OT107: Kaleidoscopen Thread

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

1. In case you missed it on Friday, I’m looking for people to host SSC meetups in cities around the world. If you are in a city in the world, please check out this thread and post in the comments. I’ll make another post for potential attendees soon.

2. Comment of the week is @drethelin finally getting me some good sentimental cartography maps of the brain. Years ago, I spent weeks trying to make something like this work and gave up because of the 3D problem. I’m not sure these are that great but I’m glad people are trying this.

3. Blatant ad: SSC affiliate Triplebyte, a programmer job placement company, has a promotion this week where if you get a job through them, they’ll give you $5000. If you’re a programmer who wants a job placement, check it out here. Also note minor changes to some of the banner ads on the right sidebar including Throne and James Koppel Coaching.

4. Thanks to everyone who expressed interest in late entries to the adversarial collaboration contest last open thread. Once again I’m going to reserve the first comment here for contest-related business. I’m interested in hearing updates from new teams, especially whether they actually exist and whether the August 22 deadline is realistic for them. Feel free to use it to also coordinate very late entries if you’re interested.

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771 Responses to OT107: Kaleidoscopen Thread

  1. Scott Alexander says:

    Adversarial collaboration contest discussion comment.

    • Jon says:

      Very late proposal: AI will/won’t mean the end of human employment

      If you listened to the Sam Harris/Andrew Yang podcast on UBI, or have read SSC on this, they all seem to think that advanced AI will mean the end of human employment, and that this will be a bad thing. (Maybe that compounding makes it a bad topic….)

      I think they’re all wrong; humans will always have things to do. If you think I’m way off — see my 3000 words here/TL;DR “comparative advantage” — and you have something similarly (or more) detailed we could combine for a decent late entry, let me know.

  2. Le Maistre Chat says:

    So if superhero movies, the dominant genre of our time, are basically SF stories with incoherent worldbuilding and also magic, can we look forward to people in another country making more intelligent and stylish movies about tech-enabled elites on the cheap, like how Sergio Leone extended the Western’s lifespan?

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I think that superhero movies are at the disadvantage of already lacking identity. What are the identifying dramatic tropes of the genre, even? Not in terms of who the characters are – nearly-indistinguishable wisecrackers with a penchant for self-sacrifice, AKA Bruce Willis in Die Hard, but cooler – but in terms of scenario, relationships, conventions of plot?

      The theme of “tech-enabled elites” isn’t *nearly* enough of a framework to provide proper grounds for bounded exploration. You could very easily claim that that’s the subject matter of Dune.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        My best sketch of literary analysis has been that the superhero film genre is about a superior man (could be a woman, but we haven’t seen much of this) learning that he must be self-sacrificing in order to be even an acceptably good person. Superman (1978) started the Christ allegory and it got picked up by Batman in The Dark Knight, Marvel’s Thor and Iron Man.
        The problem with this analysis is that Batman and a bunch of other superheroes use their innate SF powers or advanced gadgets to seek vengeance and still get to be considered good people by the script.

        The scenario, like I said, is soft SF where the point of departure is today instead of conveniently far in the future. In this setting the protagonist will be a man (see above) blessed with unreplicable tech-based powers (Spider-Man’s MacGuffin spider) or the IQ and/or money to make replicable powers that even mere millionaires wouldn’t be able to afford.

        • Matt M says:

          The problem with this analysis is that Batman and a bunch of other superheroes use their innate SF powers or advanced gadgets to seek vengeance and still get to be considered good people by the script.

          I dunno, in most cases they usually get a moment wherein they suffer a defeat, or some higher power explicitly explains to them that to be truly effective, they must abandon petty vengeance as their primary motivation, and embrace selfless altruism instead.

          Edit: I mean, the entire gimmick of The Punisher is that he NEVER does that. He keeps “I’m really mad and going to take it out violently on any criminal I come in contact with” as his primary motivation throughout. But that’s unique because literally nobody else behaves that way.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            On the other other hand, Frank Castle is completely self sacrificing.

          • Hazzard says:

            I’ve been on a Punisher binge and there’s a line at the end of a story where him, a British Soldier and a member of MI5 work together to take down an Irish gang and their leader, an IRA member who killed the soldier’s Dad.

            At the end the soldier gets asked if he feels any better now he has revenge, having used torture and killed a lot of (admittedly bad) people to get it. The soldier says no. The MI5 agent then says, I’m paraphrasing: “He’s been doing it for 40 years and still feels the same.”

            So my big takeaway from it is you can fight a war on whatever for decades and it won’t fix anything, because revenge isn’t making a positive change for yourself.

          • MrApophenia says:

            Yeah, if there is a main theme running through Ennis’ Punisher, it is the ultimate futility of everything the Punisher does, and that he is completely aware of it.

            The line in The Slavers always sticks in my head – “Don’t kid yourself about any of this. I’m hitting one outfit, that’s all. It won’t stop the trade in women. Won’t make life any better for the victims.”

            There’s a similar offhand comment about the drug trade somewhere else in there, too.

            He has no illusions that he is making the world better in any way. But he keeps doing it anyway.

        • Nornagest says:

          Self-sacrifice is Spider-Man’s schtick, but I’m not sure how well it generalizes to other superheroes. Maybe Thor, don’t know, I haven’t seen any of his stuff.

          Iron Man is about Elon Muska bored genius billionaire finding fulfillment in charity work that happens to involve punching people.

          Batman is about a crazy genius billionaire punching other crazy people as a coping mechanism.

          Wonder Woman was about learning that you can’t solve the problems of the world by punching them in the face, until the last twenty minutes, when she solves the problems of the world by punching them in the face.

          Guardians of the Galaxy is about disconnected millennial angst, in space, with punching.

          The X-Men movies are all allegories for whatever form of oppression is currently in the news, also with punching.

          The Avengers movies are about wisecracks and special effects. And, you guessed it, punching.

          There’s never been a good Superman movie, so I don’t care about what it’s trying to say.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Darn, I forgot to mention the self-sacrifice arc where Spider-Man goes from wanting to earn money with his powers and not stopping a robber to nearly killing himself saving a train full of people, so they handle his body like Christ crucified.

            Iron Man is such a weird Elon Musk charitable billionaire. He refuses to sell his invention to the government and at first it’s unclear if anyone else could afford it, but in Iron Man 3 it turns out that the automated factory in his basement can make several dozen armors in a short period of time, and he blows them up instead of selling them for say $200 million each because his girlfriend is a scold.
            Why is technological progress dependent on one billionaire’s love life? Dude deserves to have that house eminent domained.

          • Odovacer says:

            There’s never been a good Superman movie, so I don’t care about what it’s trying to say.

            What about Superman I and II with Christopher Reeve?

          • Nornagest says:

            Good for their time, but don’t hold up today.

          • Baeraad says:

            Maybe Thor, don’t know, I haven’t seen any of his stuff.

            No, Thor’s fatal flaw is pride, not selfishness. He starts out as pretty altruistic, at least in a slightly condescending, noblesse oblige kind of way. The lesson he ends up learning in his first movie is that not every problem is best solved by him running in and smashing it with his hammer. (though as I’m sure you would have pointed out if you’d seen the movie, in the end he does solve the problem by running in and smashing it with his hammer. Just in a… more thoughtful sort of way :p )

            I’m not sure if he actually learns any lessons in any of the other movies he’s in.

          • Murphy says:

            in the end he does solve the problem by running in and smashing it with his hammer. Just in a… more thoughtful sort of way :p

            Hey, while there’s a problem with the “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” view… but sometimes a hammer is the right way to solve a specific problem.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Odovacer, @Nornagest: Funny enough, the great Superman movie would be the animated series episodes “The Last Son of Krypton” 1-3, “Stolen Memories”, “Tools of the Trade”, “Apokalips Now” 1&2, “Little Girl Lost” 1&2 and “Legacy” 1&2.
            Those events even pay off in what would form a really good Justice League movie.

          • LadyJane says:

            Why is technological progress dependent on one billionaire’s love life? Dude deserves to have that house eminent domained.

            That doesn’t sound very libertarian of you. I think you may be missing the point of this particular series of quasi-Randian science-fantasy films.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Yes, well, Roark was obnoxious enough when he blew up one building he was hired to make. If the book had been about Henry Ford blowing up the world’s only auto factory in a Randian choice to save his marriage, it would have been 10x more obnoxious.

          • MrApophenia says:

            Wonder Woman was about learning that you can’t solve the problems of the world by punching them in the face, until the last twenty minutes, when she solves the problems of the world by punching them in the face.

            I feel like that isn’t giving the movie enough credit, given that the last big “twist” is – Spoiler warning for “Wonder Woman”! – that after she finds out Ares is real after all, and has her big fight and kills him, it actually didn’t accomplish anything at all, and Ares legitimately was not the reason for the war. The big superhero climax was a red herring.

            I thought that was pretty clever, actually.

        • vV_Vv says:

          My best sketch of literary analysis has been that the superhero film genre is about a superior man (could be a woman, but we haven’t seen much of this) learning that he must be self-sacrificing in order to be even an acceptably good person.

          This is too generic. By that definition Star Wars, the Matrix, or Mad Max would be superhero films.

          The common trait of superhero films is that they are extremely simple. The source material is comic books for kids aged 8-12, the movies have plots and characters possibly even simpler than the comics. They reflect a general trend of cinema becoming lowbrow entertainment, while TV series, in the Netflix era, became more and more complex.

          • mdet says:

            I’d contest the “comic books for kids aged 8-12”. Many Marvel & DC comics since the 80s are tonally closer to Tarantino movies than Saturday morning cartoons. Although adult content != real maturity.

            But I’m definitely onboard your cinema vs tv distinction. Since the rise of streaming and prestige tv, Hollywood has been optimizing for “Movies that you have to see in theaters, you can’t just wait six months to watch on your laptop”. Which means a bunch of action blockbusters.

            As for what makes a superhero movie, I don’t think “extremely simple” is the defining trait. It still doesn’t rule out your other examples: Star Wars and Mad Max (I’ve only seen Fury Road) are also very simple, and the first Matrix was really only complex in it’s world-building, it’s narrative was pretty straightforward. The vast majority of action blockbusters are pretty simple (except the spy ones, those are defined by being overly convoluted), but not all of them are superhero movies. What makes a superhero movie distinct from the latest movie with The Rock?

            I’d say the defining trait of superhero movies, as distinct from other action blockbusters, is the idea that some individuals really are special, genuinely better than everyone else around them. Luke, Leia, and Han were just a small part of the Rebel Alliance. Max & Furiosa were normal people. McClane in Die Hard was a huge badass, but the movie still struck an everyman tone — the average street cop is a hero, the special guys at the FBI were incompetent. But superhero movies almost always have the theme “This person (or team of people) are genuinely special, and everything is in their hands”.

            I also really like Trofim’s point below that superheroes are closer to mythology than sci-fi.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


            I’d say the defining trait of superhero movies, as distinct from other action blockbusters, is the idea that some individuals really are special, genuinely better than everyone else around them.

            The original Incredibles sells this idea, but I believe the best examination of this defining trope is X-Men: First Class.
            Summary: the first known Mutant (ignore Wolverine and his brother for now…) is a Nazi research doctor played by Kevin Bacon. He wants to a little Jewish inmate named Erik to use his power to move magnetic objects with his mind, and is willing to kill Erik’s normal human mother to learn more about his mutation.
            Jump forward to 1962. Erik is now an Israeli Nazi hunter and keeps the coin the doctor made him move as a memento. In the course of his globetrotting, he meets telepath Charles Xavier and his sister Raven, who mentally controls her appearance and “adopted” Charles’s family when the two were elementary school age.
            The special powers these three have make them the only spies who are capable of intervening in a plot to manipulate the nuclear policies of the US and USSR, shown by contrast with normal FBI agent Moira MacTaggart. The literal super-spies find out that the US decision to place nuclear missiles in Turkey was due to mind control by telepath Emma Frost, who runs a Kennedy-era hip sex club for elites called the Hellfire Club.

            Gur pyho’f “xvat” vf Xriva Onpba, abj yvivat nf na Nzrevpna anzrq Fronfgvna Funj. Ur’f frqhprq Rzzn naq gur gryrcbegre Nmnmry gb uryc jvgu n cyna gb gevttre ahpyrne jne, orpnhfr enqvngvba bppnfvbanyyl gevttref zhgngvbaf yvxr gurvef naq perngvat n pbzzhavgl bs fhcref vf jbegu uhaqerqf bs zvyyvbaf bs onfryvar qrnguf.
            Zrnajuvyr gur urebrf ner gelvat gb svaq rabhtu lbhat Zhgnagf gb sbez n pbzzhavgl ng Knivre’f Arj Lbex znafvba. Bar bs gurz vf n travhf jub vairagf gur FE-71 fcl cynar naq gurl raq hc hfvat vg gb ynaq ba n Phona ornpu qhevat gur Zvffvyr Pevfvf.
            Ng gur pyvznk ba gur ornpu, “Funj” cyrnqf jvgu Revx gb frr gung gur znff bs znaxvaq jvyy nyjnlf ungr naq srne gubfr jub bhgcresbez gurz, whfg nf gur Treznaf ungrq gur Wrjf jura gur gjb zrg. Revx fnlf “Sbe jung vg’f jbegu, V nterr jvgu rirelguvat lbh fnvq. Ohg lbh’er gur Anmv jub xvyyrq zl zbz.” naq nppryrengvat gur pbva guebhtu uvf fxhyy.
            Jura gur Nzrevpna naq Fbivrg Pbzzbqberf ba gur fprar frr synful gryrxvarfvf naq fhpu orvat hfrq, gurl ercbeg gb gurve fhcrevbef naq ner beqrerq gb xvyy gur fhcref ba gur ornpu. Revx gheaf gurve jrncbaf ntnvafg gurz naq Knivre cyrnqf “Qba’g xvyy gurz! Gurl’er tbbq zra, whfg sbyybjvat beqref!”
            … V guvax lbh pna frr ubj gur svyz jencf hc nsgre gung yvar.

            Beyond just using the central superhero tropes to convey a message of some literary merit, it’s really good because it’s constructed as a Greek tragedy where Xavier’s flaw is not understanding others. That’s also dramatic irony, because he’s a telepath.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I’d contest the “comic books for kids aged 8-12”. Many Marvel & DC comics since the 80s are tonally closer to Tarantino movies than Saturday morning cartoons.

            But this is the Bronze/Dark Age, when comics became more niche products targeted at a more mature audience.

            Most of the superhero movies instead take characters and storylines from the Golden and Silver Age, when comics were more mainstream products targeted at kids. There are some exceptions, namely the Watchmen movie and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but the main MCU, X-men and DCEU franchises are based on older and less adult material.

            As for what makes a superhero movie, I don’t think “extremely simple” is the defining trait. It still doesn’t rule out your other examples: Star Wars and Mad Max (I’ve only seen Fury Road) are also very simple, and the first Matrix was really only complex in it’s world-building, it’s narrative was pretty straightforward.

            Star Wars has an extremely sophisticated worldbuilding, and a plot and characterization deliberately modeled after classical mythology (Lucas credited Campbell’s theory of the monomyth as a direct inspiration).

            The worldbuilding in the Matrix and Mad Max franchises, while not as extensive as in Star Wars, is still quite sophisticated.

            By contrast, the worldbuilding in the main superhero franchises is cheap. The setting is the contemporary world, and in particular the US. There might be some fantasy islands in it like Wakanda, but overall it’s our world as we know it, with our familiar political system, culture, social norms, etc. There are super-powered individuals running around wreaking havoc, but the broad implications of their actions are rarely analyzed (except in deconstructions like Watchmen).

            The general plot is that the status quo is ideal, the villains will attempt to upheaval it while the heroes will fight to preserve and restore it.

            Contrast with Star Wars and the Matrix where the heroes are rebels trying to upheaval the status quo represented by the villains, or Mad Max where the anti-hero protagonist is a drifter in a cursed world who regularly ends up clashing with the local authorities.

            For their simplicity superhero movies are enjoyable by a broad audience who mostly just wants to watch special effects on the big screen without thinking too hard about what’s going on, and also very politically safe, which is a big plus especially in China. Any movie that could be vaguely interpretred as having political content critical of the established authorities risks to be banned by the Chinese censors, and with big budgets if you want to break even losing the Chinese market is a disaster. Better play safe and make the rebels always wrong.

            Luke, Leia, and Han were just a small part of the Rebel Alliance. Max & Furiosa were normal people. McClane in Die Hard was a huge badass, but the movie still struck an everyman tone — the average street cop is a hero, the special guys at the FBI were incompetent. But superhero movies almost always have the theme “This person (or team of people) are genuinely special, and everything is in their hands”.

            Well, Leia is one of the most senior members of the Rebel Alliance, in addition to being the secret child of Darth Vader and a latent force user. Luke is a manifest force user, hence an extremely valuable asset to the Rebel Alliance, and also the secret child of Darth Vader. Clearly they aren’t just normal people in the Star Wars universe. Ditto for Neo in the Matrix, who is the One.

            But I see your general point: you can have Star Wars without Luke, Han or Leia, you can have Matrix without Neo, you can probably even have Mad Max without Max, but you can’t have Superman without Superman, or Batman without Batman. This is because superhero franchises lack worldbuilding, so if you strip them of their central characters then nothing is left.

          • mdet says:

            I think the causation is in the opposite direction, that superhero stories hardly have worldbuilding because the theme is “Exceptional individual in a normal society”, but I agree that superhero stories barely try on worldbuilding.

            But worldbuilding is only one aspect of complexity. I’d argue that Thor’s character arc in his first movie is more complex than Luke’s in A New Hope. Luke is an orphan farm boy, agrees to go on an adventure after his aunt & uncle die, has a few fun escapades, watches his mentor die, and then sort-of trusts in the Force and blows up the Death Star. The adventures make for a fun spectacle, sure, but how has Luke grown in terms of character development? How has he changed, what has he learned, is he better off for it? Neo’s character arc is similar. By the end of the Matrix, he’s adapted to his new circumstances, but he hasn’t really grown or changed as a person.

            In the first Thor, we have a self-aggrandizing heir to the throne who has his power and royal status stripped from him by his own father and is forced to live among the common people. He only regains his power after learning humility and self-sacrifice, and falls in love with one of the common people. But when Thor returns home, he realizes that his many years of arrogance have alienated him from his brother, who has now become genocidal in an attempt to prove that he’s just as worthy as Thor. Thor stops the genocide, at the cost of never seeing his girlfriend again, but even then it’s too late to repair his relationship with his brother, who leaves Asgard even more alienated, jaded, and distraught.

            Thor’s story arc in his first movie is clearly much more emotional than Luke’s or Neo’s in theirs, the trials he endures are much more personal, and they more clearly impact him as a character. I think you can say similar about the first Iron Man, the Winter Soldier movie, Black Panther, and Guardians 2. I think all of those movies have really good character arcs as far as action blockbusters go, all of their protagonists learn and grow in clear but nuanced ways.

          • MrApophenia says:

            I have a really hard time believing you have watched some of these movies.

            Sure, there are some pretty pure silly fun ones – I loved Thor Ragnarok, but it was very intentionally a pastiche of sci-fi adventure romp movies of the 70s, so that’s what you get.

            But there are also movies like Captain America: the Winter Soldier, in which the central plot of the movie is a fairly nuanced story of the protagonist being suddenly thrust from the 1940s into the modern world, finding it difficult to grapple with the moral ambiguities and complexities of 21st century, and ultimately involves the idea that the American intelligence apparatus had been coopted by fascism over the course of decades, in large part because the difference between the mission statements of the fascists were never that far off from the heroes.

            I’m not saying it’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but it isn’t the mindless special effects extravaganza you’re describing either.

          • Matt M says:

            Indeed. And the X-Men movies are typically good for some reasonably decent themes on the trade-offs between individual liberty and collective security.

            If you want to pick on modern cinema for being dumbed down collections of fancy explosions and special effects, the Fast and the Furious franchise is right over that way…

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Indeed. And the X-Men movies are typically good for some reasonably decent themes on the trade-offs between individual liberty and collective security.

            I remember this being the theme of X-Men 2. Erik is in jail for a terrorist attack on the UN/a New York garden party for heads of state (I forget which) and the US gov’t responds to that event by holding hearings on Superpower Control. Xavier’s side is pulling a Godwin while the other side is comparing it to the gun control issue.
            Really, even when you cast Captain Picard to make him look like a moral paragon, Xavier never comes off as being in the right. He’s trying to occupy an incoherent moderate position between Handicapper Generals who are concerned with democracy and collective security and Erik’s concern with the individual rights of demigods.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Star Wars has an extremely sophisticated worldbuilding, and a plot and characterization deliberately modeled after classical mythology (Lucas credited Campbell’s theory of the monomyth as a direct inspiration).

            The first six Star Wars films had perfectly acceptable SF worldbuilding. What’s bothering me about Marvel is that they starts with these SF premises like Iron Man and Ant-Man but let them be garbage SF. There’s no logic to why America is limited to our real 2018 technology and Wakanda isn’t.
            And I see there’s another subthread discussing how the Chitauri from The Avengers are less advanced than a bunch of terrorists flying ultralight helicopters with Browning MGs.

          • Matt M says:

            Really, even when you cast Captain Picard to make him look like a moral paragon, Xavier never comes off as being in the right.

            This is also one of my favorite things about the Marvel movies.

            From Xavier to Steve Rogers to Wakanda, they have a bit of a subversive streak in them in that the “good guys” are often advocating for things that would be considered incredibly extremist and weird by modern political standards.

            Black Panther was a great adventure in the notion of the villain explicitly favoring current US foreign policy, while the brave heroes advocated for a brand of isolationism more extreme than anything the globe has seen since feudal Japan.

          • mdet says:

            I’d heard the “Wakandans would be on the extreme Nationalist / Isolationist fringe if they were any real country”, but I hadn’t yet heard the “Killmonger’s plan to arm insurgent rebels around the globe is basically standard US foreign policy” line. Pretty good.

          • mdet says:

            I rewatched the original Ghostbusters recently. Now THAT was an extremely simple movie. Three dudes start a small business where they hunt / study ghosts. They deal with inept government bureaucracy. They hire a fourth guy who really doesn’t contribute much or fill any hole on the team. The woman Bill Murray is interested and her neighbor both get possessed by demons, and summon a bigger demon that takes the form of the Marshmallow Man. The Ghostbusters cross the streams and blow up the Marshmallow Man. End.

            There aren’t any twists. There’s minimal setup and payoff. There’s no worldbuilding, not even a word spoken about where the ghosts come from or how they developed the tech. None of the characters grow or change or learn anything. Every obstacle they face is easily resolved within minutes, so there’s no tension or stakes.

            I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a child, and rewatching it, I’m honestly not sure how this movie became a cultural classic rather than just a forgettable B-movie. Was it just Bill Murray’s star power? It’s alright.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:


            And consider the “middle ground” T’Challa eventually adopts: An “outreach” program aimed at spreading not just superior Wakandan technology (Shuri’s part of the progam), but explicitly aimed at social/cultural uplift (headed by a senior Wakandan foreign intelligence service operative no less!) to bring the lesser nations of the world to Wakanda’s level…

            “Take up the Black Man’s Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed….”

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Lysenko: I don’t know what was going on in that film vis-a-via black supremacism. When Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Black Panther, Wakanda was a Third World country that lucked into a king as smart as Tony Stark who sold vibranium for the capital he needed to uplift the country with rich guy powers.
            The film’s opening narration is vague but just seems to take it for granted that people who lived next to vibranium would develop superscience by an undefined period in the past without ever interacting with other peoples.

          • Matt M says:


            I’ve always felt that way about Ghostbusters as well. Never understood the appeal at all.

          • Matt M says:

            “Take up the Black Man’s Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed….”

            and all with the encouragement and implicit backing of the CIA

          • Jaskologist says:


            Our expectations from comedies are different than from other genres. Sure, the characters don’t grow much, but was the movie funny?

          • The Nybbler says:


            Ghostbusters was a comedy, and never forgot that.

            I don’t think it’s likely there is a defining theme of the superhero genre. A defining aesthetic, but not a theme. It’s not simplicity; “X-men” in various incarnations gets quite complex, in the manner of a soap opera. It’s not self-sacrifice — Superman himself in the first Reeve movie changes time to save his girlfriend, and this is a good thing.

            The theme of some individuals being genuinely special is present, but it’s present in many other genres as well. Same with tech-enabled elite; do it without the brightly-colored costumes, and it’s an SF film.

          • mdet says:

            It’s funny. The “Dickless here” joke is great. It’s definitely not the only comedy to shrug at developing its characters and narrative, but even by comedy standards it’s on the simple side. Just pointing out what I think an extremely simple movie looks like, to reiterate that most superhero movies are well outside that, even if they’re nowhere near Inception-level complexity either.

          • baconbits9 says:

            A good comedy, like Ghostbusters, is complicated (typically) in the way it is written and the way that the characters are balanced. A bad comedy will have growth and character’s learning important lessons because that destroys all of the environmental setup necessary for the comedy to work. You can’t write a sequel to Notting Hill (or 95% of romantic comedies) because all the tension that made the “funny” happen is gone at the end of the movie, typically tied up with one grand gesture. In a good comedy the balance is between the characters and the situation, and the characters and the characters. It can be a complex movie from the point of view that it knows who its characters are, and doesn’t have them step out of character to further plot etc.

            What is complex about Ghostbusters is writing a character properly so that it can have the right (believable and funny) reactions to both the mundane and absurd (fighting city hall/the epa and a giant marshmallow man) as well as having the chemistry between the leads properly.

            The difference between Thor and Venkman is that Venkman is a fully fleshed out character, where he gets multiple situations to show how that character would work, while Thor gets to start off pretty cartoonishly 1 dimensional and he grows by adding new dimensions (some movies of course don’t bother with either of these, and they tend to suck). I wouldn’t say one is more complex than the other automatically.

      • theredsheep says:


        I’d say it’s “world where a small percentage of human beings are for some reason vastly superior to others in a way that lends itself specifically to violence. Some of these people are good, others are bad. They hit each other for the sake of us less-gifted people. They do this on a largely volunteer basis, and are generally not regulated by or integrated into their societies in any meaningful way; there’s no army of them, and they don’t get paychecks for it.”

        I think that also catches Dragonball Z and such, as well as some Chinese martial arts dramas, but you could argue that they’re basically superheroes and the difference comes down to lore and stylistic conventions.

        • Murphy says:

          Ever since I read Worm it’s in-universe explanation for superpowers and the consequent reason why such individuals would engage in almost constant mostly-non-legal combat with each other it’s become by favorite headcanon for non-Worm superhero universes as well.

          *SPOILERS for Worm*

          ok ROT13

          Gung gur cbjref pbzr sebz n fcrpvrf bs vagreqvzrafvbany cfrhqb-cnenfvgrf gung yngpu ba gb fragvrag vaqvivqhnyf naq tenag gurz fhcrecbjref nf, rssrpgviryl, cneg bs gurve bja zngvat evghnyf. Fbeg bs yvxr znyr qrre ohggvat urnqf gur cfrhqb-cnenfvgrf ner obgu pbzcrgvat naq fubjvat bss ohg nyfb gelvat bhg fyvtug inevngvbaf ba gur cbjref gurl vzohr gb svaq gur zbfg rssvpvrag,cbjreshy naq rssrpgvir pbzovangvbaf.

          Fb vasrpgrq vaqvivqhnyf trg gur hetr gb frrx bhg bguref jvgu cbjref naq svtug ohg zbfgyl aba-yrgunyyl. Urapr nyy gur chapuvat.

          */ SPOILER for Worm*

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            See also Rebecca Ore’s Slow Funeral.

            Vg gheaf bhg gung crbcyr va bar pbhagl unir zntvpny novyvgvrf orpnhfr nyvraf tvir crbcyr zntvp cbjref sbe gur fnzr ernfba crbcyr chg fgrry fchef ba ebbfgref sbe pbpx-svtugvat.

          • Barry says:

            Is there a good online tool for translating the anti-spoiler text?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            The anti-spoiler text is in rot13– the alphabet is rotated by 13 letters.

            https://www.rot13.com/ will do it, and there are also rot13 apps.

          • Barry says:


          • beleester says:

            I’m not a fan of this one, because it pushes the character-based motives for conflict aside in favor of “because shards.”

            Also, Worm already had two perfectly good explanations for why supers get into conflict constantly. First, capes get their powers on the literal worst day of their lives, so they’re not really thinking clearly about how to benefit society with their powers. The source of powers is doing the equivalent of going around looking for the kids you think are most likely to shoot up their school, and then handing them a gun. Except powers are worse, because you can’t put the gun down.

            And second, gurl gel gb nibvq xvyyvat ivyynvaf orpnhfr Raqoevatre svtugf ner nyy unaqf ba qrpx, naq gurl arrq onfvpnyyl rirelbar jvgu n hfrshy cbjre. Pnhyqeba vf nyfb chfuvat guvatf va guvf qverpgvba, orpnhfr gurve tbny vf gb npphzhyngr ybgf bs pncrf va gur ubcrf gung fbzrbar jvyy unir n cbjre gung pna qrsrng Fpvba.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I think that also catches Dragonball Z and such, as well as some Chinese martial arts dramas, but you could argue that they’re basically superheroes and the difference comes down to lore and stylistic conventions.

          Dragonball Z Saiyan arch is clearly inspired by the plot of Superman II.

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        There are a ton. I started to write out a long list, but realized it was easier to just link to the associated TV Tropes page.

        I think that if you’re looking for a parallel, though, Superhero stories have more in common with mythology than literature. There’s a lot more of the Odyssey, the Labors Of Hercules, and the adventures of Gilgamesh and Beowulf in your average superhero comic arc than there is 2001, Dune, or even Gray Lensman.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          The thing about Homer, Heracles’s Labors or the Epic of Gilgamesh is that they were part of people’s religion. Superheroes must have a much lesser place in culture, like Westerns.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            Yes, they have a lesser place in culture, but that’s not what we were talking about. Or at least I didn’t take that to be the thrust of your question, since it was talking about how someone from outside the original creating culture of a genre might breathe new life into that genre by playing with its narrative structure and conventions.

            My point is that I think you’re misunderstanding them if you frame them as “very soft sci-fi with magic”. The central example of “A Science Fiction Story” is “what would plausibly and logically happen if [insert invention, social structure, or exotic alien biology or environment here]”. While there have been times (as comic books have had to evolve and take in new ideas to stay relevant and interesting) that we’ve seen story arcs that approached, say, Superman that way, those are non-central examples of “A Superhero Story”.

            The central example of “A Superhero Story” is “For the sake of Justice/Vengeance/Penance, An extraordinary individual must accomplish superhuman feats and do battle with larger than life beasts and villains!”, with a side order of “This amazingly powerful figure (hero or villain) was brought low because of their Hubris and Pride”.

            Now, all of that said, I think the adoption of the superhero genre by non-westerners has already happened, with various anime and manga being the most obvious example. As someone mentioned above, Dragon Ball and its spin-offs have a LOT in common with superhero comics, and I could add a lot of examples, starting with Ultraman (which is basically “western style secret-identity superhero story meets Kaiju film”).

          • mdet says:

            Marvel & DC are also very reminiscent of mythology in that their heroes’ stories have been told and retold and re-retold over the course of several generations, with the most popular stories getting embedded in the cultural canon, and the less popular ones getting retconned away.

      • Mary says:

        It’s a movies that uses the superhero tropes, just a sonnet is a poem that fit the meter, line, and rhyme requirements.

        The list is:
        1. Superior skills for a small handful of people, often superhuman
        2. Secret identities for many characters
        3. Code names and costumes
        4 . Fights between the superior beings
        5. Multiple superior beings that exceed three or four require different origins. (A story about five foundlings from outer space with the powers of their race is SF; one with five magical talismans is fantasy; five wizards living among us is also fantasy; five genetically engineered superhumans is SF; five visitors from secret utopian enclaves is — something; but one foundling; one talisman-power hero; one wizard, one genetically engineered superhuman, and one visitor from the enclave is superhero.)

        • Nornagest says:

          You don’t need multiple superior beings. Watchmen has one, maybe two, and a bunch of cosplayers. Almost all the major superhero franchises started as stories about one superior being (or one cosplayer with fighting skills, depending) fighting mobsters, and later picked up more as crossovers happened and rogues’ galleries started getting developed.

          Even after they started picking up villains, most of them shared a general milieu with the protagonist. That often included origins, at least in outline. Spider-Man fights a lot of people with animal themes but science powers. Batman tends to fight crazy people with fairly grounded superpowers, or with none. The X-Men almost exclusively fight other mutants. So it’s really only once crossovers started happening that mixing origins became commonplace, and I think you can tell a superhero story without crossovers, even now.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I get a kick out of the Spider-Man example, because apparently JMS of Babylon 5 fame wrote a comics run that starts with Spider-Man meeting a were named Ezekiel who asks him the epistemology question “Do you know that the spider gave you powers because it was radioactive? Or is it more likely to have trying to give you powers before radiation poisoning killed it?”
            Because it turns out that Spidey and his animal-themed enemies are gifted with abilities by totems, who will contrive anything to empower a champion, even using science.

          • Hazzard says:

            Is this the one where a villain with scorpion powers is chasing down spiderman? Because I think I might have read it and want to find it again.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The same, IIRC.

        • Jiro says:

          There are many Japanese anime series that are full of people fighting with powers, but they often only have one source of power–they’re all ninjas, or they all ate Devil Fruits, or whatever, but they also have different powers. Every ninja has their own bloodline ability or random ninja power, every Devil Fruit gives you a different ability. These series also rarely use codenames or secret identities. But I’d say that they’re pretty much an equivalent to superheroes.

          The X-Men are also superheroes, even though they have a common origin (mutant). They’re also superheroes in the movies where because of licensing issues, they don’t exist in the same world as superheroes with different origins.

          So I’d narrow it down to superior skills for a handful of people, fights, and a variety of powers.

          • Civilis says:

            I think the central idea of superhero stories is the idea of how modern society treats exceptional (superhuman) individuals, regardless if those powers are derived from magic, science, or just exceptional amounts of human effort in training, and it’s certainly possible for that to overlap with science-fiction or urban fantasy.

            Anime has some explicitly superhero stories. The currently very popular Boku no Hero Academia (Westernized as My Hero Academia) clearly hits 2, 3 and 4. It’s very obviously deliberately trying to hit the Western superhero tropes, and the ‘main’ superhero, All Might, is very much an affectionate parody of the Western cape superhero ideal, down to the color scheme and names of his attacks.

            Toaru Majutsu no Index (Westernized as A Certain Magical Index) debatably hits all five points, although if you dig deep enough, there’s a major question about one of them that can’t be discussed without spoilers.

            Gur frevrf vavgvnyyl frgf hc n znwbe qvfgvapgvba orgjrra gur cbjref tenagrq ol fpvragvsvp erfrnepu naq gur hfr bs zntvp, naq vg’f iveghnyyl vzcbffvoyr va havirefr gb pbzovar zntvp naq ‘fpvragvsvp’ cbjref. Ubjrire, gurer’f fgebat rivqrapr gung gur ‘fpvrapr’ vaibyirq va gur fpvragvsvp cbjref vf vgfrys gur erfhyg bs uvtu-yriry zntvp.

          • Matt M says:

            I think the central idea of superhero stories is the idea of how modern society treats exceptional (superhuman) individuals

            Really? This is not my perception at all. I feel like most superhero movies involve little interaction between the hero and the public in general at all. The hero is often secretive, and disguises their identity. Most of the action and drama involves the hero’s relation to the villain, not to society at large.

            There are obviously a few notable exceptions. The X-Men have always gone out of their way to beat you over the head with “general society hates exceptional people!” tropes, and The Dark Knight tacked on an extra hour of screen time devoted to Batman becoming a notorious public figure for various reasons. Watchmen turned it all up to 11.

            But in general, I feel like this topic mainly goes underexplored. One of the most unrealistic things about superhero movies isn’t the super powers themselves, but how society basically shrugs off and tolerates such powers. I think the X-Men series actually undersells what would most likely happen if true superheroes emerged. The government would enslave such people immediately and it wouldn’t be particularly controversial, either. Watchmen gets it mostly right, IMO.

          • Jiro says:

            Anime has some explicitly superhero stories.

            My point is that normal fighting anime which isn’t deliberately aping the West still has things that are enough superhero-like that I would be comfortable saying that they are in the genre, but they don’t usually have multiple origins, codenames, or secret IDs. They do have superior abilities, unique abilities, and fights. (Costumes are arguable.)

            There’s also anime that intentionally uses Western tropes and has those things, but I don’t think that means those things are inherently part of the superhero genre.

          • Civilis says:

            The hero is often secretive, and disguises their identity. Most of the action and drama involves the hero’s relation to the villain, not to society at large.

            But the idea of a secret identity is itself a reflection of the relationship between the hero and society; that if they were known for having powers they’d be at risk.

            I should have more thoughtful with my original idea; it’s the two way relationship between exceptional individuals and society, and the default reflection of how authors seem to think super-powered individuals should relate to society is summed up in Peter Parker’s “with great power comes great responsibility”; those that don’t have that creed in normal super-power stories always end up as bad guys.

            In some ways, the conflict between the extraordinary individuals and society is baked into the whole super-hero concept with the idea that superheros are vigilantes. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne could have been police officers, but their powers (in Clark’s case) and years of exceptional training (in Bruce’s case) would be almost useless hampered by a mundane bureaucracy.

            Of course, there are the occasional authors that subverts the default arrangement in one way or another, and those are also commentary on what happens when these ideas are taken to extremes.

          • albatross11 says:

            Superheroes also have this problem that the actual problem the police generally have isn’t being unable to defeat the criminals when they catch them, it’s being unable to find them and get enough evidence on them to be sure they’re really guilty. So Superman or Batman isn’t really operating at all that much of an advantage in terms of crime-fighting against ordinary crime. If you want to bring the rate of muggings and armed robberies down in Gotham City, doubling the number of cops on the beat surely has a much bigger effect than having Batman occasionally show up and beat the mortal shit out of a couple muggers, since he can’t possibly know when most muggings or 7-11 robberies are taking place.

            That’s why you need supervillains, and they have to (if you want minimal logical plausibility) be tougher than the US military, too, since otherwise your badder-than-the-NYPD badass just gets blown to bits by a drone-fired missile or disappears after a visit from Seal Team Six.

            The other path you can take is letting the superhero violate the normal rules of evidence/law, like Rorschack in The Watchmen. (“Don’t worry. Won’t expect you to break legendary underworld code of silence without torture.”) And any honest telling of such a story is going to involve times where innocent people get killed or beaten up by your superhero who ignores all those rules and tosses the guy who looks guilty as hell into the bay or something, and minor nobodies who get killed for really minor crimes broken up by Batman, and so on.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            If you want to bring the rate of muggings and armed robberies down in Gotham City, doubling the number of cops on the beat surely has a much bigger effect than having Batman occasionally show up and beat the mortal shit out of a couple muggers, since he can’t possibly know when most muggings or 7-11 robberies are taking place.

            That’s why you need supervillains, and they have to (if you want minimal logical plausibility) be tougher than the US military, too, since otherwise your badder-than-the-NYPD badass just gets blown to bits by a drone-fired missile or disappears after a visit from Seal Team Six.

            Exactly. This is how the Marvel universe writes itself into a corner: you need supervillains and they need to be tougher than the US military. But if Iron Man armor was sold to the US military, you’d have an SF setting where many supervillains couldn’t stand up to the US military. So the tech heroes conspire to keep society in technological stasis. Iron Man becomes a one-man Ordnung, and how is that just? Why don’t all baptized members of the community get a say in how much technology to use? 😛

          • Matt M says:

            If you want to bring the rate of muggings and armed robberies down in Gotham City, doubling the number of cops on the beat surely has a much bigger effect than having Batman occasionally show up and beat the mortal shit out of a couple muggers, since he can’t possibly know when most muggings or 7-11 robberies are taking place.

            Eh, your point in general I think is sound, but Batman seems like a bad example to use here, because he seems to be explicitly aware of this and solve for it.

            Also, most Batman writers (and even the more recent movies) make it a point to specifically highlight that the crime wave of gotham is due mainly to the police force being corrupt, not under-resourced. So more beat cops wouldn’t solve the problem. Batman solves the problem because he is impossible to bribe. He also makes it a point to strike high-profile targets using fear-inducing imagery specifically designed to strike terror into the hearts of criminal mooks. And the petty crime is usually shown to be connected to a larger scale enterprise typically headed by some sort of super-villain, so by “cutting off the head of the snake” he gets an exponentially higher return in terms of public safety benefit.

            This is the one thing I actually like about Batman – that they seem to have thought through these issues and implications and his behavior is both logical and plausible given the circumstances.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Le Maistre Chat:

            But if Iron Man armor was sold to the US military, you’d have an SF setting where many supervillains couldn’t stand up to the US military. So the tech heroes conspire to keep society in technological stasis. Iron Man becomes a one-man Ordnung, and how is that just? Why don’t all baptized members of the community get a say in how much technology to use?

            The What If? comics already explored why that might not go as well as you’d expect: https://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/What_If%3F_Vol_2_64 😛

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @LadyJane: Welp, I see.
            Funny how Magneto and Iron Man don’t seem to clash in the “main” timeline. Seems like an obvious thing.

      • engleberg says:

        Re: What are the identifying dramatic tropes of the genre, even?

        As America’s average IQ declined over the last fifty years, comics replaced the flashy historical melodramas of, say, Cecil B DeMille as Our Shared Stories. Jay Leno started mentioning comics news in his monologue like a previous talk show host with a smarter audience would mention a new novelist. Safe stuff everyone kind of knew about. Movies are expensive and you want to bet on safe stuff everyone sort of knows about.
        Comics are costume drama, and costume drama is heroic nudes with some drapery, and after Pumping Iron went big comic artists got noticeably better at muscle dudes and -chesty chicks. I think the art has gone downhill since the 80’s, but not back to early 70’s levels.
        At about the same time Marvel started some characters who were slightly too dumb for a novel, slightly too smart for previous comics. The guy whose girl was fridged by the Mafia so he goes around killing Mafia. The blind guy whose other senses are expanded a thousand times and he’s an acrobat. Attractive young people at private school have magic powers. DC trailed along. I don’t think the basic stories have changed since the middle 80’s, so it’s a pretty safe bet for movie investors in search of a big market.

        • Jez Weston says:

          Going to have to stop you right at that first sentence.

          “The Flynn effect describes the phenomenon that over time average IQ scores have been increasing in all countries since the turn of the twentieth century”

          Copious evidence shows America’s average IQ has continued to rise over the long term, as it has for all nations where we have credible data.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            These are likely not gains in “G”, which is usually what people really mean when they say IQ. Raw scores have also stopped increasing recently IIRC, so ‘G’ may still be falling.

          • albatross11 says:

            Similarly, no modern composers are writing music as good as Beethoven or Mozart did, so we’ve all become less musically talented. Or could there be some kind of selection bias thing happening here….

        • mdet says:

          Hollywood has been optimizing for action blockbusters that have to be watched in theaters rather than streamed on a laptop. So yeah, a lot of cinema today is “dumber” than it was a generation or two ago because even romantic comedies are too mundane to get people to leave the couch. I’ve heard several people say “If it’s not Marvel, why not just wait six months and stream it for much cheaper?”.

          On the other hand, the amount of sophistication in tv shows seems to be rapidly rising. There are dozens and dozens of critically acclaimed dramas with nuanced characters and complex storylines. I don’t think “prestige television” even existed 30 years ago.

          So is it really “audiences are just stupid”?

          • albatross11 says:

            I’ve read the claim that Hollywood is also very interested in international audiences now. Which means that subtle comedies-of-manners that depend on an understanding of American society aren’t such a great idea, but big blockbusters with lots of car chases, gunfights, explosions, and maybe the odd scantily-clad pretty woman, all work passably well for a Chinese audience.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @albatross11: big-budget historical epics with lots of action can be intelligent. Action doesn’t have to equal dumb. What’s probably going on is that Hollywood wants to erase the Western tradition because it wouldn’t sell as well worldwide.

          • Matt M says:

            I’d just like to say that I disagree with the notion that movie plots are being “dumbed down.”

            Marvel movies are very excellently optimized to be entertaining to wide audiences. Entertaining =/ complex and I’m not sure it ever has. Survirorship bias has people comparing Thor to Citizen Kane and seeing that it comes up short in terms of plot complexity. Well yeah, sure, I’ll concede that.

            But I’m also sure that the 1940s had a lot of dumb, but entertaining movies that audiences of the time enjoyed, but nobody bothers to watch today, because why would you? I’m also sure that there are plenty of pretentious arthouse movies being made today that give you high-end drama if that’s your sort of thing. I assume that’s what all the oscar-nominated movies nobody I know has ever seen are doing, but I wouldn’t know for sure.

            Marvel movies do an excellent job of balancing action, comedy, and drama. They appeal to children as well as adults. They appeal to audiences both domestic and foreign. They provide a fantastical escape from reality while interweaving in modern popular music and cultural references. I think they execute what they are intending to do remarkably well.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I’m with @Matt M on this.

            In addition, depending on your age, there is some media you think is awesome which … really isn’t. It was awesome for a 10 year old at that time. The reason the new stuff isn’t as good is because it isn’t what you were exposed to at that time.

            I have a strong memory of thinking both the original Battlestar Galactica and The Six Million Dollar Man were amazing. Objectively, they weren’t amazing.

          • mdet says:

            I’m a big fan of the MCU, so I wasn’t using “dumber” to mean “bad movies” (I did put it in mock-quotes). But the standard of storytelling for action blockbusters is definitely lower than the standard for something like a Historical Drama, so if there are more blockbusters and fewer dramas, then the median narrative-complexity falls. By action blockbuster standards, I think the Marvel movies are very well crafted. Even the worst movies in the franchise are just bland, not actually bad, and that blandness is partly a testament to their own success.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        Replying to myself because of a lot of similar responses;

        Westerns are, in a substantial sense, about modernism – the shrinking wild, the imposition of Law on the domains of warlords and bandits. Spaghetti Westerns put a twist on this by making the protagonist something of an antihero – he no longer wants Progress, but rather money, a woman, a place to rest his head. Violence and suffering and the disappearance of the West follow him, and the best films of their kind make it clear that something is lost, something that makes the stranger continue trekking west, because the West is what he loves even as he destroys it.

        There was a brief moment, around the first Spider Man films, when superhero movies seemed poised to explore the (distinctly postmodern) question of what happens when people find themselves in a position of overwhelming power without the knowledge, skill, or judgment required to leverage it well. But it turns out audiences weren’t ready for Tobey Maguire to be the face of superhero movies, and honestly Spider Man 3 and Hancock weren’t good. So instead we have superhero films that use “sense of scale” for impressive moments and characters who seem to be completely unable to appreciate the scope of their power, which continues to balloon over the years.

      • SpeakLittle says:

        My working theory is that the Marvel Movies aren’t really superhero movies. They’re films of other genres that happen to have super-powered people in them. So far I’ve identified:
        Iron Man I-III: SciFi
        The Hulk films: Action-Horror (no jokes about the quality of the movies please)
        Thor I-III: Space Opera
        Guardians of The Galaxy I & II: Space Opera
        Ant-Man I: Heist film. I haven’t seen the second so I won’t comment
        Avengers I-II: SciFi
        Avengers III: Space Opera
        Dr. Strange: Fantasy-Horror
        Captain America I: War movie
        Captain America II & III: Political thriller
        Black Panther: Afro-futurism

        • MrApophenia says:

          This is the right answer, I think. The genius of the Marvel movies was that someone in Hollywood finally noticed that superhero comics actually represent lots of different genres haphazardly mashed together over decades, and that if you embrace the spirit of that glorious chaos it is actually a lot of fun.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            It took a looong time for anyone in Hollywood to figure that out. Marvel once offered a Sony executive the film rights to the entire Marvel universe minus the X-Men, Hulk and a couple of others for $25 million. He was told by his bosses to haggle them down to less than $25 million for Spider-Man only.

      • John Schilling says:

        What are the identifying dramatic tropes of the genre, even?

        The defining trope of the genre is that, given the essentially random application of super powers and a vague duty to be a Good Guy, reasonable people will universally chose to put on a costume and beat up criminals one at a time. And that this will be a reasonable choice, because about the time you’d start wondering about this being a reasonable proposition for dealing with street crime, incredibly dangerous costumed superfreak criminals will appear in just sufficient strength to tax the superhero.

        The less specific and more aspirational definitions being proposed, while they have the advantage of not highlighting how childishly silly the whole thing is, also encompass too much of SF or even drama generally. If it has costumed freaks beating up criminals, it is a superhero story, and if it doesn’t it isn’t, period. Also, it’s wrong to avoid highlighting how childishly silly the whole thing is, because that’s part of the point.

        Childishly silly plus costumes and superpowered fistfights makes for something Hollywood can easily film in a manner that entertains Chinese as well as American audiences. DC plus Marvel means Hollywood doesn’t have to exercise too much creativity in the process, and has an easy scapegoat for the silliness.

        On the rare occasion when they do exercise creativity with the basic concept, e.g. Hancock or The Incredibles, Hollywood can come up with something truly good, but I’m betting the international gross suffers for it.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          On the rare occasion when they do exercise creativity with the basic concept, e.g. Hancock or The Incredibles, Hollywood can come up with something truly good, but I’m betting the international gross suffers for it.

          I wish you’d comment on what I said on X-Men: First Class above. The fact that it made less than $355 million worldwide would seem to support your argument.

          • John Schilling says:

            Unfortunately, I don’t think I have seen “First Class”, having given up on X-Men and nearly on superhero movies at that point. But from your description, it might be worth a look.

          • Matt M says:

            First Class is very good and not at all what you’d expect from the typical X-Men movie. Definitely worth watching.

        • mdet says:

          By this definition, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Hulk, Blade, Old Man Logan, Wonder Woman, and possibly a few others are not superheroes (none of them wear disguises or go after petty crime), and meanwhile Robin Hood and Zorro are superheroes (which honestly might be ok).

          I prefer my thematic definition of a superhero movie above, where one person (or a small group of people) gains truly exceptional abilities and is put in a position where they and they alone have the power to resolve a conflict and save the city / world / galaxy. “With great power comes great responsibility” is the thesis statement of the whole genre.

          This definition would probably still rule out Guardians of the Galaxy (pretty atypical superhero movie to be honest), and would include characters like Neo in the Matrix (I’m ok with that).

          Edit: Now that I think about it, The Incredibles was really interesting because the villain was the character who wanted to make the Special Abilities available to everyone, and the heroes were the ones insistent on keeping the Special Abilities to themselves. (Syndrome was also a terrible person for other reasons though, willing to kill dozens and dozens of people to make his point)

          • John Schilling says:

            Guardians of the Galaxy was straight-up space opera that doesn’t really fit in the superhero genre but gets shoehorned there because of the characters originated with Marvel. Thor, Wonder Woman, and the Hulk, in their cinematic adaptations at least, spend a fair amount of time dressed up as mundane Blake, Prince, and Banner respectively, before adopting a garishly different look to beat up criminals, and arguing that this isn’t costumers isn’t going to get you very far. And, while I didn’t specify petty criminals as a necessity, I believe they are all given a few token moons to beat up before they go after a “supervillian” that really needs to be dealt with in some manner other than a fistfight, So I think I’m going to stick with my definition, and note the very non-central nature of America “superheroes” you may find to serve as exceptions.

          • beleester says:

            “Beating up token mooks” is a good bit broader than “beating up petty street crime,” and rather undercuts your original complaint of “this is a pretty silly way of fighting crime, isn’t it?” Iron Man makes his first appearance beating up terrorists in Afghanistan, which is a pretty reasonable use for a super, seeing as even the military has trouble with that.

            Wonder Woman and Captain America both used German soldiers as their token mooks. Again, using the bulletproof superhuman to lead the charge isn’t exactly a silly use of superpowers.

            Pretty much all of the MCU heroes both fight mooks who are more powerful than petty criminals, and operate openly rather than using a secret identity (Spiderman and The Hulk are the only ones who are really trying to live a double life). They do still wear the silly costumes, but not to conceal their identity as vigilantes, it’s basically just grandfathered in. (Or justified in some other way, like Iron Man’s armor)

          • John Schilling says:

            Iron Man makes his first appearance beating up terrorists in Afghanistan, which is a pretty reasonable use for a super, seeing as even the military has trouble with that

            No, it really isn’t. I am only an amateur student of counterinsurgency warfare, but this isn’t the part that the military has trouble with. When U.S. Army soldiers and Taliban insurgents fight, the U.S Army almost always wins, and the exceptions don’t need Iron Man level technology to turn around.

            The military has trouble with the part where the Taliban never agrees to show up for a decisive battle. The military has problems with the part where they even find the Taliban. And with the part where, having found them, reliably distinguishing them from innocent bystanders. And then there’s the part where instead of fighting a decisive battle with the U.S. Army, they are busy killing schoolteachers or aid workers or whoever else we are counting on to win hearts and minds in one of the myriad places that even NATO’s tens of thousands of soldiers aren’t watching right this minute.

            I don’t think I am really out of bounds calling that the WoT equivalent of petty crime. And there are sensible ways of dealing with it. Sensible ways to use Stark technology to deal with it. But having Tony Stark dress up in a costume to punch out insurgents, isn’t on the list.

            It’s inexcusably silly, and even Hollywood is smart enough not to put that into a story about a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist whose conscience makes him want to Do Something about the Afghan insurgency. Unless, of course, the rules of the genre require that a costumed freak beat up mooks.

          • albatross11 says:

            Once we get out of comic-book stuff, the way billionaire genius inventors actually do change the world is by doing stuff like founding companies to, say, build rockets or electric cars or something. Or by becoming governor of Gotham so they can do something about the corruption and crime that doesn’t involve dressing up in a batsuit and busting heads. Or funding big charitable organizations to develop malaria vaccines and provide DDT-soaked bed nets for places with a lot of malaria. Or building world-class universities and libraries. Or lobbying and playing politics at a global level to try to influence the world in a positive direction. Or….

            Unfortunately, we don’t know what genius scientists who get zapped with massive doses of gamma radiation do to fight crime/improve the world, because they seem to always just die of radiation poisoning before they can get around it.

          • Lillian says:

            Now that I think about it, The Incredibles was really interesting because the villain was the character who wanted to make the Special Abilities available to everyone, and the heroes were the ones insistent on keeping the Special Abilities to themselves. (Syndrome was also a terrible person for other reasons though, willing to kill dozens and dozens of people to make his point)

            At no point in the movie did the heroes express any animosity or disagreement towards the idea of mass market tech-enabled superpowers, so it seems like a stretch to say that they were intent on keeping Special Abilities to themselves. They were opposing Syndrome because of the kidnapping, murder, and attempted mass murder.

          • Lillian says:

            It’s inexcusably silly, and even Hollywood is smart enough not to put that into a story about a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist whose conscience makes him want to Do Something about the Afghan insurgency. Unless, of course, the rules of the genre require that a costumed freak beat up mooks.

            Stark isn’t even trying to Do Something about the Afghan insurgency in Iron Man, what he is trying to do is assuage his sudden guilt about the fact that he’s an arms dealer. He targets that specific group of insurgents not because they’re evil, or because he wants to help the American war effort, but because they’re using Stark branded weapons. Notice that once he’s dealt with them, he completely loses interest in Afghanistan. That’s not silly, it’s completely consistent with the Stark’s characterization.

          • beleester says:

            Fine, I’ll concede that Iron Man is being silly. (I might even concede that Science Heroes in general are silly, because the defining feature of science is that it’s replicable by anyone, and the defining feature of superheroes is that nobody can do what they do.)

            That still leaves pretty much the entire rest of the MCU as examples of superheroes where even the mooks are clearly not within the capabilities of the average policeman or soldier. For instance: All three of the Avengers movies.

          • Matt M says:

            because the defining feature of science is that it’s replicable by anyone

            I’m sorry good sir, but I have it under strict authority that if your scientific work is not replicable, then it is, in fact, junk science.


          • John Schilling says:

            For instance, all three of the Avengers movies

            I claim no knowledge of Avengers movies past the first, but I think I remember Natasha Romanova engaging Loki’s mooks with ordinary pistols, and I definitely remember Hawkeye taking them out with a bow and arrows that can’t plausibly have outperformed .50 BMG (or whatever would have replaced it in that universe). For that matter, ordinary machine guns would have been more deadly than the mooks’ own weapons.

            I also don’t recall the military or even the police seriously trying to engage Loki’s mooks, only being told that they should get out of the way and let the costumed freaks handle it, and somehow obeying.

            Again, that the first set of baddies engaged by the costumed freaks be ordinary mooks is not central to the genre, and I regret having mentioned it. Except, the examples I am seeing brought up to refute it, aren’t doing much refuting.

          • Lillian says:

            As fun as the first Avengers movie was, the Chitauri were extremely underwhelming as a threat. They had some neat toys like flying bikes and lasers, while their common infantrymen have superhumanly good mobility. However they have no indirect fire weaponry, no armoured vehicles, no artillery, no means of countering fighter jets, and their flying whales are basically giant lumbering targets.

            The Ominous Council of Vagueness that SHIELD answers to just throws up its hands and decides to nuke New York before the military even gets the chance to mount any response. Despite the plainly evident fact that the Chitauri would be manifestly incapable of withstanding a serious effort against them.

            Oh and the NYPD are in fact seen engaging the Chitauri, if in a disorganized fashion. Then Captain America shows up and organizes them by, among other things, ordering them to set-up a defensive perimeter. So completely ordinary police armed with handguns are established to have been able to mount some amount of resistance against the alien invaders.

          • Matt M says:

            IIRC, wasn’t the implication that the bad guys had a lot more forces in reserve (more than enough to easily overpower Earth), and that the heroes were needed to stop the portals or whatever that were allowing them transport?

          • Lillian says:

            This was indeed implied, but we saw the space base they were launching their forces from, and it wasn’t large enough to contain a Chitauri force capable of overwhelming Earth’s militaries.

          • albatross11 says:

            Iron Man can stand against any foe, no matter how powerful…except Reviewer #2.

        • theredsheep says:

          Hancock was … uh … yeah. If they’d cut off before the angel part, it might have been passable.

          • James C says:

            Hancock might have been passable if they cut out the entire third act and good chunks of the second.

        • mdet says:

          Also, John, out of curiosity, do you think most action blockbusters are silly in general (you’ve praised Die Hard, but that seems like the exception, not the rule), or are superhero films a special level of silly that goes beyond franchises like James Bond, Star Wars, Godzilla, etc?

          • John Schilling says:

            I think I have explicitly called out James Bond style spy stuff as comparably silly entertainment to comic-book superheroes, and noted the purely arbitrary preference of one over the other prior to ~1990. There is definitely a continuum, though, and something like Die Hard shows that it is possible to be fun and smart and serious all at the same time.

          • mdet says:

            I don’t have anything negative to say about Die Hard, and would not complain if all action movies had the level of planning and execution that movie had. Die Hard had great setup and payoff — McClane gets told to take off his shoes when he’s stressed, later he gets stressed and takes his shoes off, and then later Rickman blows out the glass to cripple his movement. That’s smart in a narrative sense, and the movie is full of things like that.

            I think the Marvel movies are smart, but in a different sense. Superheroes all have wildly different and unique abilities, so you can get really fun ideas like “Winter Soldier: He’s invulnerable, but only on his left arm specifically — how does he approach this problem? Cap: Extra-strong, but his only weapon is a literal frisbee — how does he approach the problem? When the two team up, how do they play off each other — both in terms of powers and personality?” It’s a very visual, kinetic kind of smartness that’s different from narrative smarts. Jackie Chan was also like this. Rather than superpowers, most of Chan’s action scenes had him using various props, or playing off the environment, or giving his character a weird handicap that he had to fight around like “I’m in handcuffs for the whole fight” or “I am actually naked and have to defend myself without revealing myself”. Not saying Marvel is as good as Jackie Chan, but there’s a kind of cleverness and inventiveness there that’s different from Die Hard, but no less enjoyable for me.

            Won’t defend against accusations of silliness though, I just embrace it.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            It’s a very visual, kinetic kind of smartness that’s different from narrative smarts. Jackie Chan was also like this.

            It sounds like you’re saying the Marvel movies are smart in the same way a circus or athletic performance is smart. No one crosses the office by being tossed back and forth by coworkers, and no one’s getting much done by spinning in place really fast, but we still cheer for trapeze artists and figure skaters.

            Granted, superpowers are made up while trapeze artists really are swinging people around, but we can still admire the plotting and visual effects behind a depiction of Stark activating his nanotech iron armor.

            This also jibes with the way I hear my friends rave about action scenes, so I think this holds up well.

          • mdet says:

            Was it not a given that people watch action movies for much the same reason they watch dance / the X-Games / athletic performance, except that action movies concern things that physics / social norms don’t allow?

            Feel like this is the part where we link to “What Universal Human Experience Are You Missing?”

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      I think the real “secret” behind the superhero movies is that they’re movie versions of comic books.

      Not just any comic books, the ones that have risen to the top of the medium during decades of furious competition. This ensures (1) a certain built in dramatic quality, and (2) a built in audience of hundreds of millions of people whop grew up reading those comics.

      It’s hard to see how a present day Sergio Leone can break into that without the preexisting infrastructure.

      • theredsheep says:

        The Incredibles did quite well just mining the general conventions of the genre; in fact, the original is my favorite superhero movie.

        • Nornagest says:

          The first one cribbed quite a bit from Watchmen, though, which is maybe the single best superhero story ever written.

          (The comic version, I mean. The movie version was watchable, but nothing special.)

        • Jiro says:

          Also, I’d argue that anime such as Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, and Dragonball count as superheroes, and they became popular immediately, without having had decades of preparation. Power Rangers too, for that matter.

          • Matt M says:

            Weren’t all of those things Popular In Japan before becoming Popular Other Places? And weren’t some of them based on already popular Manga?

            I definitely think the “these are stories and characters that have already survived at least one round of ruthless competition” has a lot of merit as an argument.

          • Jiro says:

            That only puishes things back one or two levels. Their popularity in Japan was also pretty fast. People didn’t have Naruto on their bookshelves for 10 years before it suddenly got popular.

      • Matt M says:

        a built in audience of hundreds of millions of people whop grew up reading those comics.

        Is this really true? I feel like the vast majority of people watching modern-day superhero movies are not avid readers of 1960s-1990s comic books.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yeah, I think almost the opposite is true.

          The early Nineties were kind of the last gasp of comics as a juvenile market: they’d already started picking up a more “mature” sensibility (viz. more sex and violence), but were still bought largely by teens and preteens. Then the bottom fell out of the market, comics started getting written more for the trade paperback format than the 22-page format, they were no longer widely sold at supermarkets or newsstands, and they generally became less accessible to non-adults with limited transport and disposable income. By the early 2000s they were strictly a nerd thing. So I think it’s kind of suspicious that film superheroes hit it big just as the cohort that were reading them as kids or young teenagers in the Nineties started aging out of the target audience for a PG-13 action movie.

        • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

          Well yes, but people don’t actually like comicbooks. Comicbooks in the west have been on life support for the longest time. And while a lot of fans suspected that they were being dragged down by their focus on superheroes, it seems like the opposite was true.

        • mdet says:

          There might not be many millions of people who’ve read all the comics, but there are other ways to become familiar with the characters. Growing up, I got familiar with Marvel & DC’s heroes through a combination of reading some comics, watching cartoons, playing video games, and playground storytelling. So there’s definitely a built-in audience of many millions, even if most met the characters through Batman: The Animated Series and the 90s X-Men cartoon instead of the local comic shop.

      • toastengineer says:

        Don’t actual comic book fans hate the current movie trends specifically because they dumb down the source material to appeal to people who want background noise with occasional explosions?

        • Enkidum says:

          Speaking as a long-time actual comic book fan, no. The source material is that “dumb” – the MCU films, in particular, are incredibly faithful at capturing the spirit of the comics they are adapted from. There have been many intellectual comics, but not much above the level of the movies in the main Marvel and DC canons.

        • Deiseach says:

          they dumb down the source material

          That would be very difficult to do in some cases. 70s comics were out there, man!

        • Hazzard says:

          Based on my comics binging lately, they’re not dumber, but they are shortened or truncated. I like Civil War as a comparison. The comics Civil War covered over a dozen of different comics running at the time, over 100 issues in total. It’s shortened, because there’s fewer super heroes running around, rather than the dozen in the MCU and few big events.

          Mr Fantastic and Tony Stark create a concentration camp to imprison anyone who won’t sign up with the government to be a superhero. And it makes Iron Man a villain for the next couple of years of comics, while Steve Rogers is dead. You couldn’t tell everything that happened in a 2 and a half hour film.

          The ideas are ridiculous and scaled down for film, but the basic premise of “how do we hold superheroes accountable for mistakes” is still at the core of the story.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          There is a breed of “actual fans” or “true fans” that will hate everything as a form of gatekeeping or as signaling to their colleagues that We Were Here First, but they are too chaotic to really predict.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      The Russians and the Indians already make better superhero movies, and predate the Marvel Cinematic Universe by decades.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      In the realm of comics, the original medium for these stories, something like this has been already done by Alan Moore. Watchmen has been already mentioned, but he also penned Miracleman, Swamp Thing, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.

      Possibly Neil Gaiman with Sandman also counts. Before Gaiman, Sandman was boring superhero; Gaiman transformed the character into a mythical being.

      I am not knowledgeable of modern superhero stories (in print or in big screen adaptation format) to know if those authors truly had a lasting influence and if it shows in the current movies. I know that Moore’s writing sparked / coincided with a “darker and edgier” period that however often was without the literary brilliance. But anyway, Nolan’s darker and edgier Frank Miller-ish Batman movies could be see as “reinterpreted, extended Batman”.

      One could argue that the kind of deconstruction done by Moore and Gaiman does not lend itself into such “transformative” adaptations that are both different and reinterpret the familiar aesthetics (so that the can be still popular, not “artsy for arts sake”) as the Spaghetti Westerns did. Or maybe an imaginative superhero story in a movie form would still need too much too expensive special effects to be done cheaply, and big studio executives are wary of too weird stuff. Would a low-budget film about a masked vigilante without any expensive CGI even register as a superhero story?

      Another explanation is that coming up with ideas is hard, and you can’t rip off Kurosawa twice. Or maybe you could. How would you turn Yojimbo into an intelligent and stylish superhero story?

      • MrApophenia says:

        This seems right to me. What we are seeing in superheroes is a genre that already thoroughly dove into a deconstructionist era in the 80s and 90s, then went through a conscious return to the tones and styles of earlier eras while keeping the improved narrative quality.

        And that’s the genre in the form it was when the movies started adapting it.

        Tim Burton’s Batman was heavily inspired by the Dark Knight Returns. And honestly, people forget this, but even the original Richard Donner Superman does a lot of this. The clever idea of that movie is, “What if Superman showed up in our shitty, grimy real world… but stayed exactly as pure and noble as you remember him?” Go back and watch it sometime, and see how much they emphasize the modern, crappy seedy side of everything in New York that isn’t Superman. Our introduction to Lois Lane involves the line “How many Ps are in rapist?”

        It’s a bit like if the first Western was a Spaghetti Western.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      like how Sergio Leone extended the Western’s lifespan?

      If they’d get Morricone to do the soundtrack for the next Avengers movie I might actually watch the thing.

    • AG says:

      Superheroes are not a genre. They are whatever genre they want to be. The reason we group them as such is an artifact of the IP law regime. A Batman or Superman story can and has encompassed any number of genres, and that storytelling diversity is what has made themm so timeless. They can be a part of a noir, a sci-fi, a fantasy, tragedy, heist, crime, comedy, soap opera, western, samurai, medieval, vampire, you name it they’ve done it. And they are allowed to because the thing that ties all those stories together is not any sort of genre categorization, but DC copyright and/or trademark.

      • Civilis says:

        There’s nothing that says a work can’t be a part of multiple genres. A genre is a collection of tropes, after all, and it’s obvious that there is a bucket of tropes which we classify in the broad category of superhero, both setting and plot related.

        I think you’re right in that superhero stories can be combined with almost any other genre to tell a specific story.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yeah, this. You can make an SF western (Firefly), or a fantasy heist story (The Lies of Locke Lamora), or a Lovecraftian horror detective novel (A Study in Emerald), or a post-apocalyptic horror western romance tragedy (Wizard and Glass), and in all cases it’ll be totally legible as any of those genres.

          • AG says:

            As has been pointed out above, though, there are stories set in superhero universes that are thoroughly not associated with any superhero tropes. Guardians of the Galaxy, but also the space opera of the Starjammers was first intended as an independent story that would not be considered superheroes, but is now considered one because they made the lead character the father of X-men’s Scott Summers/Cyclops. It is solely that IP association that determines the grouping. Similarly, you could write a Black Widow movie that is, in all ways, identical to a Bourne or Bond film. And what about Thor or Dr. Strange adventures that have nothing to do with Earth or crime, but reside only in the mythical realms? It is the characters, not the settings or the tropes, that determine whether or not they are considered superhero stories.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Yes, this. We’re in an uncanny area where the setting defines the set “superhero stories”, but the setting has trash worldbuilding.

  3. Hoopyfreud says:

    Samz[]dat is back with https://samzdat.com/2018/07/15/footnotes-1/

    Is there coherence in the concept of Justice, either as an Ought arising from pure reason or as an set of terminal values held personally/collectively?

    This seems like a more difficult question than whether there is coherence in the concept of Good. People can quite easily agree to disagree over the question of the Good; I’m being persuaded that people can more easily have dramatically incompatible views of what is Just. I don’t think that this is a question of crystalized heuristics – if you agree with Scott (I don’t, but w/e), I think you’re likely to think that crystalized heuristics arise at the level of the Good. Anecdotally, I find that people tend to crystalize ideas about values in terms of goodness, not justice, and I’ve found that asking people to speak about their platforms in terms of Justice rather than Goodness de-mindkills most people relatively well.

    But is Justice real? Not in the platonist sense of real, but in the rationalist sense of coherence? I’m pretty far out of line on a lot of rationalist epistemology (hello fellow property dualists), so my ability to determine the axioms which lead to different answers is limited, and I’d like to hear from someone who doesn’t think so.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Can’t help you, because I believe Justice is real like you and me. 🙂

      • Joseph Greenwood says:

        Real in the sense of not merely being subjective, or in the sense of having a material existence? As a Christian, I tend to think justice exists in a sense similar to but slightly stronger than general relativity or the Standard Model.

    • theredsheep says:

      I haven’t read the link (trying to limit the amount of time I throw down the internet hole today), but I think our concept of criminal desert is essentially the balancing point between our vindictive and merciful impulses, will vary accordingly depending how we’re conditioned, and there’s no objective reality to it. Which doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea altogether, as long as we realize we’re talking about an arbitrary construct. Natural rights are pretty much hooey too, that doesn’t make rights a bad idea as an acknowledged legal fiction.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        It’s not really a question of crime, or even of liability, but of whether actions and ways of being can be in alignment with oughts. If you deny the existence of such oughts, Lou (I think) argues, you implicitly take the position that someone with both the will and the means to do something *ought* to do it, and that this is just.

        • theredsheep says:

          Is this distinct from the overall is-ought problem? I think that’s pretty well intractable from a naturalistic POV, and dodge it by being religious, but it’d be interesting to see how somebody else tries to make headway against it.

    • mtl1882 says:

      I don’t think it is real, but certain animals (including humans) do appear to have an instinctive desire for it. However, what is recognized as just varies with each situation. It’s not something that exists in and of itself, unless you bring religion into it. And there are many situations in which there is no justice to be had. The best argument for its existence that I can think of would be Emerson on compensation, but that’s kind of a different issue and has religious implications.

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      I tend to think of justice as a catch-all word for moral symmetry. Since we live in an asymmetric world, not all moral symmetries can be maintained simultaneously, and this accounts for most disputations about “what is just.”

  4. idontknow131647093 says:

    One thing has been bothering me about the replication crisis in many fields: Why do we have such bad social science data to work with?

    Maybe this is just my perception and our data is actually very good, but to me it seems quite bad despite having a census in the US every 10 years, federal agencies tracking everything from cancer to crime to apple harvests. And yet, we get something like this FBI table on clearance rate which is mostly useless when making policy choices.

    So, from my POV, a major issue with replication is a lack of good data that could support or refute bad studies very quickly.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      What, specifically, about the data do you think is lacking?

      I don’t believe there’s a reliable way to get causal effects without either some sort of intervention/experiment or unjustifiable assumptions, regardless of the quality of observational data. How would better quality observational help with that problem, or with the fact that cause and effect are actually complicated in social sciences?

      • idontknow131647093 says:

        A lot of the data are simply not useful because they lump everything into large groups like “white” “black” “asian” (many don’t even use latino/hispanic as a separate group), don’t record things like age and income (or if they do usually only 1) and a bunch of other granular things that are important to control for when making a theory to begin with.

        So we start with bad data that makes it easier for people to have bad hypotheses like, “drinking coffee has correlation XX” or the infamous “eggs are bad” vs. “eggs are good” studies. If the data were presorted by Income, race, and age, those effects would almost surely be 0, and then people wouldn’t bother doing a controlled study. And if they don’t bother than there aren’t going to be 100 egg studies, and 5 of them wont, by chance, have a huge egg effect that leads to egg based headlines.

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          I don’t think I entirely follow. Having a few additional possible variables available to throw into models wouldn’t do much to stop data dredging; if anything, it would make it worse, since there are more correlations you can try. Running a correlation on some observational data controlling for 1 or 2 additional variables doesn’t falsify a hypothesis.

          It’s not clear at all to me that taking some offbeat and plausible but probably wrong theory and controlling for age or income will result in all of the effect sizes (which there are now more of) becoming 0. That seems highly unlikely, in fact.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Better underlying data would actually clarify a lot. For instance, better data on ACT scores and SAT scores for those entering various majors ends up debunking the idea that teachers are very underpaid. When you just look at the “Degree vs. No Degree” comparison, they look very underpaid, but if you compared them to people with degrees that also had (on average) mediocre entrance scores, they were paid similarly.

            There are many times that this happens just with the social science data. But what I am getting at with relating this to the replication crisis where there are actual studies, lets take a hypothetical: I’m studying whether Universal Pre-K is beneficial. So I take kids in a town and randomly enroll them in my Pre-K or not. Then I monitor it. However, what if my random sampling ends up with a lot of kids with younger parents enrolled in the program? If I don’t have that data, then my study might actually just be measuring the effect of parental age on students.

          • Watchman says:

            I’d suggest you use one of the social-scientific definitions of random that control for age then. It’s not as if social scientists aren’t aware of the problem and haven’t found ways to deal with them. Have you read anything on social scientific research methodology, because that will tell you a lot of what you need to know about how these issues are addressed.

            The bad outcomes are generally cases of politicised statements around results of dubious worth, and are in the social sciences often not peer reviewed. Actual academic social scientists will be very aware of their data’s limitations and should normally discuss this in publications.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            I know what the best practices are set to be, but my observation as someone who was in engineering, and now is in law is that those best practices are almost never followed in the studies cited in law review articles.

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        A bit glib, imo.

        How many papers per year are there, do you think, that try to infer causal effects from observational data? Do you think they are _all_ using unjustifiable assumptions?

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          I think a great many are spurred by a casual look at data that happens to fit something the researcher thinks is true. Then you cite that data in a grant application and you are off.

          Its like if I became an engineering professor, and found some engineering-IQ stuff then got people to fund a study about engineering school increasing IQ. Then, with enough iterations and stat manipulating one such engineering professor will publish one that does in fact say engineering school increase IQ with good confidence.

        • Joseph Greenwood says:

          What counts as a justification for an assumption? And are we treating background claims like “the universe follows coherent laws” and “the past informs us about the future” as given? Because neither claim is self justifying even if both are intuitive to the modern Westerner.

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          I have no real grasp of how many, but anything that isn’t a controlled experiment is at least questionable. Some natural experiments and IV designs are pretty solid, but anything that is fundamentally relying on “controlling for proxies of whatever we could think of” is at best a “maybe.” And in general, the kinds of assumptions that go into these models are unable to be justified, yes. For example, assumptions around whether all the relevant variables are controlled for, or whether certain variables are distributed a certain way, or assumptions about variance being finite.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            “And in general, the kinds of assumptions that go into these models are unable to be justified, yes.”

            Sometimes they are justifiable — you may justify (conditional) ignorability by knowing something about the study design.

            Your position sort of sounds like “shotgun skepticism.” Easy to state, but not very informative.

            The reality is, the extent to which we should believe an analysis relies a lot on the details of the analysis.

            Fortunately, most applied communities have moved past “shotgun skepticism” (this started in the late 80s, and is ongoing, depending on the community).

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            I think shotgun skepticism is appropriate for most studies attempting to draw causal conclusions from observational data. The few exceptions are ones that I believe I’ve called out (natural experiments, maybe some IV). Such a study is making an assumption that they can think of and measure all possible confounding factors and control for them statistically. Which is pretty clearly impossible to justify.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Yes, I know you think that. You are wrong, though. Because of what I said — we often have strong side information due to knowing facts about the study design.

            Given the fact that you are a “shotgun skeptic,” I find the fact you singled out IV sort of amusing. You should follow Miguel Hernan’s twitter for a short intro on why IV analyses are often problematic.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            Yes, we do have facts about the study design. Facts that give us very good reason to be skeptical about their ability to draw causal conclusions, like the fact that they aren’t experiments or nearly so.

            I singled out “maybe some” IV designs, obviously I don’t think IV is a panacea.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Some reading for you:





            I can probably keep going, but this is a reasonable start.

            The other thing to think about is there is no sharp divide between experimental and observational data, with the former being “legit” and the latter being “suspect”. Both types of data suffer from selection bias, lack of generalizability, and missing data (dealing with this stuff will require the same sorts of methods one would use for dealing with lack of randomization). Experimental data may suffer from lack of adherence, which induces confounding bias (again, this requires the sorts of methods people use to deal with lack of randomization). People in observational studies can “self-randomize” sometimes. etc. etc. etc.

            TLDR: establishing causal findings from data is hard. Randomization is a tool, one of many, to help. But the threats to causal validity are varied and many — confounding is just one and arguably the easiest one to deal with.

            There are two choices here: crawl into a hole and admit defeat with respect to the whole empirical science project, or learn the right methods, and the right level of caution in how to report what the methods find.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            Believe it or not, I do actually have some idea of what I’m talking about, but I guess you’re too interested in showing off to either respond to what I’ve written or ask for clarification.

            Obviously having an RTC isn’t a panacea, but not having one is pretty bad. It’s kind of like a baseline expectation; the large majority of times when non-experimental evidence is used to claim causality, that claim is not justified.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            This conversation (a summary):

            you: “I don’t believe there’s a reliable way to get causal effects without either some sort of intervention/experiment or unjustifiable assumptions, regardless of the quality of observational data.”

            me: “Do you think every single paper doing causal inference from observational data is using unjustifiable assumptions? How many papers of this sort are there every year?”

            you: “No idea how many, but going to repeat original claim.”

            me: “You can justify assumptions by knowing stuff about design.”

            you: “nah.”

            me: [links papers where people literally design studies to maximize information gain, and where treatments are not strictly randomized, as well as papers successfully mimicking RCTs using observational data.]
            “also RCT data has a ton of biases itself.”

            you: “I actually know what I am talking about, also I feel like you are status-attacking me.”

            So far, as far as I can see, you made one claim, and basically kept repeating it. Your claim, as stated, is just wrong. (For example, I don’t think a ton of people will have problems believing numbers they get from SMART designs, but also from certain other sorts of designs without strict randomization.)

            What I am trying to do is provide some context for why the statistics and public health communities have moved on from “shotgun skepticism” over the last two decades. This is a done deal. You, yourself, are free to remain as skeptical as you want to be, but the scientific community, the FDA, etc. already had this conversation, and it has been settled.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            Your crap “summary” is as accurate as your earlier lies about what I wrote. This is clearly a waste of time.

    • gwern says:

      1. Why can’t we do Scandinavian population registry studies in America?
      2. Why can we do awesome US Census studies with individual-level data from the 1880s or 1930s, but not more recently?
      3. Why is Raj Chetty allowed to do all these IRS studies showing the ‘effects of environment’ with data that no one else is allowed to see?
      4. Why are OKCupid and Facebook no longer interested in publishing about their many interesting internal studies and analyses? (I won’t mention the FBI crime statistics issues.)

      Decentralization/federal structure mean that the homogeneous linkable databases do not exist, are not fixable due to political reasons, cannot be used, and those who use them may be punished (for publishing anything). For example, the ATF gun database; US Census data after the ’40s; and records poorly linked by SSN (heaven forbid the US have a national identity system, which would be tantamount to the Mark of the Beast as foretold in Revelations or Orwell’s 1984, turning the US into a hellish wasteland like Sweden or Finland – instead, it’ll half-ass its way as inefficiently as possible into one using SSNs and/or drivers licenses).

      • S_J says:

        About point 2: most Census data in the U.S. is publicly released 70 years after the Census is taken. Before that point, most of the individual details are kept confidential. Genealogists love the old census records, and most still-living citizens have their records kept private.

        About the other comments: I know a little about the ATF gun database: the data is mostly still in the hands of various FFL-holding dealers, until the dealer goes out of business. There is a system that allows the ATF to provide a server to the FFL-holding dealer that also allows the ATF to directly query the dealer’s database.

        Otherwise, the ATF employees are required to search a database that can’t beceome a registry…thus, the search methods are slow and tedious, even on digitized data.

        The ATF does publish statistics on their ability to trace guns recovered by Police back to the last FFL-holding dealer who handled it.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Replication in social science is hard for the same reason it’s hard in biology: people are too complex. Raise the temperature by two degrees and a thousand different things suddenly shift in a cell. Double the school staff and a million different things shift in a community.

      It’s also hard for a reason biology is relatively easier: you can run experiments that kill a thousand cells, but you can’t even risk killing even one person.

      Yet another reason is that it’s just expensive, so you can’t run most experiments enough times to replicate results.

  5. johan_larson says:

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to restrict the electoral franchise to less than 10% of the adult population. The question is, which 10%? To whom will you entrust the power to select our public officials?

    • Matt M says:

      Somewhat tangential to your question – but I’ve always believed voting rights should directly correspond to financial contribution to the state. So, for every $1000 in taxes you pay, you get 1 vote. You can buy more votes if you want by donating directly to the treasury.

      I’m fine with adopting this logic and using it to identify the top 10% of contributors, and only allowing them to vote.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I’ve toyed with idea along those lines. The two big problems I saw, apart from political feasibility, were self-serving plutocracy (voting dominated by high-income voters, who may vote to preserve their own special interests over the general interests of the population as a whole) and tax incidence.

        Plutocracy can be mitigated by only applying tax-based voting to one house of a bicameral legislature. So in order for a law to pass, it needs to be approved by the lower house (representing a majority of citizens subject to the juristiction’s laws) as well as the upper house (representing a majority of taxpayers by taxes paid).

        Tax incidence is the stickier problem: taxes are slippery and don’t tend to stay where they’re put. For example, half the FICA payroll tax is nominally paid by the employer, but economic theory suggests that the long-term effect of repealing the payroll tax would be higher wages much more than higher profits (indicating that the employer is collecting the tax from the worker on behalf of the government, not actually paying the tax themselves). So who gets voting-credit for the payroll tax: the employer or the employee? It’s an even stickier question for things like tariffs, excises, and the corporate income tax, where the tax gets passed along in part to multiple places and the degree to which it gets passed along is a complicated (and in many causes unsettled) empirical question.

        Also, are we counting gross taxes or taxes net of government benefits? If the former, the system is really easy to game by having current voters pay high taxes and then get the taxes back as benefits (kinda like California’s system for gaming federal Medicaid funding: California taxes hospitals to fund a program that pays subsidies to the same hospitals, but since the subsidies are part of California’s Medicaid program, California gets federal matching funds for the Medicaid spending). If the latter, then you need to disentangle benefits from the government paying for value received (e.g. a soldier or a civilian government employee’s salary isn’t really comparable food stamps or college tuition subsidies, but any attempt to separate the two risks gaming by overpaying government employees but taxing them at a higher rate to make up for it).

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        This is kinda defendable, as long as you’re only deciding what the state should spend money on, on a free market.

        If the state is ruling people’s lives, you’ve instituted a plutocracy hell.

        • Matt M says:

          We already have a plutocracy hell – this one would be just a little bit more transparent about the fact.

      • mtl1882 says:

        I get the concept that those who invest more in the state should get more of a say, but I can’t see doing it by measuring that investment by financial contribution alone. Someone could be really wealthy but resent every dollar he is taxed and have little investment in society. We want people who have a broad understanding and decent decision making capabilities, coupled with an interest. Wealth does not in any way correlate with a good understanding of what to vote on. It may correlate with intelligence and other factors, but that’s not enough. if you are going to stop 90% from voting, you need to have a plan to keep them satisfied enough that they don’t come after you for that. You need a big picture view, and that is hard to select for. It doesn’t correlate with anything in particular. Random selection in some ways may be preferable, possibly from a predetermined pool. At least you have a chance at getting a wider variety of views. I do like the idea of having veterans vote – there are issues with it, but those who have been in the military usually do have some idea of how different groups fit together and interrelate. If you limit suffrage that much, most groups you pick are going to be so narrowly interested that it’s a short path to disaster, IMO.

      • ana53294 says:

        So you would be OK with undocumented immigrants who pay taxes to get voting rights? Wouldn’t giving them the vote mean giving them citizenship? Would anybody who comes to the US, gets a job and pays taxes become a citizen? Would citizenship be decoupled from voting rights?

        • RalMirrorAd says:

          I’m guessing he means net tax payments rather than gross (but issues with this have already been addressed) — Being a net tax payer in the US or other western democracy (but especially in the US since the income is very progressive and US revenue relies so much upon it rather than VAT or other sales taxes) is not easy especially when factoring in things like public schooling.

          But obviously if you just went by gross tax payments with no citizenship restriction it would be a disaster, as the whole world’s population could throw trillions at the US treasury and elect leaders who would promptly return that money plus citizenship and other legal benefits.

        • Matt M says:

          Yes, I would.

          If some random foreign citizen wants to donate enough money to purchase a relevant amount of votes, let them.

          In this scheme, I do think citizenship proper would probably be decoupled from voting rights, yes. That said, I can think of *worse* ways to grant citizenship than “significant financial contribution levied to the state.”

          • Lambert says:

            Random foreign citizens are one thing.
            The likes of China directly buying votes is quite another.
            Though it’s probably not much worse than the domestic plutocracy that would spring up anyway.

      • RalMirrorAd says:

        I am mainly concerned that there is no way to quantify the $ impact of effective transfers that result from laws or from changes to laws. i.e. Government contractors, exclusive monopolies, IP protection.

        Also the issue of public employees; I can see a case for taking political influence away from, for example, a public school teacher strictly with respect issues that concern the public school system they work at, but given that mirror equivalents exist in the private sector, and that *someone* has to do that kind of work [usually], taking that person’s vote away across the board simply because they are technically a net tax recipient

        I would recommend something a bit simpler that doesn’t require complex tax calculations. 1 vote per net tax payer.


        Now for the OP’s challenge; My ‘narrowing criteria’;

        0. Citizen
        1. Net Tax Payer
        2. No Criminal record
        3. Cannot hold office or work for a legally designated political action committee (Within the last year to avoid loop-holes or people losing their vote )
        4. Preference for people who are/were married and had at least two children [adopted is fine]
        5. Cannot be an employee of a company whose revenue is more than X% government contracts, public or private

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Net tax payer is harder to define than you think. Do you count roads? Mortgage exemption?

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            For public services, particularly those that are a small proportion of government budgets (people are not forking over 60% of their income in Scandinavia to get roads) I would apportion the cost as basically flat.

            Public schools would probably be apportioned by number of enrolled students divided by estimated cost per pupil per year.

            I might be unduly cavalier about this because the franchise is limited to 10% of current voters [in this case]

            Mortgage exemption? Do you mean like mortgage interest deduction? Anything that lowers your taxes will lower your net taxes paid.

            But yes all of this accounting makes me sympathetic to the folks who thought that only land owners should vote but there should not be taxes on labor.

    • johan_larson says:

      It we have to restrict it, I’m thinking the best way would be to restrict the franchise to those who actually care about it. And to verify that they care, require them to put some real work in. I’m guessing the bar wouldn’t have to be all that high before less than 10% decided it was worth it.

      Would 10% show up for five days of useful work a year, if the only rewards were the warm glow of doing something vaguely useful, and the privilege of voting? Probably not.

      • albatross11 says:

        Make voting enough of a pain in the ass, and you can get approximately this effect–only people who really care will bother.

        I think the main value of voting is that it makes the people with power need to care about widespread public unhappiness. That is, I think the voters’ feedback about specific issues is probably not so useful in most cases, but the fact that policies that make a lot of the country unhappy tend to get you tossed out of office is a pretty big win–it aligns the interests of lots of powerful people with keeping things working well enough that there *aren’t* tons of angry voters looking forward to their chance to vote the bastards out.

        So the question is, if we restrict the franchise to 10% of the public, can we do that in a way that retains that property? Making it the richest, poorest, smartest, oldest, etc., 10% doesn’t work so well, because it leaves the possiblity that the other 90% of people are very unhappy but their voice isn’t being heard.

        Choosing 10% at random works, but then it’s just a random-sampling version our current system. How else could we continue to get useful feedback when the people, broadly, were pissed off?

        • Matt M says:

          Make voting enough of a pain in the ass, and you can get approximately this effect–only people who really care will bother.

          Well, by that logic, we’ve already reduced it to something like 50% of the electorate, right?

          Although that’s less “voting is too hard” and more “voting provides no tangible benefits.” Perhaps we could enhance the latter view somehow too? Maybe a successful deep-state coup against Trump to firmly establish that the real people in charge are, in fact, unelected bureaucrats who do not answer to public polls in any meaningful way?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’ve heard of voter parties in Africa, possibly facilitated by people getting a finger dyed when they vote.

            Throwing voter parties would be a grassroots and not very expensive way of encouraging voting.

        • Robert Jones says:

          the fact that policies that make a lot of the country unhappy tend to get you tossed out of office is a pretty big win

          I think most systems have that property. The advantage of democracy is that the change of government can be effected without violence.

      • thad says:

        This seems like the best of the interesting options to me. The first concern I see is uniform implementation. How do you guarantee that people in rural areas have the same access to opportunities to do this work while still getting some degree of uniformity of the size of commitment? If I let every village run its own program, how do I stop some remote place from only actually making people do 1 hour of work or from making the work sufficiently beneficial to each member of the community that there’s no real cost (day 1, we fix alice’s barn, day 2 we fix bob’s barn …).

        The second, which may be unavoidable, is that certain groups are more able to pay the cost than others. Working parents of small children will be very unlikely to do the work. The disabled may or may not even be able to do the work, depending on how flexible the options are. If the work isn’t too physically taxing you probably get a lot of retirees (if it is physically taxing you probably get very few retirees). Are you willing to take those effects on the franchise?

        • johan_larson says:

          How do you guarantee that people in rural areas have the same access to opportunities to do this work while still getting some degree of uniformity of the size of commitment?

          There would need to be some sort of national-level supervision of various programs, to make sure opportunities are available everywhere, and don’t degenerate into purely nominal commitments or tit-for-tat favors between individuals. Doing things for your village as a whole, like staffing the local public library, would be fine.

          …certain groups are more able to pay the cost than others.

          If we are talking about something that 10% of the adult population participates in, a vast amount of work is getting done. There would be many opportunities, and since the bar for usefulness is on the low side, I expect work could be found for everyone but the most severely disabled.

          • thad says:

            My most important question remains, are you willing to endorse the fact that this would wind up overepresenting retirees, childless young people, and other groups with fewer demands on their time? I don’t think that’s necessarily a fatal flaw, but I do want to know your thoughts on it.

          • johan_larson says:

            …are you willing to endorse the fact that this would wind up overepresenting retirees, childless young people, and other groups with fewer demands on their time?

            I acknowledge the issue, and while I don’t like it, I’m willing to live with it. Keep in mind that I’m expecting the requirement to be fairly modest, since that’s all it takes to keep away most people. Maintaining the franchise might take 40 hours of work per year. If you can’t manage that, you are probably really struggling to meet your other responsibilities or you don’t actually care very much.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Yeah, this would be one of the better plans.

        It’s tough because I guess the ideal voter would be 1) invested in/devoted to the process, 2) a reasonably good, informed, and objective decision maker, and 3) have an understanding of the country as a whole, so that they make decisions based on broader concerns than those of people like them.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        I’m thinking the best way would be to restrict the franchise to those who actually care about it. And to verify that they care, require them to put some real work in. I’m guessing the bar wouldn’t have to be all that high before less than 10% decided it was worth it.

        This is essentially known as “joining the military”.

        (Would you like to know more?)

      • Watchman says:

        Who defines “useful”, since government is not renowned for doing this very successfully? I’d suggest that I do a lot of useful work every year by doing my job for example. People spend money on what we produce so it is clearly useful to someone.

        I assume you are thinking more of a public good definition of useful, but that’s still problematic to define, especially as the conflict between central planning and local desire is harder to resolve without price information . Perhaps each community could have a weighted proportion of enfranchised individuals and then vote to allocate these enfranchisements (?) to those who had done the most community work for that community?

      • IsmiratSeven says:

        I’m thinking the best way would be to restrict the franchise to those who actually care about it. And to verify that they care, require them to put some real work in.

        So you’d basically err on the side of handing control of the government over to extremists and zealots? Yeesh.

    • WashedOut says:

      Random lottery. People with a criminal record excluded.

      • emiliobumachar says:

        From Stack Exchange:
        [Allowing criminals to vote] is a civil rights protection against the following algorithm:

        1. Win a legislative election.
        2. Pass any law which disproportionately imprisons the supporters of your opponents.
        3. Profit.
        This is relatively hard to prevent through other constitutional means, since the law doesn’t need to be exclusively or primarily politically targeted to have an effect.

        link text

        • albatross11 says:

          And in our world, where blacks go to prison (and commit crimes) at a way higher per-capita rate than whites, removing the vote from felons has the effect of significantly decreasing the number of blacks who are allowed to vote. This seems like a pretty bad policy to me.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            Unless the bulk of the laws under which a person or class of people are imprisoned are not deemed objectionable (w/ the exception of selective endorsement)

            Almost by default a criminal conviction of sufficient severity entails a restriction of certain rights for the convicted person, not limited to voting. This is the case and has always been the case. What’s potentially uncommon here is exactly *what* is being criminalized.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        Also, people should have a say on whether some behaviour ought to be criminal in the first place, regardless of whether they personally have been convicted for it. We have plenty of examples of societies prosecuting crimes like blasphemy/membership-of-the-wrong-religion, drug use, ‘hate speech’, consensual non-vanilla sexual practices and other crimes that lack an obvious, identifiable victim and where society is highly divided on whether they are the sort of thing that deserves punishment at all. If allowing people who have committed unambiguously victim-creating crimes to also have a vote is the price we need to pay to ensure that people who fall afoul of laws that should never have been enacted in the first place still get a say over whether to repeal those laws, I’m comfortable with that.

        Obviously this gets less important the better we get at only criminalising things that deserve to be criminalised, but I’m not sure to what degree we’re even moving in the right direction on that.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          My first exposure to the issue was an essay by a gay man tracing the implications of sodomy being a felony.

      • WashedOut says:

        You, Winter Shaker, Nancy and Emilio are all correct, of course. “Criminal record excluded” is overbroad – what I had in mind was people who have committed serious large-scale fraud.

        I intended to leave it at “random lottery” but I imagined the low-probability scenario where the executive branch for the next 4 years was elected by a pool of misanthropes and gangsters.

    • Eric Rall says:

      We could do honorably-discharged military veterans, Heinlein-style. That’s currently about 22 million veterans in the US out of a total adult population of 240 million, or just over 9%.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Pick it at random, like jury duty.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      Picking randomly seems good at first, but it would pervert things by making vote buying an actually widespread practice — buying one vote would be like buying 10 votes now, there would actually be a significant market for it, and people with votes would have more control over the price.

      I’d say that you should pick randomly, but make everyone who wants to show up to the voting place and pick randomly from them. That doesn’t give people enough time to sell their vote, and would actually speed up the process. And it would discourage vote buying, since nobody is going to pay beforehand for someone who only has 1/10 chance of voting.

      • Well... says:

        […] it would pervert things by making vote buying an actually widespread practice — buying one vote would be like buying 10 votes now, there would actually be a significant market for it, and people with votes would have more control over the price.

        That’s true of anything downstream from the scenario in the OP, isn’t it?

        • BeefSnakStikR says:

          Maybe, maybe not. In theory you could choose people who wouldn’t want to sell their vote, and who people wouldn’t want to buy votes from.

          I think that randomly choosing people is a good way to make people without votes jealous, and to make people who do have votes feel entitled to do what they want with them.

          • Well... says:

            You could allow everyone to vote but only count 10% of the votes, selected at random, and you only know if your vote was counted after the votes are counted.

      • Jiro says:

        And it would discourage vote buying, since nobody is going to pay beforehand for someone who only has 1/10 chance of voting.

        No, it won’t. If vote buying is practical when everyone votes, and you only pick 1/10 of them at random to vote, vote buying is still worth it–each vote you buy only has 1/10 the chance of having an effect, but the ones that do have an effect that is 10 times the size, which balances out.

        • BeefSnakStikR says:

          People don’t buy votes because vote buying effects the election if enough people do it. They buy them if they think they personally have a chance of affecting the vote in cooperation with all the legitimate voters.

          The overall effect of vote buying is affected by whether people participate in vote buying or not, not the other way around.

          Take eg. lottery tickets. Say you have two tickets selling at $1.

          People won’t buy ticket A [10/100 chance of winning $100] at the same rate as they do ticket B [1/100 chance of winning $1000], even though the total payout to all purchasers is the same over 100 ticket sales. (I hope I’m doing the math right, tell me if I’m wrong.)

          Then again, making vote buying a “lottery within a lottery” might be even more appealing, which would make my original statement wrong.

          I’m not sure which of those two lottery options people prefer more. Even if, say, the safer ticket A would be more popular, I’m not sure if that holds as you scale up.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      If my previous answer isn’t in spirit of the question: people who own at least one pet fish. Around 10% of the population, and no significant cost or cultural associations like with cats and dogs, so pretty inclusive.

      • Robert Jones says:

        Easily gameable.

        • Garrett says:

          Given how much people argue it is disenfranchising to require ID to vote, this might be far more effective than you think.

          • disposablecat says:

            @garrett: Yeah, this has always bothered me. Like okay I get that it can be a pain in the ass to get a valid ID *the first time*, especially in a rural area where the DMV is far away so you might have to take a whole day off of work, which especially sucks if you’re poor… but come on. You do it once every 4-10 years depending on the state. It’s really not a high bar to clear, and the older I get the more it seems to me that the real goal behind the bleating about it is something to the effect of “illegals who are otherwise law abiding should be able to get away with voting”. I can’t think of another reason why we would *not* want to verify the citizenship and identity of anyone participating in the civic process, and I can think of many reasons why we would.

            Worth noting I have no idea how many illegals actually vote, and I suspect the number is very small, but see also the “most illegals pay taxes” argument, which I also don’t know the veracity of.

            (If this is too culture war for the normal OT, I’ll shut up.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            You do it once every 4-10 years depending on the state.

            You do it every time you move.

          • disposablecat says:

            In Oregon, I can literally change my ID address online, and they mail me a sticker for my existing ID. I did this at least once every 14 months for ten years. It is by far one of the least burdensome aspects of moving. Also, you don’t even really have to do it. Nobody is going to demand that the address on your ID is current before you vote.

            If it is not this easy in other states, that’s what needs to be fixed, rather than throwing up our hands because maintaining valid ID is just ~too hard~.

          • Robert Jones says:

            My simplistic take on this is that since I don’t require ID to vote, I don’t see why anyone should. As far as I know, fraudulent voting is not a significant problem, and people who aren’t entitled to vote can’t vote because they can’t register.

            Beyond “we’ve never needed it in the past”, I don’t think I have a serious objection to requiring voter ID, but we would clearly need some universally and easily available form of ID. The problem is that government periodically attempts to introduce ID cards, which would be a bad idea, and I think it’s very likely that a requirement for voter ID would be used as an excuse for a further attempt.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            Nobody is going to demand that the address on your ID is current before you vote.

            Most places that require ID at the polls require that ID to match the registered place of residence. Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that Oregon is the typical state simply because you live there. Oregon is a state that has tried to make it as easy as possible to vote.

            The set of Voter ID laws objected to are designed to make it more difficult to vote for a subset of the population. The subset of the population it taxes in this manner is known to vote in ways that favor Democrats. That is why these policies are favored by Republicans and are not favored by Democrats. The fact that they rationalize the policy by stating other motivations isn’t really material.

            These things mostly don’t make it impossible to vote overall, they just want to affect a high enough percentage of votes in a given cycle to affect some contests at the margin. They think this will be enough to do things like swing congressional delegations from majority Dem to Rep in current circumstances, especially when combined with the efforts they made to gerrymander districts after the 2010 census.

            We are talking not about individual voters, but district population scale effects.

          • disposablecat says:

            Right, because everyone who finds it too difficult to update their ID when they move updates their voter registration when they move! You have no obligation, from a polling perspective, to not use an address for registration and for your ID that match but are X years out of date. Except in Oregon, again, where we vote by mail, but either the USPS or the DMV update our registrations for us so unless you’re so lazy that you don’t do a postal change of address when you move you’re covered (and if you have DMV do it, the ID thing isn’t a problem, automatically).

            I understand the whole argument about “oh this is disenfranchising for groups that tend to swing D”; I just increasingly find it ridiculous the more I think about it. If anything, it prevents people who are extremely unmotivated from voting; anyone who cares even slightly is going to take the time to square their documentation. Is there a study that shows how many people in various population groups would vote if only they had time to go get an ID, and what those people claim the barrier to getting an ID is? I suspect, as with illegals attempting to vote, that this population is vanishingly small.

            I also suspect that the population of likely-D voters that is disenfranchised by low wage jobs that don’t allow time off to get to a polling place is several orders of magnitude higher; this could be partially solved by declaring Election Day a federal holiday, and fully solved by national vote-by-mail (which also sidesteps the ID thing), but I don’t see nearly as much about either of those options as I do about “voter ID disenfranchisement”.

            Gerrymandering is, again, a separate problem, that needs a separate fix, and using it as an excuse is disingenuous (not least because both parties gerrymander when it suits their ends).

          • HeelBearCub says:


            I just increasingly find it ridiculous the more I think about it.

            Well, think about this just as hard.

            Why are Republicans fighting for ID laws so hard? Don’t tell me it’s because they think there are lots of illegal/illegitimate votes, because there aren’t. The Republicans pushing theses laws are not stupid. They have intention behind these laws that is not simply enjoying making private citizens dance through hoops to exercise their rights.

          • Matt M says:

            Why are Republicans fighting for ID laws so hard? Don’t tell me it’s because they think there are lots of illegal/illegitimate votes, because there aren’t.

            Just because there aren’t doesn’t mean they can’t think there are.

            There also aren’t Russian agents hacking voting machines and changing electoral results. Doesn’t mean prominent Democrats aren’t calling for “protections” to be put in place against that sort of thing.

            Both sides refuse to grant the legitimacy of any election they lose, they just have different scapegoats to blame it on. And the other side cannot concede on these issues, because doing so would be admitting that the losing side had a point, and might not have lost legitimately.

          • johansenindustries says:


            Why are Republicans fighting for ID laws so hard? Don’t tell me it’s because they think there are lots of illegal/illegitimate votes, because there aren’t.

            And the Democrats are so convinced that illegal immigrants follow US election law to a tee that they consider it an imperative to hinder any federal investigations and not to conduct any investigation themselves.

            Other than ‘we didn’t look and didn’t find many’ what makes you so convinced that a crime easy to commit, unpunished and encouraged – or are you to have us believe that Democrat ‘get out the vote’ campaigns are great sticklers on the legality of their targets- does not occur.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Kris Koback tried to make the case that there was an issue. He had every incentive to make the best case possible and the means to do all appropriate investigation.

            What he got instead was his ass handed to him on a platter, because he was trying to sell shit as Shinola.

            The court finds no credible evidence that a substantial number of noncitizens registered to vote … Instead, the law has acted as a deterrent to registration and voting for substantially more eligible Kansans than it has prevented ineligible voters from registering to vote.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:
            Certainly the imagination has run away from some individuals who think this stuff works like it does in a crappy thriller movie.

            However, I’ve yet to see any laws even proposed that would disproportionately disenfranchise Republicans as a result. To the extent that Republicans actual concern is election tampering, you would think they would be in support of robust anti-vote tampering efforts. I haven’t seen that either.

            In fact, if Republicans actually feared that Democrats would actually engage in mass felonious conduct to throw elections, they’d never want electronic only voting devices which can’t be recounted by hand. They’d prefer scanned paper ballots which can be hand recounted if machine tampering (or, more likely, failure) were to be at issue. But single user electronic polling stations also conveniently bottleneck voting…

          • johansenindustries says:

            Whether illegal immigrants vote is a matter of fact.

            Please explain how the fact that Kobach is not a dab hand at federal discovery rules means that illegal immigrants do not vote.

            Regulations like that exist for a reason, and I am not saying that the judge in that case should not have based her descision on the regulations in the course of law. But please explain how that is relevant to the matter of fact that you are asserting here.

            For example, Kobach lost an expert witness because he messed something up. Did Kobach messing something up suddenly make that expert a nimcoompoot?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The court finds no credible evidence that a substantial number of noncitizens registered to vote …

            You claim that this expert witness would have established that illegal voters are, in fact, voting in significant numbers. You hold the burden of proof.

          • johansenindustries says:

            ‘You claim that this expert witness would have established that illegal voters are, in fact, voting in significant numbers. ‘

            I do not. You posted an article about Kobach being a terrible lawyer – an example of that being his lost expert witness – and held that as evidence of illegal immigrants not voting. I asked you to explain how Kobach being terrible lawyer demonstrated that illegal immigrants don’t vote.

            The article does make two claims. ‘court was unable to find any evidence of “intentional [voter] fraud” in the Sunflower State during the time period alleged’ (bold mine) and ‘The court finds no credible evidence that a substantial number of noncitizens registered to vote’ (bold mine)* There is however a claim conspicious by its absence. It is the claim we care about. Do illegal immigrants vote? The article is silent. That silence speaks volumes.

            * Impersonating the dead (citizens) is probably the most famous sort of individual voter fraud of them all.

          • albatross11 says:

            ISTM that the right solution here is to have the state subsidize the picture ID and make it easy to get. Then, there’s way less of an issue with one side using the ID requirement to make it harder for the other side’s voters to vote.

            Though my guess is that this never will have very much effect. You need picture ID to drive, buy alcohol, and buy cigarettes, so I am skeptical that there are huge numbers of voters who are prevented from voting by their lack of an ID. This seems like one of those things that might nudge a really close election one way or another, but probably wouldn’t shift the totals by 1%.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Unless you are in North Dakota, you must be registered to vote.

            It appears you are now switching gears and claiming that illegal aliens are voting under someone else’s registration, which would be a different claim that still would need to proven credible, or you just enjoy running after your own tail.

            Either way, the burden of proof on those making the positive claim. I’m not going searching for your teapot.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Legally drive, yes. The other two, only if you aren’t old enough, nobody is carding The Golden Girls, situation comedy or no.

            The current population votes at a rate of something like 60% of the eligible population, with registration rates that are commensurate. That is a ton of opportunity for outreach, and putting hurdles in the way of that definitely has an effect.

          • johansenindustries says:

            You now:

            “It appears you are now switching gears and claiming that illegal aliens are voting under someone else’s registration, which would be a different claim that still would need to proven credible”

            You two posts ago:

            You claim that this expert witness would have established that illegal voters are, in fact, voting in significant numbers

            No mention of them having registered first before. It doesn’t look like I’m the one changing my claims.

            You are making the positive claim that the politicians are just racist rather than instituting anti-voter fraud policies to create a more trustworthy system less vulnerable to voter fraud. You are the one making the (slanderous) positive claim, the burden of proof is on you.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            The “disproportionality” here [for legal citizens] comes from the effort and agency required to obtain adequate identification rather than financial cost.

            Given that these kinds of IDs are used in so many other facets of life, and given those presumed deprived of their opportunity to vote have done so for reasons of lack of agency or concern, sympathy from the right is naturally very low.

            Second, those voters *do actually believe* that millions of non-citizens are voting in elections. If your political opposition;
            1. benefits from noncitizen voting
            2. Opposes measures intended to mitigate the possibility of noncitizen voting
            3. Occasionally support for expanding non-citizen voting.
            A reasonably cynical person [who may still be wrong] would conclude that it’s occurring at some level. Whether or not it’s occurring at a level sufficient to determine the outcome of an election would require an investigation that would need to be approved of in part by the people who say that it’s not occurring and that investigating it is pointless.

            [I suspect that if an investigation did reveal that a couple million non-citizens did or could have voted in a recent election, nobody’s mind would change]

          • Matt M says:

            Given that these kinds of IDs are used in so many other facets of life

            This is probably my biggest red flag.

            If you do not possess a valid government-issue photo ID, I feel like being unable to vote is probably the least of your concerns. There have to be at least a dozen more important things directly related to your quality of life you won’t be able to do.

          • Chalid says:

            I don’t know how rare this is, but I lived outside of California for a good ten years before replacing my California driver’s license and it had no impact whatsoever on my quality of life.

          • Aron Wall says:

            Arguably, requiring an ID to vote violates the 24th Amendment (which forbids poll taxes) if the State charges even a nominal fee to get the necessary ID (which many do).

          • Matt M says:

            I would be 100% in favor of making it illegal to charge money for a state-issue ID.

            You could probably even get the precious “bipartisan consensus” on that one!

          • albatross11 says:

            Have any of the states enacting ID requirements done something like this–like make it easy to get a state-issued ID for nothing or next-to-nothing?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Frequently you can get the state issued ID “for free” (in lieu of a driver’s license) as long as you don’t count the time it takes.

            DMV lines in my state are brutal however (not that this makes them unconstitutional as of yet).

          • Matt M says:

            DMV lines in my state are brutal however (not that this makes them unconstitutional as of yet).

            well we can’t pass a law requiring the government to be efficient

          • Mustard Tiger says:

            In Los Angeles county, there are 707,000 more people registered to vote than there are people eligible to register. 800k more in San Diego county. When you go to the DMV to get a diver license, which you can do whether you’re a legal resident or not, you need to opt-out of being registered to vote.

            It’s not unreasonable to think some people who aren’t eligible to vote are registered and vote anyway – especially if they get a ballot in the mail. Yes, they’re committing fraud, but who’s really checking? They might not even realize they’re breaking the law.

            The people in charge aren’t really interested in the integrity of the elections.

          • keranih says:


            Have any of the states enacting ID requirements done something like this–like make it easy to get a state-issued ID for nothing or next-to-nothing?

            Define easy. Define next to nothin’

            Yes – for people who have a valid copy of a US birth certificate. Or who know where they were born, and have $40 (and 2 months) to get a valid copy from that county registar. If they don’t have either, it gets complicated, time consuming, and expensive pretty fast.

            The sort of people who don’t have a valid government ID limited to established legal citizens are generally disorganized and marginal in all parts of their life. They likely don’t have a fixed address or a visible means of support. They are more likely than the average citizen to be an outofstate college student, elderly, homeless, suffering from sort of mental illness, impoverished, a ‘sovereign citizen’ sort and/or operating under false identification for some variety of reason.

            None of this is reason to deny them a voice in selecting our governing officials. It does, however, make it very difficult to ensure that only the residents of city A are voting for that mayor or city council and that the vote cast represents their wish rather than that of someone who filched their id or ballot.

            I have not yet found anyone who was willing to let out-of-towners vote in their own city election. To me, this makes the objections to verifying identity and residence/citizenship rather…suspect.

          • Brad says:

            As far as I’m concerned, anyone willing to show up in Bayside, East New York, Tottenville, Hunts Point, or Inwood, is perfectly welcome to vote for NYC mayor.

          • Aapje says:


            Claim by National Review.

            Fact check by the San Diego Union Tribune.

            Another related story by NR.

            In my country, you need to be registered with a county to be eligible to vote and the main issue seems to be that people can have difficulty being registered if they don’t have a (legal) address. Like people who:
            – live in a place that is not registered as being for permanent living, like a holiday home or warehouse
            – are homeless
            – lives with another person but don’t want to be registered there because of the legal or practical consequences of doing so
            – travel (abroad) for long periods or even permanently

            An issue here is that some of this is illegal, so then the question is whether illegal behavior should be facilitated and to what extent.

        • BeefSnakStikR says:

          To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people are using a fish-in-a-baggie as proof of voting eligibility. I’m saying that those are the people who would be chosen to vote — ideally, the voters wouldn’t know that’s why they’re being picked.

          Since secret pet inspectors probably aren’t worth the resources, a survey with various irrelevant questions would be the best. It’s too bad the census doesn’t ask a question about it, because if it was added, people would probably connect it to the new voting selection process. (Maybe not, though.)

          Really, it’s just a way of semi-randomizing it without actually randomizing. At least two other commenters suggested “randomly picking”, which makes it the boring option.

    • Odovacer says:

      The poorest 10% over 18 years old. If they do anything to get out of that, e.g. by work, redistribution, or whatever, then they lose the vote. This would be predicated on them not being able to alter voting rights.

    • thad says:

      One thing that stands out to me is how many people, myself included, look to proposals that don’t rock the boat. I have a pretty solid inclination to defend universal franchise, and I think the reasons I support it also motivate me to prefer proposals like a lottery over ones like tax payment.

      Interesting, here are the factors that jump out to me as worth considering when evaluating proposals

      1) How easy is the system to game. A lottery is fairly difficult to game. Sure, you could just lie about who won, but corruption at that level invalidates any system. This is more about Goodhart’s law. I do think one interesting defence of the tax-based selection would be that it would encourage people to pay more taxes. So while it is gameable in the sense that it would be possible to increase apparent taxes paid without money changing hands on net, it would also reward people (on the margin) for choosing not to engage in tax evasion, legal or illegal. Of course, this would likely drive down charitable donations and not everyone would consider more taxes to be a good thing, but I do think those effects make the proposal more interesting.

      2) Does it discriminate on grounds we care about. This is highly subjective and we can care in different ways. There is a more clear question of added consequences. Military service would heavily skew male, for instance. I imagine that those who support tax based selections would say that they think skewing the franchise towards the rich is a good thing, but not everyone would agree. (I would not). The other option is to punt. A lottery system tries to avoid discriminating as much as possible.

      3) Sustainability. Lotteries and choosing the top 10% of something can be built to inherently limit themselves to 10% of the population. Fish ownership and military service cannot. Tax payment would be heavily tied to wealth, and so would likely be noticeably heritable. On the other hand I could definitely see people making strategic decisions to avoid paying taxes as much as possible for a time in order to build up wealth and then try to make the jump into the franchised class.

    • thad says:

      Probably not in the spirit of the question, but I would like systems like:

      Me plus the 10% of the population least likely to vote
      Me plus 10 of the population who I have given the right to vote to in exchange for them agreeing not to vote on some percentage of the races.

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      Does it have to be a fixed 10%?

      • Anonymous says:

        He said “less than”.

        • Ilya Shpitser says:

          You didn’t understand my question. I am asking whether, for example, I can pick a different 10% every election year.

          • johan_larson says:

            It can shift from election to election. The scheme is acceptable as long as for each election less than 10% of the adult population is eligible to vote in it.

    • Erusian says:

      Is there a reason or a goal for this restriction? Because I can’t think of a compelling reason to restrict the franchise.

      We could go back to the old model where you had to own real estate in a community above a certain value. A little less than two-thirds of Americans own their own homes, so that would be the top 15% of home values (roughly) by community. That would guarantee no communities are completely disenfranchised (at least not without additional political action) and the top 10% would mean that overall homeownership rates would only matter if it’s less than 10% for any one group. And it would encourage real estate capital to flow into poorer communities. It’d also guarantee all voters are literally invested not just in the country but in the community.

      • knockknock says:

        I also don’t understand the point of this exercise — seems guaranteed to trigger more turmoil and anger than achieve any wisdom or efficiency.

        And of course there’s the slippery slope to “Who needs elections at all?”

        Isn’t this the same guy who last week wanted to send us back to the Pleistocene with an overnight bag? That one made more sense.

    • Well... says:

      I don’t know if this is 10%, but I feet like it might be in the ballpark:

      Only married heads of household with dependent children, determined according to what’s on your tax returns in the same year as a given election, may vote in it.

      If the household is headed by someone who is in his or her second marriage (widowed excluded), that vote is counted as half. Third marriages make you ineligible to vote, though if you’re not the head of the household and your spouse is eligible, you could try to persuade your spouse to vote the way you want if the two of you aren’t already aligned. (That’s between you and your spouse, of course.)

      All other presently-existing legal restrictions on voting remain in effect.

      • Jiro says:

        If someone is not married or doesn’t have children, and therefore can’t vote, are they exempt from having to obey laws made by people who are? That’s one of the biggest objection to any scheme of this sort.

        • Anonymous says:

          If someone is not married or doesn’t have children, and therefore can’t vote, are they exempt from having to obey laws made by people who are?

          Why would they be? Current schemes don’t grant freedom from obedience to laws to non-voters.

          • Jiro says:

            The fact that the current system prevents some people from voting is a bug, not a feature. Preventing felons from voting is a bad idea that should not be used as a precedent, and preventing minors from voting is a concession to the reality that competency tests for voters instead of a flat age cutoff are likely to be abused.

            (Non-citizens are different because we aren’t required to give them the rights of citizens in the first place, so the fact that they have to obey laws they can’t vote for is a non-issue.)

          • Anonymous says:


            I disagree. And you’ve skipped two big groups of non-voters: non-citizen residents and voluntary non-voters. They are subject to the laws exactly as much as the voting population, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t be… except perhaps as a punishment: OK, sure you’re exempt from the laws, but that includes laws that protect you. If someone murders you, it’s not a crime, etc.

          • Well... says:

            We also don’t let children vote. Should children be exempt from laws?

          • Jiro says:

            1) I didn’t skip noncitizens.

            2) I didn’t skip children either.

            3) Voluntary non-voters are not *prevented* from voting. If they were they would be involuntary non-voters.

          • Well... says:

            Fair nuff on (2) — I didn’t read closely enough.

            But you still haven’t shown how not being allowed to vote will lead to those non-voters thinking they are/ought to be exempt from laws.

            You’ve asserted but not explained why not letting felons vote is a bad idea.

            You’ve also implied that it’s reasonable to restrict voting by competency using age as a proxy. Suppose the proxy wasn’t needed, and we could somehow acceptably and accurately test people to see who is competent to vote without it being abused. Should the incompetents who fail the test be exempt from laws?

            Also, the OP specified that we should come up with a scheme to reduce franchisement to 10%, so anything anyone comes up with is likely to create a lot of people who aren’t allowed to vote but must live under the laws of the few who can.

          • Jiro says:

            But you still haven’t shown how not being allowed to vote will lead to those non-voters thinking they are/ought to be exempt from laws.

            The usual argument for only letting {married people, people with children, veterans, people who pay taxes, etc} vote is that only those people have actual stakes in the outcome. With modern governments that have laws that affect everyone, all people have stakes in the outcome.

          • Well... says:

            I don’t think that argument holds. For instance, surely American economic policy affects citizens of other countries, but we don’t let those people vote in our elections — and rightly so.

            Also, as we’ve discussed, children are affected by our laws yet they are not permitted to vote. You’ve clarified this is because they are not competent to vote, but their lack of competence to vote doesn’t change the fact that children are affected by our laws.

            Whether or not you think enfranchisement should be restricted based on whatever logic, the fact is that it is, and yet we do not witness disenfranchised people in general believing themselves exempt from laws as a result.

            Anyway, none of this is meant to construe that I think enfranchisement SHOULD be restricted; the discussion, per the OP, is on what is the best way to restrict it should restriction to 10% be required.

          • Jiro says:

            You’ve clarified this is because they are not competent to vote, but their lack of competence to vote doesn’t change the fact that children are affected by our laws.

            The principle isn’t that people should be able to physically vote if they are subject to laws, the principle is that they should be able to vote meaningfully–that is, that they have enough understanding of the law and the effect of their vote that they can vote in a way calculated to affect the law in a way matching their interests. Incompetent people, by definition, can’t vote meaningfully, even if they can physically mark a ballot. If they were able to vote meaningfully they’d be competent.

            Of course, there isn’t anyone we can trust to determine incompetence. Age limits are an imperfect approximation. To the extent that age limits allow incompetent voters or ban competent ones, it’s a flaw in the system, just an unavoidable flaw.

          • Well... says:

            the principle is that they should be able to vote meaningfully–that is, that they have enough understanding of the law and the effect of their vote that they can vote in a way calculated to affect the law in a way matching their interests.

            You could use this criteria as a way to restrict enfranchisement to the 10% of people most able to vote meaningfully. Simply raise the threshold of “meaningful” by using some other limit besides age — something more restrictive. Being a married head-of-household with dependent children, for example!

            Anyway, you still haven’t shown how people who aren’t allowed to vote will end up getting the idea they don’t have to follow the laws.

          • Jiro says:

            Asking if they have to follow the laws doesn’t mean I am claiming they will believe they don’t have to follow the laws. It’s a way of pointing out the contradiction between

            1) This scheme and what most people think of as justice

            2) This scheme and the most common justification for voting restrictions (that people don’t have a stake)

          • Well... says:

            1. If justice is the concern, then we have to first establish that having a vote in a representative republic the size of the US (I presume we’re talking about the US here) is meaningful in terms of justice. Since our justice system is more lenient towards kids and deprives convicted felons of the vote, I’d say it probably goes the other way instead: justice is meaningful in terms of having a vote. But that isn’t really relevant to the discussion prompted by the OP.

            2. I don’t know but it seems likely that insofar as people make some version of that argument, it’s “some people have more of a stake than others”, not “some people have a stake and others don’t”.

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        That’s my choice as well.

        Seems to create the best incentives. It also eliminates the problem of increasing numbers of old people voting for redistribution from young to old.

        • Anonymous says:

          Yeah, it’s a decent system. Strong empowerment of those who have a stake in the future.

          Wonder if it’s stable, though. Restricted franchises tend to slip into universal suffrage pretty quickly.

          • Well... says:

            Wonder if it’s stable, though. Restricted franchises tend to slip into universal suffrage pretty quickly.

            I don’t see why that question is aimed at my response in particular. The OP challenged everyone to come up with a way to significantly restrict franchise.

          • Anonymous says:

            Why are you talking at me? 😉

        • Aapje says:


          Seems to create the best incentives.

          To solve overpopulation*?

          *The incentive here is for the disenfranchised to kill children.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t think it would be a greater problem than killing parents for their inheritance currently is.

          • Well... says:

            The way I thought of it, the incentive is essentially to enter into and maintain a stable nuclear family, and then for government to cater to stable nuclear families which would produce what I would consider to be better outcomes than when government caters to, e.g., the lowest common denominator, or the loudest activists or whatever.

          • Jiro says:

            “Think of the children” is a disease in current politics that, when it succeeds, pretty much always leads to taking away people’s rights in order to “protect the children”. If only people with children can vote, you’ve made this already bad problem much worse.

          • Well... says:


            That’s an interesting and valid criticism, but I’m not convinced that the “think of the children” problem would be worse if voting was restricted in a way that made it so most voters were working dads. Think about who wouldn’t be voting in that scenario.

      • johan_larson says:

        So in a household with a husband and a wife, both of whom have never married before, do both partners get the vote or do they somehow have to decide who is formally the head of the household?

        • Well... says:

          They have to decide. I figure, people seem able to do this for tax purposes, so they should be able to do it for voting purposes at the same time.

          • JonathanD says:

            Do we? So far as I know the wife and I don’t do this, though maybe that’s because we use Turbotax and the software does it on the back end.

          • Well... says:

            Hm. Maybe let’s say for my thing, you have to be married, file jointly, and declare a head of household.

      • SamChevre says:

        I’d support this.

        To get down to 10%, I’d add a property ownership criterion, and/or a “doesn’t work for the government” criterion. I made my proposal in more detail below.

        • thad says:

          Do we really want to disincentivize government work? That seems likely to cause some problems

          • Well... says:

            What kind of person turns down a perfectly good government job/career just because it means he can’t vote?

          • SamChevre says:

            It’s not so much that I want to disincent government work, as that I think government workers have a particularly problematic set of incentives when it comes to overseeing the government.

          • albatross11 says:

            How is that different for researchers who receive government grants, or employees of companies that do a lot of business with the government? Employees of Lockheed-Martin seem to me to have incentives at least as problematic as people working for the NASA; guards at a government-run prison seem like they have almost identical incentives to guards at a privately-run prison.

          • SamChevre says:

            How is this different than people who work for government contractors?

            It’s not, but it is much harder to make a bright-line rule for “so how much of your business is government contracts,” and I was looking for simple bright lines.

    • Anonymous says:

      Currently serving military officers (ensign-equivalent and up). Males only (but that should be the case with the military anyway).

    • Fitzroy says:

      While not technically restricting the franchise, we might well restrict the effective franchise to 10% by introducing some kind of political acumen test.

      You cast your vote and are then asked a series of multiple choice questions about the political position of the candidate / party you have endorsed. Fail to achieve the pass mark and your vote is discarded.

      At the very least it should ensure voters have some understanding of the implications of their choice.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        If you want to be really obnoxious, you could also ask about the powers of the various positions you’re voting on.

    • ana53294 says:

      How about getting inspiration from Heinlein?

      Only those who will serve for two years in a federal service get to vote. We can include the army and some kind of social work.

      • Anonymous says:

        Rome had something sort of like this. Not explicitly, but pretty much anyone who wanted any sort of power, had to go through the public service.

        • Lambert says:

          Because the later years of the republic went so well.

          • Anonymous says:

            That wasn’t a compliment, or support. It was a statement of likeness, nothing more.

            (And they should have let Ceasar’s irregular re-election and re-immunization slide. But no, they had to get vengeful and put him in a corner.)

          • Nick says:

            Isn’t one of the things that went wrong with the late republic the transition from citizen armies to professional, standing armies dependent upon the largesse of their generals? The class was a few years ago for me, but I remember that being a pretty big deal.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            @Nick Yes,

            Roman emperors were routinely overthrown by their own armies and the cost of keeping the soldiers paid (and by contemporary standards they were very well paid) was one of the factors that precipitated the crisis of the third century. IIRC.

      • Watchman says:

        I’m not sure bureaucrats (and I am one), military folk and social workers give a particularly good field of opinion. They’re likely to support larger government spending and oppose technological solutions (other than new systems to address old problems), to judge by what they do now. Might be improved if people take the two years to become enfranchised I suppose, but for that to be worthwhile assumes an state that is over-weening enough that people feel they have to have the franchise to support themselves. And if people only did the short spells, you’d get poor federal service due to high turnover whilst having a greater than 10% share of the population enfranchised.

      • Betty Cook says:

        Or you could take Heinlein’s other suggestion, which was to limit the franchise (and legislature, and practice of law) to women, and more specifically to mothers, since they had the most clearly demonstrable stake in the future of the country.

        Though that wouldn’t get you down to the 10% the OP wanted.

        • engleberg says:

          More specifically mothers of living children. Kid dies, no vote. Good way to encourage our gallant women to enjoy the pleasures of conception, face the pain of childbirth, and endure childish company. For Heinlein, the goals were probably in that order.

          Heinlein liked to speculate about wildly varying franchises, but every time he wrote about someone dealing with actual politics he described a gangster-bureaucrat mush like the one running Kansas City when he was a kid. His Annapolis appointment meant he got recommendations from people in local politics. He was seriously involved in political campaigns all his life. He preferred political managers and volunteers to SF fans, as more interesting human beings.

          Is any government on Earth not run by some mush of gangsters and bureaucrats?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Heinlein didn’t always present being around children as horrible, and I’m pretty sure he thought restricting the franchise to women with children was a possible way of getting more sensible voters (and possibly a way of tweaking male readers), not incentivizing women to have children.

            As for politicians, Mr. Kiku of The Star Beast is a notable example of a good politician. So is the main character of “The Roads Must Roll”, which I just reread.

            There may well be more examples.

            Thanks for the information about Heinlein preferring being around political managers and volunteers.

          • albatross11 says:

            Bonaforte and his understudy in _Double Star_ are both presented as good politicians.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Narrowing the age window could restrict the voting population to 10% in any given election while still giving most citizens an opportunity to vote at some point in their lives. I’d go with something like 40 – 55 year olds (range adjusted as necessary to hit the 10% target). This way voters would mainly be people in the workforce (I think restricting the age to retirees would set up some perverse incentives) but who have had a chance to accumulate some life experience. This age range is also likely to have children in school (if they have children) and to own their home, and thus to be invested in their communities.

    • xXxanonxXx says:

      Make would be voters pass the citizenship test.

    • Thomas Jørgensen says:

      … All in on sortition! No franchise, as such, instead, every two years fifty adults are chosen by lot and sent to parliament for a term of ten years. For the first two, they have no voting rights in parliament, but shadow people in the last two years of their term and generally educated in civics.

      • Deiseach says:

        All in on sortition! No franchise, as such, instead, every two years fifty adults are chosen by lot and sent to parliament for a term of ten years.

        The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

        Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely an universal secretary.

        …“Why take the trouble to number and register and enfranchise all the innumerable John Robinsons, when you can take one John Robinson with the same intellect or lack of intellect as all the rest, and have done with it? The old idealistic republicans used to found democracy on the idea that all men were equally intelligent. Believe me, the sane and enduring democracy is founded on the fact that all men are equally idiotic. Why should we not choose out of them one as much as another. All that we want for Government is a man not criminal and insane, who can rapidly look over some petitions and sign some proclamations. To think what time was wasted in arguing about the House of Lords, Tories saying it ought to be preserved because it was clever, and Radicals saying it ought to be destroyed because it was stupid, and all the time no one saw that it was right because it was stupid, because that chance mob of ordinary men thrown there by accident of blood, were a great democratic protest against the Lower House, against the eternal insolence of the aristocracy of talents. We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur.”

        “Do you really mean,” asked the President, incredulously, “that you choose any ordinary man that comes to hand and make him despot — that you trust to the chance of some alphabetical list….”

        “And why not?” cried Barker. “Did not half the historical nations trust to the chance of the eldest sons of eldest sons, and did not half of them get on tolerably well? To have a perfect system is impossible; to have a system is indispensable. All hereditary monarchies were a matter of luck: so are alphabetical monarchies. Can you find a deep philosophical meaning in the difference between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians? Believe me, I will undertake to find a deep philosophical meaning in the contrast between the dark tragedy of the A’s, and the solid success of the B’s.”

        “And you risk it?” asked the other. “Though the man may be a tyrant or a cynic or a criminal.”

        “We risk it,” answered Barker, with a perfect placidity. “Suppose he is a tyrant — he is still a check on a hundred tyrants. Suppose he is a cynic, it is to his interest to govern well. Suppose he is a criminal — by removing poverty and substituting power, we put a check on his criminality. In short, by substituting despotism we have put a total check on one criminal and a partial check on all the rest.”

        …”But do you really mean that you will trust to the ordinary man, the man who may happen to come next, as a good despot?”

        “I do,” said Barker, simply. “He may not be a good man. But he will be a good despot. For when he comes to a mere business routine of government he will endeavour to do ordinary justice. Do we not assume the same thing in a jury?”

    • Watchman says:

      Discussion so far suggests we might be better sticking with universal suffrage really, but putting that aside.

      I have the irritating problem of being an ideological democrat (note the small d – I’m as a result often opposed to the position of ideological Democrats). So my solution would be for each community to vote on the 10% of the population who should have the vote. We could leave it to each community to determine what voting system they would use (so long as it was universal and private), but they would have a certain number of enfranchised voters in proportion to the community’s population.

      Too much expense and hassle? Then give the national franchise to people elected to local (or perhaps intermediate – US state level for example) positions. This would make it somewhat more important for local democracy to be engaged with by voters and by the political machines alike.

      • mdet says:

        Give the national franchise to people elected to local (or perhaps intermediate – US state level for example) positions.

        Sounds like you’ve partially reinvented the Electoral College.

        Now that I think about it, answer hack: Keep everything the same, but expand the Electoral College to 10% of the population. “Democratically choosing your community’s electors” != “Voting for a candidate”

    • Chalid says:

      If you must have merit-based voting, it seems like a diversified strategy is most robust – you get the potential benefits of a “better” voting pool if that’s what you believe in, without as much risk of capture.

      So you maybe a system where you get a vote if you pay very high net taxes, age-adjusted (capped at 1% of population), or if you have won recognition for exceptional military service (capped at 0.5% of population), or if you pass a demanding service requirement (capped at 0.5% of population), or [fill in a few more measures of civic virtue…]. Cap the total contribution of these merit-based votes at 4% of population. Then the other 6% is assigned by lottery. The merit-based votes should dominate unless they actually try to game the system to the detriment of the rest of the population.

      • add_lhr says:

        Just logged in to post a similar idea – I think this is the fairest way of recognizing that there are multiple types of contributions to society while not making it overly complicated or gameable. As long as the master categories are big enough, there’s not a huge incentive to argue about who exactly fits in to a given category, so less incentive to game. My proposal is:
        – 2% drawn from all veterans
        – 2% drawn from highest X% of net taxpayers
        – 2% drawn from all teachers / public servants / public safety officials + business owners and religious leaders (you could divide these 5 groups into two categories of community service, but grouping them together makes it less valuable to win an argument about who exactly counts as a religious leader, etc)
        – 4% drawn from entire population

        I would also be willing to consider an X% highest-educated category if we could define that cleanly.

        You could take part in as many pools as you are eligible for. I would also pick 2x or 3x the required number of voters from each category and have some of the votes randomly not counted to partially mitigate the issue of vote-selling.

    • baconbits9 says:

      If you are doing this you are de facto arguing the current system is in terrible shape. The people least responsible for the current system therefore should get to reform it, and the people least responsible are ones who haven’t voted. I don’t know if its 10% but you enfranchise everyone who has never voted, weighting their votes by how many elections they missed, so a 40 year old has 22 missed years of voting, his votes for the House count 11x, the presidency 5x, etc, etc.

      • Matt M says:

        I like this. Reminds me of George Carlin’s “If you vote, you have no right to complain.” bit.

        • baconbits9 says:

          So I think the proposal actually has some interesting potential.

          First it breaks all current third rails. Can’t reform Social Security? Now you can, no politician knows how to motivate people who have never voted before so there will be virtual free reign for proposals.

          Secondly while power at first shifts to the old and apathetic it then moves steadily toward the more thoughtful citizen. It also might break one of the undersold issues with democracy- single (or low) issue voters end up deciding tons of things that they don’t care about. An eighty year old goes to the polls to protect their social security checks and ends up supporting a foreign policy shift that has most of its repercussions well after they are dead.

          3rd it makes most powerful people expect to be one termers. To win the presidency you have to deplete your base for the next election.

    • LadyJane says:

      Only 9.3% of adults in the U.S. have a Master’s degree, so the simplest way would probably just be to limit it based on education. Anyone with a Master’s degree in any subject can vote, as long as it’s from an officially accredited institution. Everyone else is immediately disenfranchised. (This would disenfranchise me as well, at least for the next few months, but that’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make.)

      Better yet, you could restrict voting rights to anyone with a Bachelor’s degree in Law, Political Science, Economics, History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Statistics, or any field that could reasonably be considered a subset of any of the aforementioned subjects. I’m not sure exactly what percentage of the public that would be, but 30% of adults in the U.S. have a Bachelor’s degree, so the idea that roughly one-third of those people have a degree in one of the social sciences is believable to me. (Psychology might be the confounding factor here, since it’s the currently the most popular major for college students, so if the electorate is still too large, we could further reduce it by limiting it only to fields of Psychology that deal with society as a whole.)

      Of course, I’d greatly prefer that as many adult citizens be able to vote as possible, so the whole idea of this exercise is rather repellent to me. But if we had to restrict voting rights to a specific tenth of the population, a Seldonian system of rule by social scientists seems like the best way to go.

      Edit: For some reason, this post keeps disappearing from the page. I guess the gods of SSC are really opposed to my idea?

      • thad says:

        Why Master’s degrees and not MDs or JDs?

        • LadyJane says:

          @thad: Realistically, such a proposal would include MDs, JDs, PhDs, etc. I was just using “Master’s degree” as something of a catch-all term for all postgraduate degrees.

      • quanta413 says:

        But if we had to restrict voting rights to a specific tenth of the population, a Seldonian system of rule by social scientists seems like the best way to go.

        This seems akin to me to saying that all of the people doing physics experiments should be philosophers of science. It’s a fun idea, but picks people studying something at the wrong level to be relevant to what the goal probably is.

    • knockknock says:

      Just restrict the vote to superheroes

    • Jaskologist says:

      Voters should have a personal stake in the future, so only those with offspring should be eligible.

      Voters should have demonstrated responsibility and good long-term planning skills, so only those who are still married to the parent of their offspring should be eligible.

      Voters should have a wealth of experience to draw from, so raise the minimum age until you’re down to 10% of the adult population.

      • WashedOut says:

        “Commiserations, you’re infertile. I guess if you want to be able to vote for that pro-medical research candidate, there might be some loopholes around adoption you can explore. Gotta dash, bye!”

        As the population ages, the probability increases that someone will be old enough to vote but too old to care/know about issues affecting the majority of the still-working population. Put differently, age of peak “personal stake in the future” is not likely to align with eligible voting age.

    • proyas says:

      Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to restrict the electoral franchise to less than 10% of the adult population. The question is, which 10%? To whom will you entrust the power to select our public officials?

      I’d copy the society in Starship Troopers and require people to earn the right to vote by serving the government under brutal conditions and low pay for several years. Joining the military would be one option, though there’d be just as many civilian positions involving things like forestry, cleaning up trash, and demolishing derelict urban buildings. Whatever the task, all recruits would be assigned to work units, and would live communally and in a state of poverty. They would be monitored by a variety of overseers who would assess pertinent qualities such as leadership, teamwork, selflessness, and commitment to the nation, and by mental health specialists who would screen out sociopaths and people with toxic personalities.

      Voting rights would be hard to get and easy to lose. Felony convictions would lead to the loss of the franchise, as would failing to do a second round of penurious government service (perhaps of a less physically demanding nature in light of the advanced ages of the recruits) 20 – 30 years after first earning the right to vote.

    • SamChevre says:

      My argument is that the selection criteria should select for capability (what this person does is done well), a long-term view, and the decisions made are hard to escape and affect them as a citizen more than as a person.

      So, I would select “owns real property in the area of voting, equal to at least one inexpensive housing unit.” This gets you down to about 75% of adults (I think it is 60% of households, but households that own a house are disproportionately likely to have more than one adult.) This selects for “decisions are hard to escape.”

      Next, I’d eliminate everyone who gets, or has a household member who gets, a check from the government regularly that doesn’t reflect a return of money paid (so tax refunds do not count; Social Security might be acceptable, but a government pension is not). This will eliminate another ~25% of households at least. This selects for “decisions will affect the person as a citizen more than as a person.”

      Next, I’d select “highest earner within the household if more than one adult meeting the above criteria”. This reduces the franchise by another 1/3 or so.

      At this point, it’s about 30% of adults who qualify. I would use three-breakers: you must register significantly in advance of any election. Beyond that, number of people you represent–larger households are more likely to get a voter–and some measure of engagement and knowledge–some mix of what number of organizations you are an active participant in and how well you do on a test like the US citizenship exam.

    • Randal Doyle says:

      Franchise limited to individuals who can squat 225 lbs (or the amount required to fit the 10% quota). Polling places located at powerlifting gyms and eligibility checked on the spot.

    • Hazzard says:

      I can’t think of any way I can justify this with my own standards, so this is me doing it with a gun to my head.

      Strike off everyone who has a criminal record, or moved to the country within their own lifetime. Tie voting to citizenship and make that a lot stricter. Then anyone who dropped out of education before turning 16/18, because I’d expect them to have less of an interest in what the government is doing, so they’re not being good citizens by keeping track of the state. And anyone with serious mental illness that impairs them badly enough that we wouldn’t say they’re functional, such as Low Functioning Autism sufferers.

      Then whatever percentage is left over, hoping I already have a large percentage and I’d take that percentage of top earners and bar them from voting.

      • albatross11 says:

        My guess is that most of the people you’re striking from the rolls already hve a very low rate of voting

    • The Nybbler says:

      I’d exclude certain groups: most welfare recipients (including custodial parents of children receiving welfare, but not including social security retirement income), elected officials and political appointees, and felons. Then I’d choose randomly from the rest of the adult citizen population, but not perfectly evenly. Government employees other than elected officials and political appointees would be some amount less likely to get a vote (perhaps .10 to .25 as likely) at the level of government they work in. Retirees would be similarly undersampled.

  6. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Does anyone know whether it’s legally possible to just not Brexit?

    • Eric Rall says:

      From an EU perspective, technically no, but there are workarounds: Britain has given notice under Article 50 to exit, and a strict reading of Article 50 seems to imply that once notice is given, withdrawal is automatic after two years unless its negotiated earlier. But as a practical matter, most of the EU leadership currently seems inclined to interpret Article 50 leniently based on the argument that “intent to withdraw is not a withdrawal”. And even if Article 50 is interpreted strictly, Britain could rejoin under Article 49’s new member provisions, provided the European Parliament consents.

      From a British perspective, it’s an open question subject to interpretation. The law setting up the referendum didn’t specific a particular legal effect, which some argue means it’s purely advisory, but the majority interpretation seems to be that it’s not self-executing (i.e. Brexit requires additional legislation or executive action to put into effect once the referendum passes) but is morally binding on Britain’s government. If push came to shove, the Queen’s reserve powers could come into effect: she had little day-to-day authority despite enormous theoretical powers because she’s bound tightly by the norms of Britain’s unwritten constitution, but the flip side of that is that she’s also the final guardian of the unwritten constitution and arguably has the duty to use her reserve powers to enforce it. I don’t think she could get away with just saying “No takesie-backsies: we’re brexiting whether you like it or not”, but she might do something like what her grandfather George V did in 1910, when the PM wanted the King to threaten to pack the House of Lords with Liberal peers in order to force passage of the House of Lords Reform Bill, and the King said he’d only do so if the PM agreed to have a snap election with the reform bill as the main issue, in order to establish the necessary popular support for the PM’s policy.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        But as a practical matter, most of the EU leadership currently seems inclined to interpret Article 50 leniently based on the argument that “intent to withdraw is not a withdrawal”.

        I think this assertion, that there is a “practical” side of this, cannot at all be assumed.

        If the the legal formulas of EU membership aren’t actually followed, but rather simply assumed, I think your are quite likely to see legal challenges based on the idea that the treaties and agreements that keep the UK in the EU are no longer in force. This, unless there is a unanimous vote of the EU member states to allow the UK to stay in, I think it’s highly likely that they will in fact be out.

      • Robert Jones says:

        I can say with great confidence that Her Majesty the Queen would not do anything of the sort.

        My understanding is that in 1910, Asquith asked the King (who had ascended to the throne very recently) to (a) dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections and (b) agree to appoint additional peers if the House of Lords again blocked the Parliament Act following the election. Both (a) and (b) are prerogative powers of the monarch which by convention are exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. The King’s options were simply to say yes or no (and in the latter case, the government would have resigned).

        In any case, Her present Majesty will not attempt to arbitrate on the legality of her own government’s acts or omissions. Any challenge to the legality of Brexit or not-Brexit will be determined by the Supreme Court (as already happened in the case of R (on the application of Miller)).

      • peterispaikens says:

        Re-joining under article 49 under the same provisions that UK has/had is not a real possibility – UK has/had a lot of favourable exceptions from the common EU practices that has caused resentment in other EU members, (re)joining is subject to vetoes from existing members (which would be applied, this was discussed even before the Brexit vote) and UK is bound to lose at least some of these exceptions if it decides to rejoin, harmonizing with the rest of the union.

        I mean, it definitely would be allowed to rejoin if it wants, however, if the current (comparably very favorable) terms weren’t good enough for the British public, the “new member” offer will be even less attractive.

    • Robert Jones says:

      From a UK perspective it clearly is. From an EU perspective, the position is unclear, because Article 50 has never previously been used. It would be for the ECJ to determine. Nevertheless, the obstacle to remaining is political not legal: while there would be some irritation in Brussels at British indecisiveness, nobody particularly wants us to leave, so some Euro-fudge will be found if the situation arises, if need be by amending the treaty or formally readmitting the UK.

    • ana53294 says:

      One thing I am sure of, is that if the Brexit reversal is just a ploy to retreat and then do Brexit properly, having a good plan for it, the EU would not agree. One reason they pressured Theresa May into implementing Article 50 as soon as possible was to avoid the UK getting MEP in the upcoming EU Parliament elections. Nobody in the EU wants a country that is on the fence, so I am pretty sure that they may demand a show of actual commitment to the EU, in order to reverse Article 50.

      Getting rid of Thatcher’s rebate and the UK’s exception clauses would be the show of commitment required, most probably. I am really, really sure that if the UK does Brexit, and wants to re-apply, they will certainly lose all the exceptions, because they are such a pain for the EU.

      • Robert Jones says:

        The pressure on the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 was largely British. The only way that the EU’s position was relevant was that they declined to discuss the terms of Brexit until Article 50 was triggered on the basis that the referendum was a matter of UK internal politics and didn’t have any effect on the UK’s status as a member state unless and until Her Majesty’s Government notified the EU of the UK’s intention to leave.

        I agree that if the UK leaves and then applies to be readmitted, such readmission would be on the same terms as any other state.

        • ana53294 says:

          Now, it may be possible to revoke Article 50 by getting rid of some of the exception clauses, but not all of them. The EU does have to deal with the big financing hole Brexit leaves them with, and if they could get rid of it, while imposing a significant cost, it would be an acceptable punishment to the UK from the EU’s perspective.

          What I’m saying is, while re-admission will mean both Schengen and no rebate, revocation could happen while keeping one of them (you would have to give up something significant; Schengen, the rebate or the euro are the most significant issues, and I don’t see the UK ever entering the euro).

          Of course, that would probably be unacceptable for the Tories (who are hell-bent on having their cake and eating it too, Brexit means Brexit). So I don’t see A50 revocation happening. I do think that Brexit in name only could happen, but the UK will still leave the EU.

        • ana53294 says:

          Do you really believe that the Euro is more politically viable than Schengen or the loss of rebate for the UK public?

          Then A50 revocation is doomed. If the UK decided down the line to get out of the EU for real this time, with an actual plan, a cost benefit analysis and the infrastructure built for it (real international ports, of the size of Hamburg, if not Rotterdam, would be a start).

          Entering the Euro means there is no way to get out. For me, if I hypothetically imagine Spain leaving the EU, I wouldn’t even know where to start. The most likely outcome would be that Spain would continue to use the euro, like Montenegro, but without any control over it.

        • ana53294 says:

          Small ports are much less efficient if you need to impose tariffs and inspect the items. For example, you have the container-sized x-rays. You need the labs, the equipment, the people trained to identify whether a shipment of Chinese plastic toys includes melamine or not. Economies of scale help, which is why most of the big transcontinental ships go to big ports. Would most of the small ports be able to handle the big transcontinental ships?

          Training the inspectors takes at least two years. France has already began the recruitement process for port inspectors who will handle post-Brexit shipping, and it will still be too late. I haven’t heard of recruiting starting in the UK.

  7. dodrian says:

    After reading Scott’s Universal Human Experiences article I realized that I can’t visualize objects in my head. If you ask me to close my eyes and picture a house, I can get the ‘feeling’ of a house in my brain, but it doesn’t appear as something tangible in the darkness. I could describe it for you, red wall, four windows, etc, but only because I know how to describe what the house ‘feels’ like. I could describe what my wife looks like to you, but only with immense concentration can I begin to “see” a picture of her with my eyes closed, and even that’s not very clear.

    On the other hand, I can imagine sounds very well. I can imagine talking to a friend and am able hear their accent clearly, even if it’s one that I can’t mimic with my voice. I can ‘hear’ a melody line from a song clearly when I imagine it (though not always the background parts). I can imagine sounds in a much more concrete way than I can imagine things visually.

    Additionally, sometimes these sounds become even clearer, as if I am actually hearing them from outside my head. It usually happens when I am lying down (ear pressing on pillow – presumably that has something to do with it, like the colors you see if you press gently on your closed eyes), and there’s lots of white noise (eg., a nearby fan blowing). I have mainly heard people talking, or animal sounds, but sometimes more complicated sounds too – I had Echosmith’s Over My Head stuck as an earworm last night, but suddenly it sounded like the chorus was playing aloud. Though they sound like real sounds, I am aware that they are exactly matching what I am thinking at that moment, though it can be disorientating.

    Do other readers experience the same thing? Can you hear distinct voices when thinking? Do you ever have ‘aural hallucinations’ in a similar way?

    • Evan Þ says:

      Yes, I can see things in my mind’s eye as well as hear things (in my mind’s ear? I wonder why that’s not an expression?) Usually, they don’t actually sound like real sounds to me, though they have a handful of times in my life – usually when I’m half-asleep.

      • mdet says:

        “Mind’s Eye” has the benefit of the rhyming long-I sound. “Mind’s Ear” isn’t as fun to say

        • Winter Shaker says:

          Hmm. I had to actually stop and say it out loud a few times to confirm, but I’m pretty sure that for me ‘mind’s eye’ doesn’t rhyme. Don’t you have more of a front vowel as the start of the diphthong in ‘mind’ than in ‘eye’?

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      I am exactly the same.

      Interestingly though, I still dream with full graphics.

      • dodrian says:

        An odd thing about my dreams – I always know who it is I’m talking to in a dream, even if they don’t actually look anything like the person should. I can tell that they ‘feel’ like the right person, even though they don’t ‘look’ like the right person, and I can tell during the dream that they don’t look right, though it’s not enough for me to notice it’s a dream.

        I wouldn’t say that my dreams are graphically vivid though.

    • Baeraad says:

      I’m partly like that. I can imagine objects, but only in a very simple, cartoonish way – I can’t seem to give them the sort of texture and complexity they have in real life. I’m a lot better with sounds.

      Aural hallucinations? Mmm. Only when I’m half-asleep, I think – but there have been times when I’ve been on the verge of falling asleep, and then I woke up because I could swear someone just shouted in my ear.

    • Robert Jones says:

      I can’t visualise objects (and despite what Scott says, I have some doubt as to whether anyone can), but I can recall or imagine tastes vividly.

      • ana53294 says:

        Well, I can. And there is a memory technique called memory palace which is based on visualization.

      • Watchman says:

        I can visualise journeys, including objects en route, meaning in many cases I only need to go somewhere once (I have to be driving or walking/running) to be able to find it again,* which is a practical case of visualisation of objects (including specific places) combined with a (learned I think – I do orienteering as a sport) ability to visualise routes on a mental map. So it is possible to visualise objects: I’ve got a huge mental library of minor road junctions around the UK I can pull up…

        *As a power this has limitations in that sometimes it doesn’t quite work due to there being two similar roads or something, and there are some places I just can’t navigate through without a map or satnav for some reason, despite driving or running through them repeatedly. This latter problem is probably due to initially faulty mental imaging of the shape of the place though (apparently if I think of a place as square and its a weird rhombus I will try to force my image on reality) as I can still visualise the clock in Warwick at which I invariably go wrong.

        • dodrian says:

          I should point out that I have excellent map-reading skills, and can walk a route in my head. I know what each place looks like, recognize it, and could describe it, but can’t actually visualize the route. I could tell you how many houses I pass on my walk home, but I couldn’t tell you the colors of most of them.

          One of the comments in the LessWrong article linked in Scott’s article gives this example:

          Picture a 3 by 3 grid. Then picture the words “gas”, “oil”, and “dry” spelled downwards in the columns left to right in that order. Looking at the picture in your mind, read the words across on the grid.

          I can picture the grid. I can just about picture one word at a time in its correct place. I cannot see the words in the other direction.

      • mdet says:

        Data point for “some people can visualize much better than others”: on one occasion my friend and I each made Sims for each other, from memory. Hers looked much more like me than mine did like her…

      • mustacheion says:

        I absolutely can visualize objects in my mind. In certain domains I am much better at thinking visually than thinking in language. This is really useful for things like machining, where I can move and rotate the part I am building in my head so that I can understand how to physically orient and move it in the mill so as to achieve the desired shape.

  8. hash872 says:

    Soooo…… what’s worked for people with social anxiety, specifically situational (i.e. bad in some situations and totally non-existent in others)? Sorry if this has been discussed before at length (yes I read Scott’s piece on anxiety in general).

    Yes yes I know, CBT. Based on my own situational anxiety, I would say I need less ‘cognitive’ (I don’t have a lot of negative thoughts that seem to lead to the anxiety), but more ‘behavioral’ (just immersing myself over and over again in group situations, and building up my tolerance). It’s painful but I think if I view it like a workout, I can build my social muscles over time hopefully. Did this work for anyone else? Like, did anyone else slowly and gradually increase the amount of anxiety-inducing socializing they do, and sort of build skills that way?

    Chemically- anyone take anything specifically for social (i.e. not generalized) anxiety? SSRIs seem a bit much when I’m fine with 90% of my non-social day to day life, plus everyone says they have sexual side effects- which would be counterproductive, as part of the point of more socializing for me would be more sex. Anyone ever tried small amounts of phenibut to ease into social situations? I mention this because I feel like a mild anxiety-blocker that lasts for a few hours is a better solution than a systemic SSRI that basically affects my brain chemistry 24/7/365. (I suppose I could use alcohol for that purpose).

    I tried Toastmasters and was unable to get over a strong panic reflex when I got up to speak (like, I was physically unable to), but I was thinking about taking some beta blockers to try again- and then slowly weaning myself off them while keeping the amount of speaking the same, to again build up my social skills.

    Any other general solutions out there?

    • Andrew Hunter says:


      Alcohol also works, but weed works better with less hangover. I wouldn’t recommend doing this every time you have a social interaction, but a few times is often enough to get a track record of success. (Not that I’m cured, but some pot has definitely helped me here.) Oh, and if you’re not a druggie in general, definitely use it a few times in safe situations (with friends, say) until you know how it hits you. I recommend edibles as they last longer and don’t hurt your throat, but YMMV there–they’re much harder to titrate and hit different people differently.

      Seriously, the ability to take 10 mg THC when I’m about to do something I know will trigger my anxiety is a huge QOL improvement.

      • hash872 says:

        That’s wild. I have quite a bit of marijuana experience, it completely incapacitates the verbal section of my brain and I’m basically unable to complete sentences, I’m totally incoherent. I would also be really freaked out by the other people, the overall situation away from my home etc. No weed & socializing for me.

        I find it fascinating how a drug can affect people with different brain chemistries in such totally different ways

        • mustacheion says:

          I second that weed might be worth trying, except for the complaint that I have found it extremely difficult to dose correctly. If you are finding that it is incapacitating you in any way, you are simply taking too much (trust me, I have been there). You should aim for a dose that is so small you almost can’t feel anything.

          Also, really important to understand; not all weed is the same. THC is the most popular active chemical in marijuana, but it is not actually the chemical you want to be ingesting to calm social anxiety. There are dozens of other less famous psychoactive chemicals in marijuana which have a wide variety of different effects. Different strains have very different ratios between these many different compounds, so different strains will have totally different effects.

          Unfortunately I can’t really offer you any more concrete advice other than to target low THC strains, and maybe get some recommendations somebody else who is familiar with different strains. I tried experimenting with pot as a sleep aid/anxiety relief for a few months under the tutelage of a friend who has tons of experience with it, and was able to help me select strains, but I ultimately gave up on the endeavor because I just couldn’t find a tolerably good way to dose and get a consistent effect.

          • mdet says:

            I might be reading to much into it, but I feel like hash872 has plenty enough experience with everything you suggest.

      • dick says:

        Not contradicting you, everyone’s different, but this would be terrible advice for me. Any quantity of weed makes me much more anxious, especially around strangers. Also, edibles are a terrible way for beginners to experiment with marijuana, due to the “you don’t know if you got the dosage right for an hour” part. My advice to newbies is to get one of the little pen-shaped vaporizers, and take a small puff every ten minutes until you get where you want to be.

        Alcohol, on the other hand, might as well have been created by God to assist people in socializing with strangers IMO. I think a rule of thumb like, “One drink if you’re mingling with strangers or coworkers, two for socializing with friends, three plus means you’re getting drunk” should be taught in high school.

      • dndnrsn says:

        People seem to respond really differently to marijuana, whereas alcohol is a lot more predictable at the buzzed stage (in my experience it’s only past that point that whether someone is an angry, sad, friendly, etc drunk manifests). Unfortunately, while “have 1-3 drinks” fixes a lot of anxiety, the population of people who cannot stop at 3 is fairly large, and effects of drinking more than that much are pretty deleterious.

    • toastengineer says:

      Nootropics Depot’s Phenibut definitely takes a lot of the edge off for me.

    • Cheese says:

      It basically sounds like you’re describing exposure therapy.

      I’d probably stay away from substances given they tend to vary person to person in effect (e.g. Weed completely destroys my social ability to the point of strong paranoia). Beta blockers as you say maybe?

      I think you might be able to find a psychologist who specialises in exposure therapy, as it is fairly common for situational anxiety.

    • J says:

      There’s an improv theater drop in meetup near me. Improv meetups are a little like “whose line is it anyway” but without the need to be clever and without the large audience; the time is spent playing short games where you might only say one word when it’s your turn. Sometimes people also just come and watch without ever participating. Beginner series classes are also a common thing, and those start gently because they know people are often shy.

      The book “impro” by Johnstone got me excited about it, and it’s worth reading even if you never actually do any improv. (It gets a bit funky in the second half, but eg., I’ve never actually seen groups actually do any mask work)

      But the whole premise of improv is to be really non judgmental and just have fun going with whatever happens. It’s like being a kid again and just getting to play, with lots of validation from everyone.

      I actually think now that improv-ness is a major personality feature; think jazz vs classical musicians, ballet vs social dancing, extreme programming vs waterfall. So if you’re an improviser type then definitely try improv, but if you’re an orderly planner type it may not be for you.

    • if I view it like a workout, I can build my social muscles over time hopefully. Did this work for anyone else?

      I tried exactly that framing and it went well, although it only look me so far. I was able to ~triple the size of my “social reserves” over the course of several months, and then this method stalled out and I eventually had to switch to more introspective approaches that targeted the underlying issues. YMMV, of course, but I found it well worth the effort.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Do you drink? Alcohol is definitely not something you should rely on, but it’s incredibly useful for most parties.

    • HowardHolmes says:

      It appears that the consensus of all the replies so far is to agree that being around people produces anxiety. I am 70 years old and will affirm that people are the source of most of life’s stress.

      What I have discovered the best solution for me is abstinence. My wife and I live our own lives and avoid all social contact. I can tell you there is no downside. Not only am I free of friends, I am free of stress. I know it sounds weird, but if you don’t want to go to a party, don’t go. It is the simple and obvious solution. Since being around people is the thing I most hate, then doing anything other than that is a plus. Washing the dishes is more enjoyable than going to a party.

      • toastengineer says:

        My wife and I live our own lives and avoid all social contact.

        That would work great once you’re already married, but…

        • Aapje says:

          Dating consists of two people sitting in a room minding their own business. If they don’t bother each other too much, they go on to have a second date.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            I’ve thought a lot about that. Females are also stressed out with socializing. Surely there are tons of people of both sexes out there who would or could soon learn the pleasure of being alone.

            Finding them might be difficult, but we live in a world of pretense. Everyone at the party is stressed out (or on drugs) and is only pretending to like it, so by being more honest, partners can be found anywhere.

            At the extreme end, I would rather live alone as a hermit rather than socialize. I say extreme end, but I believe that all people are this way. Like I said behavior is primarily pretense. If we stopped lying our lives would change.

          • HowardHolmes says:


            My other response was for toastengineer but I messed up the placement.
            In response to your comment about dating, I totally agree. Minding one’s own business is a very underrated activity. My wife and I practice that as well. We primarily are silent, speaking only about joint decisions we need to make which are few. The more I stay out of her business the more I realize that I spent a lifetime meddling in other people’s business. Spouses do not need to socialize to get along. Descartes said that all men secretly wish their wives would die. I agree. It was certainly true of my first two marriages. But this one is entirely different. Living one’s own life has no downside.

          • Aapje says:


            I’m wondering…how did you meet your wife and/or recognize that you were compatible?

          • HowardHolmes says:


            We met prior to coming to our current understanding regarding the purpose of friendship. I fully own that my life is an outlier, but it appears to be the only life possible given my understanding of what is real and what is illusion. I don’t advocate for this life because humans evolved for a life of pretense and illusion. I only testify that a life of solitude is surprisingly compatible with what the human is…really is behind the screen.

            I also think that given the anxiety caused by our pursuit of the social life we should at least examine the reasons for that pursuit and our options.

          • CatCube says:


            I strongly suspect you’re projecting your own exceptional feelings onto others. I’d rather stay home than go out, but I know a lot of people who will bounce off the walls when they’re alone. Solitude is not the “natural” state of humans.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Cat Cube

            I’d rather stay home than go out

            So why do you go out?

          • CatCube says:


            I don’t. I just acknowledge that my preferences are very weird, and that other people who do want to go out aren’t suffering some kind of delusion that they like going to parties.

    • goszs says:

      I wouldn’t recommend weed. As you might already be aware, the use of “safety-behaviours” (anything you do to feel safer, mitigate the physical sensations & cognitions associated with anxiety) tends to just mean that you’re now more likely to rely on these behaviours when you have to do something social, and if you can’t use them (ie run out of weed) you’re going to be even more anxious than you were in the first place. Andrew Hunter’s comment is fascinating to me; from my own experience and the testimony of most people I know, weed tends to have the effect of heightening attention to social-conduct faux-pas, ie the absolute worst thing you’d want if you have social anxiety.

      Most good psychologists should be able to work with you to develop some behavioural experiments re: the particular situations you have difficulty with. The theory is pretty simple (and it sounds like you’re already on board with the graded aspect of this), however, it seems far more effective to have someone guide you through this process rather than rely on your anxious self to manage it.

      The ToastMasters example seems like the opposite of graded exposure!

    • knockknock says:

      Are you in decent physical condition? Do you get some exercise, do any working out? Dropping a few pounds, improving your posture and getting that relaxed after-buzz from some physical activity can help you feel and project confidence. Plus you’ll sleep better and that’s an all-around plus for dealing with other people.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      The best thing is to tell people how anxious you are, and hope that they’ll make an extra effort to get you out of your shell. It doesn’t really work in any lasting way, and not everyone you meet is going to have the time or energy to do that.

      It’s almost always socially appropriate though, which drugs and alcohol aren’t. It’s more feasible than trying to totally immersed or totally avoidant is unless you have enough money or freedom do what you want all the time. Every hour you spend at work is an hour you’re not learning to socialize in a new way.

      I tried Toastmasters and was unable to get over a strong panic reflex when I got up to speak

      I haven’t done Toastmasters, but I did present in class throughout high school and middle school like…every two weeks. IMO social anxiety nothing like stage fright. After all, it’s anxiety inducing for people who don’t have social anxiety.

      “Try Toastmasters” seems to “be more confident by becoming good at things.” In fact, public speaking is one of the least social things there is — it’s anxiety-inducing, but yes, but there’s no interaction* with people.

      My social anxiety comes from actually having to respond to people in a fast-paced conversation, not from speaking in a room full of mostly silent people. At worst, if there is a question period, it’s structured and turn based, which is not what social situations are like.

      I don’t see how public speaking skills are any more transferable to social situations than playing an instrument on stage. Improv as the poster below suggests might be better.

  9. Andrew Hunter says:

    Review – Glory Season by David Brin

    I first read Glory Season when I was, I don’t know, eleven? Ish? I remember vaguely liking it, but not a lot of detail. On a whim I picked it up again (to test Brooklyn Public Library’s e-book infrastructure) and I’m very glad I did; I think the book is highly underrated (and under-known.) More details to follow. “Spoilers” for the setting’s rules un-masked (this is not the kind of book where it’s a secret, anyway–you learn some random facts late, but they’re not reveals.)

    Glory Season is a bildungsroman about a five year old girl on a quest, like all five year old girls, to get laid.

    …Okay, so they’re living on another planet, years are about three of ours, she’s fifteen. Wait, that’s not that much better? Let me explain. On Stratos, the population has been genetically engineered. Nothing transhuman–mostly stuff like kidneys that can drink salt water, lungs that can handle air with twice the CO2 and pressure, nictitating membranes on cat-quality eyes–but the one that matters is reproductive. For most of the local year, women bear parthogenetic clones (this season is referred to as “winter”). In summer, however, children are the normal 50/50 genetic mix of both parents. (This is apparently inspired by real life aphid mating–I don’t know anything about the accuracy.) There’s one more important rule here: even in winter, sex with men is necessary for conception–even though they contribute no genetic material. Not only that, but during winter, convenient environmental cues make women much hornier, and essentially emasculate men–they have little to no aggression, sexual desire, even that much ambition. Basically just without testosterone. In summer, women are about as they are in real life, and men are somewhere between normal and steroid-raged monsters (it’s left ambiguous, as the novel is written from the perspective of Stratoin women, whether they see normal male aggression as unbelievable rage and healthy libidos as rapey frenzy, or if we’re actually seeing abnormal behavior.)

    The effect on society: most of the population hails from large clans of identical female clones, each of which has chosen a “niche”–some sort of economic specialization they’re genetically talented at. They’re treated as specialized corporations which breed their own workers, and the book assumes heritability is high enough that most clans find the workers they need in the next generation. Over generations these clans accumulate power, money, and influence. Non-clone children (“vars”)–male and female–are second class citizens. All men’s genetics die with them (unless they can convince a woman to have a summer child), and most vars also eke out a poor life then die without spawning their own clan. And yes, this system was in fact founded by not-quite-lesbian-separatists. Men are kept in society intentionally, but without the ability to found clans, can’t accumulate power or influence. About their only leverage is that they’re badly needed in winter to spark children (and don’t have overwhelming sexual desire to do so.) Promising to mate in winter is their only way to bargain resources from society.

    Maia, our protagonist, is (about) fifteen in our years and getting kicked out of her parents’ house, as is standard for society. She must labor in cheap jobs while looking for a niche so she can become the founder of her own clan–which requires startup capital, a new business plan not already well served by a powerful clan, and enough resources to find men willing to spark children. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this does not go as planned–instead she finds herself traveling the globe and thwarting conspiracies in the manner of any good adventuring fantasy novel.

    Yes, I said fantasy: while the setting implies near-posthuman tech, the founders of civilization decided to restrict technology, presumably to prevent their descendants screwing with the intended consquences of their genetic meddling. So internal combustion engines exist but are rare–most transport is by horse, sailing ship, and solar powered railway. Other technology is at about the same level–paper books, TV and expensive phone lines but no internet, computers exist but most people never see one. Even the Conway Game Of Life simulators are mechanical.

    Oh yeah. Men obsessively play a competitive variant of Life. It’s a major plot point in multiple parts of the book. Technically speaking it doesn’t work–the game rules specified will never not be a draw, from my experience in Life simulators–but it’s a really fun series of digressions and I’m willing to accept it.

    Okay, I’ve rambled long enough about the setting. Point is: it was designed by some very out-there people to be a female dominated, reasonably low tech society…but things aren’t always working as well as they should. This is a background for a teenage adventure story (but one in an entirely economically motivated society–no dark lords but plenty of jobs on offer! I really appreciate this…) and quite a lot of philosophizing, both by characters and implied authorial voices, on gender roles and the value of men in society. I’m not going to say much about the plot, other than it’s a very canonical example of the sci-fi bildungsroman: kid with everything to prove Just Happens to travel all over, get caught in a million sticky situations, always has a plan to solve the next obstacle that never works out…and the whole thing works. Yes, our lead repeatedly gets knocked unconscious at chapter breaks. You’ve seen this before. But it’s very well executed, and even having read it before and knowing about where she’d be next I always wanted to see what happened. Brin spins yarns well–always true, even when he’s purple as all get out (see: Brightness Reef) or loves teasing reveals we take forever to actually see (see: Brightness Reef) or has JJ Abram’s level of because-it’s-cool setting elements (see: Brightness Reef), and we don’t quite get any of these. (Many of his books have great poetry; here we get a number of snippets of rhyming folk wisdom and a few sea songs, that’s about it. I wished there was more.) But don’t assume that because I’m not summarizing the plot that it’s not interestging.

    Here’s the part I’m most impressed by: this should be, by all rights, a nuclear detonation in the culture war. That’s ahistorical–the book came out in the early 90s when this was much less of a thing, and I’m sure it’d be more controversial now–but in my reading the book is calm, well measured, and tries pretty hard to avoid anvils on either side of the fight. I think both far-left and far-right sci fi aficionados could read the book, come away with interesting things to say, and not hate anyone in the process. That feels like an accomplishment.

    If you’re familiar with Brin (Uplift saga, say…) this is slightly harder than his space operas, but not Egan or even Stross. There are a number of plot points and setting details that you really shouldn’t think about in too much detail. (For example, well, testosterone. Men are explicitly described as larger and stronger much as we expect them to be, but their winter behavior is very eunuch-y. I’m not sure precisely how this is supposed to work, other than Magic Genetic Engineering.) I’m also not sure the gender norms would roll out the way they do–men don’t fight, for example, except in world-ending dire situations; this is two parts the hormonal changes, and two parts societal norm enforced by women terrified that they won’t stop fighting. But game theoretically I’m not sure this works: men will be at a large advantage, not least because technology limits mean almost all fighting is bare handed or with (by societal consensus) blunt melee weapons. It takes very strong stigma to avoid some group just winning by letting men fight–so I’m not sure if it holds up.

    It’s also one of the few books I can say that more details of the characters’ menstrual cycles would improve. In particular it’s not clear if they have any–it’s never brought up, and in a setting explicitly about screwing with human reproductive genetics, that actually seems important. (Characters occasionally use “bleeders” as a curse word, and I wonder if I’m supposed to imply something about that being atypical for women in the setting.) But that’s more amusing than it is a real strike against the book.

    Despite being a book fundamentally about sexual politics, there’s very little actual sex. However, I still wouldn’t give it to a kid–not because it’s inappropriate, but because I don’t think before puberty most people can grasp the importance of how the setting sets normal rules of male and female choices on their head. I know I didn’t fully appreciate it the first time.

    This isn’t a setting that I’d read about in as many books as the author can put to print (Anathem, Uplift, Zones of Thought.) It isn’t the most gripping plot narrative I’ve ever read (Anathem, Rise of Endymion, The Martian [1]…hmm, I need to think of more examples here.) It doesn’t have the most interesting real-life philosophical investigations/author essays (Anathem (…look, I really like it), Baroque Cycle, Moon is a Harsh Mistress/Starship Troopers/general Heinlein, Stross’s Family Trade [2].) But it’s a damn fun story in a damn interesting setting with novel ideas applicable to the real world, and does the whole thing threading a CW needle. I find that impressive.

    In the final analysis: the book came out in the early nineties, and so we know at this point we’re not getting a sequel. And by about halfway through this read that fact depressed me–I wanted to see more in the world (and see how the world changes in response to plot events.) That’s a strong recommendation in my book.

    [1] I don’t know if this really fits–The Martian is kinda pedestrian as story goes. But as just a while(true) loop around damn cool problem solving (in my Artemis review a few OT back, I quoted a friend as saying “the book is just a series of rolls against the martian random encounter table!”) I do have to admit I couldn’t put it down for wanting to know what would happen next.

    [2] Which was a fascinating study in developmental economics until his commie sensibilities made him decide that his characters couldn’t do anything important. No, seriously, one of his blog posts talks about how in early drafts Miriam actually made a difference in various economies, but anyone making a difference was necessarily an example of Randian Great Man balderdash, and the inevitable truth of socialism meant that couldn’t be realistic. Stross is so brilliant and so blinded by his politics. 🙁

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      This sounds like I might want to reread it.

      There are only two things which stuck with me from the first time around.

      One was the sequence when the cargo of coal got loose in a wooden ship. Coal is stowed in compartments, but the waves are rough enough(?) that the coal starts breaking down the dividers. The more the dividers are broken down, the larger the mass of coal and the more damage it can do. This was excellently exciting, but I wonder whether it speaks well of a science fiction novel when the best thing in it could have been in a historical novel.

      The other was that one of the many things keeping men subordinate was that they were supposed to be good at a wide range of things, so they didn’t get the advantages of specialization. I wonder whether it’s a snark at Heinlein’s “specialization is for insects” riff.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        This was excellently exciting, but I wonder whether it speaks well of a science fiction novel when the best thing in it could have been in a historical novel.

        I actually noticed the same sequence and really liked it. Given that we’ve accepted that our setting means that day to day action is essentially historical, compared to our current level of tech, yes, I’m damn happy that Brin knows about the free surface effect as a real threat to bulk carriers.

        The other was that one of the many things keeping men subordinate was that they were supposed to be good at a wide range of things, so they didn’t get the advantages of specialization. I wonder whether it’s a snark at Heinlein’s “specialization is for insects” riff.

        I also noticed this and wasn’t sure what to think. From our eyes, general competency across the board is a manly trait, but so is professional specialization and obsessiveness. I distinctly noticed the *lack* of men who (say) didn’t care about anything but building better sextants–I think men like that would definitely alter the setting.

        OH–I totally forgot a pointless gripe! Since we don’t have widely available networks or GPS, and we do have sailing, celestial navigation is a Big Fucking Deal in the book. But Brin makes, I think, a serious technical mistake; one character can’t get a longitude because she doesn’t have a chronometer. Perfectly historically accurate…

        …Except that we’ve already established that the very limited space capability of the colony put up navigation satellites specifically to be visually identifiable for celestial navigation (that is, satellites with recognizable blinking lights in known positions.) If you stick _one_ of these in geosynchronous orbit (okay, let’s say six, so one’s always overhead) it is flatly trivial to determine longitude. Even if we say geosynchronous orbit is too far to sight, I think it’s not hard to build a small constellation of LEO satellites that let you tell time quite accurately, at least good enough for minutes or seconds of arc. C’mon guys.

        Not a game breaker, but a definite Homeric nod.

      • albatross11 says:

        IIRC (it’s been many years since I read the book), the big thing that gave the female-clone-families their advantage was that they were about the only long-term stable large organizations on the planet.

  10. John Schilling says:

    In the year of Our Lord 1910, Reichskriegsminister John Schilling of the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary, puppet master of the House of Habsburg, is pleased to establish the Dominion of Austria over all the lands of this Europe, Asia, and Africa. The British Isles and the Low Countries shall retain a measure of home rule as refuges for the Protestant faith, and a refuge for the Dino-Sapien people shall be established on the northern and western coasts of France. And of course the Ottoman Sultan shall have jurisdiction over all the traditional lands of Islam, as promised.

    In celebration of this occasion, Reichskriegminister Schilling is pleased to announce the publication of his memoirs, titled “How I Did It”, in four volumes.

  11. John Schilling says:

    The last time we tried this, I started with a plan to conquer the world. But this time, I’ve drawn Austria. That’s ethnically appropriate, but it means I really have to stay focused on the other objective of diplomacy: Not Dying. Austria starts the game surrounded by four rival powers. Germany typically has bigger problems dealing with England and France, but Italy has no good option but to attack Austria and faces no immediate threat but Austria. That makes it very easy for Russia and/or Turkey to propose a solid anti-Austrian alliance and make it stick, and a disturbing number of Diplomacy games see Austria conquered by 1904 or 1905. So you won’t see me producing any grand list of the supply centers I intend to conquer on my way to world domination. My entire focus for the early game will be on Not Dying, and growing to a reasonable 6-7 supply centers that will make me a force to be reckoned with.
    And there will be a few other changes, because I seem to have acquired a bit of a reputation here. The sort of reputation that might have everyone else in the game trying to make sure I am out of the game by 1904 or 1905. So, first off, I’m not going to take it as seriously as last time. I’m going to shoot for no more than half an hour of effort per turn after the first move, often less than that, and I’m not going to watch the clock to get in the first round of diplomatic correspondence as soon as the last turn’s results come in. I’ll also role-play it a bit more, though not to the delightful extent we were treated to by the Democratic Lizard People of Germany in the last game. If I’m going to be knocked out of the game early, I want to have fun with it.

    Since the game is anonymous, I also adopt a few stylistic changes to maybe throw off anyone who tries to de-anonymize the players. The timing and the role-playing might help on that. Since all of the other powers are being played by teams, I’ll try to present a split persona, with one of “me” handling the negotiations and grand strategy and the other detailed tactics. And even the tactician-me won’t use the formal notation of diplomacy moves as I did the last time around. It probably won’t make a difference, but no reason to make it easy on people.
    But back to the matter at hand: the principal objective of Not Dying. The best way by far to do that is to secure an alliance with Germany, in which Germany promises to come to Austria’s aid if attacked (or vice versa). And if that can be secured, then the Italian attack against Austria suddenly becomes rather weak and Italy might be persuaded to join a Central Powers vs. the World alliance. A secure and friendly Austria is definitely in Germany’s interest, but perhaps not to the extent of a formal defensive commitment. Still, it’s my best shot. And it turns out Germany isn’t interested.

    Italy, Russia, and Turkey are all interested in an alliance. But Turkey is too far away to offer me any help in 1901. Russia and Italy definitely want me to help them attack Turkey. They also want to feign attacks on my borders with each of them, which I will feign repelling – or perhaps vice versa, but either way it will look like we are at war and Turkey will not know what is coming. I, unfortunately, do know what is coming. Forced to devote two of my three armies to phony wars, I will make only slow gains in the Balkans and even less in the Turkish homeland. When Italy and Russia consider the Turkish front to have been secured, they will turn against me, and I will be too weak to resist.

    An alliance with Turkey might sound like the obvious solution to this problem, but they are still too far away to help me in the first year of the war. And in the long term, it is almost impossible for Turkey to win this game without conquering Austria and nearly as hard for Austria to win without conquering Turkey. But the long term doesn’t matter if I am defeated in year one, so I have little choice but to sign on to the Russo-Italian plan and await their inevitable betrayal.

    So we start the game with the classic Austrian “Hedgehog” strategy:
    F Tri – Ven
    A Vie – Gal
    A Bud – Ser
    This mostly guarantees that Austria won’t be quickly demolished, but it also guarantees that Austria will only get a single supply center in 1901 – and maybe ever, if I get blocked in by more aggressive neighbors. But two of those neighbors have essentially promised that they will open to Tri and Gal themselves, so I have little choice.

    And Italy and Russia keep that promise. But they otherwise open as if they plan to attack Turkey, as promised, so I probably will survive the next few years. Turkey keeps Russia out of the Black Sea and otherwise makes a grab for the Balkans. In the North, I’m not sure what happens. That’s going to be a recurring theme in this game. Roughly speaking, it looks like France moved to counter a German attack while claiming Iberia, but it was England rather than Germany that moved against France. Germany, hedged her bets with a very atypical fleet move to HEL, and thus attacked nobody. Russia made her usual dash for Sweden, which Germany can easily block but this time won’t.

    The fall moves continue this trend, including Russia’s move into Rumania with my support. Italy claims Tun, as usual, but with a convoyed army and her fleet left in position for the “Lepanto” attack on Turkey next year. I do make the somewhat aggressive move to deploy my fleet south into Alb, and trust my A Vie to defend against Italy’s continued pseudo-attack on Tri. This positions me to probably take Greece in 1902, but leaves Galicia open to the Russians with only their word to leave it demilitarized. Turkey, of course, is upset by the betrayal of my supporting Russia’s attack on Rumania, when I had promised the opposite, but I plead necessity and promise that there will soon be a realignment, that if Turkey at least defends its core territories and keeps an open mind she may yet prosper.

    Turkey, BTW, is obviously being played by “bean”, and he’s figured out who I am as well. Figured it out, announced it to the world in response to my treachery, faced denials and impostors, and I’ll keep the act up for what little it is worth but the anonymity of this game is rapidly fading.

    I still don’t know who is playing Germany, but an excessively talkative France lets slip hints that they will be trying to grab Munich; I relay that information to the German player(s) on the grounds that France is of little importance to me but it helps if Germany survives and is grateful. And I’m still not sure what is happening in the north, because England grabs neutral territory rather than pressing the attack against France, and Germany continues to hedge. But somehow, they’ve managed to each get to five supply centers without serious conflict.

    I only have four centers to my name, and am forced to leave a gap in my defenses at Tri. I have a wonderful diplomatic message from my “allies” proposing an equitable plan for the disposal of the Balkans and of Turkey. But it’s a sham. Italy and Russia are also proposing to shift to a joint attack against Germany, but while that is plausible for Russia it is quite ridiculous for Italy. Italy has built an army in Rom, rather than the fleet Nap that would be needed for the promised Lepanto attack against Turkey. Russia, for her part, “accidentally” invaded Galicia in the fall, promised to promptly withdraw in spring, and then built an army in Warsaw where the Galician army would need to retreat. So I’m pretty sure I will face a double stab in spring.
    With my forces grossly inadequate to repelling simultaneous attacks by Russia and Italy both, there’s only one thing to do – devote the bulk of my army to supporting a Turkish offensive into Rumania. I cannot survive without Turkish support, and at this point I owe them big and they owe me not even the courtesy of trust. But with my new A Bud and existing A Ser supporting Turkey’s A Bul – Rum, I guarantee Turkey will take either Bulgaria or the Black Sea, either a decisive victory against Russia.

    I also have to assume that Italy will try to convoy her army from Tunisia into the Balkans, as it’s doing no good in Tunisia. I suspect Alb is the target, but I’m not confident enough to risk Italy taking and holding Gre and I’ve only got one fleet in a position to cover both targets. F Alb – Gre it is.

    That leaves Army Group Vienna to, A: block an Italian invasion at Tri, B: block an Italian flanking move into Tyr C: Block a Russian attack into Vie, and D: disrupt Galicia’s support for an attack from Rum into Bud. And I’ve already used the “going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line” bit in my last writeup, yet here we are.

    Russia isn’t going to launch an attack from Rum into Bud, because that would leave either Rum or BLA open to a known-hostile Turkey. And I’m pretty sure Italy isn’t going to directly attack Tri, because that would only work if I were fool enough to order all four of my units covering Tri to go off and leave that crucial province undefended.

    So, yeah, I’m going to go off and leave Tri undefended. A Vie – Tyr blocks Italy’s flank attack, which in turn blocks A Rom from advancing to the front. And bouncing in Ty, means I also stand and cover Vie against Russian attack. The likely Russian attack against Bud, from Gal supported by Rum, fails when A Rum is displaced by Turkish attack, and I win everywhere. Unless I’ve guessed wrong, in which case there’s an Italian army in Tri, a fleet in Alb, and a Russian army in Vie. Or I’ve made the other wrong guess, and double-crossed two allies that weren’t about to double-cross me.

    Stay tuned for our next exciting episode…

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      Did you write this today, or after the turns in question for later publication? Curious about your memory.

      • John Schilling says:

        I took notes as I played, though briefer than I had planned, and then did a full write up in the days aftter the game.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Is that a normal thing you do in Diplomacy games? What sort of things do you put there? (I’m asking because I just started a new game.)

    • bean says:

      It probably won’t make a difference, but no reason to make it easy on people.

      It didn’t. I was fairly sure you were Austria before we even started talking. (Being Turkey, I initially planned to go after Austria, but I also figured I’d do better as your (John’s) ally than your enemy.) I’d exchanged correspondence with everyone but Austria and Germany, and Germany hadn’t gotten back to me in a timely manner, which I was pretty sure you wouldn’t do. Then I got the first message, and was basically certain.

      Figured it out, announced it to the world in response to my treachery, faced denials and impostors, and I’ll keep the act up for what little it is worth but the anonymity of this game is rapidly fading.

      I should probably add that I de-anonymized myself by asking to buy warships in my first message to each of the powers, except the Russians.

    • rlms says:

      If anyone is interested in signing up for the next SSC diplomacy game, please email tsznpuvn@tznvy.pbz (ROT13ed).

    • rlms says:

      It was a long time ago, but I think our (Russian) main reason behind the (deliberate) move to Galicia to prepare for the assault on Berlin in an untelegraphed way. We didn’t tell you that on the assumption that you would warn them, although the side effect of discomforting you was not undesired (we got a bit more than we bargained for there).

      In general, we were in a somewhat annoying situation diplomatically for the first few years. Turkey wasn’t receptive to an alliance in the South and the Anglo-German alliance in the North meant we couldn’t easily make progress there, so we had to look for more novel opportunities for territorial gain.

      • John Schilling says:

        Well, you did get Berlin, and held if for about as long as you were in the game, so, mission accomplished?

        • rlms says:

          Maybe; what would you have done with Rumania if we’d not gone to Galicia? If the Austro-Turkish alliance was inevitably imminent then I stand by that move.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m honestly not certain. But Italy’s behavior signaled “impending stab” strongly enough that I’d probably have assumed you were in on it regardless. Probably. Still, that does make it a sound move on your part. Either it works, or it fails for reasons beyond your control but leaving you in a reasonable position to deal with the consequences.

  12. John Schilling says:

    So here we are, wondering whether I was able to anticipate my enemies’ every move. And, pretty much yeah – except for the part where somehow Russia wasn’t my enemy. Italy decided to double-cross me without coordinating with Russia, and maybe Russia’s accidental invasion of Gal last year really was just an accident. And maybe I owe Russia an apology, but it isn’t one I can afford to back up with anything substantial. Turkey has taken Rum with my help, and brought a seconyd fleet to bear on BLA, so Russia’s southern front is going to collapse unless I betray Turkey twice in two years. And I can’t afford that.

    Sucks to be Italy, though. They do, as I expected, have an army in Alb. And they have a clear view of the defenseless Tri that they didn’t bother attacking. But they aren’t really in a strong position, and now they are outnumbered even before I call on Turkish help.

    Also sucks to be Germany. I did warn them about a possible Russian attack, and urged them to cover Ber. Instead, they wagered everything on an attack into France, which the French easily blocked. Now two Russian armies that aren’t attacking me, are bearing down on them from the East, and Russia’s conquest of Scandinavia seems certain. England seems to be working with Germany against France, but I still haven’t figured out the alliance structure in that corner of the map. In our corner of the map, we now have a solid alliance between the Habsburg Emperor and the Ottoman Sultan, because apparently that’s a thing when SSC plays Diplomacy. We also have Germany asking our help against Russia. And it’s worth humoring them, because we don’t want Germany to fall too early, but we aren’t in a position to offer any real support quite yet, and the Kaiser apparently isn’t willing to help himself. Faced with a massive Russian onslaught at Berlin, and offered a defensive strategy that is guaranteed to hold on all fronts, the German armies … triple down on their attack into France, gaining Bur at the cost of Ber.

    Unless that was maybe a negotiated trade, in exchange for Russia letting a German fleet into Swe? Seems unlikely. Elsewhere, Russia drives the English navy out of Norway, the English drive the French navy out of the Atlantic, and the French drive the English navy out of the channel. All of this drives me mad trying to figure it out. The Turkish navy trounces the Russian Black Sea Fleet, because bean is playing Turkey and of course they are going to have more battleships but also because controlling BLA is really vital and Russia left an opening.
    I care nothing for fleets. I have to cover a defenseless Tri, and maybe hold on to Gre. I have enough force to do both, A Vie and A Bud recoccupying Tri while A Ser supports F Gre, but it means letting Italy have the flanking position in Tyr and forcing me to play pure defense until Italy makes a mistake or Turkey can spare a fleet to my aid (at what cost?). Diplomacy, at this point, is strictly pro forma – we’re all committed for the moment, but that’s no reason to stop talking.

    In spring of 1903, Italy makes her mistake by pulling her fleet from ION to ADR. This gives them a strong attack on Tri, but naval support won’t get them anywhere past that. It gives my pathetic little navy a clear path into ION, and then Italy’s juicy defenseless rear. I have to wonder whether this is a trap, but I can’t find any way Italy can profit from it – at best, they move their fleet back to block me, but then they’ve gained nothing and lost tempo, and that can’t have been their plan.

    So, time for a bit of judo. I owe Turkey an Austrian army in Gal for support against Russia, and I’m keeping the faith with the faithless heathens here. That means I can’t offer a perfect defense of Tri, and I can’t offer even a strong defense and still cover Ser and Gre. But Italy’s moves only make sense as an all-out attack on Tri, or something out of N-dimensional chess. I’m going to bet against anything more than 2-dimensional chess here, and intelligence relayed from Turkey suggests the direct Italian assault, so Gre will be left defenseless. I’m also going to leave Tri defenseless, as the garrison makes a suicide run on Ven to prevent Italy from bringing up her last army to reinforce. I’m pretty sure I can keep Italy from progressing past Tri, while I take Tun and ravage her coasts. Particularly with a third fleet of shiny new Turkish battleships coming to my aid. Thanks, bean.

    And, yes, it works as expected. The followup in the fall is devastating. With an unstoppable attack against Sev on her own, Turkey releases my Gal army from its obligations for a turn so that it can cover Bud. Italy’s navy falls back to defend the homeland, skirmishing inconclusively against a Turkish fleet in ION. That leaves me to reclaim Tri, annihilating the trapped and unsupported Italian army therein, and occupy a defenseless Tun. The balance of power with Italy swings from 4:5 against to 6:3 in my favor in a single turn, not even counting Turkish assistance.

    Which, BTW, I should not be taking for granted. Turkey pretty much can’t win this war without conquering Austria, and Austria is about to become unconquerably large. I’m pretty sure the right move for Turkey is to hold in Sev, present beleaguered Russia with a fait accompli and a cease fire, and join with the remnant of Italy to take me out of the game. They’d only have me slightly outnumbered, given the need to guard Sev, but they’d have position and initiative and they’d probably win. There’s little I can do to stop it except talk and hope, which makes this probably the riskiest part of the game for me – even more so than the opening move.

    But Turkey doesn’t go for the stab. It will take another year or so to complete the conquest of Italy, and I don’t need to give the blow-by blow. My navy sails from Carthage against Rome, and wins. An army convoyed from Greece with Turkish help, and two others advancing by land in the north, make for quick and certain victory. The interesting bit is, Italy’s army in Tyr abandons the fight for its homeland, and apparently offers its service as a mercenary force fighting for Russia against Germany. It survives barely an extra year, and is no more than a nuisance.

    Events in the north are beginning to settle down into a sensible pattern. Germany finally abandons her attack against France to focus on repelling the Russian invasion, though it is really too late and Russia’s hold on Berlin is unbreakable. England, siding with Germany in this, reclaims her foothold in Scandinavia. And France, facing no real opposition, lands an army in England. I’m wondering what promises were made to England and broken.

    More importantly, Austria ends 1903 with six centers, and is on track for nine in ’04. My western flank is secure, and Germany is no threat in the North. Which means it is finally time to start planning world conquest.

    On the assumption of a solid relationship with Turkey, I have plan A. Move against Southern France with Turkish help, while Turkey moves against Russia with my help. We both support a beleaguered Germany until it is time to quite thoroughly stab the Kaiser and claim his realm. My eighteen centers will be, Vie, Bud, Tri, Ser, Gre, Ven, Rom Nap, Mar, Mun, War, Ber, Kie, Hol, Bel, Par, Bre, and Den. Except that’s only seventeen centers, and there is no realistic prospect for me advancing further without fleets in the Atlantic. So Plan A ends with an even split of the world between me and Turkey, presuming bean’s naval aptitude is sufficient to force Gibraltar and invade England with Turkish fleets, or it requires me to do a little stab against my friend at the end and claim an eighteenth center from somewhere in his domain.

    But if I absolutely have to double-cross Turkey to win, and if I have to worry about Turkey double-crossing me, then I need a plan B where I stab big. That’s going to look a lot like Plan A until I move against Turkey, ideally when he is overextended in the North and West but even more importantly before Turkey moves against me. I should be able to take out Turkey with a solid stab, but that will give the Western powers time to block my more ambitious moves against them. So, my eighteen centers will be Vie, Bud, Tri, Ser, Gre, Ven, Rom Nap, Mun, War, Mos, Sev, Rum, Bul, Con, Ank, Smy, and Tun.

    We’ll start with Plan A and see how it goes.

  13. switchnode says:

    Request for recommendations: blogs by working scientists (basically In the Pipeline for fields other than chemistry).

    Reading journals is important, but the best scientific blogs
    – acknowledge, if aren’t necessarily directed at, the lay reader;
    – discuss the process of scientific output;
    – have some coverage of news in/the state of industry as well as academia;
    – have a consistent authorial voice; and
    – occasionally tell really good stories.

    I realize ItP is unusually famous for a reason, but I am interested in any suggestions you all can make (especially in or around BME generally or neuroprosthetics/BCI in particular).

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      If fields other than chemistry have good equivalents of Things I Won’t Work with, I’d be all about that…

      • jgr314 says:

        Wow, Things I Won’t Work With is fantastic.

        • albatross11 says:


          Also, his general In The Pipeline blog is interesting and worth reading.

          Small Things Considered is a very nice microbiology blog. Elio Schecter (who’s like 90 or something and has been doing microbiology forever and probably knows everyone who’s done anything in the field) is also a regular podcaster on the excellent TWIM (This Week in Microbiology) podcast.

    • Well... says:

      I’m interested in any such blogs by human factors scientists, if anyone knows of some.

  14. John Schilling says:

    Having decided to maintain my alliance with Turkey for the time being, we negotiated formal terms. I agreed to cede Tun in return for Turkey’s support in the Italian campaign, and he allowed me to take War for my support in his Russian campaign. We also agreed to demilitarize a zone along the Balkans, Gre–Ser–Bul–Rum, and to limit our navies to three fleets each (not counting forces in the Atlantic, if we ever managed that). This eliminated the potential for either of us to make fast or decisive gains in a stab, though the possibility of a move directly from my home center into Rum would give me a slight edge when the time almost inevitably came.

    The most important concern, if we were to go with Plan A, was to break out into the Atlantic and/or Scandinavia before England and France could lock them down – the geometry of the mapboard allows for unbreakable blockades against any power that cannot build fleets outside the Mediterranean, an ability Turkey and I both lack. For the moment, the Anglo-Franco-German war would keep them too busy to lock us in, but if they managed to do so we would be left with no path to victory save by fighting each other. So, how to manage this?

    I904, as noted, was dominated by the final conquest of Italy, though I made sure my fleet remained in TYS for a quick strike east. Turkey took Mos. And I’m still not entirely sure what happened in the North, but it looks like Germany finally came to terms with France and turned her whole strength against Russia, only to be betrayed by a cruel double stab from England into Swe and Den. A stab necessitated by the need to find new bases for the Royal Navy as the French invasion of England continued unchecked, but I would prefer Germany to survive a bit longer and all I can offer at this point is bits of potentially-useful information.

    1905 and early 1906 are a race to the West and the North. Germany somehow comes to terms with England’s stab and focuses on retaking Ber while England uses her new builds to stop the French invasion of England. I had hoped that war would distract the two of them long enough for my advance fleet to slip out into the Atlantic. If that had succeeded, I’d have directly threatened three French centers (Por, Spa, and Bre), more than they could simultaneously have defended. More importantly, by making sure I always had a retreat path, I could have ensured that there was always one unit in the Western allies’ rear to disrupt their defenses and break any stalemate, but France saw the threat and blocked it at the last – I think ceding a center to England in the doing, so I suspect the Franco-English alliance was formally established at that point. Certainly what later “fighting” there was between those powers, was inconsequential and could well have been staged.

    I had also hoped to see Turkey make inroads into Scandinavia, but a failure to order proper support for her first move into StP (or possibly some bit of northern diplomacy I wasn’t privy to) allowed England to secure Nwy just as Turkey finished off Russia. Stalemate, or nearly so. That left two routes of advance, into Germany and against France’s southern coast. I moved four armies in line against Germany, promising they were only for defense. Negotiated a LYO-TYS-Pie demilitarized zone with France and promptly broke it, claiming duplicitous English rumor-mongering as the cause (though if France and England were already strong allies, that was pointless). Turkey brought up a fleet and, with my help, a convoyed army to attack Spain.

    And it occurred to me that this was another sound opportunity for Turkey to stab me, but there was no way to guard against it save by devoting enough forces that there would have been no chance of an offensive against Germany or France, and little chance of continued trust with Turkey. So, guard against war with Turkey and basically guarantee that war does occur on even terms, or trust the alliance to hold and lose two centers immediately if it doesn’t. The first is the winning move if my alliance with Turkey is weak, and if the Franco-English alliance is too weak for them to immediately exploit an Austro-Turkish war. The second is the winning move if at least my alliance with Turkey is strong. And there is no winning move if Turkey betrays me and France and England are strong. Consulting my diplomatic records for the past two years, I gamble that Turkey will stick with me a little while longer in exchange for promised gains in Spain and a chance to face off against the Royal Navy in the Atlantic.

    The alliance holds, and in fall 1906 I am back on the offensive. It is time to formally betray Germany, which has been a useful shield in the north but is not an effective partner for an offensive and is now in my way. A joint attack against Ber and Mun takes only the former, as promised English support does not materialize (but I had suspected the offer was insincere). A Turkish diversionary attack does come through, and I take Mar. Two builds makes mine the most powerful empire on the map (11 centers, vs Turkey with 9 and England’s 6), and I finally grab Mun while providing the promised support for Turkey into Spain. Er, “Andalusia”, as we are helping the Ottoman Empire reclaim long-lost territories here.

    But now we’ve got some thinking to do. Plan A, the race to victory through the center for me and around the flanks for Turkey, is looking increasingly less likely. It can only happen if England or France makes a mistake, and if Turkey is aggressively pushing forward to take advantage of it. Plan B, where I stab Turkey in a big way, also requires Turkey to be pushing hard in the North and the West. First, because the more forces Turkey has committed to those fronts, the harder it will be to protect against or respond to any stab I make. And second, because if I do stab, I don’t want an immediate and solid alliance of England, France, and Turkey against me, so I do want as much hostility, suspicion, and anger as I can arrange between them.

    For the same reasons, I don’t want to be engaged in a heated battle with England and France, even if I could secure some marginal gains from it.

    So, I cut a deal with England. We will coordinate to finish off the German remnant, with me supporting England into Kie. I will then guarantee England all the coastal territories of Germany, France, and the Low Countries, in exchange for France’s later support against Par and her respect for my inland territories. Meanwhile, I hope to see, and offer to support, a strong Turkish offensive on the flanks to fully engage England and France.

    This was, in hindsight, unwise. And really, it shouldn’t have taken hindsight, and I was feeling foolish about it not long afterwards. There is simply no reason for England to abide by that deal. France, at this point, is effectively subordinate to England – wholly dependent on English support in the Atlantic, and on am undefended supply center in Lvp that England can occupy at any time. So, while France cannot effectively object if England choses to give away her capital, why should England sacrifice a center that is effectively her own, to honor a deal with an “ally” that will obviously soon be her greatest rival? And why should England do more than block Turkish expansion, which she can do with five units playing defense?

    Meanwhile, a rump Germany with two units and wholly dependent on my support, would have been a useful ally and the only way to keep any northern coastal provinces (Kie and Hol, maybe Bel or Den) in “my” domain.

    I support England into Kie in the fall of 1907, Germany ceases to exist soon after, England thanks me and gives nothing in return. Oops. And France cannot be persuaded to go against England, because see above, but will gladly lead me on in talking about it. At least I’m sensible enough not to be led too far.

    Turkey does, with my help, push as far as Finland. But that’s as far as she’ll get in Scandinavia. And also, with my help, swaps her Andalusan fleet for an army. A naval advance into the Atlantic is now completely blocked, but with my armies in Mar and Mun we might, slowly, push into central France. If Par falls and Bre is threatened, the Anglo-French alliance might falter and even if it doesn’t the necessary redeployments might open a gap in the Low Countries. But this would be very slow going, and it doesn’t seem like a credible path to victory.

  15. JulieK says:

    Behold, the proper use of SSC’s favorite dismissive phrase*:

    We live in Israel but are visiting New York. My 10-year-old son shows me an unfamiliar implement he found in his grandmother’s garage.
    Son: What’s this?
    Me: It’s a snow shovel, my sweet summer child.

    *Its kabbalistic significance is left as an exercise to the reader.

  16. John Schilling says:

    Time to wrap this up. Fall of 1908 sees me holding twelve supply centers, of the eighteen I need to win. Turkey has ten, and a solid Anglo-French alliance has the other twelve. There are only five centers that I, lacking northern fleets, can even theoretically take from England and France, so I cannot win without stabbing Turkey. And the plan to split the world evenly between Vienna and Constantinople, has been smashed against the unbreakable Rock of Gibraltar. So either I settle for an unsatisfying four-way tie, or I stab my most loyal and faithful ally.

    Which I don’t want to deal with, and fortunately I ohave an excuse to postpone. My position for that stab will be even better if I have two more centers to my name, and the Balkan DMZ plus my Mediterranean fleet deployment makes it hard for Turkey to stab me. So, given another year or two, can I take another center or two?

    Par is sort of in reach – a Turkish feint against Gas does allow me to force an army into Bur and take an undefended Ruh. That should give us four armies, facing two French armies and a fleet, the latter tied to a vulnerable Bel. But, disaster strikes. It takes a delicate arrangement of fleet movements to protect Turkey’s foothold in Spa during all this, and someone mistakenly orders a fleet of pre-dreadnoughts on an overland voyage to the north coast of Spain. I blame French treachery. Or the uncertainties of this newfangled “wireless tele-heliograph” or whatever the kids are calling it. Or the finicky user interface on backstabbr.com. Definitely not bean’s fault. But it does mean another year, maybe two, to take Par. Damn.

    Kie, can be defended by British fleets against any attack I can make, except that to reinforce Swe and impose an unbreakable stalemate in Scandinavia, England will have to leave Kie vulnerable to a full-strength attack for one turn only. If I can guess when that happens, it’s mine. Like it should have been in the fall of 1907, if I’d had the sense to double-cross England instead of honoring my part of a deal England never would. No matter. I can easily predict when the vulnerability will occur. It will be – damn, OK, it’s obviously going to be in the fall of ’08, and that’s exactly when I need to divert forces to take Bur and clear the way to Par. But if I can convince myself that England would never do the obvious thing, then I can leave Kie be for a turn, secure a solid attack on Par, then turn back and collect Kie when England’s cleverly not doing the obvious thing gives me a properly exploitable vulnerability and a two-center swing.

    Yeah, yeah. England uses the other variety of cleverness, the one that says “that clever thing would leave us vulnerable to a two-center swing; we’re going to do the safe obvious thing and cut our losses to just Par”. And then I don’t get Par, because oops, there’s now a French fleet in Spa. On the south coast, having got there the proper way, by sea.

    So, it’s time to either accept the four-way tie being offered, or double-cross Turkey in a big way. If I can catch bean unaware, I can take two of his centers (Rum and Tun) immediately any time I want, and set up an unstoppable attack on a third (Sev) a turn later. That would give me 15 centers, against a three-party alliance with 19. Is that enough?

    I have the central position, which is genuinely useful. Most of the Anglo-French forces are fleets, which cannot move against my armies on the continent. And Turkey would be badly out of position after the stab, with three forced disbands. So it will be close. I would need to pick up four of the five remaining Turkish centers (leaving StP to England), and not lose more than one of my forward centers in the process. But Ber, Mar, and Tun are all dangerously exposed.

    If I do this, the plan will have to be to drive Turkey back to Anatolia, ASAP, then leave four units to poke at the Turkish homeland while the rest of my forces (including new builds) rush to the Northwrn and Western fronts to fight a delaying action. It would only take one good guess to crack Anatolia’s defenses, and then another year to finish off Turkey. But every turn of this, I’ll be making my own guesses in the defense of Ber, Mar, and Tun, and if I guess wrong more than once, I’m effectively stalemated.

    Worse, with perfect or near-perfect play by a combined England, France, and Austria, I could wind up utterly defeated. Well, OK, there’s a possibility could secure an alliance with France when England is looking close to winning, but there’s still a good chance that the now-mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire could be extinguished from the Earth. Actual victory, would require an almost impossible degree of luck, or an egregious mistake by people who have been playing quite well so far. The most likely outcome is that I defeat and destroy a crippled Turkey as planned, but not before I am pushed back far enough to have to settle for a three-way draw.

    Or, there’s another path to victory. Have Turkey hand it to me on a silver platter. With one Turkish fleet in the West, and one army in the North, I can absolutely secure my flanks against the Anglo-French onslaught while I pick up the remaining centers I need for victory. Of course, they’ll have to be Turkish centers, collected while I am counting on the Turkish army and navy to secure my flanks.

    But this is a normal endgame for Diplomacy. If you haven’t already won the game, you are by definition outnumbered. Perfect information means everyone else should know you will win if they don’t organize to defeat you, and simple tactics will usually suffice for them to secure a draw. So, usually, one player’s victory comes by convincing another to at least stand aside and let them take it unhindered. In this case, I need even more than that from Turkey. What do I have to offer him that can make him accept such a lopsided deal?

    I’d like to offer them revenge against a most hated foe, but I don’t think there’s real hatred between Turkey and either France or England. Meanwhile, I’m the one plotting a stab.
    But I can offer them survival. There is essentially no chance that Turkey is going to be the solitary winner in this game, and I think they know that. They would prefer to be party to a draw, but if that is off the table then I am guessing they would prefer survival to the end of the game to complete annihilation.

    I can hit them with a dose of inevitability. Once I have stabbed them, I will be absolutely committed to the strategy outlined above, my own survival depending on the quick conquest of the Turkish homeland. If I back that up with a lie slight exaggeration, I can claim that even with perfect play Turkey is absolutely doomed and Austria’s survival is absolutely guaranteed, and all Turkey can do by fighting the inevitable is maybe force me to accept a shared draw rather than solo victory. Is this worth a long ugly fight and inevitable Turkish extinction? Let’s just cut to the chase and end it.

    And I can role-play it, because I have both been doing that all along and so has at least one of the Turkish players. The game of diplomacy is played on a map of mostly-Europe, but the historic Ottoman Empire still has huge holdings in Africa and Asia. And much of the world’s Islamic population is still under the oppressive rule of European colonial powers – most notably England and France, and conspicuously not Austria or Hungary. Will the Sultan really fight to the death in a manner that guarantees London and Paris will wind up ruling everything?

    I’d like to offer the deal honestly, without the sneak attack, but the deal depends on the inevitability of Turkish extinction that only attaches after that attack. So, and this is the part of the game I hate, I tell Turkey that of course we will settle for a draw but wouldn’t it be nice to rectify that silly mistake and retake Spain first? Then put in the orders for the stab. Turkey doesn’t get Spa, I do get Tun and Rum, and I have a guaranteed attack on Sev. Then comes the offer, as polite and eloquently role-played as I can make it: The survival of the Turkish homeland, and all of the off-map Ottoman Empire, will be guaranteed in exchange for Turkey’s holdings in Russia and a bit of support on my flanks. Otherwise the extinction of the entire Ottoman Empire is absolutely certain.

    Turkey is, of course, outraged. I offer a second attempt at persuasion, to no apparent effect, and then spend a day resigned to a long, slow, slog to at best a three-way draw and possible utter defeat. The Anglo-French alliance is no doubt offering an opportunity for glorious revenge, which Turkey must find appealing even if it would be suicidal. I wait.

    “The Sultan has graciously agreed to your request”

    And that’s about the end. There’s a slight delay in arranging my occupation of StP, because that corner of the map is simply crowded. And there’s the annoyance of losing Bur and Ruh and even Ber when I can see those attacks coming and have a defense that will probably save them, but the absolutely certain path to victory requires those sacrifices. Collecting Norway as a consolation prize for losing Berlin is kind of neat. England and France don’t miss a beat, but there’s nothing they can do so long as Turkey accedes to my ultimatum.

    Congratulations again to all the teams for a most excellent game.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Dmioplakius the Dinosaur, former Co-Consul of France (having recently resigned upon the failure of his foreign policy), offers his congratulations again to Minister Schilling and thanks him for this able exposition.

      There were two of us playing France in the beginning; it was my first game and @Adam of Cascadia’s second. England wrote us as soon as the game started, offering an alliance; we accepted. We also tried writing Germany, but they didn’t respond till just before the Spring 1901 moves; that was to be a theme of our communications with several powers.

      So, with England promising an anti-German alliance, we opened hard to Burgundy – and England betrayed us. It turned out they had a secret alliance with Germany themselves. We stared their fleet down off Brest, took the gamble for Portugal – at least we won that. Fortunately, Italy stuck to the peace we’d negotiated pre-start, or things would’ve gone much harder.

      Well, we worked to survive for two years. Around Winter 1903, Germany messaged us saying our defense had impressed them; would we be interested in a three-way alliance with them and England? Adam and I debated it some, but we decided no; that’d cut off too many routes for our expansion; instead, we’d pretend to accept and launch a John-Schilling-last-game-style invasion of England.

      Fortunately, Germany kept a truce with us for the rest of the game anyway; unfortunately, the invasion got bogged down when England grabbed Scandinavian supply centers to retain its forces. We kept knocking around the British Isles through 1906, but we never got allies interested, and it never got to a Decisive Battle… and meanwhile, Austria ate up Italy with astonishing speed.

      In fall 1905, Russia proposed a four-way alliance between them, England, us, and now-one-unit-in-Bohemia Italy: we’d first devour Germany and then fight Austria. There was some hot debate within our Cabinet: I wanted to accept, saying our English campaign was going nowhere; Adam wanted to refuse, saying England would betray us; he eventually got his way. It turned out we were both right.

      Anyway, by late 1906, the Austro-Turkish threat was undeniable, Adam had dropped out for real-life reasons, and I was left running France on my own. I joined a three-way alliance with the other two surviving Western Powers: England would destroy my army in Liverpool so I could rebuild one on the continent for our joint defense. They accepted, I then wrote them saying I urgently needed an F Irish Sea to support my F MAO in holding Gibraltar; they moved it away without letting Liverpool change ownership. Well done, but we were still on the ropes. England’s later backstab of Germany was a total surprise to me, but by now I couldn’t afford to mind.

      Meanwhile, we were all writing missives trying to lure Beanish Turkey off its Austrian alliance… it looked like we succeeded in the end, but it turned out to be a feint.

      So, the French Fourth Republic goes down to overwhelming force of arms combined with a populace dissatisfied at the military reversals, and I’m pretty sure a new Fifth Republic has been declared by now… but Dmioplakius has retired.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        it was my first game and @Adam of Cascadia’s second.

        First ever? Or first SSC game?

        I played a few times, whoa, 40 years ago, and have been intrigued by these reports, but assumed I would be embarrassingly outclassed by you lot.

        • Evan Þ says:

          First ever, and Adam’s second ever. (Well, I played the two-player variant once as a teen, but as you can imagine, it lacks most of the dynamics of the real game.)

    • FXBDM says:

      Your Royal highness gives England undeserved crédit in your most equitable and fascinating relation of the dire events of the turn of the century. We blush with pride at having been part of this narrative. We will provide our own vastly inferior story on the morrow. For now we are enjoying the fine Moroccan weather and trying to forget about the blood and fire of our too long reign.

      • FXBDM says:

        The War in Europe, a mostly true account of the recent conflict and of the fall of three kingdoms, from the perspective of the King of England, with refutations, rejoinders and clarifications of the statements made by the self-proclaimed emperor of Europe and assorted saurians, for the benefit of the Human race in these troubling times.

        Penance. When I saw that I had been picked to lead England again, so shortly after the controversial SSC No-Team Game, I saw the opportunity to do a once-over. As we say around those parts, nothing is a coincidence. I had a team-mate to start with but they disappeared before the first messages were sent. I tried reaching out a few times but decided to go it alone

        I start my campaign with a clear internal bias in favour of attacking France. Brest is always the sticking point in any British campaign and I figure I could improve my prospects significantly if I occupy it early. As they say, though, you have to be realistic about those things and I need to see what my neighbours have to say before committing. I reach out to all nations and am greeted back accordingly.

        France has the Saurians thing going, and is quite co-operative, as those things go, we establish good dialogue. Germany didn’t answer immediately and I start to wonder if I wasn’t better off switching my pre-conceptions.

        I reach out to Russia to sound them out for a hit on Germany early on but they politely refuse. They do agree to carve-up Scandinavia without much conflict and to keep a wary eye on the Kaiser.

        Finally, Germany answers my repeated messages with a pithy “We will ally with you, we have not had any contact with France”. This throws me for a HUGE loop as I can’t think of any reason for them to say that. Germany and France not talking in spring 1901 is such nonsensical rot that I immediately fear I am being targeted by a continental alliance. I contact France, ask them about it and am told they had indeed exchanged a bit with Germany but not much. I ask France for an alliance towards ridding the world of the Kaiser and suggest they attack Burgundy with support from Marseilles.

        Italy is a jolly fellow and we exchange pleasantries. I ask him to move towards France as it would certainly throw off everyone and he could make an early grab for Marseilles. In my mind, with Italy in Piedmont, if France accepts my plan of going for Burgundy all out, he would be stuck in Marseilles and forego a build. If France did not accept my plan and instead went for the Iberian Peninsula, he would have to either cover Marseilles or lose it. Italy gladly accepts.

        Austria is polite and in character and we agree that there is no conceivable way we could be of assistance right away, but to keep in touch and exchange information.

        With all that information in mind, I decide to be cautiously aggressive and mount an all-out attack on France. Germany did genuinely appear to have been messaging very sparsely, and I figure my moves give me a reasonable chance to defend if they are in cahoots with France after all.

        Comes Adjudication and behold! My moves succeed, France is caught wrong footed. Germany inexplicably moved to Heligoland, which is somewhat threatening to me and very good news to Russia. That little Italian Weasel has gone the wrong way and is headed east which means France has only one front to fight.

        Outraged messages come in from the Saurians, I plead I have been misled by the evil Kaiser, and ask them to prosecute the attack towards Munich while I grab Belgium. This somewhat pacifies them and I am seriously thinking I will grab Brest with an army and be able to eliminate this menace early.

        Then, after all is said and I think I’m on the clear path, I get an angry, middle-of-the night message from France saying “If you think you’ll get Brest like that you’re grossly mistaken, someone has sold you out”. This of course is impossible as I’ve told no one of my plan, but it made me think and hesitate a bit too much and I choose the way of confusion and order to Belgium instead of Brest. This was probably my largest mistake of the game as France orders to Portugal and wins this game of Poker. I’m not doing badly with two builds and confusion all around as to what my plan is, but I’ve missed a golden opportunity.

        Spring 1902 sees a great conclave of the North where Germany, Russia and myself agree to move our forces out of Scandinavia to better utilize them elsewhere. We set very clear zones of influence and agree to move out. I also suggest a, in hindsight, harebrained plan to Germany to prosecute total war on France by moving my army to Picardy while he transits through Belgium to give us numerical superiority over Burgundy and Paris. I also deploy my fleets to make taking the MAO a possibility. The attack on Burgundy during this turn is just an excuse to bounce Denmark and be able to claim they did aim to move it out within the terms of our agreement with Russia.

        Adjudication comes and everything has worked fine. But wait, What are those Russian armies doing on the German border? That’s not part of the plan, Germany was supposed to concentrate on taking french centers, eek! Russia also failed to evacuate sweden and we are caught wrong footed with Norway empty. Those dogs! I must admit in hindsight that my old team-mate from SSC Diplomacy game 1 (Go puppet state Italy!) being on team Russia had clouded my judgement and made me trust Russia more than I ought to.

        Then I make my second great mistake of the game and convince Germany to prosecute the original attack. In exchange for abandoning Berlin, I give them Belgium (giving your opponent something he already technically owns is somewhat less difficult than giving him something you control). This is a miscalculation, as I am kicked out of Norway, and because I sacrificed Belgium I am obligated to disband two units, with an enemy fleet cruising the Channel and one hiding in the deep fjords of Norway. Dreams of waltzing straight into an undefended portugal are quashed because I have to defend the north of my island from that lousy Russian Dog so with a heavy heart I disband my MAO fleet and my Picardy army, abandoning claims to continental expansion and concentrating on defending my island. The only good news is that Turkey has made a move on Russia and will start distracting ressources. I’m thinking Germany will also keep the pressure on France and help me out.

        Spring 1903 comes and I manage to re-claim Norway. The Russian fleet is still cruising the northern seas but at least I get my center. But what is Germany doing? They are moving out of French territory and concentrating on the eastern Menace? Damn, that won’t do, The Saurians now only have to worry about me. I try to plead with Austria to send an advance scouting party in the western med to make a quick grab of Iberia but they decline, preferring to secure Italy first. I am getting nervous here.

        Fall 1903 sees the unthinkable happen. I had wagered on a french naval hit on Liverpool, but they land an army in Wales instead. Could have gone either way but now I am in dire danger and scandalously under-armed to face this rampaging force. There is simply no way I can defend Liverpool and London both. It also pains me to see the south of France bare and inviting and everyone in the Med too busy to make an easy grab of it. Ah, well. Germany is apologetic about their withdrawal from France and suggest the three of us ally to fight the eastern powers. Any alliance is now contingent on France moving their stinky armies off our island, so this goes nowhere fast.

        Winter 1903 sees the Russian fleets of the north destroyed in a freak storm off the Skagerak. We build a fleet in London and are in a somewhat better shape to defend. Germany is still not interested in moving against France and we are starting to think they don’t really care about the suffering of our people.

        Spring 1904 sees french troops waltz in to Liverpool with naval support. The london fleet bravely defends the channel against marauding french corsairs while out high seas fleet re-occupies the north sea to provide much needed support

        In Fall 1904 I have a tough decision to make. Germany has been a stalwart, if somewhat indecisive, ally up to now, but I am in a position where I risk my Island being over-run. I need forces and cannot afford to disband. I make the heart rending move to claim Denmark and Sweden as mine, prevent disbandment and gain a unit in the mainland. France lands another army in Wales and we are now very cramped in the island.

        Winter 1904 sees me make two other stabs. Italy and Russia are faring poorly and are looking for solutions. Italy, in particular, will be down to one army and forced to defend Rome against twice that amount of fresh troops. Russia has just lost Moscow and will need to abandon their offensive against Germany or leave their centers unprotected. Unless… Unless Good old England, they who just heinously stabbed Germany in the back, want to help and grab territories! This would solve everything! Italy gets Munich, Russia keeps Berlin and Kiel but abandons Warsaw, England supports their attacks from the sea and protects St-Petersburg! This is a bold plan and could have worked.

        Except I hate Russia and Italy. Both of them reneged on deals with me, lied to me and left me holding the bag numerous times before. Plus, I have to rid the Island of those stinking saurians, and having Italy disappear from Rome will give the Austrian fleets access to the western med one season quicker. I agree to the deal and then proceed to ignore my promises and watch with glee as the attacks fail miserably and Germany re-takes Berlin. There is no way I can defend Liverpool this season so I make good use of the fleet there while I have it and massacre a whole troop of Saurians in Wales. Throw them into the sea. I also mass fleets along the eastern coast of my islands with a view to dislodge the army in Edimburgh, which happens with a clever coastal transport in fall 1905

        Things are looking up! Italy and Russia are severely diminished, I have 4 units to France’s two in the islands, and Austria is moving in on Iberia. Germany seems to have forgiven my stab and France is starting to wonder if that whole moving north thing wasn’t a mistake after all, and would you mind if we forgot about the whole thing, old chap?

        Turkey is in position to destroy Russia in 1906, but needs my assistance to do so. Why? Because the army in St-Petersburg could retreat in Norway or Finland and threaten to keep existing as a festering sore in our sides. I want Russia gone as much as anyone, but I keep Turkey from attacking by negotiation. By then, Germany, France and I are discussing resistance to what is becoming a clear threat from the east. There is desultory fighting in the spring as we give diplomacy a chance. Evacuation is still my condition for any collaboration and France agrees to start moving out of the Islands. Austria wanted me to help them take Munich and Berlin, but I figure they are expanding a bit too fast and I demure my assistance.

        By then, Austria is forcing France and Germany to disband fleets, and Turkey and I have finally destroyed Russia. Net result, I am now the dominant naval power in the North and that is a huge step forward. Austria is very keen on helping me get the coastal states but I start counting and realize they will certainly come after them later if they wish to obtain 18 centers. By then Munich is a sitting duck, so France, Germany and I agree to a shuffling of armies and fleets to present a unified front, and the remaining french troops in Liverpool surrender to my victorious armies. The islands are freed at last!

        So I’m sitting pretty. I’m the dominant naval power in the north, my island is impregnable unless France turns on me (and gets themselves eaten up in the process) or someone breaks out of the med. Scandinavia is strong and I can defend against a lot with few units. Denmark is impregnable while Scandinavia holds. I am pretty much assured of surviving this. France is getting worried and needs some support so I magnanimously allow them to maintain nominal control over Liverpool while I move my fleet in position to support the fleets holding Gibraltar Now I hold both my support and the support center as powerful chips in negotiation. Austria still seems willing to support me against Germany and I hem and aw about this. In the end, I figure Germany is one moving part too many in holding the north and I move in for the Kill. Sorry Germany, you were always a good ally and honest and I stabbed you twice. I wish it had gone differently.

        • FXBDM says:

          The situation in Spring 1908 is the following: Austria and Turkey strongly allied. Austria sitting on 12 centers with a possibility of taking 5 extra if they really slog through. France is beleaguered, but thanks to my support and their little enclave of Liverpool, they are fairly assured of survival even if all their continental centers are taken. We agree to hold strong and wait for turkish assistance. Our argument is Mathematics. There is simply no way at all for Turkey to gain more centers without turning against Austria, and there is no way for Austria to win this thing without turning against Turkey. Repeated iterations of this meet with no positive response and we see Turkey making a grab for Scandinavia, and actually moving armies AWAY from the front with Austria.

          This is the point where John Schilling made the decision to wait one more turn to hit Kiel. My reflection on this was that at this point, Austria and I were still on speaking terms and he had not hit at Kiel with more than one army before. I thought there was a good chance he wanted to concentrate on France so I tried the Swedish shuffle. I also figured that losing Kiel, while aggravating, would not influence the Mathematics and Turkey had to realise they needed to strike fast, especially if Scandinavia was sealed. The Miracle in Madrid was a bonus, and we pleaded a strong case to Turkey. They politely declined and for all their efforts were stabbed mercilessly in the spring.

          Now this could have been a clever ruse to get us out of position in one of the two choke points, because as it was a spring stab, Austria could have reversed course in the fall. We pleaded with Turkey to join us. The plan was to hold secure in Russia, re-take Marseilles and then roll up Italy and the Balkans using our superior naval forces. It could have worked too, and I would probably have managed to stab France at some point but you know what happened next.

          In the last turn, all being lost, the french navy graciously accepted to transport my Royal person, escorted by the Home Guards regiment stationed in London, to the sunny beaches of Morrocco where I am enjoying a well earned retirement.

        • John Schilling says:

          Thank you for this detailed response; it does make clear a fair number of northern maneuverings that had me confused for much of the game. I agree with you about your two big mistakes, but in hindsight the really big one was drawing a naval power in a game that would be decided by clashes of armies on the continent.

          Well, that and naval battles in the Med. If you’d gone through with the initial strike into Brest, you might have taken France down fast enough to have been a Mediterranean player, so, yeah, that one hurt. Good instincts on when to do the Kiel shuffle, and generally doing as best you could with your northern fleets to slow me down.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      In the future, can you make one top-level post and the rest as replies to that?

      • John Schilling says:

        I appreciate the implied veto of confidence. Will do, and sorry for neglecting that basic courtesy this time.

    • b_jonas says:

      Did you ever stop part of the role-playing against some opponents who have definitely figured out your identity?

      • FXBDM says:

        John stopped rôle playing with me when I rudely reneged on our deal. He was a lot more curt afterwards:-)

    • Synonym Seven says:

      Have you done any other writeups of previous games?

      • John Schilling says:

        I only participated in one other game, and did do a full write up at the end of that one. Thanks to the deficiencies of the iPad interface, and the user-unfriendliness of Linux, you’ll have to find it yourself,

  17. bean says:

    LA Fleet Week is coming up Labor Day Weekend, hosted at the USS Iowa. I had a great time at Fleet Week 2016, recounted at Naval Gazing.

    • Lambert says:

      By the way, the TLS certificate for Navalgazing expired this morning (00:30Z on the 30th).

    • bean says:

      As has become traditional, it’s time for another Naval Gazing Open Thread.

      • FXBDM says:

        Bean, I don’t know if you are looking for ideas, but a tour of the interesting naval facilities viewable in google maps would be a very interesting article.

        For example how does one tell the class of the submarine visible in Kings Bay Georgia?

        • bean says:

          Hmm. That does sound interesting.

          I’m always looking for ideas, but there’s a long list of them waiting to be written. Still, that one sounds fairly easy to write, which is a category I’m often short of.

          Re Kings Bay specifically, there are only Ohios based there, and I’m not sure it’s possible to tell the difference between the SSBN and SSGN versions from satellite photos.

          • FXBDM says:

            Thanks! I played around last night and learned how to tell a Tico from an Arleigh-Burke from aerial photos but the subs are hard to see on my phone.

          • FXBDM says:

            And you can probably include Vladivostok, Scapa Flow and Toulon in your review.


            Not Toulon I guess.

          • bean says:

            Nor Scapa. That hasn’t been an active base since WWII, IIRC. Portsmouth is the main British surface base these days.

          • FXBDM says:

            Yep. And if i’m Not mistaken their new carrier is in there. You can also spot the Sao Paulo in Rio Harbor.

            Have fun!

          • Lambert says:

            Can confirm the new carrier is there.
            Saw it from the Historic Dockyards (kind of pricey. Didn’t have time to look around much.) when I went there.

          • bean says:

            Yes. I watched a documentary on QE’s preparations, and one bit was when they had to do a controlled demolition of an old German bomb they found while dredging Portsmouth.

            (The documentary, Britain’s Biggest Warship, was really good. Track down a copy if you can.)

          • Nornagest says:

            “Trident Lakes Golf Course”. That’s cute.

            Looking over at Vladivostok, I think I can ID the Varyag and the Bystryy. The thing with the big old radome amidships, in drydock east of there, is probably the Marshal Nedelin.

            There’s another big ship in drydock nearby, looks like a warship but there’s too much crap on the deck for me to make it out well. Probably one of the Udaloys. Russian berthing practice looks very different from American — they slot those ships in any which way.

          • FXBDM says:

            Nornagest: if you poke around Severomorsk you can see the Admiral Kouznetsov being towed, and there is a Kirov class cruiser docked in Severodvinsk. Lots of subs in the bays north of Murmansk too

  18. Paul Brinkley says:

    Does anyone else here enjoy mental math tricks? An example:

    Square enough two-digit numbers in your head (in base ten), and you’ll notice a pattern: the last two digits run in a cycle, 50 numbers long, with the second 25 reversing the first: 00, 01, 04, 09, 16, …, 29, 76, 25, 76, 29, and so on. Moreover, at 50, the hundreds and larger digits differ by exactly 1: 2025, 2116, 2209, 2304, 2401, 2500, 2601, 2704, 2809, etc. For this reason, it’s very easy to square numbers close to 50 in your head, with only a little practice. Do it a little more, and you’ll likely memorize them.

    Do it a bit more, and you notice the pattern extend past 40 and 60, exactly the way they do for the first 25 squares, which you’d likely also have memorized by this point. For example, 63 is 50 + 13, so the last two digits are 69, but 13 squared is that plus 100, so if you were counting up 13 from 25 for the hundreds digit, would it make sense to count one more? 25 + 13 = 38, add 1 to get 39, so is 63 squared 3969? Turns out it is. And in the other direction, you also add 1: 25 – 13 = 12, add 1 to get 13, 1369 is indeed 37 squared.

    Does it work for any multiple of 50? Can I start with 100 squared = 10000, add 1300 to get 11300, add 100 more, last two digits are 69, so 113 squared = 11469? Sadly, no… but the real answer is close. It’s 12769. The hundreds places increased by 26 + 1, rather than 13 + 1. We were supposed to count up by 200 at a time!

    So is the pattern now to divide the starting number by 50, and count up or down by that much at a time? Let’s see: 450 is 9 times 50, and 450 squared is 202500 (there’s an even easier shortcut for that one), so if we want 463 squared, count up by 9 times 13 – okay, this is a bit mucky, but fine, it’s 117 – so add 11700 (it’s easier if you ignore the 00 at the end, of course) to get 214200, then one more, or just add 169 to the whole thing to get 214369, check the root in Google… wow! It’s 463! Does it work in the other direction? Take away 11700, get 190800, add 169, get 190969, check the root… yep, 437.

    It takes about a minute for me to do in my head, but it gets faster with only a little practice. Before long, I can tell that the number “looks” right by the time I’m there. And with the binomial theorem trick, I can also do similar products like 853 times 859, et al.

    • muskwalker says:

      For this reason, it’s very easy to square numbers close to 50 in your head, with only a little practice.

      The formula I found (I don’t remember where) for squaring two-digit numbers in my head is:

      (x - y) * (x + y) + y² = x²

      where ‘y’ is a digit chosen to make the mental multiplication easier—generally the distance to the nearest ten. So to square 63:

      60 * 66 + 9 = 3969

      i.e. (63 - 3) * (63 + 3) + 3² = 63²

      And to square 37:

      34 * 40 + 9 = 1369

      i.e. (37 - 3) * (37 + 3) + 3² = 37²

      • helloo says:

        There are quite a few mental math tricks for squaring. Here’s a few:
        Note that these are generally done in pairs of digits from the end first.

        1-25 have to memorize

        26-75 –
        [50 – x] ^ 2 + [x-25]100 : So normally it’s distance from 50 squared for last 2 digits, carry the hundreds and add them x – 25 for the hundred/thousandths digits
        You’ll note the rule for 50-60 is in there.

        76-100 –
        [100 – x] ^ 2 + [2x – 100]100 : Similar to above but changed so don’t have to square anything greater than 25.

        100-200 –
        [x – 100] ^ 2 + [x – 100]200 + 10000:
        Might look familiar by now – last 2 digits are just the tens+ones squared, 3-4th are twice that + carry from before, 1 + carry for the first.

      • helloo says:

        Wow. Filter hates math symbols apparently.

        Linked is post I tried but was unable to post (removing link did not help)


        • Paul Brinkley says:

          Your tips on squaring seem identical to mine. If you continue the pattern, you get as high as I do, somewhere around 1000, before it’s about as hard to square numbers in my head as it would be to square three-digit numbers without the trick.

          I’m amused that you mention UIL Number Sense. I crushed the district level in that event all four years I took it, and placed once in regional. Next level above that would’ve been state, and me probably making big news in town.

          The thing that held me back was probably the fact that I never really trained hard, so anyone with my gift who did train had a decisive edge.

    • Well... says:

      Some time ago I noticed that if you multiply either 7, 8, or 9 by two, the last digit in the product is the same as the first digit if you square that same number:

      14 –> 49
      16 –> 64
      18 –> 81

      No clue if this holds true for other numbers, or what underlying pattern governs this, or whether it’s just a coincidence.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        That the doubles of 7, 8, and 9 differ by 2 is, of course, trivial. That their squares differ by roughly 20 is merely an artifact of the differences of squares. 7 squared is 49; to get 8 squared, add 7 and 8; to get 9 squared, add 8 and 9; etc. If you squint, 10 through 13 follow the same rule:

        20 -> 100
        22 -> 121
        24 -> 144
        26 -> 169

        You could expect this to be possible whenever squares differ by roughly 20, plus some multiple of 100. So you might check around 60, 110, etc.:

        60 -> 120 -> 3600
        61 -> 122 -> 3721
        62 -> 124 -> 3844
        63 -> 126 -> 3969

        110 -> 220 -> 12100
        111 -> 222 -> 12321
        112 -> 224 -> 12544
        113 -> 226 -> 12769

        Unfortunately, I see no easy way to exploit this to compute harder problems. That said, inquiring into odd patterns like this is probably a good way to discover more mental shortcuts, and also to develop number sense in general.

  19. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Just hypothetically, is there any way to structure a society so that it’s good at ameliorating the effects of a bad government?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I think there are too many assumptions in there? It feels like a very under-specified question.

      For instance, are we assuming that Western democracies are not “good” at this? What qualifies as “good”? Similar what counts as “bad”? Are the Western democracies “bad”?

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        No, it’s that I’m rather specifically worried about Trump, though the problem can be generalized.

        The situation is that a government is the most powerful institution in its territory, but if it goes bad, can you have a society which is resilient enough to significantly weaken the government?

        Democracy seems more or less adequate to me, even if I don’t have a theoretical basis I like for governments, but I wonder whether there’s some way to dissolve hierarchy in emergencies.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Roughly speaking, I would say government is emergent from population. Thus, the most resilient society to bad government is one which expects its government to be good. That is the society which is most likely to take on the costs associated with attempting to rectify the causes and harms of the bad government, for they have reason to believe that this will be successful.

          Cynicism might be the single most corrosive solvent of good governance.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      The traditional solution was to have parts of society where government was not allowed to go, and things that government was not allowed to do.

      We smashed all that in several phases over the past few centuries, meaning for the best each time, of course.

    • Robert Jones says:

      Who is doing the structuring here?

      The less effective government is, the less harm a bad government will do, but making society ungovernable seems like a cure worse than the disease.

      You might cultivate independence of mind and a strong sense of morality among the citizenry, so that there would be mass non-compliance with immoral laws, but that’s not really a question of structure and it’s perhaps a bit of a cop-out to say that we could run a great state if all the citizens were moral exemplars.

      Mostly I think bad government is just bad, and we should concentrate on improving government rather than ameliorating it.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I wasn’t sure that “structure” was the word I wanted.

        • knockknock says:

          We have some protections already built in — namely layers of government including states, counties, school boards and so on. So not all our eggs are in the federal basket if you can’t tolerate a Trump or Obama.

    • It’s possibly obvious, but no one has mentioned a very healthy and diverse media? By healthy I mean with a culture of reporting on relevent facts and being unbiased. By diversity I don’t mean in a political way, but purely in the sense of providing many different perspectives that are hard to capture, intimidate and have fewer blind spots than if you have just one or two prevailing approaches.

      Today’s ‘he-said she-said’ reporting, ‘gotcha’ interviews and lack of investigative journalism give the facade of this but seem to be pretty useless most of the time. As for people that ignore the media and just invent their own facts, I feel that’s a function of poor quality journalism as much as it is a problem of some kind of ignorance. But we don’t currently have a good business model for quality, so I don’t know how you achieve any of this.

      • albatross11 says:

        I think that’s downstream of people wanting accurate information so they can make good decisions. I think careful analysis and reporting of facts doesn’t actually pay as well as sensationalized or partisan-outrage-stoking reporting, and that shows in mainstream media coverage and in how the public is/isn’t informed.

        • Garrett says:

          Interesting possible question for the next survey:
          How many people here directly pay for at least one news source? Eg. a newspaper, renewing NPR membership, or online news site.

        • I’d mostly agree but imagine its bi-directional, like a coordination problem – it doesn’t make sense paying for news if you have limited ways you’re not just buying partisan sensationalist bin liners anyway.

          • albatross11 says:

            Sometimes, it feels a little like voting–I want good news sources, and I donate/subscribe to some, but I realize I’m on the wrong end of a massive public goods problem.

    • proyas says:

      You structure the government to be decentralized. That way, if the central government were bad, or several of the lower-level state government were bad, then the damage would be minimized since most citizens would still live in states that had good governments. People could also vote with their feet by moving between states.

      BTW, I think changing the U.S. Constitution in such a way that more power is devolved to the states would go a long way to defusing our growing schisms over social issues and spending. It won’t happen, though.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Honestly, I think the US (and other most other Western countries) are structured well for this purpose. As knockknock mentions, having multiple tiers of government that can oppose overreach by each other is one safety mechanism. It also helps when people are used to cooperating with others in their communities in organizations that aren’t mediated by the government (everything from churches to maker spaces). And powerful corporations limit certain kinds of mischief the federal government could otherwise try (e.g. widespread internet censorship would ruin too many business models). Basically, as long as government is not the only pole that a society is organized around the overall structure is more robust.

  20. mtl1882 says:

    Has anyone here read Lincoln in the Bardo? I’ve found it very hard to locate another human who has, and I’d like to discuss it.

    I’m also working on writing a non-fiction book(s) about Mary Todd Lincoln and related issues, and I’m trying to figure out who to target. I definitely plan to do a scholarly breakdown at some point, and I could write a ridiculously low brow version to try and get the masses interested in the issues, but I’d like to go somewhere in the middle and write an entertaining, easy to understand book that also requires people to think and that is rigorously documented/analyzed. I’m not sure if those have had much success lately, though they should.

    What types of history/nonfiction appeal to you and people you know? What length? Are you appalled by footnotes? Any pet peeves? Do you enjoy humor and satire? How many people/characters can you keep track of?

    I know the main thing is to let the story tell itself, and not to try to fit it into a formula, but I am interested in people’s perspectives nonetheless. There are a lot of stories that can branch off from my main ideas.

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      Are you appalled by footnotes?

      Just the opposite. I hate endnotes, as does virtually everyone who has even a slightly serious interest in history and therefore wants to look at the notes occasionally without the wasted time and inconvenience of flipping to the back of the book. I wish publishers would wise up to this.

      • switchnode says:

        Caveat: Footnotes lose their advantage in most digital formats (where they are mechanically equivalent to endnotes but scattered throughout the book).

        Honestly, I’m happy with either footnotes or endnotes—or even the somewhat barbarous but market-friendly practice of quotation endnotes—as long as authorial asides or commentaries on sources are readily distinguishable from simple citations. I always want to read the former; I am indifferent to the specifics of the latter when reading for pleasure. Endnotes are generally awful for this, footnotes fine in dead-tree format, but what I really like is independent numbering systems. (Some authors do this, using roman numerals or the asterisk series in footnotes for asides and numbered endnotes for citations.) Similarly, I’m always pleased with a bibliography or recommended sources section separate from the full works cited list, especially if there are comments.

        I feel a bit rude jumping into a holy war while ignoring the original topic, so I will follow up on mtl1882’s other questions in another comment.

      • Nick says:

        This. Placing all the notes at the end of the book so I have to flip back and forth is a good way to make me never read them at all.

      • hls2003 says:

        Just adding my voice to this chorus. I hate endnotes, which always require a finger or double bookmark and endless flipping. Footnotes are always vastly preferable. That being said, like switchnode, unless I am reading for a specific scholarly purpose, I am usually interested in “additional commentary” rather than bare citations. My only hack when reading is to look at the end notes before beginning a chapter and mentally mark the substantive numbers and ignore the rest.

    • switchnode says:

      What types of history/nonfiction appeal to you and people you know?

      Leaving aside non-historical non-fiction: Broad economic histories, with emphasis on modes of production and changes therein (including technological, logistic, and financial inventions). Technical project histories. High financial adventure. Science and scientists. War and decision-making.

      If I had to identify common threads, I would point out (a) an emphasis on the material underpinnings of civilization, and (b) a study of individuals primarily with respect to their success or failure in investigating (scientists) or building and directing (everybody) complex systems. (How do people succeed at outsize goals? How do they fail?)

      As in everything, there are exceptions, but this might put me out of your target audience, sorry. What are the “related issues”?

      What length?

      Long enough to reach the end.

      Seriously, I prefer ebooks, so unless the author is clearly filling space, the book lacks structure, or there’s a volume of redundant evidence that makes it seem better suited as an academic source than as pleasure reading, I’m not even going to notice whether it would be a doorstopper. It’s easier to disappoint me by leaving things out than by including them. (Mileage may vary.)

      Are you appalled by footnotes?


      Any pet peeves?

      Flights of fancy with respect to historical figures’ psychology, always. Obvious editorializing. General breathlessness, especially over love, crime, scandal, or glamour.

      Do you enjoy humor and satire?

      Yes, although I would be extremely wary of its inclusion in an informative work.

      How many people/characters can you keep track of?

      Not enough, dude, just remind me at intervals. (Those ‘Dramatis Personae’ pages don’t work.)

      • mtl1882 says:

        Thank you – very useful insights. Agree very much with “general breathlessness.” I disagree re human and satire, IF the author can do it in a way that is . . . fair. I’m not sure of the word. Like some things are just funny, and you can point it out without meaning it in a disparaging/trivializing way towards the person/situation. But it’s very easy for it to become a cheap shot, or get interpreted that way.

        I enjoy financial and science histories as well, but I feel like those are generally very well-covered. When I look into them, I start realizing how many different people made up such systems and decisions, and how interesting it is to get into their personal lives and beliefs. Taking it at the system level tends to presuppose an order and intention that is far more consistent and uniform than what actually happened. This is most true with war and decision-making. So I like to explore individuals and their influences more. A good popular history book is “Destiny of the Republic,” about Garfield’s assassination. — it deals heavily with medical and scientific issues at the time, focusing on Alexander Graham Bell and some others, but does so in a way that highlights the actual people involved. I mean, Graham is aggravated he has to go to the Centennial to present his telephone, because his deaf students have an exam the next day and he wants to help them prepare. To me, that detail makes the story far more interesting than a mere description of the workings of the telephone.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Thanks for all the replies about footnotes – I totally agree. But I think most people disagree with us, unfortunately. Most people are strangely appalled by footnotes. I’ve had people ask me what they are. A lot of people won’t even pick up a book that has them. I’m amazed by how even academic books frequently use endnotes, so the resistance must be strong. But I like them, so I may stick to them, but the tiering system is a good suggestion.

  21. WashedOut says:

    Coffee thread.

    How do you consume coffee? In what quantities and at what times of day? How have your preferences changed over time?

    I used to be a ‘white with no sugar’ guy, but now I drink black coffee 90% of the time, made by either a plunger/french press/aeropress or, if im at a cafe, filter. I have about 2-3 cups per day, all between 6am and 12pm.

    When I think of coffee in the USA I think of those diners with waitresses walking around with jugs of pre-made black coffee topping you up until you’re jittering so hard you can hardly place a steady hand on the wheel of your pickup truck. Although I’ve never been to the USA, I spent some time in Japan recently and got the impression they have a similar approach. Btw, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a cafe in Japan that’s open for breakfast and coffee before 9am, but they close really late.

    In Australia ‘cafe culture’ is massive, but the industry is relatively young so a lot of businesses have the trappings of good taste without actually serving good coffee. In Melbourne, where the cafe scene is the oldest and most celebrated, the most common coffee orders are pretty well evenly spread between long macchiato (long black ‘stained’ with milk), long black and latte/cappucino. “Melbourne does good coffee” has become an article of faith and has lead to thousands of talentless businesses piggy-backing off the reputation of the city whilst getting away with serving swill against the backdrop of a distressed brick wall. The colder/gloomier climate here has pushed the acceptable coffee drinking window well into the late afternoon, and the large populations of Italians and Greeks certainly help the after-dinner coffee market, which to my anglo sensibilities seems like a crazy time to be drinking it.

    Interested to hear what the scene is like in Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane (and Hobart for that matter). In Western Australia, the specialty coffee scene is only about 10 years old, and so most people still have a strictly utilitarian view of coffee. As a result the range of cafe orders is narrowly centered around one staple – the Flat White. 90% of all cafe orders are for this drink. Specialty coffee places in WA generally get their beans from Melbourne (by road freight, to prevent pressurization damage), Denmark (Koffee Collective), and locally in Perth (Mano a Mano). The hot, arid climate in Perth makes drinking hot beverages after mid-morning in the hotter months a very uncomfortable prospect, and as a result the market for cold-brew has done really well. Having coffee after about 2pm is pretty much unheard-of.

    • Nornagest says:

      Black. Pour-over, or sometimes French press; cold brew on the hottest summer days. No sugar if it’s good coffee, but I’ll add a packet to smooth out the bitterness if it’s not. I average probably a little under three cups a day, mostly consumed at work before lunch. I’ve been drinking it since high school, but preferred espresso drinks (lattes and mochas) until midway through college.

      The diners still exist, but I think Starbucks and its clones and imitators are more central to American coffee culture these days.

      • Brad says:

        The diners still exist, but I think Starbucks and its clones and imitators are more central to American coffee culture these days.

        Every time I go into Starbucks, I’m shocked anew by how dominated the orders are by milky drinks with some kind of flavored syrup. That’s just light and sweet at four times the price.


        To answer the OP my favorite coffee drink is a cappuccino. But I don’t like spending $4 on one, so mostly I drink regular coffee with a splah of half&half. If I’m feeling patient from a french press, otherwise from a super-automatic (at work) or a drip pot (at home). The amount and timing is 2-3 drinks generally between 8AM-1PM.

        I would buy an espresso machine, but I know myself well enough to know it’d be used four times and then sit in a closet.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          But I don’t like spending $4 on one

          One big shock for me doing my budget was the $80+ month I spent at Starbucks. Something like 3-4 visits per week. Which doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but that’s $1,000 per year.

          I generally go about once per month now.

          • knockknock says:

            I suspect Starbucks-style coffee drinks are a big factor in the spread of obesity.

            As for myself, aside from a rare espresso I drink plenty of coffee but only iced. My wife saves her extra black-no sugar from Dunkin for me and I ice it up. Or I just make some instant.

            Most people try to avoid coffee late in the day, but I gotta have some iced coffee before bedtime — sends me off to bed relaxed and refreshed.

        • SamChevre says:

          Have you tried a moka pot? In my opinion, they produce coffee that is 75% of the way to being espresso, while being about 1% of the cost and hassle. And if you microwave milk in a pint jar until boiling and then shake it vigorously while making the coffee, it’s a cheap sort-of cappuccino.

          • Brad says:

            Hit the report button accidentally when trying to hit the up arrow on mobile. Sorry Scott.


            I’ll see if I can find someone with a Moka pot to try. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • kaakitwitaasota says:

      Usually black, though sometimes with milk or (in an espresso) a touch of sugar; never both. I usually make coffee at home in either a Bialetti moka pot or a French press, and I make it strong.

      I’m currently in China, where coffee is a) overpriced (relative to the cost of living) and b) usually overly sweetened or creamed. The Chinese don’t drink coffee for caffeine, they drink it because it’s a classy and exotic beverage, so coffee shops are almost never open before ten in the morning. I usually get an americano when I’m out.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      As a Seattle coffee Snob…

      The real breakthrough of coffee is the realization that good coffee is 90% technique and only 10% terroir, and that there is a LOT of specific points in the process to improve the technique, and getting it all right requires good technique and good equipment, and to get the good technique you have to actually care.

      I’ve pointed out before that good cafes have to treat their baristas well for the same reason that brutal slave labor has trouble farming rice. Too many many little places where getting it slightly wrong has a yuge impact on yield and quality.

      Every time I’ve had really good cafe coffee in my travels, the barista either trained in Seattle, or was trained by someone who trained in Seattle. This was true even for my trips in Europe.

      Even in Melbourne. I’ve drunk a lot of Melbourne espresso, and it’s not as good as y’all claim, and when it is good, I would learn that the barista can trace their training back to Seattle, and the best ones can trace their training to Cafe Vivace or Cafe Vita.

      And looking at the terroir, I’m willing to bet that the majority of good terroir is again, just really good technique, at planting, husbanding, and picking the plants.

      • Lillian says:

        The real breakthrough of coffee is the realization that good coffee is 90% technique and only 10% terroir, and that there is a LOT of specific points in the process to improve the technique, and getting it all right requires good technique and good equipment, and to get the good technique you have to actually care.

        This explains the observation i heard from a coffee snob once about the miraculous ability of Americans to have access to the best coffee beans the planet has to offer, and yet somehow still manage to make shit coffee. He marvelled at how any random dilapidated coffee shop in the poorest corners of Venezuela or Colombia can reliably turn out better coffee than the highest of high end establishments over in the United States.

        He does grant that things have gotten a lot better over the last two decades, though. For example, the proliferation of Starbucks means that his expected coffee experience in most locations has been upgraded from “un-or-barely drinkable” to “reasonably tolerable”. Moreover locations serving actually good coffee are getting easier to find, though do still require some effort. Fortunately for him he lives in South Florida, were the number of immigrants from places with good coffee is high enough that he rarely has cause for complaint. For the record, he takes his coffee “so strong a spoon will stand up straight in it”.

        As for myself, i don’t like bitter tastes and am immune to caffeine, so i’m not much of a coffee drinker. What i like are coffee flavoured sweets, like ice cream, or frappuchinos.

        • Nornagest says:

          the proliferation of Starbucks means that his expected coffee experience in most locations has been upgraded from “un-or-barely drinkable” to “reasonably tolerable”.

          That’s funny, since Starbucks is probably the worst of the big coffee chains in terms of raw coffee quality. Peets, Dutch Bros, etc. are all better, though usually not much better: if Starbucks is a 6, Peets is maybe a 7. (Independent cafes where I live average around an 8, but with high variance.)

          I think Starbucks knows this, and wants to change it, but they’re hamstrung by people who’ve come to expect bitter, charred, oversteeped coffee from the chain and balk at anything else. Every couple years they try to get some traction with a different espresso blend: it always tastes better than the regular stuff, and it never lasts.

          • Lillian says:

            Dutch Bros is nowhere near as prolific or easy to find as Starbucks, and i’ve never even heard of Peets before, so i don’t see how it qualifies as a big coffee chain. The only place with similar penetration is Dunkin Donuts, which he maintains is worse.

          • Jaskologist says:

            If most people prefer their coffee bitter, charred and oversteeped, then that coffee is better.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            I’ve only ever had Dutch Bros cold brew, so I can’t speak to their espresso. (Also, I don’t like the taste of espresso, so it wouldn’t be helpful if I did.)

            But in my experience Dutch Bros is trying to stand out through customer service and friendliness, not absolute quality. They do a fantastic job, to be honest. I went out of my way to stop at one every time I needed drinks on my cross country road trip (until they stop existing once you pass Arizona), because the sheer level of friendliness they train/select for in their cashiers is unbelievable. I get happier going through the drive through, which is a nice burst of energy in a long drive.

            (A friend whose high school friends worked there tells me, with a shudder, that they require all employees to “make a personal connection with every customer”, and unlike most retail businesses, they actually mean this. Forced cheeriness is a little weird, I guess, but it works, and I think basic social psychology means both sides end up happier (misanthropes and introverts notwithstanding.))

          • Matt M says:

            Doesn’t Dutch Bros mainly sell the heavily flavored latte-style drinks that include a week’s worth of sugar in a single cup? Do they even sell regular black coffee?

            As far as the “personal connection” goes, yes, I haven’t been there often, but every time I go it seems to be staffed entirely by incredibly attractive young women who talk your ear off. Company policy aside, they probably earn a pretty decent amount of tips…

          • CatCube says:

            @Matt M

            Dutch Bros. has regular drip coffee. That’s what I get when we stop there on work trips.

    • Anonymous says:

      How do you consume coffee?

      Very rarely and with marked distaste.

      • BeefSnakStikR says:

        I drink tea and coffee without sugar specifically because the bitterness makes the accompanying cake or scone or whatever taste sweeter.

        I don’t actually like them, it just doesn’t do what water does. Milk works, but I can only drink so many glasses of milk a day.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I drink cold brew mixed with milk and then heated to boiling.

      That’s my try to carve out some space between a rock and a hard place: Too much coffee messes up my stomach. But caffeine withdrawal has me puking after 16h. And I also love the taste and the ritual. So I buy very mild coffee, make it even milder by cold brewing and then take the last edge off by inundating it in milk.

    • Robert Jones says:

      White, no sugar, french press, one mugful each at approximately 8am, 11am and 2pm.

    • Lambert says:

      I’m one of those jerks who buys light-roasted whole beans.
      I mostly use a moka pot because I can’t afford a real espresso machine.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I don’t know anyone who eats at diners, TBH. Coffee culture in the US is dominated by Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and the coffee machine at work. Starbucks and DD are largely consumed with enough sugar to give you instant diabetes, and the work coffee machines usually taste like sewer water.

      My schedule:
      Morning: 2 cups. Grind beans/heat water/put in French press. The sink strainer catches all the ground beans, which makes clean-up 10x easier. Black, and pretty strong. I should probably measure how much coffee I actually use, but I seem to use double the amount most people use.
      EDIT: I just checked and I use about 1/3 oz coffee per 6 fl oz of water, so other people have understrength coffee.

      Afternoon: 1 cup. Black. Free coffee at work. It makes the afternoon slump more manageable.

    • dodrian says:

      I began drinking coffee in a summer internship during university. I worked a much longer day than I was used to with a grueling commute, and some afternoons needed a stronger pick-me-up. I added copious amounts of milk and sugar.

      Truthfully I still drink coffee the same way: for utility, not enjoyment. I have a large cup a few times a week, though now it tends to be in the mornings, still with milk, but now with less sweetener. Most of my caffeine intake comes from the ungodly amounts of diet coke I drink, which I really should be buying by the pallet.

      There are two exceptions though:

      1) The £1 cup from the greasy-spoon cafe underneath Putney Bridge tube station. The best coffee I’ve ever tasted. I have two theories to his (a large, very friendly vaguely-Mediterranean gentleman – there were a number of different languages spoken among the staff and I never pinned down an exact country) exceptional brew – it was nominally filter coffee but when I asked for milk he added a large dollop fresh from the steamer. Or possibly it was brewed with crack cocaine – I genuinely wouldn’t have been suprised if it were (except I guess it couldn’t be sold at that price).

      2) There is no better way to complete a fine dining experience than with a small cup of coffee. I am partial to an affogato in lieu of dessert, but a simple cup of black coffee is an equally exceptional ending. It is the one time I will break my no caffeine after 5 rule.

      • gleamingecho says:

        There is no better way to complete a fine dining experience than with a small cup of coffee. I am partial to an affogato in lieu of dessert, but a simple cup of black coffee is an equally exceptional ending. It is the one time I will break my no caffeine after 5 rule.


        • Lillian says:

          The coffee snob i mentioned up thread? He swears by this too, except he’s not a dessert guy, so an espresso after dinner is his default. He drinks purely for enjoyment too, as caffeine has about as much utility for him as it does me.

          Admittedly i do find that Turkish coffee with honey after a meal is one of life’s joys and pleasures, but finding such a thing is rare. How i miss that Algerian crepes place. It was without a doubt one of the best restaurant in the city, and yet it simply could not find enough patrons to stay in business.

          • DavidS says:

            Yeah, espresso either alongside dessert or instead of it is great. Feels like it helps me not feel over full as well and interacts well with a bottle of two of wine.

      • broblawsky says:

        Coke is actually pretty cheap these days, I think.

    • gleamingecho says:

      Black. At home, we brew Blue Bottle beans using a DeLonghi automatic espresso machine (it tastes like regular brewed coffee but it’s technically an Americano). But I will drink almost any coffee. I quite enjoy McDonalds coffee, and, in fact, prefer it to overbrewed “fancy” chain coffee like Starbucks and Peet’s.

    • SamChevre says:

      Coffee, usually with sugar, generally before noon. I make a sort-of Americano–moka pot coffee with added hot water. (I bring the coffee to work and heat the water in the microwave.) On weekends, for luxury, I’ll drink moka pot coffee straight, with much more sugar than I allow myself on weekdays.

      I used to drink coffee with hot milk or heavy cream, but realized I’m dairy intolerant and stopped doing that–I still miss it.

    • Garrett says:

      I drink coffee medicinally. I don’t care for hot or bitter beverages. So my go-to is usually some form of iced latte with sugar-free caramel syrup. Or something else if it looks good.
      The milk results in a slowed absorption for extended release benefits.

    • andrewflicker says:

      Black at work, usually 1-2 cups. I’m using a Keurig now, which I admit is heretical, but it’s just too easy and I don’t often have the time or inclination to mess with a French Press at my desk. At least I do spend some time on finding better tasting k-cups instead of the usual crap people use.

      At home (on days off, or whatever), I either skip coffee entirely (I find regular drug holidays are quite useful to me), or have it black with a small splash of irish cream added. Usually drip, with beans freshly ground in a very good grinder and then brewed in a very good drip maker. We do occasionally use a french press or aeropress at home, but honestly our drip method makes great coffee already, so why bother?

      We make coldbrew at home during the (very long) Phoenix summer as well, by steeping grounds for 20-24 hours at room temp, filtering, sweetening with very fine sugar, and then chilling in the fridge. Mostly my wife drinks it, but I’ll take a travel cup in the car on my commute occasionally, usually with about 1oz of half-and-half to 8oz of sweetened coldbrew. It’s ok- it’s less flavorful than normal hot coffee, *and* higher caffeine, which I don’t really need, so I try not to drink it often.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I make a pot of french press coffee in the morning and drink it black. I have been trying to trim back the caffeine and am currently on 2/3rds decaf.

      My wife is the coffee aficionado, during the summer she either has her home made cold brewed coffee with coffee ice cubes, or she has an iced latte (again with coffee ice cubes). In the winter she alternates between black french press and espresso in the mornings.

    • Well... says:

      Black if it’s decent coffee. If it’s Maxwell House or Folgers or similar, I add one little creamer cup (which I can count on being available because the two seem to be provided together, maybe with this in mind).

      I drink half a cup (via pour-over) with breakfast, then another half cup (via the big machine in the office) 20 minutes or so before going to the gym in the late morning, or before my first one-on-one meeting, whichever comes first.

      I try not to drink more than that, but sometimes I’ll have an iced coffee from McDonald’s in the afternoon on a weekend if I’m feeling sluggish and have a lot of activities with my family still to come, and if I’m feeling thirsty and in the mood for it and we’re going by a McDonald’s and my wife suggests it.

      My goal is to eventually stop drinking coffee regularly and reserve it for special occasions when I can treat it as a recreational drug, so that one cup gets me all jittery and wild-eyed. Because I find that fun.

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      I no longer drink coffee/caffiene on a regular basis, sans when I’m actually really tired and need to do some work (and some fun social events). It becomes addictive with little benefit when just used every day.

      Some Starbucks strawberry frappuccino is the best type of coffee based drink.

      • AG says:

        Yeah, I’m paranoid about getting caffeine dependent, so despite liking the flavor of coffee, I sadly restrict myself to twice a week, trying to have at least two days between each time. There’s one weekly meeting right after lunch that can be pretty tedious, so I use coffee to get through and use that as the anchor for the schedule.

        Ironically, I actually avoid caffeine at fun social events, because I don’t want to waste any of that time having to find/hit up a restroom of unknown quality, due to caffeine’s laxative properties.

        Weirdly, I can drink an entire pot of green tea at a chinese restaurant at dinner without borking my sleep schedule.

    • rubberduck says:

      I go to cafes to motivate myself to study/work, the logic being “I paid for this coffee, I need to make the most of this time.” In this case I usually get a black coffee or an Americano. I really like flat whites but they feel too luxurious to drink while studying so I only drink them rarely, on the occasion that I want coffee just for fun and not as a productivity aid. No sugar in any case, no matter how awful the coffee itself is. Despite that, when I was in Asia I was surprised at how much I liked cold coffee from a can/bottle (even with the added sugar) and I could see myself drinking that regularly if it were more popular and available in the west.

    • Tenacious D says:

      I take it black.
      During the week, I have the free coffee at work.
      When I buy it at a coffee shop, I usually go for an americano or sometimes an espresso. Although I have a strong association between Tim Horton’s and road trips, so if I’m driving far I’ll often stop there.
      When I make coffee at home (on weekends), I’ll use a french press, pour-over, or stove-top moka. The routine of preparing it in a hands-on way is relaxing.
      Has anyone read Uncommon Grounds? It’s an interesting account of how the coffee industry developed.

    • rahien.din says:

      I used to be a heavy Aeropress user. I have lost my original recipe, but it was basically so strong it had a texture. To the person above who is skeptical of terroir, I have had the opposite experience. I amassed a small collection of varietals and they all tasted strikingly different.

      But that has been lost to time. These days I drink from the Kuerig, on the smallest and strongest brew setting the machine allows for.

      Typically I take it black if I make it myself. A pinch of sugar and a few grains of salt if the bitterness is too much. If I am out and about, a cappuccino or cold brew.

      • Mark Atwood says:

        When you use exactly the same technique, then of course you can distinguish different terroir.

        However, the best terrior in the world cannot make up for uncaring technique.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Generally one cup per day, filter coffee with half-and-half with no sugar. I sometimes like a good cappuchino but find them few and far between; most are either weak or bitter. Best I’ve had were in New Zealand, though I usually had a “flat white” while I was there.

      The bottomless diner coffee is still around, but it’s pretty Red-coded.

  22. AspiringRationalist says:

    We’re starting a new rationalist house in Boston (technically Cambridge, but close enough).

    The place is a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom apartment with 2 living rooms and a large kitchen with a dishwasher and in-unit laundry between Central and Kendall Squares on the red line. Our goals are a mix of self-improvement, effective altruism, and generalized hanging-out-with-people-with-rationalist-adjacent-intellectual-interests.

    Rent is negotiable (the rooms are different sizes), starting at $1,100 per month and averaging $1,354 per month, plus utilities.

    There are 3 of us so far, and we’re looking for a 4th person. We will be moving in September 1.

    Reply if potentially interested.

  23. GigaFauna says:

    This week in study-on-which-article-is-based-actually-shows-exact-opposite-of-what-author-claims: the NYTimes opinion section!

    During an otherwise-commendable discussion of how parents are judged harshly for subjecting their children to even statistically irrelevant risks, the NYT writer decides to throw some culture-wars read-meat to her readers by saying that only women are judged harshly, not men: “At this point you might be wondering, “What about the dads?”. Dr. Sarnecka, the cognitive scientist, has an answer to this. Her study found that subjects were far less judgmental of fathers.”

    Dr Sarnecka’s study is available here . The study reports how judgmental Mechanical Turks are of various parental actions (e.g. leaving a baby briefly alone in a car). The study finds that the mechanical turks are more judgmental of a given action when they are told that action was performed by a father rather than a mother. This increased-judgementalism of fathers holds for all of the five reasons the action might have been performed (e.g. unintentionally, or to run into work, or to have an illicit affair).

    (The father/mother gap is smallest when the actions are work-related, but even in that case fathers are judged more harshly than mothers for the same action.)

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Sadly, I can confirm that GigaFauna has reported accurately here.

      (And it was a completely unnecessary fib! The phenomenon in the article still disparately impacts women, because they do more childcare. But no, apparently the truth isn’t good enough…)

      • Matt M says:

        Somewhat related:

        Headline proclaims “Women work longer hours than men.”

        Article text states that women work 34 hours a week on average, while men work 45

        • FXBDM says:

          That’s easy. Both genders work the same number of minutes. Man hours are around 50 minutes and woman hours around 70. Hence longer hours. QED.

  24. Robert Jones says:

    What do we think about BMI?

    This meta-analysis shows a pretty big impact on all-cause mortality of a 5-unit increment in BMI, with the nadir being around 22.5: the effect size looks similar to drinking half a bottle of wine a day. I think it would be equivalent to losing something like 2 years of life expectancy (although it turns out that converting mortality rates to life expectancies is hard).

    Obviously it’s not exactly the case that Big Pharma is trying to suppress the information that obesity is bad, but I think many people with a BMI of 27.5 (of whom I happen to be one) might not have expected the adverse effect to be that significant.

    • Anonymous says:

      What do we think about BMI?

      BMI is an antique, like calorie-based nutrition models, because statistical methods of estimating body fat percentage exist and are only marginally more difficult to calculate (assuming access to a computer; where this can’t be assumed, obesity is probably not an issue). It’s largely useless on an individual level, except for having a number you can tell a patient to explain just how fat they are. Which I guess is marginally superior to this.

      • gleamingecho says:

        It seems like there should be a BMI-type metric that takes body-fat percentage into account. (Maybe there is one?) Getting a body-fat percentage measurement would only take thirty seconds more than the typical height/weight measurement you get at the doctor’s office.

        • Anonymous says:

          There is. As usual for human metrics, the United States Armed Forces (the US Navy to be precise) have been using it for quite some time. In addition to height and weight, you need waist and neck circumference (and hip circumference for women).


          • Matt M says:

            Ah, the old “rope and choke.”

            I used to work for an LPO who had a freakishly huge/fat neck. We calculated that he could probably weigh 500 lbs and still pass the body fat check.

          • Anonymous says:

            I used to work for an LPO who had a freakishly huge/fat neck. We calculated that he could probably weigh 500 lbs and still pass the body fat check.

            Wow, that is freakish.

        • b_jonas says:

          I never got a height or weight measurement since I was in primary school. Not even before my surgery under anesthesia, when precise drug rates are supposedly important. I have measured my weight and height at home.

    • FXBDM says:

      It breaks down with taller fellows. Michael Jordan played at 218# and that would make him overweight according the the traditionnal metric.

      I wish I weighed 218 again. Sigh.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        I believe Evander Holyfield was considered obese by BMI at his fighting weight and he was absolutely shredded.

        • DarkTigger says:

          Sorry, but what?
          Micheal Jordan at a height of 1.98 meters an an weight of 218 lbs (98.88 kilograms) would have an BMI of 25.25, which is just over the threshold for beeing overweight.
          Evander Holyfield with an height of 1.89 meters and an fighting weight of 226 lbs (102.5 kg) would have an BMI of 28.7. Which would be considered overweight but not obese.

          The BMI is an good enough approximation for everyone who is not an top athlet.

          • FXBDM says:

            218 for a 6’6’’ Guy is not even close to being overweight. The BMI is misleading for high muscle and tall people. I agree that it is probably good enough for most people but as a 3 sd tall guy myself it tends to break Down and that is my experience. Some people have suggested an exponent of 2,5 to compensate.

          • ohwhatisthis? says:

            BMI is stupid. Bodyfat percentages are more useful. Bodyfat+ vo2max is even more useful. This can go on.

            BMI is additionally stupid for people outside typical height norms as body well get tends to scale with weight at a relationship around h^2.6, not height squared, though my memeory could be off.

            BMI is used because all one needs is a scale and a height measure and it’s non invasive, and because it’s such a basic measurement any health implications can be very off.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            I have been BMI overweight since my JR Year of high school and for a great % of that I was the best soccer player at the HS, and a top wrestler with a documented Body Fat % under 7% to begin the season.

            I am not tall. But I am one of those guys who can’t buy jeans because of ass muscles. BMI isn’t a useful measurement for any athlete that isn’t cardio-only.

    • bean says:

      BMI is a metric that was designed for normal, sedentary adults. The fact that it suggests that athletes are overweight says more about improper use than its failure at is intended purpose. It’s perfectly adequate for a doctor seeing a normal patient who has available height, weight, and can look at the patient. If they’re “obese” by BMI, but obviously it’s muscle instead of fat, a decent doctor is going to ignore the BMI. It might have been made obsolescent by wide availability of computers which let the doctor do much more complicated math quickly, but it made sense at the time.

    • Brad says:

      It seems fine for what it is. I hear a lot of objections about how someone that it doesn’t work for people with a lot of muscle bulk. But if you have a lot of muscle bulk, you’re well aware of it. For many people it’s a decent way of keeping themselves honest.

    • gleamingecho says:

      Given that many of the folks in the 25+ BMI cohort are people who are in shape and have athletic builds (and maybe? don’t have the same mortality rates), it would seem that the actual effect of obesity is higher than this study actually shows, since the athletic folks are “bringing up the average.”

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I didn’t keep the citation, but I saw of study of elderly men that suggested that, yes, the use of BMI is underestimating the effects correlates of obesity.

    • Robert Jones says:

      I realise that I have phrased this question badly, because people are just arguing about whether BMI is good measure of adiposity rather than reading the study.

      My question is really whether this meta-analysis is correct in identifying adiposity as associated with increased risk of all cause mortality, even for people who are only modestly overweight. If BMI turns out to be a bad measure of adiposity, the real effect will be larger (as gleamingecho identifies).

    • Anon. says:

      Any study that purports to link obesity to mortality without controlling for genetics is pure garbage.

      Risks of Myocardial Infarction, Death, and Diabetes in Identical Twin Pairs With Different Body Mass Indexes. (No diff in myocardial infarction or death between twins with different BMIs, though there’s definitely a diabetes connection).

      Long‐term Effects of Dieting: Is Weight Loss Related to Health? (no effects, except diabetes)

      • Robert Jones says:

        I find language like “pure garbage” unhelpful.

        Interesting though the twin study is, it’s looking at 4,406 pairs, versus nearly 10m particpants in the paper by Aune et al. Unsurprisingly, the mean difference in BMI between twins is not large. Restricting to twin pairs with a substantial BMI difference reduced the sample size to 65 pairs, and a corresponding huge confidence interval.

        On the priors, it does not seem all that likely that there are many genetic variations which have the effect of both creating a propensity to obesity and increasing mortality independently of actual adiposity.

        The curve is J-shaped, so one would expect the lighter twin to have increased mortality on the left-hand side of the curve. They have performed the analysis in sub-groups based on the BMI of the heavier twin (which again have huge confidence intervals), but it seems to me they ought to exclude pairs where the lighter twin has a BMI below the nadir (which could well involved reverse causation).

        It seems unsatisfactory that they combine MIs and deaths for the purpose of their odds ratio analysis.

        Diabetes is definitely a large part of the harm associated with obesity, so saying there’s no effect except for diabetes isn’t very impressive. The paper by Tomiyama et al is remarkable in that it finds dieting is largely ineffective for weight loss (resulting in an average weight loss of only 1.49kg vs control groups), but very effective in reducing the incidence of diabetes (58% reduction vs control groups). That seems implausible to me, but taken a face value would suggest that dieting is better than it looks at addressing our main concern.

        • Anon. says:

          On the priors, it does not seem all that likely that there are many genetic variations which have the effect of both creating a propensity to obesity and increasing mortality independently of actual adiposity.

          Your priors are wrong. Consider eg The association between intelligence and lifespan is mostly genetic. The genetic overlap between seemingly-unrelated phenotypic traits is huge.

          • Robert Jones says:

            That result seems unsurprising, because, AFAIK, differences in intelligence are mostly genetic. I don’t think the paper is saying anything more than that, e.g. “If these results generalize, then alleles favouring intelligence may also favour lifespan even if the heritability of lifespan is low.”

  25. S_J says:

    Sometime in the past few weeks, a commenter here used a pair of pictures of Detroit to give an impression of incredible decline of the Motor City.

    I objected, for various reasons.

    Instead of re-hashing that discussion, I’ll post a something I recently saw on the r/Detroit portion of Reddit.


    It’s a picture of Slow’s BBQ, near the Downtown area, from 2002. In the comments on the Reddit thread, there is a link to Google StreetView, which shows more recent views of that corner.

    That section of Detroit has definitely improved since the first few years of the 21st Century. It is the opinion of more than a few locals tht the Downtown area has improved and gentrifying noticeably over the last decade.

    Conclusion: a pair of then-and-now photos can show decline, improvement, or stasis…and they may, or may not, be indicative of the actual economic situation.

    • S_J says:

      As a separate post: the link toStreetview in Google Maps of that block of Detroit, from within the past year.

      In that view, Slow’s BBQ is the left-most storefront.

    • S_J says:

      I also found a link to an aerial-photo-map collection, gathered by DTE Energy, the dominant electric-power utility for the Metro Detroit area.

      The page has comments about file-size and speed that appear to date back to the days of dial-up. It also has notes about which PDF plugin to use in viewing the PDF-maps, which contain links to the aerial photos.

      Careful perusal of the suburban areas from the 1950s, compared to the 1990s or 2000s, might help show how many people moved from Detroit to the surrounding suburbs during that time frame.

    • hoof_in_mouth says:

      I’m not in Detroit but I’m a Michigan resident, frequent Detroit, have had an urban archaeology interest since before there was really a word for it, and worked a trucking job in Detroit in the mid 90’s. The short answer that is that yes, Detroit is MUCH improved and is improving from what it was. It’s a pleasantly weird place that was stuck in 1928 for 80 years. A lot of the urban renewal is thin/cosmetic/shaky/propped-up-by-funny-money-deals and subject to abandonment when the economy turns, but I assume that’s the case for such things everywhere, you put money down and take your chances. There has been real, solid progress made with the un-abandoning of the Cadillac Hotel, Broderick Tower, Michigan Central Depot, etc. Detroit was actively dangerous well into the late 90’s, but (personal speculation) as the population dropped and the density dropped as the housing stock was extinguished and the factories closed/emptied, it fell below the density needed to support serious crime and decay, into a more genteel abandonment that is more easily remedied with money and energy.

    • Nornagest says:

      Looks about the same, modulo a new paint job and a better camera.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I’d recommend against getting a real estate broker’s license.

        • Nornagest says:

          Or if I do, invest in a can of paint and a good camera?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Wood refinishing can be pricey. Missing windows will set you back a little, too. Missing windows implies the interior water damage could be substitantial, so gutting some of the interiors might be required.

            Oh, and you’ll need a car dealership.

            But the people inside those cars, those don’t come cheap.

            Now, the picture may not be representative of everything else that’s around, but the large number of late model cars parked on the street says a fair amount about the desirability of the immediate area. The existence of an apparently still active pawn shop tells you a little something else. The real estate development office? Another clue that you are dealing with gentrification.

            The fact that the business at the end of the block is a bicycle shop? And quite a sizable one? That seems like a good clue that the cars weren’t lying and the gentrification locally is fairly substantial.

          • Nornagest says:

            The focus, lighting, and color balance in the first photo are so screwed up that I can’t tell anything about the wood. The storefronts for the pawn shop, bike shop, and real estate office are not visible in the first image, so we can’t conclude anything from them being present in Street View. Missing windows I’ll give you, but that just shows that that one storefront was doing poorly — which we could have guessed anyway, since it looks like the BBQ joint has expanded into it in the latest shot.

            That leaves cars, and it’s been fifteen years; of course the cars are going to look older. The ones in the first photo look early Nineties to me, maybe late Eighties, but there were still plenty of those running around in 2002. I drove a 1995 model then, I think.

            There’s some evidence of a better neighborhood, sure, but you’re overbilling it.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I grant that the filter applied to the photo makes it look … well, maybe older than it is.

            But the clear coat on the car on the left is gone. Compare to the comparatively new Chevy Astro van on the right. I’m guessing that is a 20 year old car at that point (custom rims and lowered too, by the looks of it, though hard to tell).

            But, the steel security grate over the door of the building with the missing windows, which appears to be rusting is another marker. Then you have the fact that the building to the right appears to have a plywood front extending up to covering more broken windows.

            That’s not a neighborhood that has gentrified yet. Although there do appear to be some new windows above, so it may be in the process of gentrifying.

  26. knockknock says:

    Not sure if this is to the point, but haven’t there been numerous low-budget attempts to spoof, humanize or at least leverage the superhero genre, with quirky, socially awkward characters donning costumes and running around fighting evil despite a total lack of superpowers? There even were two short-lived sitcoms circa 1968 (one with William Daniels).

    • dodrian says:

      Mystery Men (1999) is the one that comes to mind for me (though technically you could say that a few of them did actually have supernatural powers of varying levels of uselessness).

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Something like Mystery Men gets a lot of mileage out mocking the psychology of people who would give themselves code names and run around as masked vigilantes in workout spandex. So does Watchmen for that matter.
        Actual superpowers change everything, especially the rules for how replicable they are.

        • albatross11 says:

          Yes, Watchmen was one actual superhero, one supergenius fit for a more standard SF story, and a bunch of folks with costumes and serious mental illnesses/obsessions making them violent and arguably either socially useful or socially destructive.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I don’t know how low the budget has to be to qualify. But as for quirky characters who don’t actually have superpowers, Kick-Ass (2010) ought to qualify. $29 million budget.

      Another film, Super, came out at the same time. $2.5 million budget, starred Rainn Wilson (people probably remember him from The Office).

      • AG says:

        There’s also the 1980 Hero at Large, starring John Ritter. The director of Super cited that as the primary “non-super heroes” film when Super was compared to Kick-Ass.

        In books, you have the very quirky Blue Avenger series, by Norma Howe. It doesn’t actually involve crime-fighting, though.

    • Robin says:

      Something like this?

      Oh, and https://garfield.wikia.com/wiki/Garfield_(character)/Alter_Egos (sorry about that)

      Maybe even Don Quixote qualifies.

      • smocc says:

        I have nothing to add except that The Adventures of Superhero Girl is great. Faith Erin Hicks is one of my favorite artists right now, mainly for her ability to capture the drama and feeling of small stories in a humorous but sincere way.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      The ultimate example, though not worth watching, is 1940’s Rat Pfink A Boo Boo.

      The film makes a sudden switch in tone and plot after roughly 40 minutes. As originally planned, the film was a straight crime drama titled The Depraved, inspired by Steckler’s ex-wife Carolyn, who had been the victim of a series of obscene phone calls. However, during shooting, Steckler suddenly decided to make a parody of the campy Batman television series instead.

      As for the title:

      Why the title is Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and not the more logical Rat Pfink and Boo Boo is the subject of speculation. According to legend, Rat Pfink and Boo Boo was indeed the intended title, but when the artist creating the titles made an error and rendered the “and” as “a”, Steckler’s budget would not stretch to the $50 needed to fix the mistake. According to Steckler, however, the choice of title was deliberate: “The real story is that my little girl, when we were shooting this one fight scene, kept chanting, ‘Rat pfink a boo boo, rat pfink a boo boo…’ And that sounded great! But when I tell people the real story, they don’t wanna hear it, so you better print the legend.”

      That’s right, $50 wasn’t in the budget.

  27. Why does conservationism/environmentalism seem almost non-existent in grey tribe? I’d like to understand why people who I share a lot with in terms of views and thinking often seem to be at a polar opposite on this issue. A case in point in Scott, who I find myself in agreement with on 90% of other things, but who recently stated he’d not be particularly bothered sacrificing half of Earth’s species if it had no negative effects on humans. This is utterly horrifying to me, even (or maybe especially) coming from someone I find to be overwhelmingly sensible on so many topics. For some reason other grey tribe folks seem to latch on to what I’d consider flimsy abstract theories such as consciousness to attach moral worth, but don’t attach any moral value to our biology or fellow species. I understand there are specific greenies who are highly irrational, and I get red tribe’s hostility (pattern matches as blue plot), but I feel for grey tribe it should be easy to steel-man the confused versions into forms that are logical and highly compelling, even if you don’t have time to read deeply on the topic. But this doesn’t happen, and afaik usually the topic isn’t even thought about in grey circles beyond very immediate and direct implications for humans. This state of affairs is baffling to me.

    * Is my perception that grey tribe is the least green tribe accurate?
    * Is there any good data that could shed light on this topic?
    * Is there any grey tribe folks here that have found themselves convinced by some fact, idea or experience that green is good, where they didn’t think so before?

    • Murphy says:

      I’d suspect that super-fundamentalist subset of the red tribe is probably less green stemming from belief that god is gonna turn up real soon and it’s all gonna be irrelevant.

      I used to occasionally be surprised at some basic value differences. For example to me the value of archeological sites is all in the data, the point of preservation being largely that we don’t perfectly record everything but in a hypothetical world where someone could set nanobots destructively scanning various major historical sites down to close to the atomic level… very little would bother me about it.

      To many people that’s apparently abhorent.

      Also there’s apparently a non-trivial number of people who worry about preservation of non-organic parts of the universe, people who consider pushing for humans to expand into the universe to be wrong because dead rocks and dust and similar have some kind of intrinsic right to not be disturbed/changed and that preservation of regions on earth extends beyond the preservation of the life on them.

      My own views to life aren’t a world away from my views on archeological sites:

      it’s a bit sad if a species is wiped out but if we still have a reasonably large number of DNA samples from individuals we should be able to recreate them eventually.

      In terms of intrinsic value separate to human utility their loss is sad in the sense that the destruction of the library of Alexandria is sad, loss of information.

      Otherwise their loss is mainly about whether it will hurt people.

      • Thanks, that’s a couple of interesting points. I enthusiastically support efforts to preserve large number of DNA samples, though I understand there’s various issues about that being enough information for proper species ressurection.

        One thing that occurs to me though – applying this logic to humans, is the real value of a human my information of/experience about them, or is it the existence of the human itself? Or to flip it a little, is MY moral value in the perception I create in others, or in my actual existence as a physical human?

    • gleamingecho says:

      Possibilities for your consideration (I am not assuming the antecedents, e.g. “Grey tribers are….,” are necessarily true, or that these conclusions must be drawn from them):

      1. Grey tribers are more likely to believe there is incredible causal density involved in ecology and climate science, and therefore more likely to take an ‘undecided’ or ‘conservative’ (in terms of interventions) approach?
      2. Grey tribers are more likely to think in terms of economics, which may suggest that (I believe Arnold Kling has made this argument) if things like recycling are not economically profitable, they must not be an efficient use of resources, and therefore in some domains, “conservation” = waste?
      3. Grey tribers are more likely to be rational and analytical, and therefore have a hard time viewing flora and fauna as anything other than something to provide utility to humans? I.e., they lack or suppress the emotional/empathetic component of humanity’s fondness for the higher mammals, especially the “cute” ones? [Note that from your comment, as I read it, Scott Alexander is not against biodiversity qua biodiversity; he is against taking steps to preserve biodiversity qua biodiversity if biodiversity has no usefulness for humans, and is presumably in favor of biodiversity to the extent it is useful to humans.]
      4. Grey tribers are more likely to be scientific, and therefore view things in terms of evolution, and see Earth’s trajectory as a function of that, which shouldn’t be meddled with? [I recognize this characterization is very, very simplistic, and probably ignorant.]
      5. Drawing on No. 1 and No. 4, grey tribers can’t see a way to engineer man-made solutions to, e.g., decreasing biodiversity, without creating unintended negative consequences or gerrymandering an artificial status quo that will quickly re-evolve around itself? (For Scott Alexander, this would be something akin to not overemphasizing episteme over metis, perhaps.)
      6. The Null hypothesis?
      7. The prevalence of libertarians among the grey tribe (leading them to adopt one or more of the above)?
      8. The lack of ideology among the grey tribe (leading them to NOT adopt the opposite of one or more of the above)?
      9. The relative lack of ability to conduct controlled experiments on the entire planet?

      Sorry for the lack of facts in this post, but it was a fascinating question that I wanted to discuss despite lacking any helpful data.

      • lack of facts in this post
        Not at all your post made me think – ideas and facts are nothing without eachother 🙂

        4. Grey tribers are more likely to be scientific, and therefore view things in terms of evolution, and see Earth’s trajectory as a function of that, which shouldn’t be meddled with? [I recognize this characterization is very, very simplistic, and probably ignorant.]

        I’ve gotten that sense from many people too, although my moral position is very closely tied with a mainstream scientific view of evolution, but I’d disagree with them that anything in evolution is either fatalistic, or that the actual science implies cooperation is any less of a legit strategy in evolution than competition (eg. cooperation worked out pretty good for humans). I think the main unusual component to my view is that cooperation between species is akin to cooperation between humans – we should be doing something as a species to help family, ie. primates, survive, and showing some moderate virtue to other species more broadly.

        To return to your points though, a lot of them seem on the money. The economics one is interesting. Though logically I think its easily countered if you use the mainstream economic concept of an externality, in practice this won’t play out very well. If you’re someone that likes data (as you absolutely should be if you’re thinking about big counter-intuitive stuff), then you’re just not going to spend as much time thinking about things that don’t quantify well. Rationally we should estimate, but in terms of brain-time, the unquantifiable is just not going to be sitting in the front row when the brain’s forming its ideological view. It doesn’t seem to work that way with ME though, even though I work in a technical field and like economcs and quantifying stuff too. 🙁

        Thanks for the post, some good thoughts.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Does it bother you that 99% of Earth’s species have gone extinct, even without any human involvement?

      • It bothers me when a person dies, even of natural causes, so if I was around at the time then my answer would be yes (though for obvious reasons deliberate killing is worse). However, for various philosophical reasons, I’d see my primary moral duty to life that’s living now, rather than in the future or past, so it doesn’t bother me as such.

        I’d have to say preserving or at least not destroying other species seems like a good habit for humanity to be in, especially if we plan to transfer our moral views or practices on to a more powerful AI or species at some distant (or not so distant) point in the future. That adds to my concern somewhat, because though I like most species humans are still my favourite 🙂

        • Matt M says:

          I’d have to say preserving or at least not destroying other species seems like a good habit for humanity to be in

          Okay – that statement is fine in and of itself, but is missing a critical follow up question: At what cost?

          Preserving endangered species is not free. And in many cases, the costs are paid not by wealthy westerners, but by poverty-stricken third-worlders. To what extent is it appropriate to require people to suffer in poverty to achieve species preservation?

          Would you personally be willing to guard the border of a game preserve, and shoot at poor villagers who might try and cut down trees to fuel their cooking fires?

          • ana53294 says:

            Preserving endangered species is not free. And in many cases, the costs are paid not by wealthy westerners, but by poverty-stricken third-worlders. To what extent is it appropriate to require people to suffer in poverty to achieve species preservation?

            Except that, in most cases regarding conservation with the exception of poaching and bushmeat, local communities get very few benefits from the economic advances that damage the environments they live in.

            Or do you think that the people in the Standing Rock Indian reservation benefit from the ruining of their ancestral lands, their places of worship and the possibility of their water being contaminated?

            Are you willing to say that you will support environmentalism, if most of the poor people in the region the advances are coming to are against them? In Bolivia, for example, indigenous people are against megadams; or objecting to lithium mining.

          • Matt M says:

            Or do you think that the people in the Standing Rock Indian reservation benefit from the ruining of their ancestral lands, their places of worship and the possibility of their water being contaminated?

            Whoever actually owns the land is surely benefiting, or they wouldn’t be selling it.

            Are you willing to say that you will support environmentalism, if most of the poor people in the region the advances are coming to are against them?

            No. I care little for Democracy. Property owners should be able to dispose of their property as they see fit. But this often requires vigilance. If you want to buy millions of acres of African Savannah and declare it unavailable for any economic activity in the interest of Rhino preservation, you are free to do so. But you should do so knowing that this likely makes it difficult for those nearby to feed their families. And that you may have to hire armed guards to literally shoot at these people to keep them off your land.

            I’m comfortable with armed guards shooting at the poor in order to protect property rights. I’m just not so sure most environmentalists actually are.

          • albatross11 says:

            All laws are ultimately backed up by violence, ranging from a cop telling you to knock it off all the way to the national guard called out to quell the riot and restore order. There’s nothing special about poaching laws there–it’s true of everything from laws against premeditated murder to the straw ban pushed by empty-headed local do-gooders.

          • ana53294 says:

            Property owners should be able to dispose of their property as they see fit.

            In most countries that have rhinos, they are in national parks that are owned by the government and rhinos are thus owned by the government. Do you support the right of the government to protect its property rights against poachers, then?

          • Matt M says:

            I believe the government is an illegitimate institution that does not have a right to exist.

            Putting that aside though, if you think the state’s claim to ownership of such lands IS legitimate, that doesn’t really answer my question. What I asked was, would *you* be willing to stand on the border of a game preserve and shoot at poor villagers attempting to collect charcoal to fuel their cooking fires – in the name of preserving biodiversity.

            Because that is the trade-off we see in many of these situations. Declaring massive swaths of valuable and useful land unavailable for economic activity surely harms a large number of humans. If you want to argue that harm is “worth it” to preserve the rhino then fine – but this trade-off must be acknowledged.

          • ana53294 says:

            What I asked was, would *you* be willing to stand on the border of a game preserve and shoot at poor villagers attempting to collect charcoal to fuel their cooking fires – in the name of preserving biodiversity.

            Most natural parks permit such activities as traditional hunting, or collecting branches for fuel, or whatever. The problem comes when, instead of hunting a hyppo with spears (an activity that requires a lot of skill and strength, but may be a rite of passage for some small tribes), you hunt it with an automatic rifle (a much more effective way to kill a dangerous animal).

            I don’t see the need to prevent small scale charcoal production. The same way indigenous slash-and-burn in the Amazon is not that big of an issue when compared with the industrial scale deforestation, I am not worried by small tribes using primitive methods. As for hunters involved in the illegal trade of protected species, I consider hunters similarly to the feminists view of prostitutes – I want to go after the buyers, not the sellers.

            And yes, if the people coming for the game are rich jerks, I would be willing to shoot them. The fact that I am Republican (not in the American sense, but in the leftist anti-monarchist Spanish sense) may or may not have something to do with it.

          • engleberg says:

            Re: Would you be wiling to guard the border of a game preserve, and shoot at poor villagers-

            Not if one of them is Fnu Castle, whose family was crushed by an elephant that ate his village crops and peed in their well, and now the African Punisher goes around killing elephants and their evil guards.

          • albatross11 says:


            I’m not willing to have the US impose laws on foreign countries, so I’m not up for imposing/enforcing conservation laws on Uganda or something.

            But in our country, if we impose rules against hunting/grazing/living on federal lands, I am definitely in favor of having those enforced by the police. And while I’m not super-excited by the idea of getting a job as a federal game warden, I would in principle be willing to do it. The man who eats hamburger is on the same moral level as the butcher.

          • @Matt M

            That’d be a difficult choice, I’d not feel particular good about either choice if I was forced to choose. But it does feel like a false dichotomy constructed as a gotcha question – there’d be a large number of other options that don’t involve the brunt being borne by poverty-stricken third-worlders. For example the guard work would be a lot more reasonable if there was a program to provide alternatives for the villagers. That’s basically the strategy used to ensure fair outcomes in the real world afaik.

          • Matt M says:

            A lot of these countries are incredibly corrupt dictatorships.

            I have a tough time believing Robert Mugabe is primarily concerned with “ensuring fair outcomes.” To the extent he has set aside land for profitable trophy hunting, I doubt he’d hesitate for a second at ordering the shooting of anyone trespassing, poaching, foraging, etc.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Not only are the individual animals going to die but odds are pretty stacked against the majority of species(all of them on a long enough timeline). When one species dies, that makes room for other living things. Why is it a good thing to preserve the current distribution of species against a different distribution? For example, if it wasn’t for past mass extinctions, then humans may not have evolved. I’m not sure what’s so special about the given grouping of “species” compared to another grouping that’s just a subset of a species.

          • Well, more formally its to do with my idea of how my ethics relates to present past and future, but if you just apply that logic to humans you get a much more simple answer why its wrong – would you consider it reasonable to accept or even cause the death of people as it creates more space for other humans? I’m guessing not. Basically hypotethical things don’t have moral worth, only actual things. And being finite doesn’t change the worth or make an early death ok – everything is finite, including you and me, but we still have moral worth.

          • helloo says:

            I don’t know about that – I think it can apply to humans fairly easily.
            Wars and colonialism are things and pacifism/anti-colonialism aren’t universally accepted esp in the past.

            Also, not sure how meaningful it is to try and apply or relate the same ethics to humans and animals. I tried asking this question in an earlier OT regarding reducing suffering and the responses were mostly dancing around it stating that humans shouldn’t interfere for fear of consequences.

    • Watchman says:

      There’s a trite answer that grey tribe live on computers and don’t get enough fresh air…

      Not sure I can speak for grey tribe (I’m more an interesting red and blue striped tribe) but I suspect it is a question of values. Is saving an ecosystem to protect one particular finch worthwhile when the cost is increased poverty for local people? There seem to be many environmentalists who believe the answer is yes, that the preservation of a species is more important than the fate of some humans, but this view is very much one associated with a particular environmental stance, with a strong blue tribe affiliation. A fairly red tribe environmental position focuses on preserving landscapes without specific concern for species, as a form of conservatism which again doesn’t really consider the effects on humans. There’s active debate around the function of natural parks with these two poles as key features, along with the consideration of the effects on residents and visitors as a third (generally less argued) pole, with most positions advocated being somewhere between these poles, which is indicative that the headline positions are not widely held. So an indifference to species survival is probably not that odd a position to hold. What is perhaps more striking about grey tribe is that they have the honesty to state their position on the question of species survival versus human utility (versus landscape preservation) starkly rather than dress it up to play to emotional responses. Very few environmentalists are honest enough to state their preferred policy is at the coat of human suffering and very few conservative protectors of the landscape will mention the costs of this are to human utility.

      One question I always like to ask around environmental issues is relevant here: if a species goes extinct, why is that a problem? The position of species preservation seems to be assumed as a correct position far more than seems justifiable, and I honestly don’t understand why, which skews my ability to participate in this sort of debate.

      • albatross11 says:

        I can’t speak for others, but here’s my take: Species going extinct is natural. But when we make changes that drive lots of species to extinction, we’re making big and unpredictable changes to the environment we live in and depend on, and that can go very badly. Further, each lost species and especially each lost ecosystem is gone forever (or at least very, very hard to ever recover). So these are very hard-to-reverse changes you’re making to an environment that ideally would still be around for your great-grandkids, who will now be slightly poorer as a result of your paving a rainforest or whatever.

        • Wrong Species says:

          I’m not buying this. What are the chances that some random frog species going extinct is going to cause problems for humans? Are we supposed to stop development on certain lands because of this extremely remote possibility?

          • albatross11 says:

            Not one random frog species, but if a whole bunch of frog species are all going extinct in the same area, then:

            a. We probably want to know why.

            b. We probably don’t know exactly how it’s going to affect the local ecosystem, and we probably care at least a little for instrumental reasons, alongside the fact that some of us (me included) value wild places for their own sake, the same way we value works of art or great architecture.

            I think it’s not easy to work out how to trade off other values against not wiping out species/damaging ecosystems. In some cases (driving smallpox to extinction), it’s a very clear win. In many cases (NIMBY types trying to find a justification to avoid having a highway run close to their house), it’s probably not worth blocking development. But in other cases (say, damming up a river in a way that completely wipes out some big chunk of existing ecosystem), it’s probably a bad choice.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I”m just not convinced that this is a problem the majority of the time. Humans have been killing off species for tens of thousands of years and we’re still doing fine. Do you have a concrete example of us causing an extinction over the last couple hundred years that actually made us worse off, other than perhaps valuing nature intrinsically?

          • albatross11 says:

            I think we hunted some whale species into extinction, which then left us without those species either as an economic resource or as something future generations of humans can see in person.

          • Nornagest says:

            I don’t know of any large whale species that’ve been hunted into extinction, although many were hunted into endangered status. We did hunt Steller’s sea cow into extinction, and almost certainly killed one dolphin species (the baiji) through habitat destruction. The gray whale was extirpated from the Atlantic, but populations survive elsewhere.

        • Personally I feel the “extinction is natural” argument is ironically a fairly textbook example of the nautralistic fallacy that you’d normally imagine gaia worshipping greenies committing. Humans dying is pretty natural, and historically murder is pretty natural too, but that doesn’t make those things good. Morally, we may accept life is finite, but living a long life that’s not cut short seems like a moral good. Modern scientific knowledge has shown there’s not a hard distinction between humans and the rest of ‘nature’, so for me there’s fairly strong reasons that moral consderations shouldn’t be entirely restricted by a disproven boundary of that kind. With that said, I personally hold to a philosophy that holds humans and our closest relatives (primates) first, and wouldn’t put anything like that much value in an obscure species of, say, bacteria or moss.

    • Elephant says:

      I don’t have an answer, but this is one of the things that keeps me from buying into the rationalist / “grey tribe” ethos. I find it perplexing and horrifying that there are people who aren’t viscerally upset by, for example, the (so-far) near extinction of rhinoceroses — it reminds me of people who aren’t upset by watching the suffering of other people.

      • Matt M says:

        I find it perplexing and horrifying that there are people who aren’t viscerally upset by, for example, the (so-far) near extinction of rhinoceroses — it reminds me of people who aren’t upset by watching the suffering of other people.

        This seems to ignore Scott’s original point.

        The dilemma we find ourselves in is one in which species preservation seems to come at a cost to human quality of life. It is precisely because I dislike the suffering of other people that I care not for the suffering of the rhinoceros. If killing rhinos makes poor Africans better off, I’m all in favor of them being killed.

        I could be persuaded to protect the natural environment because it benefits humans. I might even be persuaded to protect the natural environment at zero-cost to humans, even if the approximate benefit was also zero. But I cannot be persuaded that plants and animals have value above human life, even if they are among the last of their kind.

        • albatross11 says:

          I see your point, but it’s worth remembering that once the rhinos are driven to extinction, maybe we never get them back. We’re balancing today’s human well-being against the well-being of all future generations of humans who might want to, say, see live rhinos in their native environment.

          • Matt M says:

            True, but that doesn’t magically increase the value of rhinos in their present habitat to infinity.

            It’s also plausible that future generations will derive zero utility from seeing rhinos live in their native environment, and every second we spend not exterminating the rhinos is essentially a giant waste of present-day human utility!

            Or perhaps in the future, Rhinos gain control of superintelligent AI and use it to oppress humanity. If only you people had let me exterminate the rhinos when I had the chance!!!

          • albatross11 says:

            I, for one, welcome our new one-horned thick-skinned overlords.

          • Lambert says:

            Whether or not to welcome them depends on whether or not these rhinoceroses are a thinly veiled metaphor for fascism.

        • It seems possible that’s a false dichotomy though? What if instead choosing between humans or rhinos dying, we’re choosing whether to fund education/employment services /business incentives to the regions where we know human activities like land clearing, poaching and bush meat are likely to cause extinctions? Of course there’s always opportunity cost to consider, but I can’t help but think there’s many far less worthy things that could be sacrificed to save the African poor than a mammal species that we can never get back.

      • Deiseach says:

        it reminds me of people who aren’t upset by watching the suffering of other people

        So let me ask you – when you watch the nightly news, are you curled up in a sobbing ball of agony because the humanity, the humanity! or is there a point at which you go “yes that’s terribly sad and I feel bad, but on the other hand I have my own life and my own problems”.

        Yeah. Same way with the rhinoceri: it is a shame if they are driven to extinction, but I honestly cannot say I get stomach cramps and gut pains over that (“viscerally upset”).

      • Garrett says:

        Let me flip that around. It’s generally recognized that legalizing/managing/taxing big-game trophy hunting is a good way to prevent species extinction. Mass-media Source.

        But yet, lots of the folks who claim to want to prevent species from going extinct also want to prevent trophy hunting.

        • 10240 says:

          Perhaps because they haven’t heard about that argument, or aren’t convinced that it’s true.

    • Deiseach says:

      flimsy abstract theories such as consciousness to attach moral worth

      Then it’s equally worthless to use in efforts to ascribe moral worth to animals. I’ve seen too much of the heart-string tugging about cows weeping over being parted from their calves and pigs being so intelligent. If I’m not conscious, neither is a cow, and in our mutual lack of moral worth I can be as amoral as a tiger when eating it.

      • Well, I agree it’s equally worthless to use in the case of animals. That’s why I don’t use it. But I think there’s other reasons to be moral, including to other species. Or to put it another way, I don’t think your premise (consciousness does not describe animals) is logically sufficient to establish your conclusion (animals have no worth).

        • Thanks. My blog is basically an incomplete effort to lay out those principles including exploring the actual moral philosophy. There’s been a few tweaks to my views since some of my articles were written but you can read quite a bit on it there.

          The really short imperfect version is that I believe morality is an objective process of evolution (advancement of cooperation with multiple stages – DNA->Cell->Multicellular->Species cooperation->Interspecies cooperation/cooperative biosphere). Implied is that we don’t get to define that morality subjectively as we wish, there is objective morality external to our perceptions and preferences (moral realism), but our individual choices effect how moral or not we are.

          I prioritise species cooperation (from the human role in the process) as prioritised to our close relatives like other primates, so a virus would have non-zero but very small moral worth at the moral position I occupy. So I’d probably accept eradication if there was strong benefits to humans, whereas I’d not accept the same for a primate species except in really exceptional circumstances.

          Regarding the landscape, I’d lament aesthetic destruction a bit, but it wouldn’t neccessarily be moral for me to do so, and I’d hope I’d choose a moral choice over an aesthetic one if I was forced to choose. Naturally we’re all imperfect and total moral commitment is impossible, but I think there’s degrees of morality in our behaviour rather than a binary of this one path is moral and anything else is not moral at all (a common criticism of consequentialism).

          AFAIK my position is very rare and I’m fairly open to discussing it. I’m fairly easy to find on reddit too.

    • Guy in TN says:

      Let’s go back to where I believe the term “Grey Tribe” was initially coined, Scott’s post titled I can tolerate anything except the outcrop. (emphasis mine)

      There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk

      Maybe this is old. 2014 was a long time ago and possibly no longer relevant to the situation of the day. Maybe its more complex than I’m giving credit. (After all, even though Scott describes himself as a grey-tribe member and libertarian of sorts, he wrote the “Anti-Libertarian FAQ”, and an article in support for the biggest proposed wealth-transfer in US history, the UBI). But still, it seems to me that modeling the Grey Tribe as libertarians and classical liberals isn’t entirely inaccurate, and will help guide you to your answer.

      So the reasons are likely as follows:

      1. The libertarian framework is not designed to address environmental issues. This isn’t an approach unique to libertarianism per se, but any political philosophy that views human behavior primarily through an economic lens. Marxism wasn’t designed to address environmental issues either. And they, like libertarians, tend to get rather indifferent and mealy-mouthed when the issue comes up, since it doesn’t fit within their standard argumentative comfort-zone.

      2. The best solutions to environmental problems involve non-libertarian methods. Namely, regulation of economic activity and regulation of private property rights. By comparison, libertarian methods to address environmental problems seem feeble and toothless. Like conservatives, they may take the route of suggesting (out of either ignorance or argumentative convenience) that environmental problems aren’t significant to begin with, instead of holding on to advocacy of weak solutions.

      3. To the extent that libertarians acknowledge environmental impacts by humans as economic externalities, this would imply that all human action results in externalities (not just government action). This is problematic for the standard libertarian narrative, best not to bring it up.

      4. [Speculation based on personal experience] The type of person who is inclined to identify as a libertarian, is also the type of person who is not familiar with environmental concepts. That is, once someone understands things like ecological sustainability, or the interconnectedness of humans to the ecological habitats which we exist in, libertarianism (and the Grey Tribes technology-centric, highly individualistic vision) becomes less attractive.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Typo alert: should be outgroup, not outcrop.

      • Seems like a good insight. I wish I could somehow convince libertarians to make an exception in this case. Though I’m not libertarian something about it (or perhaps its proponents) does have a certain appeal, and this exact thing – the toothlessness of its response to conservation issues – has always held me back from considering it more seriously. But you seem to have hit the nail on the head.

        A lot of the more left wing greenies I’ve met seem to have an intuitive tendancy for aspects of libertarianism (except on economic and environment). They certainly distrust bureaucracy, government and elites. I also remember many seemed to consider Firefly to be a great or favourite TV series – I didn’t have the heart to point out that its core message is that government intervention is bad and well-intentioned utopian thought always leads to disaster.

        I wonder if left-greenies and libertarians are actually psychological similar in many ways, but practical considerations force them to come down on one side or the other and supress any mutual sympathy. They seem to be amongst the more principled political groupings, even if I personally find their recipes a bit half-baked at times.

      • cassander says:

        1. The libertarian framework is not designed to address environmental issues.

        I don’t think this claim is sustainable, at least not more for libertarianism than any other system of thought. The libertarians have few straightforward solutions to environmental issues, privatize commons, price externalities as explicitly as possible. Are these solutions perfect? Absolutely not, but perfection is too high a bar for any political system. I could just as easily say something like “the progressive framework is not designed to address environmental issues. To the extent that progressives acknowledge the environmental disasters caused by poorly incentivized government behavior, this would imply that all action is motivated by individual incentives (not just for profit action). This is problematic for the standard progressive narrative, best not to bring it up.”

        • Guy in TN says:

          Its a “thin” vs “thick” ideology question. The more nuanced libertarians, they might recognize that their economic ethic is just one personal ethic among many, possibly contradictory other personal ethics they may simultaneously hold. I was targeting this more a the “NAP must never be violated” crowd. Once again, speculation, but I think progressives (and conservatives!) tend to have a more multi-faceted ethical ideology than that, while libertarians tend to go the short-and-simple route.

          A little tangential, but just curious- in what ways do you think the idea that individuals are motivated by incentives is problematic for progressives? It seems like such a on-the-face true statement, I don’t know anyone who would deny it.

          • cassander says:

            A little tangential, but just curious- in what ways do you think the idea that individuals are motivated by incentives is problematic for progressives? It seems like such a on-the-face true statement, I don’t know anyone who would deny it.

            I admit that I might have had to twist the metaphor a bit to match citizensearth’s language, but there is a definite strain of progressive thought that is often expressed like , “….and because the new government agence have to work for a for profit, their only motivation is to do their job well.” or “….they’ll focus on people, not profits.” It’s not a rejection of public choice economics, because it doesn’t even acknowledge that the public choice critique exists. It just implicit assumes that organizations not run for profit generate no structural incentives for their employees besides their official mission.

    • gbdub says:

      As grey-tribe, or grey-tribe adjacent myself, I find myself sympathetic to a lot of environmentalist goals, but their actual advocates far too absolutist / pseudo-religious.

      Like, not even willing to consider nuclear power. Or tearing up 1% of a desert wasteland that looks exactly like the other 99% of the same desert wasteland for a solar plant, because it has a variety of insect with an extra spot on its back. Or rejecting “clean coal” or natural gas tech, even though it would reduce carbon output, because fossil fuels are intrinsically bad.

      Or anything involving a literal belief in Gaia, or acting like you do. Obsession with organic crops and/or fear mongering GMOs.

      Generally not considering impact on people as important at all – seeing human development as inherently bad, rather than something to trade against environmental conservatism.

      If there was something like an EA version of the Sierra Club I’d probably join it, but there’s not.

      • albatross11 says:

        FWIW, I suppose I’m at least grey-ish tribe, also at least somewhat sympathetic to environmentalism, and broadly agree with you. I think there’s a lot of reflexive fear or anger-at-the-outgroup and a huge amount of NIMBY-motivated reasoning in the environmental movement, but also that there’s something really worthwhile there. And I think that in general, it’s way too easy to discard any values that can’t be put into a balance sheet (whether that’s beautiful bits of nature, or music and art.) That’s probably an error that literal-minded, quantitative sorts are rather easily susceptible to.

      • Tenacious D says:

        I consider myself pretty environmentally conscious (my career is in wastewater treatment) but when it comes to the environmental movement, I’m much more ambivalent for the reasons you mention (e.g. unwillingness to consider trade-offs). And I’d add a manichean outlook and lack of a sense of scale (e.g. thinking that banning drinking straws in West Coast cities will help reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the Pacific) as other aspects I’m uncomfortable with. Of course, there are exceptions: The Freshwater Trust tries to take best practices from the business world and apply a quantitative approach to prioritize stream-restoration projects; various land trusts/conservancies have “skin in the game”; PERC is a think-tank that promotes market-driven approaches to enhance conservation.

      • “Or anything involving a literal belief in Gaia, or acting like you do.”
        Acting like I do? Huh? I can’t work out if I’m reading that wrong…

        If there was something like an EA version of the Sierra Club I’d probably join it, but there’s not.
        Although we clearly differ on some important points, I’d very much like to see a rationalist version of moderate environmentalism too, hence my attempts to raise the issue in forums like these.

        • Rm says:

          The thing is, much of what laypeople (and environmentalists) discuss is entirely totemic. Rhinoceroses, for example, were relevant for the ecosystem(s) when there were, maybe, no less than three hundred of them in the wild (per species)? But nobody cared about them then, they were just big awkward mammals. Now that we have outlived them, suddenly people think they are central to nature conservation. Why?

          Forget African megafauna – there’s nothing to be done. Forget the Arctic – it will melt, nothing to be done.

          The question is not whether shooting poachers is better than burying rhinos – it’s whether preserving a small river’s banks is better than having evenly green grass slopes. The big problems are generally lost, only good for philosophers, and whatever you think on the rhino problem simply won’t matter.

          But people will choose evenly green grass because they think shooting poachers is bad.

      • Oh now I grok that sentence. Overpersonalising. While I don’t hate Gaia in the scheme of ideas people are into, I get what you’re getting at in terms of zealotry.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      Firstly, I’d expect there is a sort of aversion because of the religious-like fervor among many green advocates. Personally this does not bother me much because IMO Gaia-worship and the like isn’t really all that odd to me, and in general I don’t have any problem with the idea of religiosity. I kinda find religion natural and normal.

      Second, I’d think a lot of it comes as a result of the backlash you get from green advocates if you dont 100% toe the line. Bask in the 70s/80s these people would be derisively called “watermelons” because every answer they had to environmental (green) problems was totalitarian (red) in nature. And this trend continues to this day. The big proposals out of the environmentalist groups are all top down things like Cap-And-Trade, National Carbon Tax, green energy subsidies, etc. Its rare to see an environmentalist proposal that isn’t just a tax hike. If you see this happen enough, and you aren’t a fan of big government policies and tax hikes, you aren’t going to be an environmentalist.

      Third, I think a lot of libertarian-leaning people think the best solution to many of these slow-moving problems is to get rich, and outgrow the problem. In other words, if the cost to fix CO2 based warming is going to cost $25 Trillion, well its better to do that when our GDP is $100 Trillion rather than $20 Trillion. In many ways this approach has already been partially validated, as the USA is outpacing Europe in reducing CO2/GDP without following things like the Paris accords.