great classics”, ability talk about them in any detail may also appear impressive to many because surprisingly few people bother with them (their mistake). Some suggestions:

      * Some early Chaplin shorts, and all of his features (but if you pick one, maybe The Great Dictator? If you pick two, add Limelight.).
      * Marx Brothers. (Frankly, I was disappointed with Duck Soup. Maybe A Night at the Opera? Harpo wrote an autobiography which I hear is excellent fun to read.)
      * Buster Keaton (The General).
      * Kurosawa was eye-opening regarding where the Star Wars and Clint Eastwood’s Dollar Trilogy and many others came from.
      * Jacques Tati
      * Orson Welles
      * M by Fritz Lang
      (Add your recommendation below, I’d like to hear them. For example, I’ve always wanted to see the full Metropolis.)

      Caveat: Often you won’t learn anything that you wouldn’t learn by reading a summary (and maybe you could pass as a cultured person in a party going by just a summary), so in that sense the idea is at odds with your laid-out criteria. But I like to believe that experiencing the book/film on you own can make conversations with other people more meaningful. But then another caveat: I can’t remember a live discussion about films that I would have particularly enjoyed, but some good text-based discussion on the internet, so maybe my recommendations are way off for your purposes.

    • SamChevre says:

      It seems to me that there are several types of books that could meet the description, and it might be worth grouping some of the books recommended by type, so I will try.

      Books that give you tools for thinking about the world:
      Atlas Shrugged
      The Wealth of Nations
      Structure of Scientific Revolutions
      The Prince
      Theory of the Leisure Class
      Progress and Poverty
      The Art of War
      The Law
      I would add Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions” here.
      Most philosophy and religious literature aspires to this, but relatively little succeeds.

      Books that were hugely influential so you see the concepts or language or imagery all over the place:
      The Bible
      Bhagavad Gita
      The Divine Comedy
      The Odyssey

      Books that give insight into specific people or cultures:
      The Brothers Karamazov
      Democracy in America
      The Federalist Papers

      Most novels
      Most biographies
      Books that do this well can make it into “tools for thinking about the world”.

      Very quotable:
      The Rubaiyat
      Most poetry

      Books that everyone talks about this year:
      The NYT non-fiction best-sellers list

      • SamChevre says:

        Also in the “tools for seeing the world” category, missed by mistake:
        The Communist Manifesto

    • migo says:

      “Dom Casmurro” and “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas” by Machado de Assis (Brazilian, 1839–1908). Brilliant, delightful, touching (relatively) short novels.

    • Michael Handy says:

      A lot of people have mentioned The Prince, but I’d like to mention the Discorsi as well. If you don’t read it you are missing 80% of his political theory (He was a republican after all). Reading Livy first is useful, but not really needed if you have a vague idea of pre-imperial roman history.

      The key point is that while the base laws of Realpolitik hold, a republic is a very different beast to a dictatorship, and that collaborative rule requires a different set of institutions. Especially useful are his instructions on building a civic and engaged society. He does bang on about citizen militias as usual though.

      As for other books, Montaigne and his essays, especially the small penguin collection with “On Friendship” are short and some of my most influencing pieces.

      I’m also a fan of Kropotkin’s work, especially, “to the youth” if you want to read something from a hard left perspective. His compassion and assumption of good faith from is enemies always makes him stand out from his peers.

      In literature, Frankenstein isn’t that long, and an excellent read.

    • I’ll give you a list of “books that should be considered Great Books but are woefully underrated.” They combine readability, importance, and novelty.

      “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes
      “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy
      “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell

      • DavidS says:

        I’ve heard of the Bicameral Mind one and sounds fascinating, but is there any reason to think it’s not (brilliantly inventively) incorrect about its central thesis.

        • Viliam says:

          What exactly do you consider to be the central thesis?

          I am a fan of the book. I have a small child, and it is often fun to observe her self-directed commands and explanations. So it makes sense to me that humans may have special brain modules (not necessarily corresponding to the two hemispheres) — one for commanding yourself by temporarily role-playing an external authority, and one for obeying the commands and solving the situational logistics. Though, are those self-commands really perceived in “god mode”? I have no evidence, and children suck at introspection even more than adults.

          It is the historical explanation that makes me most suspicious. Suppose that “consciousness” (of the modern type) is a trait that appears only under some circumstances, which mostly did not exist historically — so, how exactly would you explain this trait using evolutionary perspective? How can a “potential ability to do X, under special circumstances” become a common trait of the whole humanity in a situation with zero selection pressure in favor of the trait, because the special circumstances allegedly did not exist yet?

          (As an analogy, imagine that there was never light on Earth, and everything including humans evolved in total darkness. Only in 20th century, someone invented electric power, and suddenly there was light. And people who spent enough time in light, started to use their eyes. — Wait, says the guy who learned about evolution on high school: How do you explain that humans had functional eyes, when there was no ancient evolutionary advantage for having them?)

          • John Schilling says:

            How do you explain literacy, when there was no ancient evolutionary advantage to wiring the visual cortex to Wernicke’s area?

            The human brain is very good at learning new tricks without having to evolve new wiring, and that’s been the case since at least the Neolithic period. That’s an entirely different matter than developing new sense organs, which are not required for a shift from bicameral to unicameral reasoning.

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are both short, fun, readable, and are referenced in lots of places. I’d also strongly recommend reading Matthew 5 through 7 in the King James Bible.

    • mwengler says:

      Camus The Stranger: existentialism 101.

      Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land. Grok it.

      Heller Catch-22. It is WWII, you are with the good guys, and it is absurd.

      Stephenson The Diamond Age. A powerful story about the future, some of the most interesting future tech i have ever seen.

      Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Why i did a philosophy minor.

      Atlas Shrugged already covered in this thread

      Jared Diamond’s Guns Terms and Steel and also Collapse. A lot more about human civilization then I ever learned anywhere else.

      All of these changed my life.

    • mwengler says:

      Steve sailer is the obfuscated author of half blood Prince about Obama. Why the weirdness in the original comment?

      • dick says:

        He’s currently banned from commenting here and I’m guessing his name was obfuscated because people have been admonished for bringing him up in the past.

    • youzicha says:

      I think for becoming Cultured, Deleuze and Guattari is a standard choice now? E.g. the reference in The Gig Economy,

      Normally I just fulfill my smart contracts and go back to reading Deleuze and Guattari, by which I mean I play first person shooters while the pdf is up on my other monitor, but this job presented a unique opportunity over and above making lewd jokes about rhizomatic assemblages on Discord.

      I guess A Thousand Plateaus is not short, but it’s helpfully divided into many allegedly independent essays.

  3. akc09 says:

    We’ve got a 5-year-old autistic son who is pretty “high-functioning,” but not very verbal, so I can’t ask him this sort of thing yet, but I’m curious:

    Those of you on the autism spectrum, were there things your parents did during your childhood that you really appreciated and/or really wish they’d done differently?

    (I haven’t heard a lot from the perspective of adults looking back on their own childhoods, aside from the “ABA sometimes used to be terrible a few decades ago” types of accounts.)

    • theredsheep says:

      I was very high-functioning (I can pass for extroverted), but the #1 thing I’d say is to be very, very careful about any kind of teasing. My family goes for banter, and that really messed me up even though I knew they didn’t mean much by it. And be careful about video games, I used them as an escape from a miserable and unfulfilling life for a ridiculously long time. Took me a while to kick that habit. My $0.02.

      • akc09 says:

        Thank you for this!

        I’ve always been kinda stressed-out by teasing too, and although I was lucky to grow up in a family where there wasn’t a lot of it, I had always wondered whether I would have been able to handle it better if I’d been exposed to more of it growing up.

        (The answer is quite possibly “nope,” heh)

      • Placid Platypus says:

        And be careful about video games, I used them as an escape from a miserable and unfulfilling life for a ridiculously long time. Took me a while to kick that habit.

        Do you think the video games were actually making things worse? The way you describe it it sounds like the real problem was the miserable and unfulfilling life part.

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          I think the issue is that the short-term enjoyment of video games can reduce one’s time and motivation to work on making one’s life less miserable and more genuinely fulfilling.

          • Robert Jones says:

            As a child there’s not all that much one can do to make life more fulfilling. Provided the games aren’t interfering with school, I don’t they will do much harm, and may even do some good.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I agree with Robert Jones. I know other parents who insist on “educational” toys for their kids, and so they’ve got all these Melissa and Doug wooden toys that look neat and signal they’re the Good Kind of Parent, but the kids play with them for 20 minutes, get bored and lose the pieces. On the other hand, my 5 year old is rotating three dimensional mazes on Captain Toad Treasure Tracker on the Wii U and I think that exercises the old thinkin’ noodle a little more than banging on pieces of wood.

          • akc09 says:

            @Conrad Honcho – Captain Toad Treasure Tracker has been a big hit with us as well!

            For our situation, our little guy loves anything and everything related to the Mario universe, so it’s actually been a decent jump-off point for helping him practice language: describing what’s going on in the game, asking for help, and taking turns.

            Not gonna lie, he’ll also the Nintendo to just straight Chill Out, but it’s been nice to have something that he’s motivated to talk about.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I find it especially helps with numeracy. If you asked my kid to divide 20 by 5 he wouldn’t know what to do. But when he was watching me play Breath of the Wild on the Switch and saw I was going to buy arrows (in bundles of five), he asked how many I wanted, I said “20” and he said “so you’re going to buy four.”

          • theredsheep says:

            My objection is not to the games per se; as a teenager, I tended to not so much enjoy games as use them to consume hours of life I didn’t want for any other purpose. Autistics love systems, and I dove into RPGs, dumping hour after hour into playing the same games over and over again just because my life was crap and I saw no way out. There were better things I could have done with that time.

          • akc09 says:

            @theredsheep – Yeah, sounds like it’ll be important to keep asking “what role is this activity playing in our lives” every so often, especially as he gets older.

            Like you say, there’s a big difference between playing games for leisure and playing because you’re feeling powerless and/or miserable about other parts of your life and don’t know what else to do.

          • Matt M says:

            Eh, I don’t know.

            I’ve reached the point where I feel like the “point” of everything I do in adult life is to free up more time for me to play video games.

            On the one hand, philosophers might call that a miserable sort of existence. On the other hand, I feel like I’m much happier just seeing that as my life and accepting it than I was back when I was a wreck, searching for the ultimate existential meaning of my life and depressing over all the things I wasn’t accomplishing, didn’t have, etc.

            Games are fun. Some people like them. Autistic people are especially prone to liking them. There are worse things to do with your life than maximize your time and ability to do things you like.

      • Baeraad says:

        the #1 thing I’d say is to be very, very careful about any kind of teasing.

        I’ll second this. I was absurdly sensitive as a kid. In particular, I squirmed horribly at sarcasm.

        Another thing is socialising, which is a tricky balancing act. My parents pushed me into some social contact with my peers, and I think that was fortunate, because if I’d been left to my own devices I’d probably stayed alone all the time, never gotten any practice at talking to people, and ended up even more incapable of interacting with the rest of the human race than I did. At the same time, it wasn’t pleasant, and it would have been nice if my parents had shown any sign of understanding how very difficult it was for me to adjust to other people, and that I wasn’t just being difficult or selfish.

        (then again, this was back in the 80s and my parents barely knew that autism was a thing that existed, so it might be a moot point today)

        • Robert Jones says:

          I partly disagree. My parents pushed me to socialise with other children, I hated it and I don’t think it was useful. Socialising with children isn’t good practice for socialising with adults, which is the skill you actually want.

        • ana53294 says:

          As a child, I did want to interact with people – but only with adults. I mostly found other kids boring and uninteresting. I don’t think socializing with peers is that necessary. You also learn by socializing with adults. It is true that most adults are not interested in interacting with kids, but then let them find people that are interesting to them.

          • Viliam says:

            I mostly found other kids boring and uninteresting.

            I wonder how much this is a consequence of autism, and how much of high IQ (I guess we can take that for granted for most SSC readers). Essentially, people of the same mental age are more fun to talk with than people of the same physical age.

        • liskantope says:

          Judging by this and other comments, people here on the spectrum are quite split on whether parents should push their autistic kids to socialize. I suspect this is in accordance with how innately introverted/extroverted each of us is, on a level independent of conditions such as autism which make socialization difficult. Parents should ideally push their kids to reach their full potential with respect to the level of social life they’ll ultimately want (which I acknowledge is a tough thing to evaluate as someone is growing up).

          I really feel strongly about this because I know people of my generation who are autistic and yearning for an active social life but hid behind the internet and video games during their most formative years and thus grew up with a greater disadvantage than comes from autism alone. It’s easy to point the finger directly at autism in these cases, but to me that’s an indirect cause and the parents who passively let them spend all their free time alone do share some of the blame.

          I consider my parents allowing pretty restricted access to the computer and constantly pushing me to go out with other people to be among the best parenting decisions they made with me. But that’s because I’m naturally quite an extroverted person whose happiness as an adult has largely been dependent on having the constant presence in my life of large social groups. Someone who truly prefers a more reclusive lifestyle, as part of their personality, deserves parents who are receptive to that and adjust their approach accordingly.

          • akc09 says:

            This is interesting.

            Both of us parents are introverts, and the kiddo seems to be somewhere in the middle (happy to entertain himself, but looooves when we go to see his friends).

            We’re hoping that we can at least help him acquire the language/skills to get by with his peers and grow the friendships that he has so far. So as an adult, if he wants to be more of a loner, it’s on his own terms and not because he just feels too anxious interacting with people.

          • Baeraad says:

            There might be something to that. I don’t know if I’d call myself an extrovert, but I do feel a strong need for emotional connections and for feeling like I belong somewhere. I’ve heard a lot of autists who sound like they’d be perfectly fine if the rest of the human race just left a lifetime supply of canned goods and then disappeared, but that never made sense to me. I’ve always felt like people are significant insofar as they are significant to other people – if I have a thought and there’s no one who’s interested in listening to it, what was the point of me having it in the first place?

          • Aapje says:


            Understanding? Becoming a better person in your own right, regardless of whether others recognize it?

          • Baeraad says:

            Understanding? Becoming a better person in your own right, regardless of whether others recognize it?

            I perceive no value in either of those things. I think because I don’t really trust my own mind – I might just think I understand something, and I’ll never know unless I get someone else to go over my reasoning and see if they can spot any errors in it. I’ve had entirely too many brilliant ideas that turned out to be completely off the mark because I had failed to account for a bunch of pesky factors that fell outside of my mental tunnel vision. :/

            Also, my memory is crap when it comes to anything that I mentally mark as “not important” – which is how I instinctively mark every thought that didn’t end up having some sort of consequences in the real world. So whatever it was I thought I understood, I’ll probably end up forgetting it anyway if I don’t get to solidify it by at least talking to someone about it.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Like Baeraad, I’ll second the comment about teasing. I remember being especially sensitive to it too, as a kid. I don’t think I’m autistic, but I don’t think someone needs to be in order to respond poorly to teasing, and I think someone who’s autistic could easily be even more sensitive to it.

        That said, people tease, and eventually an autist will meet them, and have to deal with them, so as a parent, I think you’ll need to prepare your son. I don’t know exactly how, but I know that I’d start by calling it out explicitly. I’d even make it a game. The rules could be:

        1. you (the son) score a point if you can say “I think you’re teasing me” and be right, but you lose a point if you’re not
        2. you score two points if you can play along with the teasing without calling it out
        3. you score two points if you can tease me and I don’t realize it after about fifteen seconds
        4. the game is always being played

        The key, IMO, to teasing that throws off autists and adjacents is that they’re having to deal with someone who isn’t saying what they mean. Moreover, they’re enjoying it. They’re enjoying fooling the autist, who would really prefer everyone says what they mean and save everyone else a great deal of time. The autist needs to understand how teasing and fooling other people can be fun. And since it can be fun, it becomes useful to know how it’s done, and how to detect it.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      misplaced comment deleted.

      I have some thoughts here, but not sure exactly what to say. I know my parents did a lot of things I didn’t like but I really don’t know what the counterfactuals would look like.

      • theredsheep says:

        Nagging comment deleted in turn.

        It’s not a bad idea to just give your experiences just so the OP gets a good feel for the diversity of experience, etc. ASD covers a loooot of ground.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      A couple of things my parents and other caring adults did that I remember very fondly and now try, very imperfectly, to do with my son:

      1. Treating my elaborate rule-bound fantasy constructions with at least apparent respect and appreciation. At one point my dad had T-shirts made up for my family members listing the government posts I had carefully assigned them in my fantasy nation, and my delight at this is one of my more vivid childhood memories.

      2. Marking off safe spaces where I could indulge in repetitive behavior without bothering others or endangering or unduly embarrassing myself. I recall an elementary teacher who put tape on the classroom floor to delineate a zone within which I could pace around in circles as much as I liked.

      • akc09 says:

        I like these! #1 sounds like good parenting advice all around, even with a kid who isn’t on the spectrum but has a good imagination.

    • ana53294 says:

      Not pressuring to interact with age peers was a great one. People all around me were pressuring me about playing with other kids. Especially teachers, although that was probably mostly to get rid of me. Let him interact with adults if he chooses to – at least he will be interacting with somebody, even if adult – child interactions are qualitatively different from peer interactions.

      • Robert Jones says:

        Fully agree.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        Big +1 to this. As an elementary school aged child, interactions with adults and even teenagers were much much more fulfilling and much easier than age-mate interactions, and I learned an enormous amount from them and sought them out at every opportunity; I would have been truly socially disabled had I been rebuffed and limited to age-mate interactions.

        • ana53294 says:

          And, if you think about it, being forced to interact with age-peers is an unnatural invention that came with schools. In a family, you would interact with brothers and sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents, of different ages. Few of them would be exactly the same age as you – so you could interact with somebody who is closer to you developmentally.

      • Watchman says:

        Counterpoint: interaction with adults prepares children for unequal relationships but not for a lot of key social interaction where status is unclear, and particularly where it needs to be asserted.

        The point of age-group play (which is a norm as humans don’t normally live in small family groups but in communities) is that it is unstructured and challenging. It’s a preparation for status contest in adulthood, right down to the stereotypical gender roles which kids seem to revert to despite various noble efforts. To fail to have this experience is to lose out on training for key spheres of adult interaction where the hierarchy is horizontal and therefore negotiation is required.

        As you might guess, I still reckon the best thing my parents did for me was transport me to see friends (it was a rural area…). I’m not autistic, but the lack of diagnosis (I am possibly adjacent at least) might well be more to do with learning to interact with age-group peers from about three years old.

        • Nicholas Weininger says:

          I agree that lack of age-group interaction makes you worse at status assertion and status contests/status negotiation. I would submit, however, that there are lots of satisfying and successful life-paths that require very little of this (including paths which involve leadership, albeit of a low-key, consensus-driven style).

          As for me, I hated a lot of age-group interactions as a kid precisely because they involved this sort of thing, and am very glad I was not pushed to engage in more of them anyway.

    • Deiseach says:

      No formal diagnosis so no idea if I am “on the spectrum” (have very strong suspicions about family background) but one thing I would say is: be careful of literalism. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how incredibly literal-minded I was as a child, and how I took things literally that weren’t meant to be taken that way. Made for a divergence between me and other children when interacting/socialising.

      So maybe just keep an eye out for using figurative language and explaining what you are doing and what that really means, and not to take everything as meaning absolutely literal.

      • akc09 says:

        Ha, I’ve been catching myself at that, especially lately as he’s starting to pick up more language and we can alllmost have real conversations. 🙂

    • MartMart says:

      My parents supplied me with lots of toys that allowed me to improve my mechanical abilities. From stuff like erector sets, to model airplanes, random build projects, hand tools, basic pulley sets and other simple machine etc. These were things that I could mess with alone, and quickly turned as a way to escape from the stresses of socializing. It would have been nice if there were basic electronics involved there as well, but I suspect that they were worried I would ask for help with something.

  4. johan_larson says:

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to settle Antarctica. The UN invites proposals to form a new nation spanning the entire continent and to incorporate this state into the regular community of nations. Your proposal should address what people will move to the continent; what combination of resource extraction, industry, agriculture, and service work will support them; how they will be governed; how the security of the state will be provided for; and how the entire enterprise will be financed.

    • beleester says:

      Yikes. The coldest place on Earth, no rainfall, no arable land, and you want to talk about agriculture? Call Mark Watney, because this is only marginally better than trying to grow crops on Mars.

      As for other natural resources, Antarctica apparently has some rare metals and hydrocarbons, but not in economic quantities. Still, if the UN wants us to be there, we may as well grab what we can get. Other industries are going to be limited – anything you can build there would probably be more affordably built somewhere else. Wikipedia also says that there are some offshore fisheries which we could put to use feeding our colonists.

      The last resource we might find useful is wind power – Antarctica has strong katabatic winds and apparently a number of research stations have wind farms to reduce their fuel needs. Getting some renewable power plants up and running will be very important – it’s hard to call yourself an independent colony when you need shipments of diesel from the mainland to survive. (We could also go nuclear – McMurdo used to have a nuclear reactor – but I think that might be a bit much for the UN to accept).

      Probably your first step is to take McMurdo Station and expand it a bunch, because that’s the biggest permanent settlement we have right now.

      EDIT: Apparently my quip about growing crops on Mars was closer to the truth than I thought – there’s a research project to grow vegetables in Antarctica as practice for growing crops in outer space!

      • Nornagest says:

        Does anyone know if penguins are delicious?

      • johan_larson says:

        It might be useful to crib some notes from Iceland. Cheap energy — wind in this case — means aluminum smelting is a viable industry. Also, given the sheer size of Antarctica, I expect some mineable minerals would turn up. And of course if Antarctica is a sovereign nation, it gets control of its 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone, which will matter for fishing.

        • spork says:

          Sorry, this is a terrible idea. Antarctica may have lots of steady wind, but the turbines would have to be anchored in the bedrock beneath the ice. Oh, and that ice flows, so good luck getting those pylons to withstand the pressure. And good luck finding cheap labor for the installation and the necessary maintenance. But that complete unworkability isn’t even the worst part of your idea. That would go to the suggestion that dirty humans should make a city on this very ecologically sensitive continent. That makes sense neither for the people nor the continent.

        • beleester says:

          Yeah, wind energy won’t be cheap, it’s just more practical than other renewables and I think not being completely dependent on foreign oil is a good start to independence. Antarctica is still a very hostile environment.

        • Aftagley says:

          Sorry, this is a terrible idea. Antarctica may have lots of steady wind, but the turbines would have to be anchored in the bedrock beneath the ice. Oh, and that ice flows, so good luck getting those pylons to withstand the pressure.

          Contrary to what you always see on nature shows, there not all of Antarctica is covered in massive ice flows. in some areas you can build right on the ground. Here is a good webpage about the McMurdo wind farm where you can see they’re not having to deal with building on ice.

          That’s not to say that wind is the perfect solution, however. Like that page points out, getting materials to Antarctica is difficult. Scott base is relatively accessible, considering for Antarctica, and you’ve still got roughly 3 weeks a year where you can ship in bulk parts, like those needed for wind farms.

          Another concern is that these kinds of katabatic winds can be, well, dramatic. I’ve seen 8 hour stretches where the winds jumped from 15 knots (good for power generation) to over 170 (not even slightly). The weather changes so often and so dramatically that I wouldn’t try to rely on it for economic viability.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Another concern is that these kinds of katabatic winds can be, well, dramatic. I’ve seen 8 hour stretches where the winds jumped from 15 knots (good for power generation) to over 170 (not even slightly).

            For reference: a cat-5 hurricane is 120+ knots. So, like, whoa.

            Now I’m wondering how one might efficiently harness swiftly changing winds like that. I keep imagining some sort of variable transmission system, like in the drive train of a car.

          • engleberg says:

            @Now I’m wondering how one might efficiently harness swiftly changing winds like that. I keep imagining some sort of variable transmission system, like in the drive train of a car-

            Yes, but in the blades. Have to feather the blades or they tear off anyway, so let high winds spin the hubs and stems of blades at high speeds, then extend for slow winds.

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t know if you could make an industry out of it, but scientific research seems to be doing quite well in Antarctica (and with what seems a lot of infrastructure, so they seem to be improving on that front).

    • Tenacious D says:

      Instead of resource extraction, how about an industrial focus on waste management? China is scaling back the amount of waste it is prepared to accept, so this is an area where a new nation could find a niche. The cold temperatures and geological stability (or am I mistaken on that count?) mean that landfills and even nuclear waste repositories could be built with low risk of spreading contamination. Maybe carbon sequestration as well.
      If the technical challenges can be solved, you could also tow icebergs to Cape Town or Jeddah for a tidy profit.

    • John Schilling says:

      What purpose is to be served by this?

      If the idea is to e.g. have a remnant human population left over to repopulate the Earth after the AI Fooms and Transcends and leaves a barren wasteland, that’s going to argue for digging through a couple kilometers of ice, depositing colonists with lots of gear and a closed-ecology life support system and nuclear reactors and lots and lots of uranium, then filling up the hole and destroying all record that you ever thought of this. Which is an interesting idea, and possibly doable, and I kind of want Neal Stephenson to write that missing section of Seveneves. But the bottom line is, you can’t define the architecture until you know the mission.

      If it’s just to have a human population for the sake of having a human population, then we already know what McMurdo station looks like. If it needs more people, make duplicates and start looking for economies of scale. If it needs families, send married couples and add day care and schools, and maybe talk to Argentina and Chile who have already done that (albeit on a token scale). If it needs to be politically independent, tell the station commander he doesn’t have to take orders from Washington any more, and maybe tell him you’ll run guns to the rebels if he doesn’t stand for election every four years. Or heck, make it a constitutional monarchy if you like.

      If it needs to be any sort of self-sufficient, now you’ve got a tricky problem. Most of the continent has naught for resources but ice, air, and wind. And I’m guessing the people saying that wind will make for cheap energy have neither been responsible for maintaining wind turbines nor lived through an arctic winter. The combination of those two is going to add up to the opposite of cheap power. But it’s that or nuclear, or maybe solar power satellites in orbits that are inconvenient for everyone else’s requirements.

      If you stick to the coasts, you’ve got some assorted mineral deposits and fisheries. I think some of the mineral deposits would be economically viable at current prices if it were legal to exploit them, but a strictly mercenary exploitation would involve all-adult, mostly-male mining camps whose crews rotate from Argentina or New Zealand or whatnot every two months. It’s not clear that market revenues would be sufficient to support everyone’s families in that environment. Still, it’s probably going to be the basis of your economy at the start, so get on with serious prospecting and talk to the Canadians and Norwegians about mining in arctic environments. This also gets you some of the materials you’ll need for local construction and industry.

      Also, tourism. A bit of science for hire, maybe. There’s a need for a satellite communications station in the extreme Antarctic; you can take over for McMurdo and TrollSat. Invent new extreme sports, film spectacular movies on location, make reality TV shows about people cooped up in small camps over six-month winters. All of these are little niches, but they’re what you’ve got. On the purely economic side, you’re making Mars look attractive.

      Hmm, if it’s the UN doing this, ask whether whatever imperative makes this so important to them, is important enough that they’ll run cover as you set Antarctica up as an offshore banking haven a la Switzerland of old, because that might be enough to make ends meet.

      Barring that near-miracle, you’re almost certainly going to need lots of subsidies to make this work. And unless your mission requires an unnatural level of autarky, you’re probably going to wind up using those subsidies (and your mining etc revenues) to import almost everything you consume. Think Singapore or Hong Kong or Dubai, because notwithstanding the geographic expanses of useless wasteland this is basically going to be a city-state plus mining outposts.

      But if it matters, you can make greenhouses plus hydroponics plus aquaculture, and the offshore fisheries, give you nominal self-sufficiency in food. Pay no attention to the imports of fertilizers and spare parts, and lots and lots of kerosene or uranium for the grow lights. And you can look into what level of local manufacturing is possible at any level of population and investment, but waving your magic 3-D printing wand probably isn’t going to give you material self-sufficiency.

      As the scale grows, you’re really going to want to think about arcologies, to minimize the relative exposure of the population to the environment. Please to be taking inspiration from e.g. Paolo Soleri, rather than William Hope Hodgson.

      Hmm. If Niven and Pournelle are to be believed, the natural form of government of an arcology will be feudalism. But I think that was at least three parts let’s tell a neat story to one part serious futurism. All real power will flow through whoever controls the distribution of the economic subsidies (or profits of the mining or banking industry, if those are enough for self-sufficiency). You can probably make anything work with enough good planning and effort. If you leave it to fate and efficiency, the Spanish and Portugese colonization of South America will probably be your historic model; they also faced the problem of a very harsh environment that could only be made survivable and productive by the application of concentrated wealth and power. New England this isn’t.

      You did mention defense, but that’s a solved problem: we just appoint Bean Minister of the Navy, or at least the Coast Guard.

      • johan_larson says:

        What purpose is to be served by this?

        I’m thinking the current Antarctic Treaty System starts breaking down. The system bars commercial exploitation, but permits scientific work, though some of the science looks more like claim-staking. But that starts breaking down, presumably because of commercial pressures; there is something there, and people want it. The something is probably ore, though I suppose it could be oil.

        Because of these pressures, some countries start cheating. They start setting up “geological research stations” that sure look like mines. The UN, being no fools, sees that this is going on and recognizes that the Treaty System isn’t working. Something else needs to be put in place. Failure could mean a competitive rush to claim the continent before others do. And that could very easily get violent.

        A number of options are put forward.
        1. Split up the continent among existing nations. Sure, but no one can agree on who gets how much.
        2. Have the continent taken over by one existing nation. Great, but which one. Again, no agreement.
        3. Have the UN run the continent directly. No, the UN bureaucracy is at best slow, and sometimes corrupt. No one is keen on that solution.

        Finally they hit on the possibility of creating a new nation in Antarctica. With few other sources of funding, the government would presumably sell or lease mineral rights promptly, and would have plenty of reason to administer the rights soundly.

        That’s the least implausible reason I can come up with. The challenge is well toward absurdity, of course.

      • Deiseach says:

        Please to be taking inspiration from e.g. Paolo Soleri, rather than William Hope Hodgson.

        Well damn it, John Schilling, now you’ve got a Lovecraft/Hodgson Mountains of Madness/Night Land fusion-vision rattling around in the back of my head, and it could be glorious. Where better to build the Last Redoubt than in the ruins of the city of the Elder Things, both facing and defying the subterranean evil of the shoggoths and the more dreadful sinister entity lurking in the unknown mountains?

        • John Schilling says:

          Crap. Now I’ve got it too. And it will be glorious, but if I write it the humans are going to win in the end.

        • Nick says:

          I approve of this plan. The writing it bit, not the colonizing-the-cities-of-Elder-Things bit.

          • albatross11 says:

            So, have all the people from the Antarctic colony been driven into shrill, unreasoning madness by the Elder Gods, or is it just the usual effect of social media and political arguments?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Just the usual.

          • Deiseach says:

            the colonizing-the-cities-of-Elder-Things bit.


        • Nornagest says:

          I’d read that.

      • albatross11 says:

        Would you need grow lights to have food self-suficiency? You should be getting a fair bit of sunlight in the *summer* months, after all. Could you just grow all your crops then (in a greenhouse)?

        • John Schilling says:

          You could probably do fresh vegetables in naturally-illuminated greenhouses, but most cereal crops are particularly unsuitable for growing under arctic illumination. Svalbard is probably going to be your model here, and it doesn’t look good for the local farmers.

          Really, Svalbard is probably a pretty good model for an Antarctic coastal settlement in many regards, and worth studying in this context.

    • proyas says:

      First, set up population centers in the ice-free parts of Antarctica and expand from there.

      Sticking to the coasts would be critical anyhow since that’s where all the food (penguins, whales) is.

      It’s so cold and dry that it would probably be best if the Antarctic towns were domed, or consisted entirely of linked buildings.

      As far as which people should be admitted as citizens, the inherently harsh and resource-poor lifestyle should dictate that only able-bodied people be allowed.

      If “security of the state” means “national defense,” then I don’t think Antarctica has a prayer, and its smartest move would be to not even try building a military and to instead create a mutual protection pact with a stronger country that can project military power across the seas. However, I could see Antarctica having a small Coast Guard consisting of a few patrol boats and spotter planes, mostly for deterring illegal fishing, doing rescues at sea, and maintaining a basic level of surveillance of the areas around the population centers, so something like a 1,000-man amphibious invasion a few miles out of sight of the nearest Antarctic town wouldn’t go undetected.

      Economically, an Antarctic state might make money by copying the banking laws of the Cayman Islands to become another international money laundering haven. Cold weather and cheap wind power electricity could also make it well-suited for Bitcoin mining or operating Facebook server farms.

      • cryptoshill says:

        As someone who has heated their home in the winter with Bitcoin mining – that sort of thing also has the added advantage of being a revenue-positive way to generate heat. Which if you want to have any sort of settlement in Antarctica, you’re going to need a lot of.

    • johan_larson says:

      Anyone planning to jumpstart an economy on Antarctica needs to study the economy of Greenland, which is a semi-autonomous part of Denmark. They make their money almost exclusively from fishing, but are trying to develop mining, oil, and hydro-power industries. They also get a lot of subsidies from Denmark. Pretty goddamn ballsy demanding home rule when you can’t pay your way, I must say.

    • johan_larson says:

      We need to talk about how to build a citizenry.

      Given how desolate Antarctica is, and how little it would be starting from, I expect no one would be willing to pull up stakes and just move there permanently. The first generation would consist of people from other countries, coming on work assignments, firmly intending to return home. For them, the Republic of Antarctica would be an abstract sort of entity, entirely administrative. And many of them would return home. But as the population grew, there would be some who just never got around to returning. There would also be some who were born on Antarctica. Some of them would leave for their parents’ countries, but some would stay even though their parents arranged for dual citizenship. And the people of the second generation that never left would be the first Antarcticans in spirit.

      • Watchman says:

        I think the UAE is a reference point for importing a citizen body of non-permanent residents. But to ensure the new country is run for the benefit of the country not the immigrant workforce you’d need a core group of Antarctic citizens (the equivalent of the Emirati but with snowsuits rather than robes) to represent Antarctica’s interests. This group would have political power at least to the level of veto. Otherwise the temptation is for the short term residents to act in self-interest and focus on maximising profit through short term actions (resource stripping and the like).

        • johan_larson says:

          Interesting thought. I wonder if some of the scientists who visit Antarctica for research purposes could be enticed into staying permanently and becoming the guardians of the new nation. Bet they’re a clever bunch, and they already like the place enough to visit despite the harsh weather.

    • J says:

      I’m told that waste heat management is actually one of the more annoying bottlenecks for alternative fuels, so nuclear plants might enjoy a simplified design there. My Mars terraforming plan calls for fusion plants that sit at the poles and melt the water ice.

      • Nornagest says:

        “You seem uncomfortable, Mr. Bond. Just to distract you from the advancing groin-laser, shall we watch this PowerPoint presentation about my Antarctic colony and the Nuclear Climate Engines I’ve built in the ice below? You’re a cultured man — what do you think of the millions that’ll drown as their meltwater raises the sea level? Tragic, of course, but we must make sacrifices for the new order…”

  5. theredsheep says:

    Since Scott brings it up, sort of, does anybody know of a good, in-depth, accessible book on Byzantium? I’m good on general history, but you just can’t find a book that details the patterns of everyday life across centuries the way you can for Western Europe. Tamara Talbot Rice wrote a daily life in Byzantium book, but it was full of egregious errors and it’s now something like sixty years old.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      I assume you’ve read Norwich’s Byzantium: Apogee? I’m very interested in Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood and the Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities. However, I have read neither.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      John Julius Norwich is the expert, of course. His trilogy gets really in depth.

      I’m not sure if it’s precisely what you’re looking for, but the other good Byzantium book I’ve read is Sailing From Byzantium, which explores ways the Byzantine Empire influenced the modern world. There’s a little bit of discussion of daily life, I think.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        Norwich also has a one-volume Short History which is basically the Reader’s Digest version of the trilogy and which still went plenty in depth for me.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      What, the half of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire about the Eastern Empire after 476 isn’t good enough for you?

      • theredsheep says:

        Gibbon, from what I understand, is the originator of our now thankfully-dead belief that the Byzantine Empire wasn’t worth studying because Christianity poisoned the Empire and made it stupid, effeminate and worthless. Also, he’s centuries old by now; not exactly cutting-edge research.

    • Schmendrick says:

      This is more focused on foreign relations, governmental structure, and the military, but I highly enjoyed “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire” by Edward Luttwak.

    • theredsheep says:

      Just FYI, I’ve read Norwich’s trilogy and the short version, plus Cyril Mango’s history, Lovelace’s, Justinian’s Flea, and a Time-Life history book from the sixties which sadly turned out to be the best source I’ve found yet for nitty-gritty details. I’m good on general history, I’m more interested in what life was like for the average person in Amorium or Callipolis in 900 AD vs 1300 or 550. You can get books like that for, say, Norman England.

    • eightieshair says:

      Warren Treadgold’s A History of the Byzantine State and Society is a good fairly comprehensive one volume history. Not as colorful as Norwich’s books, but also takes more of a big picture approach.

    • cassander says:

      I’m not a big fan of John Julius Norwich, but his book is probably the best single account. There are a couple books here that I might not read first, but I would definitely suggest reading. Byzantium and Venice is an interesting history of their relationship, both cultural and political:


      Last centuries of byzantium is an in depth look at everything that happens after 1204, which is a period often overlooked in other accounts:


  6. Andrew Hunter says:

    Okay, screwed up threading, trying this again:

    Hey there, New York commenters. I live here now [1]. Despite the warnings some of you (counting the NJ set…) offered, it seemed my best choice.

    Would love to drink or eat with anyone here. Reply here or email me.

    [1] …Okay, I’m in Cape Cod with my family literally right now, but I’ll be in my Brooklyn apartment in less than 48 hours.

  7. ing says:

    I recently encountered a Wired article from 2017 about “metformin“, claiming that it reduces cancer and extends healthy lifespan.

    I checked Gwern’s page; he doesn’t say anything that sounds like “this really works” or “this really doesn’t work” but he does note that 51% of users get diarrhea.

    Has anyone tried this?

    • Deiseach says:

      On it for Type II diabetes. If I live to be 120, I’ll let you know the “extended lifespan” bit is true, ditto any cancer I don’t get (but how will I tell the cancer I don’t get is because of the metformin rather than being the cancer I don’t get because of other reasons?)

      The diarrhoea/flatulence/gastrointestinal distress part is correct, but that’s only at the start. Once you get used to it, it stops (generally; some unfortunates never do get used to it and have to go off it).

      The question here is: is metformin any good for healthy people without diabetes (as distinct from “type II diabetics on metformin do better and live longer than type II diabetics on other treatment”) and that, I submit, nobody really knows.

    • James Miller says:

      I take 2 grams a day for life-extension reasons. I slowly worked up from this dosage from .5 grams a day. I’ve been taking Metformin for around a year and I’ve had no side effects. Indeed, I can’t feel any difference but since my goal is to slow down aging related decay and to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, I didn’t expect to. I’m also part of the “Metformin Self-experiment Group” Facebook group. If you live in the US you will need a prescription. To get one: (A) tell your doctor you don’t need insurance to pay for it, (B) tell him the exact dosage you want, (C) research the side-effects and tell him you will look out for them and stop taking the drug if they become too bad, (D) look for a legitimate diabetes related reason such as your having the possibility of developing diabetes because a relative of yours has it or you have signs of developing it, (E) explain that you want to reduce the risk of getting cancer and heart disease and you have done research. Try to convince the doctor that you have the background to have done this research in an intelligent way. Don’t mention anti-aging as this will make you sound like a quack to most doctors. (F) Expect your doctor to “think about it” and get back to you after he has looked into it.

      I’ve considered trying to set up some kind of GoFundME for the rationalist community to better look into this. I think Metformin could be a big win for us, or at least those of us older than, say, 40.

      • maintain says:

        A while ago Scott was talking about how Sarah Constantin just founded an org called the Longevity Research Institute. Their goal is to look into things like that, although their web site doesn’t mention metformin specifically.

    • toastengineer says:

      So the real question is, how much of the lifespan gains are wasted sitting on the can?

    • David Speyer says:

      I have Diabetes Type I. In 2008 my doctor suggested that, although normally used in Type II cases, metformin might make my response to insulin more predictable. It did, and also made my response to a given dose much stronger. I was on it for about 4 years without noticeable side effects besides a small increase in flatulence. When I went on an insulin pump, I went off metformin again to reduce the number of variables, and that seems to be working well enough to not need to go back.

      I can back up the other people saying side effects are mild; no idea about the life extension stuff.

  8. bean says:

    Naval Gazing: A discussion of the Quick-Firing (QF) gun.

    Also, a reminder that I’m having a Naval Gazing meetup at the USS Salem in Boston next Sunday.

  9. Jack Lecter says:

    Re: conflict vs. mistake- I really don’t want to criticize it, because it clarified a lot of things for me. I think it’s almost almost right, and a lot closer than I’d have gotten on my own- it’s just different enough from my own experience to throw the discrepancies into relief.

    So it seems churlish to nitpick it, but here goes:

    I think you’ve hit on a bunch of dichotomies that are heavily, heavily correlated, giving us two rough clusters of people defined by a set of connecting, mutually reinforcing (behavior patterns? narrative structures? mechanisms for filtering and interpreting reality?) I immediately recognize the attitudes of mind you’re getting at. And I agree that this isn’t completely decentralized- that there’s a sort of underlying ur-difference in perspective between these two groups. But when I meet conflict theorists, I don’t feel like the gap between us is that they believe in conflict and I don’t, or, more reasonably, that they think politics is mostly about conflict and I don’t.

    (I do believe in conflict, and I think it plays a pretty darn important part in politics, actually.)

    A few months ago, I was talking to my mom about… some specific critic of the Trump administration, I can’t remember who. [Obligatory but minimal tribal signaling: I am not personally a fan of the Trump administration.] We were talking about this… guy, I think? And I was trying to explain why I disagreed with him even though from a coalition politics pov we had a lot in common. And I said, it just kind of came out, “It’s like, I think he thinks Trump’s the bad guy.”

    Not a bad guy. The bad guy. My mom’s a lawyer, smart, good with words, and I’m on the autism spectrum and I’ve been doing this kind of playing with words for literally decades now, so she’s used to it. She expects it. So I consider it (weak, but existent) evidence in favor of the hypothesis that she didn’t get what I meant and I had to explain it. Most people might tune out the different article, the way most people can tune out duplicate ‘the’s (including me!), but I’ve subjected her to a lot of this sort of thing over the years, and she has a natural talent for it. It’s notable that she missed this one.

    Again, I get that this sounds uncharitable, but… I think some people have the alief that, if it weren’t for the Other Tribe, everything would be just kind of basically okay. So if they’re, eg, in favor of the minimum wage, and you try to argue that there are disemployment effects, it isn’t just that they distrust your motives for making the argument- it’s that their prior for things like that happening is incredibly low to begin with; on an emotional
    level, they live in a world where bad things are the result of hostile agentic forces, where if your intentions are good things aren’t allowed to backfire.

    (If I wanted to go out on a limb, I’d try to link this to Dennett’s stuff about agency detection, or Yudkowsky’s stuff about feeling like the world is, in some essential sense, a safe place if you follow the right rules.

    And I know this sounds like Bulverism, but I’ve had conversations with people- people I’ve known a long time, people I respect- that don’t seem to make sense under any other paradigm I’ve heard of.

    • Viliam says:

      I think some people have the alief that, if it weren’t for the Other Tribe, everything would be just kind of basically okay.

      This is the dark side of optimism. An optimist believes that the natural state of things is to be good. Therefore, if something turns out to be bad… the obvious conclusion is that someone did that on purpose. (And we need to find and punish that person, or group of people.)

      For a pessimist, things going wrong do not require any special explanation; it’s what happens naturally. (Food rots, iron rusts, tools break, people die, ideas get misunderstood.) Things working well is what requires explanation, and suggests intelligent design and a lot of work.

      Beware of a disillusioned optimist!

    • MartMart says:

      The biggest problem I saw with the conflict vs mistake idea, is that there is a certain duality, where each can be the other on a different meta level.
      Most conflicts can be thought of as a mistake, in that its a failure of leadership to allow conflicts to become so encompassing that the limit possible action.
      Most mistakes can be thought of as conflicts “here we have a bunch of smart people trying to solve a difficult problem, and these conflictists are making it about tribal warfare. We need to purge out the conflictists so that the experts can work.

    • pontifex says:

      I think the original Conflict vs. Mistake post was thought provoking, and does seem to describe a real difference in how different groups of people think.

      However, I feel that that post tried way, way too hard to be kind to Conflict theorists. I feel like “conspiracy theorists” would be a better name for what Scott called Conflict theorists. If you consider the classic 20th century “conflict theorist” ideas like Marxism or Nazism, they’re essentially conspiracy theories. Jews are the bad guys in the Nazi conspiracy theory. Kulaks are the bad guys in the Communist conspiracy theory.

      Once you get this idee fixe that there’s a conspiracy out to get you, you can hang everything else off of that. Standard of living dropping after your favorite policies were enacted? Well, it’s obviously the Bad Guys, out to get you. Someone says that the Bad Guys aren’t real, or that they don’t work together like you claim they do? He’s obviously one of Them. The conspiracies are almost always unfalsifiable.

      The conspiracies have changed over time, but the mode of thinking hasn’t. Everyone agrees that there have been conflicts — WWII really happened. But some people have a paranoid and distorted view of events.

      I think a lot of the problems come because the ancestral environment of humans was an environment of small groups of tens or hundreds of people, who really did have common goals and agency. But people want to apply the same mode of thinking to groups of millions of people, who often have little in common. So people make absurd claims about what a particular social group or race “wants” (as if it were a person with goals and desires).

      • zzzzort says:

        I disagree, both with your characterization of mistake theorists, and with your characterization of Scott’s post. Scott used the word ‘elites’ to describe the conflict, and you use ‘Bad Guys’, I would have gone with the more modern ‘interest groups’ (or if I wanted to signal they were bad, ‘special interests’).

        So, here’s one example where conflict theory might have some explanatory power. I’ve chosen this deliberately to be outside the culture war, and supported by right leaning groups to counteract any impression that conflict theory == marxism. A majority of people (if they knew enough to have an opinion) would think the subsidies to the sugar industry are too high. Experts believe that sugar subsidies are too high. Various political groups believe that the subsidies are too high. The only people that are supporting these subsidies are the sugar industry. Seriously, a google search shows calls to end sugar subsidies from National Review, Cato Institute, OxFam America, and the Sierra Club, with a lonely article in support from the Sugar Beet Growers Association. There is no real mystery as to why the split exists. The group of sugar producers doesn’t map neatly onto any preexisting outgroup/ingroup, and the members probably don’t have much of a tribal identity (and certainly the masses don’t think of themselves as sugar consumers). There is no additional information needed on the effects of sugar subsidies; the studies have all been done, and they all agree that they’re a bad idea. You can say that this is a conspiracy theory, but the conspiracy is pretty much in the open. This situation persists because the benefits are concentrated while the harms are dilute, because there is a bias towards the status quo, and because people have a finite amount of attention/outrage. The solution is to educate and organize people more effectively so that the special interests/sugar elites/Bad Guys are defeated.

        • cuke says:

          Can you clarify how you see the conflict vs mistake theory frame illuminating this situation? Your point that this is a failure mode where the benefits are concentrated and the costs are diffuse seems to be a more useful frame.

          I don’t see arguing that beet growers are particularly “conflict theorists” or working from a conflict theory stance. They are just working from a narrowly self-interested stance, which is what industry associations do.

          Are we saying conflict theorists are any group of people who defy overwhelming evidence when it’s presented to them? I’m still having trouble finding the usefulness (or coherence) of this dichotomy.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            No, he is saying that sugar producers are in conflict with everyone else, that their interests are inemical to the rest of us. Thus no amount of “facts” are going to correct the “mistake” that the sugar producers are making. Treating sugar producers as people who can be convinced that encouraging sugar production is bad is to misunderstand their fundamental nature, as, by definition, sugar producers want money for producing sugar.

          • pontifex says:

            I still don’t understand what the point of this example is. I think most, if not all, mistake theorists would agree that special interest groups exist and can lead to bad outcomes in a democratic system.

            The conflict theorist way of looking at this (they’re pure evil! Mustache-twirling Disney villains who want what’s worst for all of us!) is again much less useful than the mistake theorist way (there is an information asymmetry between voters and special interest groups that should be corrected).

          • zzzzort says:

            The mistake theory way of dealing with this (or at least the caricature of the mistake theory way) is to publish a study showing that sugar subsidies raise costs for consumers by x amount, then write a white paper proposing a different industrial policy, and then rationally trying to explain this position to the decision makers. Meanwhile, the sugar industry is publishing their own white papers. There is a lot of work put into finding what the optimal policy is is (but the optimal policy is really pretty obvious from the begining).

            The conflict theorist says that the persistence of these subsidies isn’t due to some error or lack of understanding, it’s due to the influence of a group in conflict (in this case, sugar producers). The white papers from the non-sugar economists may be more convincing, but the sugar white papers are enough to give political cover to politicians acting to please their patrons. Trying to understand the reason these subsidies are bad isn’t going to help, the hard work is in actually implementing the correct policy over the political objections of the special interests. Assuming politicians are actually convinced by the sugar white papers (as a mistake theorist would) will lead to worse outcomes than acknowledging that the politicians are responding to political pressure, and organizing an opposing political movement.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Not just the politicians.

            Mistake theory frequently assumes that everyone is operating in good faith. It assume that you can convince the sugar producers to agree, and that if they fight tooth and nail to keep the subsidies, it’s because they are not yet convinced.

            Conflict theory assumes that the sugar producers will oppose the loss subsidies, and they must be defeated, and that logic won’t be particularly useful in that battle.

            It’s slightly odd to me that the libertarian contingent generally opposes the idea of conflict theory, but at the same time abhors regulatory capture and thinks it is inevitable. They seem to be similar to two sides of a coin, in my mind.

            As to whether I am a conflict or mistake theorist, por que no los dos?

          • zzzzort says:

            there is an information asymmetry between voters and special interest groups that should be corrected

            If the caricature of conflict theorists is people who believe in mustachioed Disney villains, then the caricature of mistake theorists is the mathematician who wakes to see his room is on fire, does a series of calculations, says ‘a solution exists!’ and goes back to sleep. Saying that an information asymmetry ‘should’ be corrected elides who will do the correcting and how. If a conflict theorist is always primed for a fight, they are also more prepared to do the work of organizing, or at least give actionable prescriptions (i.e. you should call your senator, you should boycott these companies, me and my friends will change our profile pictures in sugar solidarity, I promise that if you promote the sugar industry line I will sic a twitter mob on you, etc.). And conflict theorists are certainly more aware that the system is not passive, and that actions to address the information asymmetry will evoke a reaction from other actors. Anyone can see that the concentration of information is bad, the hard question is how to correct it.

          • pontifex says:

            I’m not trying to argue that nothing is ever really worth doing or that all problems will work themselves out in the end without our efforts. However, I do think that people should dial down the outrage and learn to understand more about the world and each other before making accusations.

            For example, do you even know how much federal money the sugar producers use each year? Do you understand their arguments for continuing the subsidies? (One argument is that the US should be self-sufficient in food production, for example.) How much money do they get in comparison to other big federal expenditures like the wars in the middle east or the entitlement programs?

            The bottom line for me is that if people had to understand what the hell they were talking about before opening their mouths, Twitter would be a ghost town, and the world would be much better off.

      • Kulaks are not The Enemy. Kulaks are merely small capitalists. Capitalists are not The Enemy. They are representatives of The Enemy. Their wills represent The Enemy because that’s what The Enemy forces them to do. Capitalists are held hostage by Capital just as workers are.

        The Enemy is Capital, which is an objective force ( sort of like gravity, except imagine a historically-contingent form of gravity that once did not exist and someday will no longer exist) that is outside of anyone’s intention. No conspiracy theory involved.

      • tayfie says:

        I think your post is characteristic of how mistake theorists often strawman conflict theorists.

        Many people with similar interests moving towards similar goals is not necessarily a conspiracy, because they do not have to get together and coordinate. Incentives are sufficient to ensure working together because of a common group interest. The actions that look like “conspiracy” are an emergent, rather than planned, outcome.

        Pointing out that different groups have different interests that are often mutually exclusive does not imply that any of these groups are morally bad, though it can and has been used this way. It tries to bring to light the motives of everyone involved and hopefully look for the proper balance between exclusive interests.

        • pontifex says:

          Groups don’t have motives. People have motives.

          The people in the groups may be persuaded, by means of propaganda, but that requires a conscious effort and action to happen. There’s no such thing as the will of the people, no World Spirit or cosmic ghost.

          Propaganda very often convinces people to do things that are against their own individual interests, like serve in a war. And very often against their collective interests as well.

          The groups themselves don’t want anything. You’re treating them like small groups of people from our ancestral environment. They’re not. They’re just collections of people, mathematical abstractions.

          • I agree with this. Marx’s definition of “capitalist” is so abstract that no individual person is ever going to fit into it 100%. Any time that someone attempts to boil you down to an abstraction, or pick out a particular aspect of your many-faceted life as an abstraction, it feels uncharitable. I certainly would not enjoy being profiled by law enforcement as a “leftist” and being lumped together with all other leftists, with my particular idiosyncrasies being ignored.

            But at least for the historical moment, some level of abstraction is a necessary corollary of attempting to make sense of a vast and complicated social reality.

            To the extent that I object to racial profiling, it is not because it discards the particular humanity of each individual victim, but rather because it is an abstraction that places inaccurate attention on a factor that is, as far as I can tell, inessential and non-causal (race).

            I would feel more comfortable with a sort of class profiling that subjected lumpenproletarian types (which would most definitely include “black thug” types who look self-evidently like they are up to no good, along with “white thug” types, etc.) with a slightly higher level of initial scrutiny (we are not talking about extra-judicial shootings here, just a slightly higher than average frequency of stops, etc.)

            The problem is, society and its institutions do not have the material time or resources to take into account every particular circumstance, at least at the level of investigating leads. When it comes to prosecuting leads after those initial leads have been narrowed down, I think we do have the time to take all particular circumstances and qualities of the individual into account, and I am glad that our justice system does so. And at a higher material stage of development, it is likely that we shall be able to apply the same thoroughness to even the most preliminary stages of criminal justice.

            Stalin and co. used class profiling in the investigatory phase of prosecutions of Kulaks, and in some cases it also colored the prosecutory phase (although they attempted to compensate for this by reviewing cases and rehabilitating a large fraction of Kulaks who had been incorrectly sentenced for treason or sabotage). Ideally, no profiling at all would have been needed, but I cannot fault them as harshly as others do because at least they were using an abstraction with some casual, predictive power.

            (And yes, I know that black men have higher crime rates. But I think you’ll find that, if we rigorously define “the lumpenproletariat,” you’ll find that that category has even better predictive power of criminality, so I would argue that, if we are going to profile, that is the abstraction that we should be using).

          • pontifex says:

            Well, categories of objects exist and can have different properties. I can say that the widgets that came off the factory line on Thursday had a higher defect rate than the ones that came off the line on Friday. I can say that men are more likely to commit violent crimes than women. And so on. Whether or not this information should be used in a particular context is a legal and moral question, but surely the information exists and has predictive power.

            Where things go wrong is if I start to believe that the Thursday widgets are all in a secret conspiracy to do X, Y, and Z, or if “all men” want X.

          • Viliam says:

            Stalin and co. used class profiling in the investigatory phase of prosecutions of Kulaks, and in some cases it also colored the prosecutory phase (although they attempted to compensate for this by reviewing cases and rehabilitating a large fraction of Kulaks who had been incorrectly sentenced for treason or sabotage).

            How specifically were the kulaks compensated? Were their bodies unhanged and resuscitated?

            The theoretical view of the suspect’s guilt was, incidentally, quite elastic from the very beginning. In his instructions on the use of Red Terror, the Chekist M. I. Latsis wrote: “In the
            interrogation do not seek evidence and proof that the person accused acted in word or deed against Soviet power. The first questions should be: What is his class, what is his origin, what is his education and upbringing? These are the questions which must determine the fate of the accused.”

            — Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

            Prosecution, defined as “trying to find out the objective truth about a possible crime” did not exist. The goal of Red Terror was to scare the population into submission. (Hint: it’s in the name; they didn’t even bother to call it “Red Justice” or something like that.)

            The secret police had quotas on how many people need to be killed monthly, so in the typically Soviet way they often grabbed random people just to meet the plan. They went to take a person for some completely benign “crime” such as having traveled abroad, having a foreign former classmate, speaking Esperanto, or failing to produce the magical harvest promised by comrade Lysenko… but when the person wasn’t at home, they took the wife… and when no one was at home, they simply took a neighbor.

            “You must make example of these people. (1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize all their grain. (4) Single out the hostages per my instructions in yesterday’s telegram. Do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so … Yours, Lenin. P.S. Find tougher people.”

            At these times, there were numerous reports that Cheka interrogators used torture methods which were “matched only by the Spanish Inquisition.” At Odessa the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or tanks of boiling water; in Kharkiv, scalpings and hand-flayings were commonplace: the skin was peeled off victims’ hands to produce “gloves”; the Voronezh Cheka rolled naked people around in barrels studded internally with nails; victims were crucified or stoned to death at Dnipropetrovsk; the Cheka at Kremenchuk impaled members of the clergy and buried alive rebelling peasants; in Orel, water was poured on naked prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice statues; in Kiev, Chinese Cheka detachments placed rats in iron tubes sealed at one end with wire netting and the other placed against the body of a prisoner, with the tubes being heated until the rats gnawed through the victim’s body in an effort to escape.

            Executions took place in prison cellars or courtyards, or occasionally on the outskirts of town, during the Red Terror and Russian Civil War. After the condemned were stripped of their clothing and other belongings, which were shared among the Cheka executioners, they were either machine-gunned in batches or dispatched individually with a revolver. Those killed in prison were usually shot in the back of the neck as they entered the execution cellar, which became littered with corpses and soaked with blood. Victims killed outside the town were moved by truck, bound and gagged, to their place of execution, where they sometimes were made to dig their own graves.


            Don’t you fucking dare to whitewash the utter inhumanity of Soviet Communism! Your comment is a left-wing equivalent of “Hitler did nothing wrong”.

          • tayfie says:


            You are arguing semantics. What defines a group if not some commonality possessed by most or all of the members?

            Propaganda can create artificial groups, but plenty of groups arise organically. No possession required. It just takes multiple people with similar interests undertaking similar actions.

            Sometimes these actions conflict with a different set of multiple people with similar interests undertaking similar actions.

          • Aapje says:


            The secret police had quotas on how many people need to be killed monthly, so in the typically Soviet way they often grabbed random people just to meet the plan.

            The US did the same in Vietnam, so I’m not sure it makes sense to call it ‘the typically Soviet way.’

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, there’s a line in a book by Bueno de Mesquita that keeps coming back to me–he points out that the king of Belgium ruled over a very pleasant and advanced liberal democracy in Belgium, and a fair attempt at creating hell on Earth in the Congo, at the same time. Same guy, same government, different incentives.

            Culture and values are important, but I think it’s easy to overstate their impact, relative to that of incentives. The wrong incentives can make decent people and societies do really awful things.

          • Viliam says:


            The US did the same in Vietnam, so I’m not sure it makes sense to call it ‘the typically Soviet way.’

            You are right; I guess to make this “typically Soviet”, we must also add that you are doing it to your own population, and then you keep doing this for decades after any significant resistance was gone and the population was completely brainwashed (so the ones you randomly choose for destruction keep believing it was a honest misunderstanding, and keep making excuses for you while you torture them to death), and a few more details.

            Or more importantly, that it’s not a relatively unique situation that creates big protests at home, but a crucial component of your regime.

  10. dlr says:

    One serious problem with ”Conflict vs Mistake’ is the assumption that there are only two groups in conflict: “The Elites are few in number, but have lots of money and influence. The People are many but poor – yet their spirit is indomitable and their hearts are true.” In reality there are dozens, no, hundreds of groups, all in conflict on a variety of issues. A few obvious examples of groups whose interests are identical with neither ‘the elite’ nor ‘the people’: ‘federal employees’, ‘school-teachers’, ‘teamster union members’, ‘doctors’, ‘nurses’, ‘lawyers’, ‘people with high IQ’s’, ‘plumbers’, ‘electricians’, ‘Christians’, ‘Jews’, etc.

    The way you frame ‘Conflict Theorists’ and talk about them almost makes them synonymous with people who have a left wing ideology, but that is just incorrect. It is a fact that almost any identifiable group has unique goals that conflict with the goals of other groups and can’t be solved by good faith negotiation. One group is going to win, and one group is going to lose. Conflict Theory isn’t a theory, it’s a fact of nature.

    I would say that ‘Mistake Theory’ is about making the pie bigger, by making government more efficient, and finding Pareto optimizations. It is absolutely a real and important way to improve the well being of everyone. But that doesn’t mean that ‘Conflict Theory’ is wrong. Both theories are correct. Both exist. Both describe reality.

    Your assumption that people who believe ‘Conflict Theory’ is real are going to address it by organizing the poor seems simplistic to say the least. In reality of course people who believe in ‘Conflict Theory’ address it by organizing the group of people that have the same unique goals as they do, goals that are in conflict with some other group. The American Medical Association is a great example of people who have proceeded to act on the realization that ‘Conflict Theory’ is real. It’s a mistake to look at Conflict theory as if the only people who believe in it and act on it are left wing radicals.

    It is also a mistake to claim that one theory is true and the other false. Sometimes the problem is poor design, and both sides can win, and the answer is discussion; but a lot of times the problem is both sides can’t win, and then the only solution is ugly politics. Claiming one or the other of these theories is true and the other one is false is wrong, and frankly, not useful. Better to identify which is which.

    • sharper13 says:

      Some of the conflict with conflict theory you seem to be bypassing is that some of us don’t think of groups as having interests. Individuals have interests. Sometimes they may even have interests in common with other individuals and you can stereotype them with a group identity, but in the end, just because you group individuals doesn’t make their interests identical in all respects.

      I could come up with examples of individuals within all of the groups you mentioned ( ‘the elite’ nor ‘the people’: ‘federal employees’, ‘school-teachers’, ‘teamster union members’, ‘doctors’, ‘nurses’, ‘lawyers’, ‘people with high IQ’s’, ‘plumbers’, ‘electricians’, ‘Christians’, ‘Jews’) who have primarily opposing interests to each other. At best, you could say most of the individuals in a particular group share this small set of interests.

      So the disconnect where conflict theory doesn’t make sense to me back in reality is that anyone who claims to be speaking for/representing a particular group of people against another appears to be claiming something mostly impossible and thus is generally a charlatan out for themselves individually in the end. As I have no trouble finding many examples of this (which I won’t name in order to avoid obvious culture war implications), I’ve found it tough to believe in the whole class struggle right on down to particular groups struggling with others for power and who gets their way. Is there any doubt in your mind that the average (not exceptional) Democratic/Republican politician wouldn’t toss the rest of their “group” if given the opportunity for much more individual power? Seems more like they work together because they have to in order to achieve their individual goals, not because of some group identity.

      I’m interested mostly in why you talk of group goals and groups winning/losing, rather than as a shortcut generality for specific individuals within those groups, as I’ve never been able to really understand that perspective.

      • albatross11 says:


        It’s worth noticing that even though you don’t really feel the call of this kind of group identity much[1], a little observation will show you that a lot of people do. Everything from political parties to football teams/fans to racism points to this tendency of people to see the world as “us” and “them.” I think most people have multiple levels of us/them distinctions in their minds–race, religion, social class, party affiliation, occupation, nationality, language–depending on who you are, every one of those may be an important distinction. Even if you don’t find this very interesting or important, it’s pretty useful for understanding the world around you–rather like even if you were entirely asexual and uninterested in romance, you’d still want to understand sexual and romantic attraction as a way of understanding how most other people behaved.

        Further, it’s often the case that groups have some interests in common. That is, there are some interests that an identifiable group shares. To use a pretty obvious example, everyone living in the US has an interest in seeing the US government continue operating at some reasonable level of functionality, rather than (say) collapsing into civil war. Psychiatrists have a shared interest in making sure that psychologists aren’t ever allowed to write prescriptions. Social Security recipients have a shared interest in seeing Social Security payments made no matter what other budget cuts must happen to do it. And so on.

        Of course, all these “group interests” are really just shared individual interests. A lot of psychiatrists would lose business if, say, everyone with a PhD in clinical psychology were allowed to prescribe antidepressants, and that would darken the earning prospects of most psychiatrists. Most of us living in the US would expect to do really badly in a civil war. And so on. But shared individual interests can and do show up pretty regularly.

        The interesting thing is that a lot of people are inclined to go well beyond shared individual interests, once they start identifying with a tribe/team/whatever. This is an aspect of human psychology that must have evolved to solve some universal problems, because it seems to appear everywhere.

        [1] I don’t either, for what it’s worth.

        • sharper13 says:

          I agree with pretty much all of your response.

          Thinking about it, I suppose what I’m attempting to do is get someone who does see the world in terms of primarily groups vs. groups to describe why they hold that perspective.

          For example, why would it be good if group A beat group B, even if the result made the actual members of both groups objectively worse off? I can see there are people who believe that way and I can find multiple examples of that exact situation occurring, but I’m not sure if that’s a mistake by them, or just their conflict theories about the world playing out due to their different perspective.

          So calling any hard-core conflict theorists, please share your perspective to help the rest of us understand better. 🙂

          • pontifex says:

            It’s just a cognitive mistake, like seeing a face in the clouds. Your mind is optimized to see faces everywhere, whether they’re there or not. The ancestral environment was one of small groups that really did have goals and plans. It’s natural that people would anthropomorphize larger groups like All the Jews or People with Incomes Below 50k/year, even though they aren’t at all the same thing.

      • Nearly Takuan says:

        It’s probably easier to understand if you restrict the domain a bit. It’s difficult to build a model of all traffic out of nothing. It’s easier to build a model of just vehicle traffic on public roads. It’s easier still to build a model of vehicle traffic on public suburban roads with 25 mph speed limits on a pure grid system with traffic lights every 10 blocks. Once you have a reasonable framework in place that can accurately model that scenario, then you can start adding more complexity.

        Economics is a really complicated field on its own, without having to consider political affiliation. Wage negotiation is a specific example of an interaction that is(n’t, but ideally should be) almost entirely influenced by economic policy, and is itself really complicated.

        Even if we assume a world with zero prejudice, wage negotiation is at its core a conflict of incentives. A company wants to do as much as it can with the limited resources it has available. If the company pays more for something than it must, that represents an opportunity cost. As a representative of the company, a hiring manager is responsible for setting a wage that makes the company more money than it costs. A new hire, of course, wants to be paid as much as possible for the work they do. Typically they meet somewhere in the middle, and the Grey Tribe declares this means we’ve found the Market Equilibrium and the system is working as intended.

        Of course, in any negotiation, the outcome is skewed pretty heavily by the power balance. Power in a negotiation often comes from the ability to “walk away from the table”. An employee with savings and/or another job to fall back on has a better bargaining position than an employee with neither of those things. So, rich, privileged employees will often end up getting paid more than poor, desperate employees, regardless of either’s actual level of productivity. This is true even if The Man isn’t prejudiced or deliberately setting things up to make whites and cis-men and straights get paid more.

        The room for nuance and difference of opinion here is that one may believe this is simply the best we can do; that a white person getting paid Market Equilibrium plus 15% and a black person getting paid Market Equilibrium minus 15% is still preferable to bosses being unable to set wages, companies being unable to hire without loss, lazy people and hard-working people both getting paid exactly the same, etc. and so the current system is worth defending. Or one may believe that the current system can be incrementally improved. Or one may believe that the current system is fundamentally flawed. I think these are disagreements of a different philosophical nature than what Scott’s description of a Conflict-Mistake axis would measure, but like maybe that’s just my opinion, man.

        Continue to zoom in until we have a Mortal’s-Eye View. Alice notices that she’s getting paid more than Bob but less than Charlie, even though they all have the exact same job title, number of years of experience in the field, and they even all started working at their company in the same quarter. At first, Alice might feel sorry for Bob or jealous of Charlie. But if they take a slightly higher-level perspective, they may notice that their hiring manager Debbie was the one who established all their wages in the first place. Alice can’t renegotiate with Debbie on her own; they’re in an At-Will Employment state, and Debbie might decide employees who ask about wage decisions aren’t needed by the company. The best way to make sure Debbie has to listen to Alice is if she, and Bob, and Charlie, all get together and make their case at the same time. The company can’t afford to fire everybody at once, so short-term demonstrations where everybody decides to stop working for one day on the same day, or nobody makes any sales for a while, are strategies that can help persuade the company that it’s making a mistake.

        But the thing is, companies just keep making these mistakes. And even after they’re called on it, they still try to make as much of this kind of mistake as they can get away with. What if it’s not a mistake? What if it’s a pattern of social behavior, influenced by a macro force? And what if that force is Capitalism, a set of ideals that sound nice in the abstract and offer lots of easy solutions to natural problems, but in practice capital = money = power means the rich get richer while the laborers who spend all their time and energy providing goods and services that are actually useful to the society around them can never quite save up enough money = capital = power to influence anything to their own benefit?

        It generally isn’t a zero-sum game, sure. But it generally is a bounded-sum game. We have finite resources, including labor as a resource. Some individuals have a lot of power/capital/money that they came by unfairly (i.e. they didn’t labor to get it, and in some cases their grandparents basically stole/pillaged it in the first place). Some individuals can’t hold on to any money no matter how hard they work or how wisely they invest. The pursuit of a fairer system is likely to result in the loss of power from those who currently have it, even if they deserve it, and the gain of power by those who are without, even if they don’t. Among those who agree the conflict is inevitable, there is debate over whether this outcome represents acceptable losses.

        tl;dr: when there’s a specific topic of discussion, it makes sense to talk about group goals and groups winning/losing.

  11. deluks917 says:

    Idk if scott will be happy or horrified but based on his review of ‘The Hungry Brain’ I went on a ‘bland food diet’. I got great results. Lost ~30 pounds in ~14 weeks. The diet invovled eating things like:
    — Plain Cereal (Rice crispies or Cheerios)
    — Vegan protein shakes
    — Plain bread
    — Dried Edamame
    — Plain Peanut Butter (I wanted a fat source but plain peanut butter should be replaced with something more bland like a plain avocado)
    — Plain pasta with a little extra salt

    I did not manage to perfectly follow the diet and unfortunately the peanut butter had to be portion controlled. But its amazing how much your ‘hunger’ just melts away when you tell yourself ‘If you are hungry we can eat more elbows pasta with no sauce’.

    • Well... says:

      You find plain avocado bland?? To me it’s nutty but also somehow fruity…very flavorful. When there’s just a little avocado in something I can always tell.

      • Eric Rall says:

        Avocado by itself tastes bland to me. It has a good amount of flavor, but it seems very muted without some salt or some acid to bring it out.

      • pontifex says:

        Avocado honestly tastes somewhat neutral to me as well. Compare it to butter, for example. Or peanut oil. You could make the argument that soybean oil is more neutral, but people aren’t selling “soybean oil toast” for $10 a plate. 🙂

      • dodrian says:

        I’ve always thought avocado bland as well. I’d certainly never dream of paying an upcharge for guacamole!

        • Well... says:

          Neither would I but that’s because I’m a cheapskate.

          Now, suppose you go to a burrito place and aside from the other ingredients you can choose between meat and avocado but the price will remain the same, then it’s a tougher call. For me it would depend on what else I’ve eaten or expect to eat that day: if I haven’t had much protein I’d probably go for the meat, but if I’ve had meat at other meals then I’d go for the avocado, and that would be an easy call.

          • dodrian says:

            Have you even been tested / do you believe you are a supertaster? What are your opinions on cilantro?

            (I am not, and I love cilantro)

          • pontifex says:

            I thought hating cilantro was less about being a supertaster, and more about having the gene that makes it taste like soap for you?

      • toastengineer says:

        I suspect it depends on how fresh the average avacado is where you live. Avacadoes tasted way nicer when I lived even slightly further to the south.

        • Well... says:

          I’ve eaten avocados while living in the Great Lakes region and while living in California. I noticed huge differences in price of course, but not in quality.

          Even a half avocado that’s been in my fridge for a couple days still tastes just as good as the first half did a couple days ago, though I think avocado’s always a bit nicer at room temperature.

    • Scott Alexander says:


    • fion says:

      That’s really interesting. I’d be interested to know how much thought you put into nutrition? Like, did you try to make sure you got enough vitamins, protein etc.? (Sounds like you got the protein covered, but there’s not a lot of fruit and veg in that diet…) Did you count calories or make sure you didn’t get too much sugar/salt/saturated fat?

      Also, how did you feel when doing it? I know a lot of people who would rather be overweight than have to only eat bland food, or who would rather be constantly trying to control themselves and not eat more nice stuff, but still be eating some nice stuff.

      And I’m assuming it had the added benefit of being cheaper. Was it much cheaper?

      • deluks917 says:

        Too be honest I didnt put that much thought into nutrition while I was on the diet. I took a multi-vitamin and wasnt planning on being on the diet that long. I felt great during the diet. Compared to previous diets I was barely hungry at all. It was an incredibly cheap diet.

    • melboiko says:

      I also had success with a Hugry Brain-based diet (I read the actual book after the review); it lost me 17kg in 10 months.

      My staple was bland steamed potatoes with nothing, on the basis that potatoes are almost a complete nutritional source, they’re exceptionally cheap, and they’re the most fulfilling food known to humankind (as in calories/fulfilment). Seriously, look at the food satiety chart. Potatoes are literally off the chart.

      About half of my meals have been bland steamed potatoes with nothing. I complemented that with canned fish and steamed liver, for proteins+fat+b12+vitamin A (=what potatoes lack). I also had normal meals, for which I used calorie-counting to avoid overeating. This allowed me a more or less humane diet, that nonetheless lost me a lot of weight at a steady 0.5kg/week which I heard would be a healthy pace (the exceptions being two trips, one to Japan and one to Ireland, where I let it go, ’cause I’m a sucker for local cuisine).

      My staple breakfast was oatmeal, which is also high-fulfilling, quite bland, and which I happen to love. (No sugar, of course—I already hated sugar on oatmeal anyway.)

    • j1000000 says:

      Re: “Hunger” melting away, I second that — years ago I lost a bunch of weight on the paleo diet. Obviously many actual scientists suggest this as the mechanism of weight loss, but as you mention about the plain pasta: yes, I always suspected I lost most of the weight because I couldn’t eat Doritos/pizza/ice cream or order out when I was bored, more than any nutrient-specific things.

      When I was watching TV and wanted to bored-eat I’d think “Well I really don’t feel like cooking more bacon, and bacon doesn’t even taste good to me anymore since I’ve eaten so much of it, and honestly I’m not actually hungry, so forget it.”

    • MartMart says:

      I’m glad this is working for you, but there is no way it would work for me. I love plain, refined carbs, and while the sauces make them better, they aren’t necessary. I could eat a whole lot of plain pasta (or plain bread, or plain tortillas, etc). It would not end well.

      • dodrian says:

        I’m initially thinking the same as you, but wonder if I would change my tune if it were _all_ I was eating.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        You can? Like those Barillo packages? I can’t stomach that unless I at least salt the boiling water.

        • MartMart says:

          Yes. I’ve also been known to eat whole loafs of bread (sliced or not) or packages or tortillas in a sitting. If I must blame it on something, I’ll blame it on growing up without access to conventional american snacks that come in bags.

          I got serious about weight control about 3 years ago, first going to low carb route, which was wildly successful, but very difficult to maintain. Later, we switched to a mostly vegetarian diet (occasionally cheating mostly on social occasions), where I try to keep refined carbs low. Not sure if its as effective at weight loss, but it’s much easier to maintain, as I don’t find meat at all tempting anymore (but I thought I would).

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Not sure if impressed or terrified. Though, I guess it makes sense if you did not grow up with other junk food. Pasta can be a good bored-food, since it has an inoffensive taste and is incredibly soft. Ditto for most mass-market breads.

            I can’t find any weight-loss techniques that don’t involve some sort of discomfort, particularly over the short term. After a while I can adjust to the changes, but the first week is not particularly fun, even if I only have a mild calorie deficit.

          • MartMart says:

            Go with terrified. There is nothing impressive about pigging out on bad food.

            In the short term, all diet changes are unpleasant. The trouble with low carb was that it remained difficult, It always took an effort. At first, as the pounds were dropping, that provided motivation, but as weight started to stabilize, it became more and more difficult not to slip back.

            Surprisingly, that’s was not the case with going vegetarian. I don’t find myself craving meat products, I find the smell of cooking meat to be somewhat unpleasant (despite remembering it being appetizing). I’m never tempted to cheat.

          • Sidok says:

            n=1 (well, 2 including you i guess), but I’m also a plain food lover who has been known to eat entire loaves bread in one sitting, and I’ve always had decent access to snack food.

          • Aapje says:

            Different breads have different kinds of appeal. I used to really like to eat tiger bread on its own as a kid (not that I did it much, because that is junk food), because it is very soft on the inside, yet the rice paste crust gives texture and taste.

            Nowadays I’m more into bread with heavier texture. Turkish Ramazan pide is excellent for eating on its own. It ages very quickly though, so should be eaten on the same day as you buy it.

            In general, the key to eating bread on its own is to eat the bread when it is still very fresh.

            Of course, Americans are barbarians when it comes to bread, lacking quality and diversity. You guys like to eat bagels, for God’s sake!

    • gryffinp says:

      I’m kind of troubled by how much I want to believe that all of my worst completely unreasonable suspicions are completely true and it really does just boil down to “eating anything that makes you feel good is bad for you, never eat anything good.”

    • Nearly Takuan says:

      I have an allegedly-chocolate-chip-flavored Rx Bar at my desk that serves a similar purpose. If I were ever truly hungry, I’d eat it as it doesn’t taste bad. But I’ve eaten one before and never want to again, so I must not be hungry.

  12. dlr says:

    “Easy conflict theorists think that all our problems come from cartoon-villain caricatures wanting very evil things; bad people want to kill brown people and steal their oil, good people want world peace and tolerance. Hard conflict theorists think that our problems come from clashes between differing but comprehensible worldviews ”

    OK, what about super-hard conflict theorists, maybe you want to call them ‘legitimate conflict theorists’ who believe that there are legitimate irreconcilable differences between different groups of people. There are many, many situations in this world where it’s not a case of making the pie bigger, it is a case of dividing the pie, and when group A gets more, group B is going to get less. Neither group A nor group B are cartoon villains. Both have legitimate interests. You can’t solve this by discussing different world views. Because both world views reflect reality. Ignoring this fact ignores 90% of what politics was designed to deal with in the first place: dividing up the pie when there is no right answer, when more for A means less for B.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You might have to give more of an example.

      In literal pie-splitting, the fair plan is obviously to split it evenly. Or according to existing laws and precedents. The exact definition of “even”, or which laws and precedents should be applied, or whether there are compelling interests that make an uneven split higher-utility, seem like the sorts of things that there can be either conflicts or mistakes over.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Imagine that I’m a father of two children in the middle of an epidemic. Both of my children get sick and if they aren’t treated, they’ll die. Thankfully, I’m just wealthy enough to pay for two cures. However, my neighbor, who also has two sick children, is not. The “fair” thing to do, splitting the cures, would allow both of us to have one child alive. But I care infinitely more about my children than his and won’t do it. It’s not because I’m a cartoon villain and it’s not because we have different world views*, it’s just that there isn’t enough for both of us, and I’m prioritizing my own. I think that this is what dlr is getting at.

        *Maybe a platonic utilitarian would actually decide to split it evenly, in which case it does come down to different world views. For the sake of the example, imagine the poor neighbor is a typical person. They would have done the same.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Can you give an example on the society-wide level? I agree your example is heart-wrenching, but it doesn’t seem to scale very well.

          • yodelyak says:

            Societal-level example…

            Let’s imagine an undiscovered continent, Australia-sized, hidden somehow in the Pacific Ocean all this time. There is a native population who have a single family-like social structure, and no violence. By quirk, they have all the medical immunities we do, and generally have disease-free lives about as long as westerners’ lives. They all also live their whole lives wrapped in the songlines of a single, unified and unifying sacred music they all are cooperatively contributing to.

            It is also a very resource rich continent (great oil deposits, nearly zero extraction costs!), and the locals are not making a very intensive use of their land, so if we just send some modern humans there, we can expect to coexist peacefully… although we can also expect the introduction of our phonemes and ways of life to destroy theirs…

            So, either some industrialists make some mega-bucks by declaring themselves owners of the mineral rights (and bribing governments as necessary), *or* a way of life is preserved.

            Or if you really want, just picture the continent as empty, and assume that it’s surrounded by reefs and cliffs and only has one navigable harbor such that whoever finds/occupies that harbor will therefore gets military/political/economic control over the whole of it for generations. Your Esperanto ship and a Klingon ship are almost within shooting distance, and neck-and-neck, and closing on the harbor (and each other)–racing, it feels like–although technically Esperanto and Klingon are currently at peace with each other. Both ships are armed with precision cannon such that a single broadside has a high chance of ending the conflict with an immediate and complete victory for the first ship to open fire (and total or near-total casualty rates for the other side)… you start to think about what the other captain must be thinking about, and strain to see if there’s any activity near the guns on the other ship. How long until you say, “better us than them” and fire everything you’ve got?

          • Aapje says:


            Welfare for citizens, but not for foreigners, even though those people have needs as well, but we prioritize our own.

          • Wrong Species says:


            I think the problem is that when we do scale it, people end up thinking the guys fighting are more evil than good. In the Warring States period of China, trying to come up with a positive sum agreement was impossible because everyone wanted each other’s territory and there was no trust that anyone would live up to any peace deal. If you remained neutral, you would be taken advantage of. Does that make the heads of these states evil because they engaged in this machiavellian game? It’s the same thing. Your state either wins or loses.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          I actually think this, your initial example, is very good because it is scalable.

          There is an epidemic that kills all children under 18 if untreated. There are a few classes of adults:

          Adults without children.
          Adults with children and they can buy cures for all.
          Adults with children and they can buy cures for some.
          Adults with children and they can buy no cures.

          Conflict theory says there are conflicts between all these groups. Group 1 doesn’t care for government purchases of cure, and group 4 wants it redistributed to them. Group 2 prefers the status quo, and group 3 might prefer the status quo (if there is a ton of group 4 people) and might prefer the re-distributive option (if they have a lot of children and there are a lot of group 2 people). So conflict theory doesn’t really tell us much about what is wise.

          Mistake theory will end with the same 4 groups, but will ask what is the best way to allocate cures. Is it based on the cost of the cure (ala groups 1-4), which is essentially betting that past results correlate with future returns (smart parents = smart children), or is there another better option? At current tech levels the only arguable way for there to be a better result than the status quo would be some sort of IQ test of children. But this has its own weaknesses as IQ tests are a good measure of intelligence, but not of culture and other things that may be important for not only individual, but group success. Thus, without omniscience, no system of allocating cures is objectively better than the “past performance” model, while several others (random lottery, inverting the wealth distribution, giving all the cures to the childless, etc) are objectively worse.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Water rights might turn up some legitimate hard conflict situations.

  13. 10240 says:

    On a tangent from David Friedman’s comment in the last OT about the public discourse on tariffs being conducted in terms of 18th century economics:
    Is someone aware of any country where economics is taught as a high school subject? Does it have any benefit?

    • Harry Maurice Johnston says:

      Economics was one of our optional subjects when I was in high school (in New Zealand, in the 1980s).

      But I don’t think it is in my son’s high school curriculum. They do business studies, but not theoretical economics.

      • smwls says:

        When I was in high school in NZ 8 years ago, there was definitely a “theoretical” economics course (NCEA Level 3). I sat in on a class once; it was a discussion of diminishing marginal utility, more or less at Econ 101 level.

      • Matt M says:

        This was also true in my high school (US) as well. Economics was available as a very high-level intro elective course, basically for one semester, covering only the most basic concepts. Very few students chose to take it.

        • albatross11 says:

          Yeah, my high school also had an economics class, taught by a one-year-from-retirement teacher who DGAF and who played films and slept through class pretty much every day. I probably learned *something* from that class, but I don’t recall anything. (But I studied a lot more economics in college, so maybe I’m forgetting it!)

          By contrast, I also had a high school statistics class, and it was really nice–I learned a lot of stuff that made my college-level stats class much easier.

    • In the UK you can certainly study economics at A level (i.e. the last two years before university). Here is a syllabus.

    • Aapje says:


      In The Netherlands, all high school students get taught economics initially, until about age 15, where they have to choose a study profile. Only for one of these profiles is economics mandatory, although it is the most popular profile with > 1/3rd of students picking it.

      It’s hard to say whether this helps in general. Studies into the abilities of citizens/students generally focus specifically on financial literacy, which is a much more limited skill set, dealing with the ability to handle money, rather than being knowledgeable about financial policy at the (inter)national level.

      PISA ranks The Netherlands quite well for financial literacy, although it found that relative to math and reading skill, Dutch students rank relatively low. So it seems that my country under-performs on this subject.

      Belgium ranks higher, but they teach financial literacy specifically, rather than just economics. So the rankings might reflect this. For adults, the financial literacy seems high in The Netherlands and higher than Belgium. This may reflect different styles of education of the past, though.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        AFAICT (having recently moved here), compared to the US and UK the Netherlands seems to have a much higher cultural aversion to debt. For instance, any advertisement for a product for which you pay by instalments (including things like mobile phones) has a mandatory warning similar to tobacco adverts, translating as “Caution! Borrowing money costs money!” with a little cartoon of a person chained to a euro symbol.

        Cars on the road also appear to be much older on average than in the UK, although I don’t know how much of that is people not wanting to take out a loan to buy a new car and how much is very high purchase taxes on new cars.

        • Aapje says:

          The Netherlands actually has one of the highest debts per capita, mainly due to mortgages. The savings are also extremely high, due to large pension savings (in other countries people tend to pay down their mortgages to save for their pensions). A major reason for this disparity is a substantial tax deduction/subsidy on mortgage payments.

          It is true that for anything but mortgages, Dutch people tend to not want to get loans, although this cultural habit seems to be eroding, among younger generations.

          The average age for UK passenger cars is 8.5 years vs 9.5 for The Netherlands. The Netherlands has relatively old cars for north-west Europe, but not that high for Europe as a whole. Sweden has 9.6 years, so quite close. Denmark has 8.5 years, the same as the UK, but seems to have a huge purchase tax, so that doesn’t seem to be the explanation.

          I looked at the details of the car markets and it seems like a far higher percentage of UK cars are company cars. These usually get replaced much more quickly than privately owned cars.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            I looked at the details of the car markets and it seems like a far higher percentage of UK cars are company cars. These usually get replaced much more quickly than privately owned cars.

            That makes a lot of sense (I was aware of the figure that a slight majority of the new car sales in the UK are to fleets), and I can think of all sorts of reasons why the UK would have more company cars, which of course enter the used market after a few years as relatively new used cars, than the Netherlands.

        • Lambert says:

          Do they grit the roads in the Netherlands?
          Salt causes British cars to rust awfully fast.

          • Aapje says:

            Yes, the government is very eager to grit the roads*. I do think that Britain has more days with freezing/snow, so they may grit the roads more often.

            * They often do the cycle paths as well.

    • beleester says:

      It’s an optional course at my high school (US). There are also AP exams for micro and macro, but they aren’t commonly offered.

      I don’t know of any countries where it’s mandatory.

    • bean says:

      I took AP Econ in high school. The problem is that it was taught by the marketing teacher, who wasn’t really up to the job. Still, I got 5s on both tests.

      • Aapje says:

        Still, I got 5s on both tests.

        I’m sorry about that (5 is a failing grade in my country 😛 ).

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Theoretically, students of Illinois are supposed to understand concepts like specialization and interest by 5th Grade. High schoolers should be able to understand the basics of marginal analysis. This would be tacked onto whatever regular social studies classes they have, I imagine. We ran across basic supply and demand graphs when we were in 8th grade and dabbled a bit in our mandatory Consumer Education classes (more focused on personal finance than anything else).

      I’m not sure how useful the courses would be. At business undergrad, economics WAS required, and for the most part they’d just parrot whatever political line controlled the day’s headline, with no evidence of an economics education behind it. Plus, they are young kids, with mostly motivated reasoning: rent controls and student debt forgiveness were the most important things.

      From their POV, they’d have to spend more time learning calculus, statistics, finance, and accounting. There wasn’t much mindspace for economics left. I imagine this would be even worse for high schoolers.

    • ana53294 says:

      In Spain, during the non-compulsory schooling between the ages of 16-18, the Bachiller, or the pre-University education, there are two tracks, each split into two parts.

      All students have to learn: PE, Spanish & Literature, English*, The Local Language & Literature, Philosophy, Citizenship, History.

      Then students are divided into the Arts and Humanities Track and the Scientific track.

      In the Arts and Humanities, there is the Arts only specialty, which focuses on drawing and painting; this option is not offered in most schools.
      There are generally two options: The Classical branch** (have to study Latin, Classical Greek and an optional subject) or the Social Sciences branch*** (compulsory: Math for Social Sciences, Economics, +optional).

      Then there is the Scientific branch. Both sub-branches have to study Math. Then there is the Life science option (Biology+Chemistry+optional), and the Technical branch (Physics + Technical Drawing +optional). The optionals can be subjects from other branches, or Geology.

      *Technically, it’s Foreign Language I, but most schools don’t bother offering anything other than English.
      **The only reason most people take this option is if they are really, really bad at math. I do not understand how it can be easier to learn Latin and Greek rather than Math, but human diversity is incredible. The ones who actually want to study Latin and Greek are a tiny minority.
      ***Most people who choose to go to University on the majors that involve math usually choose the scientific specialization, because Social science math is easier.

      • Aapje says:

        In The Netherlands, the highest level of high school is split into Gymnasium and Atheneum, where the former has Latin and/or Classic Greek as a compulsory part of the curriculum. As far as I can tell, the main reason for this existing is to allow for signalling and/or for the elite to separate themselves from the commoners a bit (although these are often offered by the same school, but a few schools only offer the Gymnasium option).

        The actual interest in Latin and Greek for their own sake seems minimal.

        • ana53294 says:

          Voluntary choosing to go to a school were you have to learn Latin – on top of a lot of other subjects – is a good way to filter bad students and self select into a class with kids interested in learning.

          • albatross11 says:

            That makes sense. I’ve heard the same thing about some foreign-language-immersion magnet schools in the US, too–most kids will not remotely be interested in a French-language immersion middle school. I talked to a woman whose daughter was in such a school, and she thought it was a good experience for her daughter. But she also pointed out that (as is common in this area) the magnet school had been put inside a failing public school to raise the average test scores. (See, we’ve fixed the problem with all these kids not learning to read by the 4th grade, by bringing in a bunch of smart kids selected by exam to get good scores on the tests. Mission Accomplished!) So the magnet kids got education, and the other kids got endless test-prep to further raise the school’s test scores (on which the school administration was being judged).

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      When I was in high school in the southern US in the 90s, every 11th grader had to take one semester of Economics and one semester of Government. I don’t know if they still do that, but we did, and it wasn’t optional. It was a requirement for graduation.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      My high school in rural Texas (Elgin) had an AP Econ class in the 1980s. I don’t remember what had been in it. However, I see some of the current class’ contents are available online, if you can read PowerPoint files.

  14. Sniffnoy says:

    So, let me restate one of the problems I had with “Conflict vs Mistake”, that I’ve stated in various places.

    In your post you talk about these two different points of view and treat them as if they are two different descriptive theories. But that’s not the real difference. They’re different ways of thinking (“conflict stance vs mistake stance”?); the difference doesn’t ultimately stem from some factual disagreement, as you present it.

    That is to say, we might identify “narrow conflict theory”, the actual idea that apparent disagreements are mostly due to conflicts; and “broad conflict theory” (or “broad conflict stance”), the more general cluster of ideas that you’re talking about. The thing to note is that the former does not imply the latter! You can hold the idea that apparent disagreements are mostly due to conflicts and not therefore conclude that you should act like “conflict theorists” actually do, because it, well, really doesn’t follow. (And like, it seems to be unambiguously true that certain apparent disagreements really are due to conflicts. But again I would not advise acting like “conflict theorists” actually do in those cases, because that’s not actually the correct path to take in case of a conflict.) So like I said, I think you’re wrong to identify a factual disagreement as the root of it; it’s down to different styles of thinking, more like.

    In particular one of the problems with “broad conflict stance” is the not worrying about mistakes, like, at all. They don’t seem to consider it important to put systems in place to keep one aligned with reality; they seem to think that if they win the conflict the right things will happen automatically, and that doesn’t work.

    I could probably identify other issues but I think that’s the biggest one.

    • fion says:

      Bit of a nitpick, probably doesn’t detract from your overall point:

      You say acting like a conflict theorist isn’t the correct path to take in case of a conflict. I’m not 100% sure what you mean by “acting like a conflict theorist”, but I understand it as trying to defeat the other side rather than negotiate with them. I think that if something is an actual conflict then this is the correct thing to do. If the Paperclip Maximisers from Outer Space have sent a paperclip factory ship to Earth, saying “oh goody, a planet we can turn into paperclips” then you nuke the bastards before they can land. You don’t say “I wonder if we can find some common ground here.”

      WWII was a genuine conflict. The correct thing to do was to win; negotiations failed a long time ago. Many conflicts are not like this, and there are options for working something out (correcting the mistakes), and that’s why I think the world could use a good deal more Mistake Theory, but I really do think that in the few cases of actual, genuine conflict, the correct thing to do is to “act like a conflict theorist” and fight to win.

      • Aapje says:

        I’m not 100% sure what you mean by “acting like a conflict theorist”, but I understand it as trying to defeat the other side rather than negotiate with them.

        I think that it is a mistake (hah) to equate a stance with a certain strategy to resolve the issue.

        A mistake theorist can choose to debate the other side to find agreement or he can decide that the other side is completely wrong and needs to be ignored/oppressed/annihilated/etc.

        A conflict theorist can decide to compromise or to ignore/oppress/annihilate/etc the other side so they can have everything that they want.

        WWII was a genuine conflict. The correct thing to do was to win; negotiations failed a long time ago. Many conflicts are not like this, and there are options for working something out (correcting the mistakes), and that’s why I think the world could use a good deal more Mistake Theory

        You are using the words conflict and mistake theory completely incorrectly here. People can go to war for both conflict theory and mistake theory reasons & they can negotiate based on both stances.

        For example, let’s say that we are neighbors and that you like to play the piano in your house, while I hate piano playing.

        Mistake theory would be to believe that one of us or both of us are wrong in our desires and that we can, if both of us are reasonable/perfect, align our desires perfectly. Based on this theory, I could then try to convince you that the sound of a piano is horrible. Or I could conclude that you are mistaken, but not capable of reason and shoot you.

        Conflict theory would be to believe that we have inherently different desires that can’t be both be met. To solve this issue, we can come to an agreement where you play the piano only during some periods of the day, or I can shoot you.

        Anyway, “Conflict vs Mistake” might be Scott’s most misunderstood post, which is quite ironic.

        • fion says:

          Thanks for your comment. Perhaps my emphasis should have been on “what do you (Sniffnoy) mean by ‘acting like a conflict theorist’?” rather than “here’s what I think you mean and my explanation of why you’re wrong based on that.”

          Since you mention it, though, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that conflict vs mistake theory is the same as kill vs compromise. I’m aware that a conflict-theory resolution to a conflict could be to compromise and I’m aware that a mistake-theory resolution to a mistake could (in very contrived circumstances) be to kill the mistaken person.

          I guess I’m of the opinion that if something is definitely a conflict you should use conflict-y tactics to solve it (which could include war, assassination, slander, statistics that back up your side, sitting around a negotiating table trying to come up with a mutually-agreeable compromise etc.). And if something is definitely a mistake you should use mistake-y tactics to solve it (which could include listening, debating, good-faith use of statistics, adversarial collaboration, putting very dangerously mistaken people in places where they can’t hurt others etc.). But I understand Conflict vs Mistake Theory as being about whether you interpret the ambiguous situations as being fundamentally built on conflict or fundamentally built on a mistake.

          • Aapje says:

            And if something is definitely a mistake you should use mistake-y tactics to solve it (which could include listening, debating, good-faith use of statistics, adversarial collaboration, putting very dangerously mistaken people in places where they can’t hurt others etc.).

            Most of those tactics put high burdens on both sides. What do you do if the other side doesn’t want to debate or (according to you/me) listen to reason? Who decides who is right when both sides believe that the others are dangerously mistaken people who need to be put in the gulag places where they can’t hurt others?

            At a certain point of mutual inability to recognize each others points of view as legitimate, it may be better to use the conflict-y tactics of tolerance and compromise, rather than desperately trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

          • fion says:


            At a certain point of mutual inability to recognize each others points of view as legitimate, it may be better to use the conflict-y tactics of tolerance and compromise

            One could reach a similar conclusion as a mistake theorist. After failing to figure out which one of us is mistaken, we try to figure out a solution that fails as gracefully as possible under the outcome that one or both of us is mistaken. This will look like a conflict theory compromise in most situations.

            As for your first paragraph, if neither side is willing to contemplate that they might be the mistaken one then mistake approaches sadly break down and conflict will probably ensue. Even if only one side refuses to engage virtuously, that can force the other’s hand as well.

          • Aapje says:

            One could reach a similar conclusion as a mistake theorist. After failing to figure out which one of us is mistaken, we try to figure out a solution that fails as gracefully as possible under the outcome that one or both of us is mistaken. This will look like a conflict theory compromise in most situations.

            I didn’t think of that, but that’s a very good point!

      • Sniffnoy says:

        No, see, that’s the sort of thing that, like, actually plausibly follows. Remember, I’m not talking about a descriptive theory, I’m talking about an empirical cluster, and my point is that many features of it don’t follow from the descriptive theory that Scott uses to define it.

        I gave an example above, but I think I should try to make it more specific. We’re talking about politics here, right? And the thing that these “conflict theorists” do when it comes to politics is to ignore the possibility that the policies that they have run on and intend to implement, will not actually help their side once implemented. That is to say, the existence of conflicts does not obviate the need to avoid mistakes, yet “conflict theorists” act as though it does.

        • fion says:

          the thing that these “conflict theorists” do when it comes to politics is to ignore the possibility that the policies that they have run on and intend to implement, will not actually help their side once implemented

          I think this is a really key point that I had missed. Does this imply that the biggest difference between conflict and mistake theorists is that mistake theorists question themselves and conflict theorists don’t? That doesn’t seem quite right to me either, so I’ve probably misunderstood.

          “How much you question whether your actions will actually help your side” sounds like a continuous variable that you can take too far in either direction.

  15. 10240 says:

    Recently figured it out why text in the comment sections occasionally jumps up and down: if the comment box is narrow, an edit countdown may break into two lines. And whether it does may depend on the remaining time: it may fit in one line when there is no seconds counter for one second or, more rarely, when the seconds counter is single digit. If I’m looking at comments, and somewhere far above there is an edit counter, the comments may occasionally jump up and down for no apparent reason.

  16. Odovacer says:

    Imagine that you’re Jeff Bezos. Trump really grinds your gears. How would you use your vast resources (money, Amazon.com, the Washington Post, etc) to neutralize his influence and prevent him from being reelected?

    • Tenacious D says:

      Maybe get Bloomberg, Shultz, or Zuckerberg on the ticket too (or back a run by one of them). Name recognition goes a long way.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Zuckerberg is so unpopular that he’s probably not even going to run, even though it looks like he was thinking about it. Why should Bezos be any different?

        • Ben Landau-Taylor says:

          Bezos is better at this game than Zuckerberg. Many of the PR attacks on Zuckerberg have stuck, but Bezos has mostly shrugged them off. The most damaging one that I can recall was the NYT hit piece about how Amazon is a horrible place to work, which I don’t think got picked up by other outlets very much, and largely got absorbed into the “Amazon is for really intense people” narrative that Bezos was trying to push before.

          That said, as good as Bezos is at this, I don’t know whether he’s good enough to win a major election.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Any idea why Bezos would be so much better? I don’t expect either one of them to handle their own PR, and I wouldn’t expect a big difference between billionaire-tier PR firms. Is it just the very personal parts of PR that can’t be outsourced?

          • As far as the very personal parts, Bezos is definitely better. His seamless transition from ”harmless book nerd” to ”Lex Luthor” was damned impressive. If you watch videos, you’ll see he hasn’t just changed his look; his manner is different, and his voice is deeper. I don’t think Zuckerberg can control his presentation like this. This matters a lot for elections in particular.

            More speculatively, my guess is that Bezos also probably does handle his own PR, or at least sets the high-level goals. When I looked into him, I got the sense of a man who follows long-term strategies on the scale of decades. (His plan has been “make a ton of money in order to fund space travel” since at least high school.) If this is true, then he’ll be balancing lots of considerations for what his image should be that he’ll have trouble conveying to consultants. I doubt any PR firm could have told him the right time to pivot from “nonthreatening nebbish” to “unassailable mastermind”, because it depends on details of his broader strategic position that Bezos is in a better position to assess. And I doubt that a PR firm would suggest “you should buy the Washington Post”, although maybe billionaire-tier PR firms do think that big, I don’t know.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Where does releasing a metal album called “Democracy Dies in Darkness” fit into his timetable?

          • Deiseach says:

            If you watch videos, you’ll see he hasn’t just changed his look; his manner is different, and his voice is deeper.

            The Maggie Thatcher effect? We should watch out to see if he starts carrying a handbag and using the royal we?

          • Brad says:

            I imagine Zuckerberg must have some face to face charisma or how would he have gotten where he is. But based on videos of speeches he has given, his mass charisma is even worse than HRC. And that’s saying something!

          • Aapje says:

            Ezra Klein argued that HRC’s talent is her ability to truly listen to people, which is a kind of charisma that obviously doesn’t translate into making charismatic speeches that inspire millions.

          • Deiseach says:

            Ezra Klein argued that HRC’s talent is her ability to truly listen to people

            Yeah but I think the trouble there was that she had a tendency towards “Well I’ve listened to Joe and he says we should do this but I’ve listened to Mike and he says we should do that and Sally says the other thing is better” during her campaign – there was some frankly ridiculous number of slogans being tested, trotted out, dropped, etc even in the last days.

            Then she ended up having listened to so many conflicting opinions that she just took a decision and rammed it through because she’s the smart experienced one in the room, regardless if it was a good one or not.

          • Nornagest says:

            @Deiseach — Is that link supposed to go to the front page of the Post?

          • AG says:

            So HRC ran up against the Peter Principle, then. She climbed to where her charisma couldn’t take her further. And with just how much of a policy wonk she is, I kind of wonder if “cabinet member” was that +1 level of incompetence, where Senator or lower is where her optimized maximum is?

          • Aapje says:


            I think that she exceeded her ability already with her Secretary of State job. She excels in advocacy roles, especially when working behind the scenes, but is poor at decision making and inspiring the masses.

            PS. I assume that Deiseach meant to link to this

          • AG says:

            Yeah, it’s interesting that this characterization means HRC isn’t suited to executive branch positions. I was thinking “maybe then she should stay the shadow power, chief of staff type,” but that would actually mean more decision making. Whereas in the legislature, since it’s all nebulous negotiations, single representatives/senators have little direct decision making power, and so that’s where she works best, quibbling at the details but ultimately passing the buck.

            But does that have implications for an alternate world where she went the judicial path instead? There’s a lot of listening there, but also some strong decision making.

          • CatCube says:

            I was thinking “maybe then she should stay the shadow power, chief of staff type,” but that would actually mean more decision making.

            I don’t know if the lack of charisma being discussed means that she wouldn’t be effective in a power-behind-the-throne role. She might very well be charismatic in a one-on-one type of role. However, when she’s speaking to a mass audience, she gives a speech like space aliens hollowed her out and are drunk-driving her.

            “Ramming a decision through” can be done in both the one-on-one or mass audience type of situation, but you need to have the charisma appropriate to the situation. Successful politicians (which is what cabinet secretaries are) need the second type. Chiefs of staff need the first type.

          • Randy M says:

            Excelling in advocacy roles–behind the scenes. Is that like having a face for radio?

          • engleberg says:

            Hillary’s great talent is as a bagman: 1.5 billion slush fundation. When the Clintons took a half-billion dollar bribe from Microsoft’s competitors to sic the Justice Department on Microsoft and oops, break the dot-com boom, that was really impressive. Appointing the guys who covered for her to the FBI, sending them after Trump, that’s kind of impressive too. So far Trump hasn’t taken that kind of bribe, or caused that kind of damage, or put enough loyalists in place to impeach the next guy in 2024, but Trump has time to grow. New York real estate background might help.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh my God, sorry, but I’m rolling on the floor laughing at this. Why not throw in Elon Musk too, so we could have the full Billionaire Cartoon Supervillain List?

        “Bezos/Zuckerberg 2020: Vote for these guys, they already own you body and soul, may as well make it official!”

        I think the better bet is to buy a personable-looking congresscritter, then pump money and resources into the campaign that your grinning, glad-handing puppet runs (by strictly following the algorithms which are for sure going to work out better this time). If you want your First Female President, sure, go for it as well, but pick one that has a snowball in hell’s chance of getting elected.

        • Tenacious D says:

          I’m working on the theory that in 2018 all publicity is good publicity (as long as you never apologize or show weakness). President Trump already set the precedent for a billionaire trying such an approach, after all.

          • Watchman says:

            Yes, but the candidate has to have policies attractive to that proportion of the population who would accept the no apology approach. Trump already has that section of the electorate, other than perhaps an indeterminate number of “no liberal act is wrong” types who still support Roman Polanski…

            I don’t think the US left-wing coalition really has much space for a leader without introspection or respect for others to be honest.

    • BBA says:

      My first instinct is that the most important thing is to not get caught, because the massive scandal from a billionaire’s nefarious plot to rig the election will redound strongly to Trump’s favor. My second instinct is that no matter whether Bezos gets caught or not or even does anything Trump will insist he’s nefariously plotting to rig the election. So the logical tactic is to do nothing and make Trump look foolish by insisting you’re doing something… except, of course, that has never worked against Trump either.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        And here I thought Putin was the only judo champion world leader.

        • BBA says:

          I think Trump has more of a Ballmer Peak thing going on. Political figures with similar traits, like Anthony Weiner and Sarah Palin, have self-destructed spectacularly, but Trump naturally occupies a particular sweet spot that makes him inexplicably good at winning elections and impervious to the standard rules of politics.

          I mean, today the entire media and national security establishment and pretty much every retired Republican pol are aghast at today’s joint press conference with Putin, but what are the odds we’ll even remember it by this time next week?

          So in other words, he’s almost certain to win in 2020 and there’s nothing you or I or Bezos can do about it. I don’t like it but it is what it is.

          • Matt M says:

            I’ve had this rough idea for a comedy sketch where someone falls into a coma, and when they are awakened, they are ranting about Russian collusion or some such thing. The doctors inform them that they’ve been in a coma, and actually, nobody really is talking about Russian collusion anymore – the truly outrageous Trump scandal is how he’s separating families at the border.

            Coma victim says “Wow, I must have been out for a really long time!” But the doctors reveal nope, just two days.

          • Nick says:

            Then he sleeps for eight hours and when he wakes up, it’s all Stormy Daniels.

          • albatross11 says:

            The outrage media only has space for one top story at a time, so it is 100% capable of shifting from “Government reports it’s missing half a dozen nukes” outrage to “B-list celebrity caught on video in racist rant” outrage, with everyone apparently forgetting the missing nukes.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            If I was a supervillain, I would use my powers to steal a nuke after putting a national-level politician under hypnosis to speak a racist rant when given the trigger, then time the trigger to get the media to drop the stolen nuke outrage ASAP.

          • bean says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            The nuclear security people are not as easily distracted as the general public, and they’re the ones you really need to worry about.

          • Deiseach says:

            Anthony Weiner is his own special kind of disaster, though.

    • yodelyak says:

      The Dem bench is, IMHO, sadly thin.

      I think Gillibrand could win in ’20, and the main thing she needs from Bezos is competence among the rest of the folks running in ’20, and the sense that the race dynamic will be unforgiving to candidates that use scorched-earth tactics. It’d probably help if the Dems have retaken the House in ’18, so they can make sure to fund relevant projects like election protection. There’s truth in the line that “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.” When Dem primaries get ugly, Rs win. So agenda item one is to get Dems to see it as in their interest to be nice to each other.

      After that, Bezos should a) make a 2020 map and pick a few states where he can ensure a state-level run by a libertarian or other Republican-adjacent (an evangelical party?) who can split votes off from Trump
      b) double-down on work to build Dem party cohesion in states where the Bernie/Clinton split is especially deep. (Maybe just pick 2018 candidates with no ties to either Bernie or Clinton and signal boost them)
      c) start researching what kind of messaging works to suppress turnout among Trump’s base. Will they not vote if they’re sure Trump’ll win? If they’re sure he’ll lose? If they’ve recently seen footage of him apologizing to a woman? If they’ve recently had a nice woman come to their door to raise money for rape and battered women shelters? Find something that works to make Trump voters stay home even half as well as negative campaigning turns off Dems, and then keep that knowledge under your hat (because other Dems and/or the media will throw it away by overusing it) until it’s time to deploy it. And then deploy aggressively.

      Oh, and ffs, do whatever you can to keep Mueller’s investigation going, and in the news.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think Gillibrand could win in ’20

        Just looked her up on Wikipedia and if I were an opposition campaign, I’d hammer home “Hillary Clinton Version II: blonde white woman, succeeded to Hillary’s Senate seat, what is she going to do for the ordinary guy/minorities?” Plus the work for the tobacco company – keep her tangled up in “okay, yeah, Big Tobacco is Evil but by the same token the huge sums it paid me permitted me to do Good Works for the less fortunate” – “oh, so you profited off the deaths of millions of cancer sufferers and tried washing your hands by taking a few pro bono cases, Pontius Pilate?” Find family members of people who died from lung cancer due to smoking and get them to make statements whenever Ms Gillibrand is touting her legal work on “multiple pro bono cases defending abused women and their children, as well as other cases defending tenants seeking safe housing after lead paint and unsafe conditions were found in their homes”.

        I’d hammer on the Clinton connections (with vague murmurings about what else is Gillibrand beholden to them for, and what murkiness might she be entangled in) and the tobacco company work.

        Yes, that’s dirty pool. It’s a presidential election, not a vicarage tea party, and any vulnerability any candidate has is going to be attacked mercilessly.

        (Though it does amuse me that her granny was involved in supporting a classic machine politician – the Irish background coming through there!)

        • BBA says:

          Gillibrand has the advantage of having at least a milligram of actual charisma that works outside Hillary’s narrow-but-intense fan base. (Which is real, and includes more than just DNC staffers, and is going to jump on me screaming that “uncharismatic” is a misogynistic slur and Hillary only lost because shitty men like me privately doubted her… if they ever find out I said this.)

          Last fall during the height of #MeToo Gillibrand broke from the party line and said that Bill Clinton should’ve resigned over the Lewinsky affair. There’s clearly room for her to distance herself from Hillary and burnish her feminist cred.

          The problem is, I don’t know if it’s possible for a Democrat to win without the Pantsuit Nation’s support. But Trump is going to continue harping on “Crooked Hillary” and leading “LOCK HER UP” chants until the day he dies, and defending her is a sure path to a repeat of 2016. Maybe there’s a candidate out there who can thread that needle, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

          • albatross11 says:

            It seems really unlikely to me that Hillary will run again, and even more unlikely she will win the nomination.

          • engleberg says:

            @Hillary’s narrow-but-intense fan base-

            The Hillary voters I’ve met were D party hacks. Not narrow-but-intense, voting for the D party candidate who topped out. Like a guy explaining why he still paid to fix his ex-wife’s roof even though he knew she was, long story.

            Say you go to the union hall and the secretary say ‘I’m voting for Hillary and asking you to join me. And yes, I know-‘
            And he calls on the token R party guy and lets him talk until everyone gets bored and he says ‘Thanks, R party token, I respect you and you made good points, here’s why I say vote Hillary and now the notes of the last meeting-‘
            The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pantsuit stuff was real enough. And It’s Her Turn struck me as Buggin’s Turn repeating farce as flatulence, but I’m not a good party member. Good party members strongly support the candidate who did their time and now it’s Their Turn.

          • Matt M says:

            It seems really unlikely to me that Hillary will run again, and even more unlikely she will win the nomination.

            Strong disagree.

            I believe I’ve already made a friendly wager with someone else here on this topic. I am firmly convinced that Hillary will not only run, but will win the DNC nomination in 2020.

          • Deiseach says:

            It seems really unlikely to me that Hillary will run again

            So I firmly believe, and yet somehow there are whispers about the possibility. I can’t believe the Democrats would go for her a second fourth time, and surely she has burned through all the influence, favours and support she had for the last run so it would be impossible to get yet another campaign team together and off the ground.

            But then again, never discount vanity and ambition.

          • Matt M says:

            I can’t believe the Democrats would go for her a second fourth time, and surely she has burned through all the influence, favours and support she had for the last run so it would be impossible to get yet another campaign team together and off the ground.

            I think I’ve said this before, but I will repeat anyway. The basis for my theory that she will run (and win) is that all of the Russia hysteria has painted the DNC into a corner. They’ll have spent the better part of four years loudly screaming that the only reason Trump won the election is because Putin rigged it for him.

            They’re being careful not to say it explicitly, but the logical implication of this is that Hillary should have been President – that the election was illegitimately stolen from her by illegal and unjust collusion between the evil Trump and his puppetmaster, Putin.

            So if Hillary chooses to run, the first words out of her mouth are “I am the rightful President – everyone knows that I was cheated out of a well deserved victory,” who, exactly, among mainstream Democrats, is going to argue that point? They will have no valid response. Any attempt to dispute that will be a concession to Trump, which is the absolute #1 thing nobody is willing to do. They’d rather lose again with Hillary than say or do anything that might grant even the slightest bit of legitimacy or approval to Trump. Their only hope is that she decides she simply doesn’t want to run (and come on, this is Hillary Clinton we’re talking about here!)

          • theredsheep says:

            That assumes only two choices: run Hillary, or allow that Trump won fairly. There is a fairly straightforward third option of saying that we need a stronger candidate without history and baggage, etc., without explicitly admitting that Trump had a legitimate win. I think the Russia thing is a convoluted way of denying the election too, but I think it’s more about denying the general situation (yes, America really did prefer the moron, or near enough; Your Fellow Americans really are deplorable or deplorable-compatible) than about salvaging Hillary herself.

            She’s been beaten so many bloody times, and Trump shouldn’t have even been remotely competitive. I think Bernie could have beaten Trump. Hell, almost anyone but Hillary could have. All they needed was somebody who seemed like s/he might have been sincere or likeable, or even had a new idea. They went with Hillary, mistakes were made, they paid. There’s no need to follow the logic of the Russia investigations. There isn’t much logic there anyways.

          • yodelyak says:

            @Matt M

            There are healthy number of people in D party circles who preface any remark about their philosophy of choosing who to support with “I don’t pick losers…” and who’ll double- and triple-down on that, because Republicans are worse. We can’t run Hillary because she can’t win, and she can’t win because we all know enough other people who think she can’t, so even if we privately think she as-a-person could win, we know this is not that timeline–a winning candidate needs backing, and she doesn’t have it.

          • Matt M says:

            There is a fairly straightforward third option of saying that we need a stronger candidate without history and baggage, etc., without explicitly admitting that Trump had a legitimate win.

            People keep saying this, but I just don’t think it’s true. Maybe in the immediate aftermath of the election there was some willingness to question Hillary’s fitness as a candidate – but as the Russia thing builds and builds it continues to decrease.

            Hell, the slightest hint of uncertainty over Russian meddling is now dismissed with cries of “But Hillary’s e-mails!” intended to be a mocking derision upon any insinuation that Hillary had any problems as a candidate that may have influenced the outcome.

            And that’s just from random people on social media. I haven’t heard any mainstream/left media pundits talk about what a flawed candidate she was lately. Or any high-profile Democratic politicians.

            And even if they did, it’s one thing to calmly discuss it now when she’s mostly in the background. Another beast entirely to face her, on a national stage, and have to look her in the eye and say “You lost because you were a bad candidate, not because of Putin.” Does any mainstream Democrat have the balls to do that? I don’t consider it likely.

          • Jaskologist says:

            We’re talking about millions of voters; there’s no particular person who would get painted into a corner and feel like a hypocrite. It’s not like Al Gore got renominated in 2004 after he had Florida stolen from him in 2000.

          • Matt M says:


            That’s an admitted possibility. That the big money behind the scenes doesn’t support her and therefore she won’t go anywhere. That said, I think the way that plays out is that she either knows it already and chooses not to run, or they convince her not to run.

            I actually think her odds of not running are higher than her odds of running and not winning.

            While there are many merits to your argument, a part of me just refuses to believe that Hillary would lose the battle in the behind-the-scenes influence-peddling stages of the contest. That’s 100% her specialty!

          • Matt M says:

            We’re talking about millions of voters; there’s no particular person who would get painted into a corner and feel like a hypocrite. It’s not like Al Gore got renominated in 2004 after he had Florida stolen from him in 2000.

            Al Gore chose to fade away and not run again. Hillary might as well, but she strikes me as more ambitious than Gore. She is kind of old though, and seemingly not in great health, maybe her doctors and family will convince her not to.

            But IF Al Gore had chosen to run in 2004 under a platform of “The election was stolen from me and you all know it,” then yeah, it would have been awkward as hell for John Kerry, or anyone else, to deal with that, would it not?

          • Iain says:

            I actually think her odds of not running are higher than her odds of running and not winning.

            This is because she would not run unless she thought there was a very good chance of her winning. There is not a good chance of her winning. (Unlike Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, she doesn’t even crack the top 15 on PredictIt.)

            She is not going to run.

          • theredsheep says:

            Hillary lost for a whole bunch of reasons, some of which I think haven’t been adequately covered–I suspect Obergefell and its aftermath played a part by convincing white Evangelicals that Trump was their only lifeboat. But part of the reason was that, rightly or wrongly, a lot of Americans reaaaaaalllly hate her. With a borderline-crazy passion. Like, my parents are lifelong hardcore Democrats, and my mother couldn’t bring herself to vote for Hillary. That’s the issue IMO, not any one particular scandal.

            Yeah, most of the scandals appear to be hooey. That’s what “but the e-mails” means. But that’s just it–people make mountains out of molehills like that because they are predisposed, for whatever reason, to think the worst of her. I suppose it’s possible that she could get the nomination again, I don’t know the mentality that well, but after the legitimacy questions with Bernie I really don’t think the energy is there. OTOH, 2020 is still some ways off. Who knows.

          • Matt M says:

            Trust me, I’ve been monitoring that PredictIt closely, and plan to put some money down as soon as they add her.

            I already have a few hundred shares of whether or not she’ll run – but I think there will be more value in scooping up shares of her to win for pennies on the dollar.

            To booster my credibility somewhat, I bought a decent amount of “Trump to win the Presidency” shares at like 20 cents too. I’ve been doing pretty well for myself on PredictIt. I’ve more than doubled my deposit base so far!

          • Matt M says:

            But part of the reason was that, rightly or wrongly, a lot of Americans reaaaaaalllly hate her.

            You know it’s true. I know it’s true. Hillary knows it’s true. Most of America knows it’s true. Most Democratic politicians know it’s true.

            The question I have is, who on the DNC debate stage is going to stand up and say it? This isn’t a question about what is true – it’s a question about what Democrats are allowed to say without appearing to be defending or excusing Trump.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I don’t believe the Democrats will support Hillary in any campaign again. The stink of defeat is mighty powerful in the political realm. But if they do, I sure hope the DNC emails leak again, because the messages from the anti-Hillary faction will be a hoot to read.

          • theredsheep says:

            Is saying so on the stage really necessary? Can’t their primary voters just quietly cough and vote for either A. a transgendered latinx space pirate or B. a white man in a suit who totally gets their subculture and stuff, depending on preference?

          • Matt M says:

            Can’t their primary voters just quietly cough and vote for either

            In theory, sure.

            But in reality, there will be multiple debates held before a single primary vote happens. And the on-stage imagery of Hillary saying “I’m the legitimate President” and everyone else refusing to argue the point will be powerful. And will be fully in line with the last four years of media shrieking about Russian meddling and interference.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            … or C. a straight person who totally gets Latino culture instead of ordering them to change their demonym to “latinx”?

          • Nornagest says:

            Even if Trump gets ousted, the Presidency will fall to someone in the line of succession, which doesn’t include Hillary. She can’t run until 2020. In 2020, she’ll be 74, five years older than Ronald Reagan (still our oldest president) was when he entered office. By then, another scandal will be in the news. She won’t have any more political experience to trade on. And she’ll still have her defeats behind her.

            Those are serious disadvantages, and, as we’ve seen, she hasn’t got the most stage presence even when you stack the deck in her favor. I do think she could say “I’m the rightful president” and D party diehards would believe her, but there’s more to getting elected than playing to the diehards, and everyone knows it. On the other hand, I’d expect her endorsement to carry a lot of weight.

          • Iain says:

            @Matt M:

            When none of this fever-dream comes to pass, I hope you take a moment to recalibrate your mental model of the left.

          • John Schilling says:

            Al Gore chose to fade away and not run again. Hillary might as well…

            Hillary has already chosen to fade away. She is doing approximately nothing to remain in the public eye, which is pretty much a prerequisite for any serious presidential bid.

          • the_the says:

            @ Matt M

            You seem to make two claims:

            (1) Most D-party politicians and voters believe that Hillary cannot win in 2020.
            (2) Hillary will obtain the 2020 nomination because no D-party politician wants to incur the political risk of explicitly airing (1).

            This seems to be modeling the D-party as an inflexible adversary, one that is so monolithic that it would rather lose than openly state that the emperor is naked.*

            So, why do you favor the above scenario more than these other possibilities?:

            (1) A group of D-party politicians announce publicly “Hillary is a losing bet as evidenced by the events of 2008 and 2016. The first case is evidence that our voters prefer a fresh face. As for the second, even though we all know the Russians meddled, it should never have been that close to begin with. Instead, we support [other candidate(s)].” This avoids (1) by diffusing the political impact over a group of politicians; it also positions them as favorites of any new nominee.

            (2) Hillary wishes to remain relevant because she seeks a vice-presidential position alongside a more palatable presidential nominee (who is more charismatic and preferably of a minority/protected group, but still an experienced politician so as to avoid accusations of being a puppet). Or maybe, less ambitiously, Hillary seeks to trade her endorsement for a high-level position in the next administration.

            (3) A young-ish D-party politician calculates (perhaps incorrectly) that the Clinton name has waned sufficiently that she can adopt a “left eats its own” approach. She borrows some of the same “Hillary is crooked/corrupt”/drain the swamp rhetoric of the last election, but still retains the D-party positions on core issues of healthcare, immigration, abortion, gun control, feminism/diversity, etc.

            What I’m getting at: in addition to avoiding a near-certain defeat, there seem to be some decent incentives for D-party actors (including Hillary herself) to dismiss the idea of Hillary as the 2020 nominee.

            * Imagery not intended.

          • BBA says:

            Weird that this whole thread arose out of my post, when I never even suggested that Hillary would run again. What I said is that Trump will run against Hillary regardless of who is on the ballot. (Indeed, I think he’ll keep holding “LOCK HER UP” rallies when he’s 90 and she’s dead and nobody but the basest of his base cares anymore, because it’s the thing that he enjoys most in life.)

            Now, if feminism really is as strong a force as people here claim it to be, a hypothetical Democratic candidate could plausibly denounce Hillary as a fraud to the cause. Her husband is a serial sexual abuser, and not only has she failed to call him out, she’s actively encouraged his behavior by relentlessly slut-shaming his victims. The party and the country need someone who cares about all women and won’t give abusers a pass, and Hillary just isn’t that person.

            I haven’t the foggiest clue of whether this can work. The Vox left has been slowly coalescing around the idea that Bill should’ve resigned back in ’98 but the Pantsuiters haven’t budged and likely never will. And of course if it works in the primary it might backfire in the general.

            I doubt Hillary herself runs again, mainly because the younger generation of Democratic pols have already started their backroom campaigns for 2020 and can convincingly rebuff her with “you’ve had your turn, it’s our turn now.” But she will continue to be a presence in the race because Trump can’t help himself, and the way the Dems respond to him will be… interesting.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Indeed, I think he’ll keep holding “LOCK HER UP” rallies when he’s 90 and she’s dead and nobody but the basest of his base cares anymore, because it’s the thing that he enjoys most in life.

            “Donald! What is best in life?”
            “To crush your enemy, see her driven before you, and hear the lamentations of her women.”

          • Dan L says:

            @ Matt M

            I think I’ve said this before, but I will repeat anyway. The basis for my theory that she will run (and win) is that all of the Russia hysteria has painted the DNC into a corner. They’ll have spent the better part of four years loudly screaming that the only reason Trump won the election is because Putin rigged it for him.

            I believe you have dramatically misread the political situation, and am interested in wagering a nontrivial amount on a point of sharp, falsifiable disagreement.

            I am firmly convinced that Hillary will not only run, but will win the DNC nomination in 2020.

            I actually think her odds of not running are higher than her odds of running and not winning.

            There is an inconsistency here, but I’ll leave it to you to reconcile. What odds do you place on the specific scenario where Hillary runs in a majority of Democratic state primaries prior to the 2020 election, culminating in her being named the candidate at the convention? (Brokered or otherwise, but after her mounting a concerted run)

            I think we have dramatically different predictions, and it should not be hard to agree on a number where we both think we’re getting a very good deal.

          • Deiseach says:

            Indeed, I think he’ll keep holding “LOCK HER UP” rallies when he’s 90 and she’s dead and nobody but the basest of his base cares anymore, because it’s the thing that he enjoys most in life.

            Is he doing that right now, though? I haven’t heard anything (though that may be because I’m mostly ignoring the news; I can’t avoid the whole Trump-Putin meeting and the yelling about this proves he is actual real treason-committing traitor why he doesn’t believe his own intelligence agencies) and the only reason I can see him doing that if he goes again in 2020 is if Hillary herself goes again (dear Azathoth, no) or, more likely, her hand-picked or endorsed candidate gets the nod. Attacking Hillary as the puppet mistress with her hand up the puppet’s backside would make sense in that context.

          • dick says:

            Is he doing that right now, though?

            Yeah, he still holds campaign rallies regularly and bashing Hillary is one of the recurring features. Most recent one would appear to be the anti-Jon Tester rally in Montana two weeks ago.

          • BBA says:

            Is he doing that right now, though?

            Yes, he is. He held his first reelection rally in February or March of 2017, and he’s been taking his usual shtick wherever he holds a rally nominally to support a local candidate. Several times, the crowd has started chanting “LOCK HER UP” unprompted, before he even took the stage.

            At yesterday’s Helsinki press conference he launched into a non sequitur about the (mythical) missing DNC email server, which I guess isn’t technically about Hillary but is close enough.

            We’re going to be relitigating 2016 forever… I guess it’s not as bad as relitigating 1916 forever.

          • quanta413 says:


            The Vox left has been slowly coalescing around the idea that Bill should’ve resigned back in ’98 but the Pantsuiters haven’t budged and likely never will.

            So what? This is totally meaningless and possibly a some people saying it even realize they are lying (not managing to even deceive themselves). Now that Bill and Hillary look politically dead, it’s convenient to pretend to have principles beyond winning, but we know how this turns out.

            When a party wins the presidency, all moral requirements are stuffed in a deep, dark hole, lit on fire, and then the hole is sealed with concrete. Only their opponents have a strong incentive to try to hold them to the fire, but considering you know that you’re likely voting for lying sociopaths regardless of who you vote for it’s hard to care.

            I think the fact that some Democrats are publicly willing to say “maybe 20 years ago what Bill Clinton did was kind of sort of wrong” just for vaporous social credit is a good sign that Matt M is really wrong though.

          • mdet says:

            As a millennial, most posts I see that mention the 2016 election seem to feature an obligatory #BernieWouldHaveWon, so I don’t see any appetite for Still More Hillary. The only people I know personally who were enthusiastic Hillary supporters were women over 50, every other left-of-center person I know treated her nomination with a sense of resignation. But that’s just what I can see.

            Hillary has already chosen to fade away. She is doing approximately nothing to remain in the public eye, which is pretty much a prerequisite for any serious presidential bid.

            She occasionally slips into the headlines for giving some kind of talk somewhere, but you’d be forgiven for missing it. Doesn’t seem to have been covered very well, neither in terms of the amount nor the tone of the coverage. Google found me two samples.

      • Deiseach says:

        If they’ve recently had a nice woman come to their door to raise money for rape and battered women shelters?

        Only works if you believe his voters believe he rapes and beats women. What’s the current sex scandal – that he was fucking a porn star* and paid her off to keep the affair secret? Whatever your feelings about adultery**, there’s nothing about “raping and beating” there; probably helps his image as successful guy who can get the hot chicks, and if getting an intern in your work place to give you a blow job whilst you yourself are president isn’t disqualifying, why would a consensual affair (at least within the understood parameters of “trading sex for money as a mistress”) with someone not an employee or under his authority before ever he was elected be such?

        *Or two; another purveyor of adult entertainment seems to have made a similar accusation, but I’m not interested enough in the story to follow it

        **Only prudes like me care about sex outside marriage, and aren’t we all agreed the Religious Right should rightfully lose their influence in politics, yeah?

        • albatross11 says:

          I’ll admit that a scandal involving paying off a porn star to not disclose the existence of his bastard child with her is *exactly* the kind of scandal I would have expected out of Trump.

          • Matt M says:

            And yet, the media still can’t help themselves from constantly making gay jokes about him anyway…

          • yodelyak says:

            @Matt M

            Yeah, the gay memes are a mistake–I don’t know why I didn’t notice that sooner. Better are the ones that just treat Trump as a toddler and Putin as daddy. That makes the same point without either villainizing gay relationships (which do not necessarily involve a power imbalance!) and it also uses a lens that is much more salient an insult in the minds of Trump’s base.

        • David Speyer says:

          This would only be a small part of Bezos’ wealth, and a minor part of the strategy, but get Summer Zervos a lawyer who is as good a PR hound as Stormy Daniels’ attorney. It is absurd that the woman who claims Trump assaulted her is forgotten and the woman he claims he had a consensual affair is in constant headlines. (I imagine Bill Clinton haters felt the same way about Monica Lewinsky vs Juanita Broddrick.)

        • yodelyak says:

          It just has to make 10% of them sufficiently less excited to vote for him that 2% do other things first enough on election day that they never get around to voting. I’m not sure if battered women is the issue–the point is more that if the person at their door is a nonchalant young woman making simple and effective steps toward addressing gender violence… anyway, it was just an example.

          If I were to guess at what kind of canvasser would be effective, I tend to think a canvasser who seems at first to be a Mormon missionary but turns out to be a very thoroughly prepared conservative/Republican advocate for a small (say, 1/10th of a percent of a particular property assessment) decrease in certain taxes, where half of the decrease is just a straight refund to taxpayers and the other half is made up for by an increase somewhere else, because reasons. As an afterthought, said canvasser signals that they’re not one of the crazy Republicans who doesn’t see the lies our President says, but that won’t stop them from going door to door talking to Republicans about the issues all good Republicans should be thinking about.

          • Deiseach says:

            if the person at their door is a nonchalant young woman making simple and effective steps toward addressing gender violence…

            …they’ll think she’s from the local rape crisis centre and yeah, isn’t it awful and yeah, sure, we’ll donate but they won’t think it has anything to do with the election or the candidate who is running.

            I mean, would Democratic Voter think the nice young woman talking about domestic violence was (a) canvassing for Jim Jimson, local Dem Party representative in the forthcoming election for dog-catcher, vote the party ticket for Jimson all the way! or (b) oh crap, got caught by a chugger and it’s too late to shut the door, just nod and smile?

          • yodelyak says:

            Hm. Deiseach, we may have different views on the effectiveness of door-to-door and other person-to-person conversations/canvassing that might be worth exploring sometime. At the moment I feel that I’m obviously pretty partisan about canvassing/people-to-people comms as effective, to the point that I’ve noticed and am not sure I want to advocate for it until I’ve reflected on whether I believe everything I think.

            If I did feel like believing what I’m thinking…
            I think canvassing can very effectively move people from using their threat-response thinking, which is very conservative (think zombie survival mode) to using other modes (e.g. the mode they use to encourage their kids to cooperate) that are not, and back again. These modes work wildly different political outcomes–and while people don’t that often switch which mode they use to decide who to vote for, *if they have already decided to show up to vote* they do sometimes switch, and more importantly, they do sometimes neglect to bother to vote at all if they’re mostly working from a mode that isn’t the one that normally motivates them to vote. The predominance of a religious mode that insulates against Fox-viewer-scared-mode is, I think, a good way to understand why Utah doesn’t vote the way other R-states vote.

            I believe Penn can be a swing state, Florida can be a swing state, Michigan can be a swing state–all of them have communities and demographics that can probably see turnout go up or down dramatically because people’s “scared mode” is being deactivated, or not. All of those communities probably need different types of communication programs to be effective in activating other modes. I do not know what would work for most of them, and am not claiming that the young woman in my example is the right answer. I’m merely claiming that answers exist, and a good way to find them is with focus-group-style well-trained canvassers who try out different messages. Somebody with deep pockets who wants to affect 2020 should be hiring locals in each place to do the work to figure out what works. (A distinguished-seeming veteran coming to your door and talking about the need to support disabled veterans, who pivots to being pro-honesty and anti-corruption and then pivoting to be anti-Trump? A chess club member who points at the comedy of errors at achieving minimal competence in Trump’s cabinet who wants effective governance? How do female Pennsylvanians who live alone react to Quakers coming to their doors to talk about forgiveness? How would older Michiganders react to having young men quoting former Gov. Romney at them, in opposition to Trump? How much does simply hearing an earnest young man say, “well, Trump is obviously losing” and double- and triple-down on that if challenged affect how much people bother to turn out? I think the answer is “well, we’ve tested things like this in low-saturation elections with double-blind randomized controlled experiments and gotten surprisingly strong results. In high saturation years, the effect of the marginal additional communication is probably smaller, but not zero, unless sufficiently targeted/high-saturation/high-effectiveness.

          • Deiseach says:

            How much does simply hearing an earnest young man say, “well, Trump is obviously losing” and double- and triple-down on that if challenged affect how much people bother to turn out?

            Really does depend; if some guy twenty to thirty years younger than me pitches up on my doorstep lecturing me in a thinly-veiled “well obviously you old people are stupid, let me tell you what is wrong with the way you voted last time” manner, I’d be moved to “get out of here, whipper-snapper, and let me head straight to the polling booth to vote first, last and in between for the candidate you were just telling me couldn’t tie his own shoelaces”.

            Canvassing is a delicate art; if you are going to send in obvious door-steppers who are plainly Not From Round These Parts, you’re not going to have much luck – people tend not to like headquarters parachuting in people to direct the little people how to vote. You have to have someone who can at least pass for “vaguely in the locality”, even if that is “from the big town”. But not “from the capital” because that strikes all kinds of “coming down here telling us what to do because they think we’re all knuckle-draggers” notes.

            Some people have built up great canvassing machines, and advice from them would be useful. Myself, if I had someone on the doorstep who started talking about veterans, domestic violence, or getting cats out of trees who then segued into “by the way, isn’t Candidate Jones just awful?” it would ring so many alarm bells with me, the fire brigade and ambulance would show up on the street. I would find it very hard to believe this was Person From The Same Party, which is going to kill the whole effort stone-dead (of course you expect Person From Other Party to lie about Your Guy) and if I did believe it was Person From Same Party, I’d think this was just more of the usual in-fighting and throat-cutting which renders local politics ridiculous and trying to get a unified party message out ineffectual (the turf wars round here at election time over ‘you crossed the wrong side of the street to put up posters for your candidate when this is our candidate’s patch so we tore them down’ when they’re all from the same party and are supposed to be getting elected to serve the public interest and not their own self-interest is stupid and all too common).

          • Deiseach says:

            Okay, yodelyak, I think I’ve worked out what is bugging me with this suggestion.

            If it’s a Bezos wants to take out Trump effort, then it’s a false flag operation: it’s an enemy pretending to be one of yours. And I think the falsity will be detected by some voters, maybe not in a sophisticated way, more in a little niggling voice in the back of the head that something seems a bit off about this young man in a suit/distinguished older gentleman/pleasant young lady telling you “Hello, fellow Republican voter! I too am a Republican! Let me immediately start ripping into the Republican president who is running for a second term!”

            If it’s a genuine Republicans want to run a candidate other than Trump effort, trying to get Trump voters to switch or not bother turning out by attacking Trump is going to look very odd if it’s done while Trump is the incumbent going for a second term and has been nominated. They need to convince people not to support him but support the other candidate for nomination, so attacks then make sense. But not on the doorstep canvassing, which is the general/presidential election? Too late then?

            And I honestly don’t know how convincing “the last four years when we were in power were so awful, vote for us again” is going to work out. So as an enemy action trying to get a spoiler candidate nominated (as Hillary’s campaign allegedly did with Trump) – sure. As a supposedly genuine Republican effort? Going to look very odd. Even Hillary didn’t try “Obama’s last four years were so terrible, put me in to fix his messes”.

        • dick says:

          Only works if you believe his voters believe he rapes and beats women…

          Only tangentially related, but when that whole “Grab ’em by the pussy’ tape came out, am I the only one who was most bothered by the furniture part?

          Here’s the bit I mean:

          I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it. I did try and fuck her. She was married. And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, “I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.” I took her out furniture—I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there.

          I’m not impressed by a guy who chases bimbos and cheats on his wife and brags about how much pussy he gets to strangers, but I can at least empathize. I mean, I’ve known guys like that who were not awful people. I wouldn’t vote for them, but it’s not alien to my experience.

          But the furniture part, man, that’s kind of fucked up. Not just doing it, I mean admitting it, and to a stranger. Imagine for a second: you’re at work, chatting with someone you see there occasionally, maybe the copier machine repairman or something, and you’re shooting the breeze and he tells you, apropos of nothing, that he tried and failed to seduce a married woman by buying her furniture. I cannot imagine anyone I have ever known saying something like that. Am I alone on this?

          • theredsheep says:

            Well, I wouldn’t call it disturbing; I don’t say, “You monster! You took her to Ethan Allen just for sex!” or anything. It’s more like, “You were expecting to get somewhere by buying her furniture? On what planet is that sexy?” Is she going to be filled with lust by teak, or what?

            One counterexample would be the ludicrous furniture-fetish story from Cryptonomicon, but that’s Neal Stephenson, if you’re depending on him for realistic scenarios you left the right path some time ago.

          • Matt M says:

            1. You have to adjust for class/status. Trump’s buying a woman furniture might be his equivalent of a guy complaining that he bought a woman a few drinks at a bar and got nothing.

            2. Admitting failure is a form of self-deprecation, which can be a great bonding ritual among someone you want to get on your side, particularly someone lower-status than you.

            I’ve definitely had friends tell me stories of the like of “I tried to pick up this woman, here are some things I did specifically to try to convince her, and it didn’t work, haha, oh well for me!”

          • dick says:

            You have to adjust for class/status. Trump’s buying a woman furniture might be his equivalent of a guy complaining that he bought a woman a few drinks at a bar and got nothing.

            I get that you’re a fan, but no it really isn’t. Buying someone a drink is a way to introduce yourself to them and have a conversation with them. The monetary value of the drink is not supposed to be what impressed her. Buying a woman something expensive in exchange for sex is… well, the name for that doesn’t change depending on how rich the guy is.

            Also keep in mind, Trump was referring to the guy’s co-host, a woman he had worked alongside for several years. One presumes he’d met her husband and family. If you put on your “what if it was someone from the other side” filter, this doesn’t skeeve you out? Really imagine this. You’re at work and some rich guy, let’s say the owner of the company on the next floor, who you’ve met and chatted with a couple times, tells you that he tried and failed to seduce your married coworker, and says he did his best, he even took her out to buy furniture. That doesn’t lower your opinion of him? He’s still a decent chap? Diff’rent strokes, I guess…

          • Randy M says:

            That doesn’t lower your opinion of him?

            I don’t think Trump was talking about rape in that tape. But he was talking about adultery, and in a “it was bad because I failed” sort of way, not a “it was bad that I tried” sort of way.
            Which is scummy. Shitty. Whatever we’re calling bad-but-not-illegal these days.
            Not sure it’s exactly unpresidential, which is a shame.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I really don’t think demoralization propaganda is going to bring down Trump in 2020. That was the game plan in 2016, and it’s continuing non-stop to this day, with something like 90% of media reporting on Trump being negative. I think Trump supporters are well inoculated against the media screaming at them that Trump is bad.

        To be honest, I don’t know what the Democrats can do. The correct answer is “run 1992 Bill Clinton” and I think that’s mostly what Trump did. He hammer[s|ed] on the dinner table issues voters care about. Jobs, economy, trade, immigration, military, terrorism. About the only issue voters care about that Trump doesn’t really have his finger on the pulse of is healthcare. But I don’t think the Dems have a good or simple answer for that largely because I don’t think there are good or simple answers to healthcare. Instead they’ve got Tom Perez calling Ocasio-Cortez “the future of the Democratic party” but the whole “abolish ICE” thing does not play well with the flyover states.

        In politics 2020 is a lifetime away so anything could happen, but I don’t see a path for them right now. They get really worked up about minority issues or the treatment of foreigners, but for the actual voters it’s still “the economy, stupid.”

        • Thomas Jørgensen says:

          Eh, you are over-complicating the healthcare issue – The US has an uniquely inefficient healthcare system. Truly optimal healthcare provision might be hard, but a massive improvement on the status quo is not a difficult achievement, just adopting any of the half-dozen proven-to-be-better systems would do it.

          Medicare for all is pithy, and would work, so would adopting Swiss style rules that standardize private health insurance into fungibility.
          (The extra costs the us incurs is in large part down to every insurance company insisting on being a special snowflake in what it covers, what percentage it pays and how it is billed.. which burden health-care providers with enormous work loads for no good reason. If all insurance companies cover the same list of things, and use the same standardized form, hospitals could, and would, fire 80, 90 percent of their billing staff)
          The issue is that you have to be willing to go scorched earth on a lot of the participants in the current system. For example, the aforementioned billing staff?That was several hundred thousand people you just let go as surplus to requirements.

          And you have to fire them, in order for any reform to work, because their wages are a very large chunk of the excess costs.

          And a Medicare-for-all platform is a declaration of war on the health insurance industry. Politically solid once you have done it, because firms that you bankrupted cannot fund lobbying efforts against you, but.. they better not see it coming.

          Heck, that goes for a Swiss style reform too – Because the firms would have to go through their staff with a barrel of pink ink to survive under such conditions. Not much chance of getting super rich in a field regulated that tightly.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, it was interesting to see how Obamacare was shaped. This was a popular president with little experience but both houses of congress behind him (at least nominally), which seems kinda familiar somehow. And health care reform was absolutely the hill he was prepared to die on. And they still got Obamacare, which is (as best I can tell) a complete mess optimized to make sure the existing insurance industry and medical industry didn’t lose anything, which could only be passed using a questionable gimmick that left it open to court challenge, and which was born financially unstable and required executive-order-provided external subsidies that were predictably withdrawn when his party lost the white house.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Obamacare is the only reasonable option available at the time. Obama wasn’t a dictator and there were, are, and will continue to be large number of conservative Democrats that aren’t going to back aggressive reform, and a bunch more that will get quite skittish when rubber hits the road and they can’t just pose by Bernie Sanders for a picture.

        • RalMirrorAd says:

          ‘it’s the economy stupid’

          IIRC Polling of R, Is, and DS puts ‘immigration’ as the #1, #1, and #2 issue respectively. #1 being healthcare for Ds. This is why, I believe, Trump’s immigration rhetoric has gotten edgier over time as polling data reveals that the general electorate is closer to the dubbed ‘far right’ position on this issue then the center left position on this issue. I should stress that ‘how far’ is difficult to determine b/c of the wording of polling questions.

          I don’t think it’s just that ‘Abolish ICE’ is unpopular, it’s that aggressive immigration enforcement is *more* popular than doing nothing (which in turn is more popular than abolishing ICE and immigration enforcement generally)

          Rs and Ds are, by my estimation, both biting their nails most over the same issue; “What will the US look like 10-20 years from now” — obviously each side rooting for the opposite outcome of the other.

          But otherwise I agree that the negative reporting has lost most of its impact; it has become the new normal and if approval ratings are anything to go by, the public has adjusted. If reporting became more neutral, justified or not, I can imagine approval ratings going even higher. Ironic.

          The economy affects general satisfaction and voter turnout (both pro and con)

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I googled around for polls on issues that are important to voters and the first result from HuffPo pretty much confirms my prejudices. The #1 issue for dems is healthcare, then guns, and immigration is far down the list with only 10% rating it in their top 2 issues. And yet, the most passion I’ve seen out of the Dem leadership lately has been about the treatment of illegal foreigners at the border. I do not think this is a good way to energize the base. Dems should be hammering on healthcare because that’s where 34% of their voters, 30% of Is and 26% of Rs are paying attention.

            If the Dems want to make the midterm elections about immigration I think this is a losing proposition for them, as this is a top 2 issue for 43% of Republicans and 25% of Is. Focusing on policies that your base is lacklaster about but your opposition feels very strongly about in the opposite direction is not a winning formula.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          And the economy ties into the Culture War, stupid.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Yeah, demoralization is entirely the wrong way to go. Instead of trying to come up with ways to suppress half of the population, maybe try to give them a stake in the country instead?

          Stop telling everybody how bad Trump is; they know that already. Instead, show them some reason to think that you are good. This was what the Republican establishment failed to do, and why they failed to stop Trump.

          I’d say get the SJWs under control and call for a truce (from the left) in the culture wars. (I’d like to say expel the actual socialists too, but honestly I’m not sure that bothers most people like it should.)

          • albatross11 says:

            There’s not a Pope of Leftism who can excommunicate the SJWs.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I don’t think that’s possible. I think the identity politics have the Dems painted into a corner. Some white guy is going to come along and say “hey, we need to cool down on the racial politics for a bit and focus on economics to get more people voting for us” and the BLM crowd is going to say “sure, that makes sense?” No, they’re going to cast him into the outer darkness because their rhetoric is that black people are dying on the streets to racist cops every day and boohoo that a bunch of rednecks don’t have jobs. His focus on economic issues supports a system of white supremacy, and probably the Patriarchy, too.

          • Matt M says:

            The SJWs are the ones running the show on the left, and they’re really well practiced at expelling people. If someone is getting expelled, they’re the ones doing the expelling.

            You’re more likely to get run out of the left for being insufficiently SJW than for being too SJW (if such a thing even exists?)

          • Jaskologist says:

            But Bezos could do more than most.

            Use the Post to build a media campaign against them. Start with a series of exposes of the different male feminists who have been revealed by #metoo to be abusers. As it goes on, highlight more and more their connections to the social justice movement, so that you tie the abuse and the movement together in people’s minds.

            I’m sure somewhere in Amazon there’s an SJW with a sordid past that the company can-with great reluctance of course, but really they have no choice given all the recent public outcry-make an example of to encourage the rest. No doubt the move will be lauded by the Washington Post. If you can get one or two other large corporations to follow suit, you should be all set from there.

          • Aapje says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            The solution to that is to have a woman or black person give that message.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Internalized racism / sexism, Uncle Tom sellout to white supremacy and the Patriarchy.

          • theredsheep says:

            The thing is, the SJWs aren’t terribly constructive AFAICT. They’re very big on denouncing, but if they have a detailed policy plan involving things other than the purging of reactionary elements, I haven’t heard it. What are they going to do if they win, besides conduct endless purges for more or less arbitrarily defined offenses? The energy is bound to run out sooner or later.

            (Of course SJW is poorly defined; I’m taking the typical internet specimen as the type species here, which may be a mistake. I don’t know where the overlap is between such critters and social democrats, who do have constructive ideas even if I don’t believe they’ll ever achieve them)

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Honestly as a right-winger, I think social democrats have achievable ideas. They’re not going to collectivize agriculture or do something else that makes not being optimally capitalist a matter of life and death rather than inside baseball.
            The huge thing they get wrong is immigration.Be firm that social democracy is only for people like us and you’ve got something.

          • theredsheep says:

            I don’t think anybody’s ideas are all that achievable at this point, we’re so politically dysfunctional. The more achievable ones would be extremely modest ones you can get bipartisan support for. Or goals which can be achieved at the local level. The DemSos want too much.

          • Deiseach says:

            I think the identity politics have the Dems painted into a corner.

            Which is why I think the seizing upon Ocasio-Cortez as a possible presidential candidate down the line (certainly not in 2020, she’d only be thirty by then and has no real big-time experience): she’s female! and Latina! Two “firsts” for the price of one! Better than a white guy or woman, anyway!

            I think the problem is that right now, the most electable candidate is still going to be a white guy, but the Democrats have positioned themselves so hard as the party of progressive firsts (first African-American president and tried hard for first woman president) that the bloc of college-educated voters they rely on are going to want “more than just another white guy” as candidate. Good luck squaring that circle.

          • Matt M says:

            The huge thing they get wrong is immigration.Be firm that social democracy is only for people like us and you’ve got something.

            Wasn’t this Bernie’s position at first? Until the media/Hillary campaign called him racist and he started to walk it back?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Matt M: Could be; not sure. I remember something to the effect of him trying to talk about flourishing vis-a-vis class issues and getting shut down by a couple of BLM women to the extent that he submissively gave up his podium when they’d tried that with Hillary and got smacked down.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Bernie Sanders interviewed by Ezra Klein calling open borders a “right-wing” “Koch brothers” proposal.

            “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States.”

            “It would make everybody in America poorer — you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or (the United Kingdom) or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people.”

          • Iain says:

            There’s no need to speculate about Bernie’s immigration policy. He published a lengthy position paper. The summary:

            Senator Sanders will fight to implement a humane and secure immigration policy that will:
            — Dismantle inhumane deportation programs and detention centers;
            — Pave the way for a swift and fair legislative roadmap to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented immigrants;
            — Ensure our border remains secure while respecting local communities;
            — Regulate the future flow of immigrants by modernizing the visa system and rewriting bad trade agreements;
            — Enhance access to justice and reverse the criminalization of immigrants;
            — Establish parameters for independent oversight of key U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies.

          • Aapje says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            It’s not necessary to convince the SJWs, the key is to make the other 95% of Democrats tired of them.

            I don’t think that the ‘bounty‘ accusation worked very well against Obama.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Bernie is “old left” and also “socialist left” (FYI, not Marxist or Communist).

            That means he has a ton of allegiance to Labor left, and I don’t mean the current party in the UK. I mean unions. Unions were not traditionally in favor of immigration or international trade. Unions weren’t much in favor of cheap “Southern” labor, either.

            Bernie favors a class-based interpretation of structural inequity. He doesn’t really like including other forms of inequities, or at least it doesn’t flow naturally from him.

            Bernie-bro was a meme for a reason.

      • outis says:

        Clinton/Garland 2020. Make things right.

    • James Miller says:

      Identify and hire the best talent at Fox News to have them work on projects that won’t help Republicans.

    • AG says:

      Influence all of the pertinent lower level elections to control the gerrymandering.

      • John Schilling says:

        Gerrymandering has basically no effect on Presidential elections. That’s strictly a House of Representatives thing.

        • AG says:

          But it eventually trickles back up into Electoral College shenanigans. Gatekeeping Congress also influences the presidential candidate pool, or opens up congressional-approval actions like impeachment.

          I’ll add the additional action that Bezos should lobby to change election day logistics (move it to a weekend, mandate that all employees be given a number of election day/hours pay, etc.) to re-enfranchise the necessary demographics.

          • Nornagest says:

            I can’t see how. Most of the states use winner-take-all electoral systems; no amount of creativity in drawing district borders would help you there. Maine and Nebraska use districting systems, but they only have a handful of electoral votes between them, and neither one’s a common swing state.

          • John Schilling says:

            Aside from Maine and Nebraska, there is the possibility that no candidate wins a majority in the EC and the (gerrymandered) House gets to pick the next president. But that’s an extreme long shot.

            AG, what do you mean by Electoral College “shenanigans”? Have these shenanigans actually occurred in previous elections, and if not what is your basis for assuming that they will or could in 2020?

          • AG says:

            Not any “we found an exploit in the law” type shenanigans. I meant a broader incentive gradient. When tribe A get effectively disenfranchised by Tribe B’s gerrymandering, they tend to move to another place where tribe A actually has power. We have more and more Democrat-aligned people moving to the cities to get away from non-city cultural norms, but that’s abandoning more and more states to the Republicans. Hence popular vote overturned by Electoral College, due to increased self-sorting.

            Or do you think we’ll soon reach the point in which Texas’s State Legislature and House Congressmen are still Republican dominated, but they somehow go for the Democratic candidate for executive branch positions and federal senators?

          • John Schilling says:

            When tribe A get effectively disenfranchised by Tribe B’s gerrymandering, they tend to move to another place where tribe A actually has power.

            I’m fairly certain that this is untrue, but would be interested in e.g. the accounts of anyone who says that they moved for the sake of being in a more representative legislative district.

            People frequently move because they become detached from the local culture, possibly because the culture moved away from them. Blue-ish people move out of small towns into cities, because they don’t like the culture of small towns, not because their particular town is always represented by Rednecks in Congress.

            We should see clear evidence if this were otherwise. Gerrymandering works by e.g. shifting some, but not all, cosmopolitan suburbs and college towns, into predominantly rural/Red districts. That way, some suburban or college-town Blues are effectively disenfranchised, and the inevitable Blue districts centered on cosmopolitan cities only count a fraction of their associated suburban populations. If you shifted all of the suburbs into the Red districts, they wouldn’t be Red any more. But we don’t see people moving out of the Red-gerrymandered suburbs into the Blue-ungerrymandered ones, because they are still cosmopolitan suburbs populated by fellow Blues and griping is way easier than moving.

            Gerrymandering works precisely because people don’t move to get away from it. They do move for other reasons, and the gerrymanderers can redraw the lines to compensate for that.

          • AG says:

            Control over the local government plays a role in the local culture. For example, gerrymandering so that the city council is primarily NIMBY/pro-immigration, leading to the entire area getting gentrified/flooded by immigrants, changing the local culture against population that was neutralized by the gerrymandering.
            Losing control of local government can lead to punishing local ordinances that further disadvantage a particular group, such as access to abortion, anti-business regulations, environmental racism, or a shoddy school system.

    • tayfie says:

      Bezos, if your goal is purely to hurt Trump personally and prevent him from being re-elected, the obvious goal is to split his base.

      Run as or promote a candidate as similar to him as possible, but younger and better looking.

      Do everything possible to dampen the rabid media attacks on Trump. They did more to make him look sympathetic and genuine than he could have possibly accomplished on his own. Have them attack your guy instead and use this as evidence that Trump has sold out to the swamp but your guy is still pure.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        And then everyone’s going to call Bezos a nazi for supporting Hitler 3.0. I’m not sure he wants that kind of heat.

        • tayfie says:

          Yes. The most effective routes to destroying Trump will absolutely have collateral damage, and the easiest person to sacrifice is oneself.

          I don’t think Bezos is the type to go for all-out vengeance at any cost, but I think it is the likeliest strategy to work.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Unless you’re promising 72 virgins in the afterlife, suicide attacks are a tough sell.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Also you have to be _credible_ about the 72 virgins. And then there’s the wiseguy negotiator

            “Look, 72 virgins. Sounds great, but it’s either way too much or way too little. I mean, if I gotta handle ’em all at once, it’s way too much; there’s only so much of me to go around. But if I get to spread them out, well, the afterlife is forever, right? 72 virgins ain’t going to last more than a blink of an eye. So forget this 72 stuff… we need be talking infinite virgins; how about three a day?”

          • John Schilling says:

            At least according to some hadiths, IIRC, the houris get re-virginized every night. And the men get divine ultra-Viagra; if your erection lasts more than four hours, don’t worry, be happy, it’s supposed to work that way.

            They’ve got this covered, man. Or at least they aren’t afraid to pander to their target audience (which varies from hadith to hadith).

    • Civilis says:

      *Note: commenter is a Republican that voted for Trump as better than Hillary*

      Buy a couple of really nice golf courses far away from Washington / Florida, hire some attractive hostesses, and make nice with Trump in an attempt to convince him that he’s won; he doesn’t need another term in office. Besides, if he’s spending time golfing, he’s probably not messing anything else up. You don’t need to go full conservative for this, just centrist, and centrist is probably more believable than having a come-to-Jesus moment anyways.

      The only viable dirty tricks are probably the most subtle. If you try to force Trump into a compromising position, you’re more likely to only end up yourself looking bad, but if you give him the opportunity and he bites, you win. (Just keep some of the more… amorous Democrats away lest this backfire. This means no Bill Clinton!) The best dirty trick might be to make sure the food is as good… and unhealthy… as possible.

  17. Chevalier Mal Fet says:

    This is a book recommendation thread.

    A few days ago, we had a discussion in the comments about David Weber, and I was once again reminded that this forum is mainly populated by huge fucking nerds lots of educated and cultured people. Anyway, what David Weber does better than most other authors I’ve read is great Space Battles. I’ve also read Timothy Zahn, who does them well, and Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet, who does okay. What I’m asking for are other books or series with terrific Space Battles. Anything you enjoyed reading that had lasers, missiles (or missile lasers) in space?

    • John Schilling says:

      Well, since I just finished reshelving my library:

      C.J. Cherryh is vaguely passable on the strategy and tactics of space battles in her Alliance/Union series, but she’s really good at making you understand what it feels like to develop PTSD as a result of your participation of dear god when will this end we’re all gonna die space battles.

      Elizabeth Moon in the Vatta’s War series and Lois Bujold in some of the Dendarii-focused Vorkosigan books also have the knack for getting the human part of the equation right without getting the tactics and techniques completely wrong. Somewhat more upbeat, and the protagonists are more likely to be commanders than victims.

      As always, your go-to team for getting hard SF done right with good storytelling and plot and characters is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but I think they’ve only done two full-on space battles; the ending of Footfall and the lost opening of Mote in God’s Eye. The latter isn’t truly lost, of course, it’s been published in an anthology or two at least.

      James Corey’s Expanse series has space battles of sub-Weberian scope but greater hardness and better writing across the board. 80% fewer infodumps but you still know what’s going on, 100% fewer magic treeponies and you won’t miss them a bit. But at this point you may be better off watching it on SyFy, er, Amazon.

      Roger Macbride Allen wrote some pretty good stuff in the 1980s, starting with Torch of Honor. From memory it shouldn’t be too dated, but I haven’t reread it since the 1990s at the latest.

      Speaking of Torches, we’ve talked Karl Gallagher’s Torchship Trilogy here at length; it has its weaknesses including a dose of first-novel syndrome, but it’s got decent hard-ish SF space battles.

      Paul Hamilton would rather write about Han Solo flying the Millenium Falcon than Admiral Ackbar commanding the rebel fleet (figuratively speaking; he’s not actually doing Star Wars). And he wants to make sure you know how many hot women enthusiastically bang Han Solo. But he delivered the space battles adequately, IIRC.

      And an honorable mention for David Brin’s Uplift series, or at least the final section of Startide Rising. This is the “baffle them with wickedly awesome bullshit” school of writing science fiction that the audience won’t notice has the hardness of undercooked flan. It’s too difficult to try to convince a technically literate audience that FTL can work, so spin up half a dozen incompatible types of FTL drive and keep them busy trying to keep track of which one is in use today. More aliens than the Star Wars cantina scene, and you can kind of keep track of those too. Plucky heroes, most of them not even vaguely humanoid, and a space battle against impossible odds for the fate of eleven galaxies, yeah, it’s awesome in a fifty-point all-caps SPACE OPERA! kind of way.

      I’ll probably think of some more later.

      • dick says:

        As always, your go-to team for getting hard SF done right with good storytelling and plot and characters is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but I think they’ve only done two full-on space battles; the ending of Footfall and the lost opening of Mote in God’s Eye.

        The sequel to Mote, “The Gripping Hand,” hinges on a lengthy and very detailed space battle that I found quite fulfilling to read. It goes in to a ton of detail on the tactics involved and how the two armadas use the light-speed gap to their relative (hah!) advantages. I also loved that the changing relative positions of astronomical bodies within the solar system was a strategic and, more importantly, political factor in how the war proceeded; one of the aliens described the varying distances between rival space-faring factions using the metaphor of ancient Persian trade routes, which might be fast and safe in one season but slow and dangerous at a different time of year.

        Unfortunately, Niven suffers from a bad case of “all mainstream sci-fi from a generation ago looks sexist now” disease, so take that under advisement. Also, too much exposure to realistic descriptions of kinetic bombardment can make it hard to take the Death Star from Star Wars seriously.

        • albatross11 says:

          I have this theory:

          At any given time/place, there is a dominant set of norms about how to think and talk about the world. Over time, these drift and change. Which means that it is inevitable that over time, books will become less and less in tune with the current norms.

          In some cultures, there’s also a high tolerance for variance from many/most of those norms–most people are okay reading stuff that doesn’t perfectly follow them, even though they may sometimes find stuff so jarring or offensive that they get knocked out of a story. In other cultures, there is a very low tolerance for variance from the current norms–most people are offended by even relatively small deviations from those norms.

          In the high-tolerance cultures, you will see a much greater ability to read and enjoy older works. And so many people will be familiar with the historical works, and that will affect the current literature in various interesting ways. In the low-tolerance cultures, you will see far less ability to read and enjoy those works, and so few readers and writers will be familar with them.

      • J Mann says:

        @John Shilling, @Chevalier Mal Fet – have you read Walter Jon Williams’ Conventions of War trilogy? I liked it a lot.

      • engleberg says:

        Randall Garrett’s Takeoff! covered the ‘then my X-beam struck his Q-shield and his R-beam was deflected by my Y-shield’ stuff. Spinning your wheels with stagy military soap opera and a black velvet curtain with some lightbulbs isn’t good science fiction battle. Good science fiction battle at least starts with two galaxies colliding, which of course means they are passing through each other. It’s a fight inside a red sun system, which of course means it’s inside a red sun. It’s when you use the wonders of astronomy as the of course setting for your plot, and if you do it right and have intelligent characters, it’s great science fiction, and if you do the setting it right and let the gods but annihilate all space and time to make two lovers bathetic and happy, it’s great space opera. Nobody has done great space opera or great science fiction for decades. Just reread Niven and ignore the Hugos now they’ve burned the brand.

        • Deiseach says:

          It’s when you use the wonders of astronomy as the of course setting for your plot, and if you do it right and have intelligent characters, it’s great science fiction, and if you do the setting it right and let the gods but annihilate all space and time to make two lovers bathetic and happy, it’s great space opera.

          Let me quote you some Superluminary: The World Armada:

          The memory of Urvasthrang showed what the defenses were: here was the dead supermagnetic gamma-radiating star called a magnetar, SGR 1806-20; two blue hypergiant stars; a supergiant O-type star; and three mysterious dying giants called Wolf-Rayet stars in the throes of pre-nova convulsions.

          All were sources of high-energy electromagnetic radiation, and all were massive enough to house working long-range armatures, and therefore could deliver the magnetic, gravitic, high-energy, and plasma discharges across interstellar distances. Other of the young, massive stars had been Dysoned and weaponized, that full stellar outputs could be directed at a star system, to vaporize all its planets.

          The magnetar released more energy in one tenth of a second than Sol had released in one hundred thousand years: a duodecillion joules.

          • engleberg says:

            @Let me quote you some Superluminary-

            Looks okay, but busy. I want each wonder delved into and given a vivid sense of scale and beauty and power. ‘It looks like a ribbon around a star. What is it?’ Astronomy porn is like any porn, you want a heavenly body described vividly as it performs personable evolutions towards a climax. Chorus lines just blur together.

    • Harry Maurice Johnston says:

      I’m not sure if you’re looking for realism or not; if not, you might want to consider E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, particularly the Lensman series.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      Iain M. Banks? The Culture novels have some impressive space battles (though as it’s space opera, he doesn’t go into much detail on things like tactics and armament). But perhaps a better choice is The Algebraist, set in a “harder”/lower-tech universe where there is no FTL other than via artificial wormholes, and no inertial compensators so spaceships are filled with liquid to let their crews tolerate high acceleration.

      And then there are the Dwellers, an advanced “slow” (experiencing life much more slowly than humans) civilisation who live in gas giants, have lifespans measured in billions of years, and fight wars among themselves for recreation using huge lighter-than-air “dreadnoughts”.

      Of course, Banks’s superb skill at naming his ships continues- one plot-important warship is the Mannlicher-Carcano

      • albatross11 says:

        The space battles don’t seem especially well described or imagined to me, but the terror-weapon assassination at the end of _Look to Windward_ is pretty lovingly described, and probably was pretty effective at sending the desired Don’t Fuck With the Culture message.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yeah, I’d never been too impressed with the Culture series’ space battles. Banks tends to be too enchanted with the scale of his setting to bother making them relatable, and a lot of them come off as curb-stomps or glorified video-game shootouts. His scenes of ground warfare are pretty good, though — ugly and chaotic, but that’s what makes them work. The early Vatueil scenes in Surface Detail stand out, along with the climax of Consider Phlebas, and there are some good bits in Use of Weapons too.

          The terror weapon scene was… well described, but I got the impression that it was there more to satisfy Banks’ need for one gratuitously nasty scene per book than anything else.

          • albatross11 says:

            It worked in context, though. It was pretty clear that the nature of the assassination (and probably footage of it) would work as a deterrent to the next several powerful sentients who thought that maybe blowing up a Culture Orbital would be a good idea.

          • Watchman says:

            In general though a space battle involving Culture ships would be indescribable other than as a computer game. No organic entity is involved on the Culture side, which is the normal narrator perspective, other than as a passenger. Plus after Consider Pheblas the Culture was not in danger of losing space battles as they had no neighbours with capability and will to defeat them, so battles are basically an AI destroying enemies not a contest of tactics.

          • albatross11 says:

            There are other Involved civilizations at the Culture’s level of technology who could probably give them a serious fight–we see a couple of these in the last few books. (Hydrogen Sonata is about an equivalent-level civilization Subliming; Matter shows us an approximately-equivalent-level civilization trying to protect a shellworld. And so on. )

            One difference is that the Culture actually does fight from time to time, and has a lot of constant intervention going on, so it’s probably more practiced than the other civilizations. But it’s not at all clear that this means it would win in a war with its top-level neighbors. (In the Idirian war, the Homadan ships were more advanced than those of the Culture, and in Excession, a Culture ship worried about skullduggery from other Culture factions hides out in a Homadan fleet base for awhile for protection.)

    • Deiseach says:

      If you’re looking for realistic military space battles, I have nothing for you.

      If you’re looking for WORLD-SHATTERING SPACE ADVENTURE!!!, may I recommend Superluminary by John C. Wright? Three book series (but short books), wherein being decapitated is but a minor inconvenience to the hero of the tale. It’s not deep but it’s good old-fashioned pulp style fun.

      EDIT: Also, the “oh come on that can’t possibly be a real astronomical feature” stuff is, apparently, all real.