Open Thread 108.5

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

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661 Responses to Open Thread 108.5

  1. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Have a little nominative determinism of a completely unlikely sort before the next OT.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      What, you mean a serpent isn’t supposed to be part of a car engine? But without a spinning animal belt, wouldn’t you have to remove the driver’s seat floor and propel it with your feet?

  2. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    It took seven years to get the code which explained the discrepancy between two models of how supercooled water behaves.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Was expecting something common and annoying like an off-by-one error or failure to handle precision correctly. It turns out the bug was in the physics of the simulation, though, not in the details of the code — they used a procedure to create sample inputs for their simulation that produced non-physical configurations of molecules.

  3. CatCube says:

    After discussion of the energy storage method that @Nancy Lebovitz posted above, @bean brought up the possibility of doing some effort posts on structural engineering. If there’s interest, I can pull some stuff together. I’d also need some advice on the commenting system here, since I know there’s a word limit but I’m not sure what it is. Some input on what topics are of interest would also be useful.

    As some background, I’m a structural engineer in US Government service, a rather unusual position for the profession. I work with large civil works projects (dams and their appurtenant structures, locks, some bridges, and a little bit of levees). However, I do less with standard building structures, since the US Government has its own standards for these–not least because there are very few private owners of these kinds of things, so state codes usually defer to federal standards. That means that there could be some fairly large “structural engineering” topics that I would cover in general terms or punt outright on.*

    If there’s enough interest to go ahead, some possible topics are below. Note that some of them would probably be multiple posts:
    1) Statics – This is likely to be uninteresting to engineers, but most everything else will rely heavily on it. If it’s only engineers that express interest, I’d probably skip it. If there’s a significant lay audience interest, I’d cover it qualitatively to give a basic understanding of the terms and principles involved.

    2) Mechanics (i.e., stresses and strains, properties of cross sections, etc.) – Could be done or not, for same reasons as statics.

    3) Building codes – Here, I would focus on the structural portions of building codes (which are a rather surprisingly small fraction of the whole building code, but I’d also touch on some other areas that I’ve picked up). This wouldn’t include stuff specific to materials, which I’d handle separately. Nor would I cover anything that has its own topic below, even though pretty much all of them would fit into “building code”. This would be things more along the lines of “What is the floor in my office designed to handle?”

    4) Structural Steel – Considerations specific to structural engineering for steel structures, some building topics, some bridge stuff, and if there’s further interest, stuff like dam spillway gates and lock gates.

    5) Reinforced Concrete – Considerations specific to reinforced concrete and the design codes for it

    6) Seismic analysis – How earthquakes are considered for building and some nonbuilding structures.

    7) Wind analysis – This might be rolled up in other things, since it might be small compared to other topics. Wind rarely controls in the structures I normally work with, so I’m usually just screening for it.

    * For example, I’m familiar with the code requirements for designing a regular office building and can speak to that in some detail, but I’ve never even seen the structural drawings for one. To give an inside-baseball example for the at least one other structural engineer lurking, in our office, structural engineers detail their own steel connections. None of what we do is regular buildings, and both us and our sister offices have had poor success with having steel detailers handle the connections on our nonbuilding structures. So just choosing a structural system and throwing end shears on the elements isn’t standard practice, and the contract drawings often have a great level of detail on connections compared to what you’d see in a regular building.

    • yodelyak says:

      All of the above sound interesting.

      Building codes top my list–maybe it’s that I think that’s just damn practical to understand if you ever want to own land with structures on it. Maybe I just think it’d be ammo for complaining about things.

      The above stuff you did was a little inaccessible.

      Maybe it is a good suggestion to suggest you include simple problem sets that people could work through to check they understand, or real-life places where building code experts disagree about how things are or should be calculated. I mean, maybe it’s implausible to have us building models with q-tips that’ll demonstrate key structural principles… but aiming for a balance between stuff that’s theoretical and stuff that’s hands-on or connects to the real world sounds like a good idea to me.

      Getting specific, maybe you could combine building codes and seismology-readiness and hands-on, and provide some concepts/explanations/instructions for people who are curious to find out how their cities, their favorite bars, or their own specific homes will fare in the event of ‘the big one’ where they live, and then those people could report back? (I live in Portland.)

      • marshwiggle says:

        I’d definitely be interested in the building codes, and I’m guessing that is of greatest interest to the community. I’m guessing that enough people here have taken enough physics that statics and mechanics won’t be a complete mystery.

        This might just be me, but I’d also like to hear about structural steel and wind analysis.

      • Nick says:

        Yeah, building codes sound the most interesting to me.

      • CatCube says:

        The above stuff you did was a little inaccessible.

        The point of this would be to make that discussion more accessible. A lot of that was my fault, because I got focused on solving the problem rather than explaining for a wider audience, but some of it is stuff that would take a long series to explain.

        Getting specific, maybe you could combine building codes and seismology-readiness and hands-on, and provide some concepts/explanations/instructions for people who are curious to find out how their cities, their favorite bars, or their own specific homes will fare in the event of ‘the big one’ where they live, and then those people could report back?

        The is probably a reasonable endpoint for a post or series on earthquake design.

        (I live in Portland.)

        I’ve got a Good News/Bad News series for you:

        Good news: I also live in Portland, so most of my experience in seismic design is in Oregon, and I was a military officer and very tangentially involved in discussions of emergency management in the aftermath of the Cascadia Event. So I can probably speak to this area fairly well.

        Bad News: This area was thought to be seismically stable until some discoveries in the late 80’s, so buildings and bridges built before then didn’t contemplate large earthquakes.

        Good News: People have been retrofitting buildings and ODOT has done the bridges on the interstates.

        Bad News: A lot of older more “charming” buildings have not. (Though as occupancy changes they’ve been fixing them. A great place to see this is the Pike Place market on NW 2nd and Pike St, where you can see the seismic retrofits.)

        • gbdub says:

          I’ve semi-seriously sworn off even thinking about moving to Seattle on the premise that the Cascadia “Big One” is relatively likely to happen in my lifetime, Seattle in its current form is badly equipped for it, and such an event would kill a ton of people and be a pretty negatively life-altering event for anyone even close to the city.

          How rational is this?

          • bean says:

            Very. Seattle is a terrible place, full of communists, rain, and not much else of value. Eastern Washington, on the other hand, is wonderful, and is only spoiled by having to share a state with the communists.

          • Montfort says:

            culture war free, etc.

          • bean says:

            That was intended to be obviously silly, but it’s possible that I got the tone wrong. I’m not a fan of Seattle, but I don’t think they’re actually communists. (Well, most of them.)

          • Montfort says:

            I respect and appreciate your good intentions. I merely ask you consider your reaction if someone suggested “Seattle is great, and the only thing wrong with it is you have to share a state with those neo-rxers hiding in the eastern portion”; in either case it may well be a joke, but the literal sentiment is one expressed all over the internet, including (sadly) here sometimes.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Every time I visit Seattle, I make a communist pilgrimage, conveniently near the troll.

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      I would certainly read them, though I’m not sure I would participate in any discussions of your posts or anything like that. All possible topics sound interesting, but I wouldn’t object if you decided to skip the first two either.

    • bean says:

      I’m an engineer, so I don’t think I’d get that much out of the first two, but I’d encourage you to do them anyway for those who aren’t. And the rest sound really interesting, although none of them stand out to me.

    • Beck says:

      I’d enjoy reading anything you write on seismic design. I’d also be very interested in any description of the civil/structural jobs you work on.
      And code discussion is always interesting.

    • Deiseach says:

      Yes, would be very interested in this!

    • mrjeremyfade says:

      I’d certainly be interested.

  4. lazydragonboy says:

    Is it possible to commute to countries with organ sales to sell organs? What I mean to say is, suppose I have a terminal condition that will not harm my organs; could I travel to Iran, stay there until my death, and make arrangements for my organs to be sold when I die?

  5. MrApophenia says:

    Does anyone else find themselves accidentally reporting posts pretty regularly when reading on their phone? When a thread gets pretty deep the Report button is close enough to the ‘Up’ arrow that I wind up hitting the wrong one pretty frequently.

  6. smocc says:

    I thought of a question about the IAT and wondered if anyone knows the answer or where to look.

    Can people predict other people’s (e.g. racial) IAT score, especially after some amount of interaction?

    • Aapje says:

      Oswald et al (2013) did a meta-analysis of 275 implicit association test results from 46 different studies and found that “IATs were poor predictors of every criterion category other than brain activity, and the IATs performed no better than simple explicit measures”. Carlsson and Agerstrom did another meta-analysis earlier this year, and found “the overall effect was close to zero and highly inconsistent across studies” and “there is…little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination, and we thus strongly caution against any practical applications of the IAT that rest on this assumption”.

  7. johan_larson says:

    TIL there are jobs for mining engineers located in charming little towns in northern Canada like Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet. These jobs run 14-days-on-14-off schedules, implying the engineers don’t actually live in these places. They fly in and out twice a month. Anyone here familiar enough with the mining industry to shed some light on where these people actually live?

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Not mining-specific, but I grew up in Alaska and a fair number of people had schedules like this for various oil-related endeavors up on the northern parts of the state and along the pipeline – they’d work for 2 weeks somewhere in the inhospitable tundra, then fly a few hundred miles back to some comparatively urban location with a house, family, etc. (in the Alaskan case, places like Juneau, Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula). My guess would be that the same thing happens for most people in these Canadian locations – they’ve got a fairly standard life in some moderately-close city – but I don’t actually know anyone with those specific jobs.

  8. Wanted: Help with a novel.

    I am mostly finished with Brothers, my third novel, a sequel to Salamander. My editor is worried that the beginning is too slow. One possible solution to that problem is a prolog, a brief passage at the beginning not part of the main plot. I have written two very different ones and would like to get blog readers, in particular ones who have not been beta readers for the book, to look at one or the other, possibly both, and tell me whether reading that would be a reason to keep reading.

    Prolog 1

    Prolog 2

    • Matt says:

      I prefer the first one. Honestly, I didn’t understand much of the second.

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Went to, which assigned me #1 to read first. [Haven’t read Salamander; unsure if this means I’m in the target audience of reviewers or not.]

      I thought the first one was reasonably enjoyable, although not especially gripping; I find myself curious about some of the things mentioned but not “oh my gosh I have to find out more” levels of enthusiasm.

      I liked reading the second one more, I think? The setting’s more exciting, although the ratio of terms I could parse to terms I didn’t know yet was low enough to be a little disorienting – about half of the sentences introduce a word the reader hasn’t seen yet, which made it a bit harder to keep pace with the flow of the plot. I also wasn’t entirely clear whether Durilil or Iolen was the narrator, although rereading it makes sense now.

      Tentative vote for #2, made stronger with a little more expository meat for the reader to piece together magical vocab words from.

      • theredsheep says:

        I concur with this. Though I have to say that each has something missing–I don’t get a strong feel for these people as individuals, basically. There’s a lot of en passant exposition of the political and magical situation in the first, but I don’t know enough about the world for that to be gripping, and I don’t know the characters at all well enough for them to serve as an anchor of interest either. I know that these people have a Mediterranean-sounding diet, and the magicians live in one building and have concubines. Also they practice some kind of eugenics, and Marcus (to judge by the bit at the end) is a somewhat cold and practical fellow about that. Possibly the magic bits would be of more interest if I’d read Salamander and was familiar with the rules and how they worked, but as a standalone prologue it doesn’t pull.

        If you go with the second, I’d flesh it out considerably, as others have said. The details of things that have already happened come hard and fast, and it feels choppy. I don’t know who Fredrik or Eirick are (presumably earls, thus Iolen’s supporters?) or whether their abortive uprising was a good or bad thing from anyone’s perspective, etc. I’d pad it out some, and give me some feel for who Iolen or Durilil are.

        • theredsheep says:

          Also I concur that the shift in perspective in 2 is jarring; even after rereading, I can’t quite get what’s happening there. Is Durilil using some kind of magic to spy on Iolen’s internal monologue?

          • No. There is a shift from Durilil’s point of view to Iolen’s point of view.

            Durilil has set a bunch of dead grass burning, that being the limit of what even a very powerful fire mage can do at such long range. It is sufficient to kill Iolen, whose horse shies aside and over the edge.

            From the standpoint of Salamander, this is reflecting a point made early–that the training of a mage is largely in how to achieve a large effect with a small cause, magery being weak. Considered as a prolog to Brothers, it’s supposed to give a puzzling snapshot of events which are then picked up in Brothers, three years later, with people speculating about why Fire Mountain erupted.

            Very likely it doesn’t work as prolog.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      #1 seems more relatable. #2 seems more gripping, but it probably needs more action. I’m mostly hindered by the fact that I haven’t read Salamander, so I presumably lack familiarity with the references made here. Guessing: #2 might benefit from a bit more description of Durilil’s perspective. Why is he watching? What does he seek? Meanwhile, Iolen’s perspective might benefit from more suspense, and thus pull the reader in further.

      Quick typo in #2: “sitting his horse” should be “sitting on his horse”.

    • engleberg says:

      I liked the second one better, as a prolog. And ‘sitting his horse’ is standard useage.

    • albatross11 says:

      The second is just a repetition of something from Salamander–it makes sense only to remind us how the last book ended. The first one is interesting–it opens up a new set of players and games going on that presumably will be importnt in the story. (I have read Salamander, but not your new draft book yet, though I expect I will read the final version when it’s out.)

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I haven’t read Salamander, but I was more intrigued by the second one. The first one felt a little too like The Phantom Menace title crawl: lots of exposition about politics I don’t have any reason to care about.

    • disposablecat says:

      As someone who has not read any of your books, I prefer the first. It sets up the world better, and I have some idea of what’s going on here at least. These people have goals and plans and I want to see where that goes, even if not from their perspective.

      The second is pretty meaningless to me absent previous context, and there isn’t much “set up” for me to want to chase after.

      • Thanks. That’s what I wanted to know. So if I do a prolog it should probably be an improved version of the first–or something else I haven’t thought of yet.

        The story actually starts in Forstmark and mostly happens in Estland, with the Doray as the opponents who are, among other things, sponsoring an invasion by a neighboring polity. The first prolog is showing you the situation and motivation from the Doray side.

  9. Well... says:

    Are there any British accents that basically sound American?

    I’ve been listening to the In Our Time podcast (a lot) and sometimes they introduce guests who work at institutions somewhere in Great Britain but who have American accents, except there’s usually something slightly off about the accent. I figure this must be because it’s an American who moved across the pond and whose accent got a little British-ified over time — but is that always necessarily the case? Might there be some parts of Brittania where people happen to talk in an accent that sounds pretty close to American?

    (BTW, the variety of accents on display in the In Our Time podcast is one of my favorite things about it.)

    • fion says:

      Are there any British accents that basically sound American?

      No. I don’t think so anyway. The closest you could get is probably some kind of hybrid. If you had one parent from Edinburgh and one from Kent then you might be able to end up with something with several sounds in common with a mild US accent. The Scottish could cause you to pronounce your “r”s in e.g. “car”, while the English could generally mellow out some of the harsh Scottish vowels. (The word “girl” is a good example of both of these in play. Scots say “girrel”, English people say “guuhhl” and Americans say something like “grrl”, which to me is basically an average of the above.) You’d never get the quirky “a” sound in an American pronunciation of, say, “can’t”, but I guess a Scottish “can’t” isn’t *too* far from that.

      But while you might be able to mix up ingredients of different British accents to get something that has sounds in common with an American accent, I don’t think you could actually find “a British accent that sounds American”. I think your hypothesis about Americans who’ve lived in Britain and had their accents a bit distorted is probably right.

      Out of interest, can you remember any names of people in Britain whose accents sounded American to you on the podcast?

      • Well... says:

        I’d have to go fishing around on the In Our Time website to see which episodes I had listened to, then figure out which guests on those episodes were of (likely) American origin.

    • johan_larson says:

      Interesting. I have to wonder what portion of positions at a company like Apple that require a college degree or equivalent work experience actually get filled by people with a college degree. I’m betting it’s a high number; hiring someone without the standard credential in the field is always going to feel a bit risky to a hiring manager.

  10. johan_larson says:

    How clear is the line these days between really weird behavior and mental illness?

    • Machine Interface says:

      Not that clear. The go-to criteria seems to be that mental illness is a normal behavior pushed to such an extreme that it interferes with a functional life in a way that causes distress to the affected person and/or makes them a danger for themself or others. There are obvious cases of mental illness, and obvious cases of non-mental illnesses, and a lot of grey in between – during the cold war Soviets and Americans were often accusing each other of diagnosing with mental illnesses people who were expressing political dissent.

      • Ketil says:

        during the cold war Soviets and Americans were often accusing each other of diagnosing with mental illnesses people who were expressing political dissent.

        And perhaps they were right? Some of the more vocal champions for various causes seem to behave in ways that would get them restrained in other settings. Not just talking about screaming and raging in YouTube videos (temporary insanity, one would hope), but also the long-term behavior of people like Benjanun Sriduangkaew or Valerie Solanas. I guess it can be useful to keep some pit bulls on your side, to frighten opponents and draw attention to the cause?

        My (very amateur) take on mental illnesses is that it is a matter of degree. We all are a little afraid of heights, enclosed spaces, etc. We all have mood swings. We all have impulses to get back at those who slight us. So it is a matter of degree, at some point these inclinations interfere with our lives, and we label it a malady. And is it also a matter of restraint, of self-discipline? I keep telling myself that the ladder is perfectly safe, and that I shouldn’t punch my colleague in the nose, even if she deserves it. When I can no longer restrain the impulse, it becomes a malady.

        Perhaps this is overly simplistic. Are there mental illnesses that are either-or? Now you are psychotic, now you’re not?

        • albatross11 says:

          An interesting question, to me, is which mental illnesses or cases of mental illness are more like just being waaaaay off in the tails of some bell curve, and which ones are more like having something fundamentally broken.

          • fion says:

            I also think this is very interesting. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Scott’s post about adderall. I think he argues in the first section of that that ADHD is one of the “bell-curve” cases.

        • theredsheep says:

          For any given mental illness/disorder/whatever, there are going to be more and less extreme cases, and the less extreme cases are going to have less difficulty. I don’t know at what point you’re going to move it over from binary to spectrum, or whether or not it’s helpful.

          I have extremely mild Asperger’s, mild enough that I can pass for an extrovert for some time if I please. But at the end of the day, I can definitely tell that there’s something quite different about me. There are probably still milder cases who are merely anal-retentive with a fondness for puzzles, etc. The only distinction to a psychiatrist, as I understand it, is whether or not it causes impairment.

          I would argue that phobias are an either-or, because by definition they are irrational fears. It is entirely normal to be cautious around heights or deep water. But after a near-drowning experience at age six, I became so terrified of water that I would freak out in two feet of still water, and didn’t overcome it until I was an adult. I only taught myself to swim a couple of years ago. It wasn’t really a spectrum thing, but a specific, learned pathological behavior.

          • 10240 says:

            I would argue that phobias are an either-or, because by definition they are irrational fears.

            I don’t think they are either-or. Your fear of water may have been extreme, but there is a continuum between rational caution around deep water and extreme fear of water, and it’s hard to define at exactly what point it becomes irrational.

          • theredsheep says:

            Do people with such an in-between fear of water exist, though? For the sake of the current argument, we could construct varying degrees of schizophrenia, borderline personality, antisocial personality, etc., but if such mild cases don’t exist it doesn’t prove anything. And I don’t think there’s a big space in the middle with people who are more afraid of water than is prudent, but don’t freak out.

          • RDNinja says:

            Do people with such an in-between fear of water exist, though?

            I’m fine with water for the most part, but I get panicky if my head goes under, even in the shallow end of the pool for just a couple of seconds, when I know, intellectually, that I could right myself long before I run out of breath.

          • Ketil says:

            I don’t know at what point you’re going to move it over from binary to spectrum, or whether or not it’s helpful.

            Interesting that you should use that word, “spectrum”. Initially, I thought it meant a variable intensity or seriousness, like you seem to. But in the context of autism, I got the impression that no, it refers to multiple conditions occurring at different levels or different configurations within one syndrome or disease.

            As to phobias, I stand by my original assertion. I’m a bit afraid of heights, and it’s irrational, since I feel it when I’m lying down and peering over an edge. I get slightly queasy swimming where I can’t see the bottom, even if I know intellectually there is nothing there that can hurt me. I get uncomfortable in the darkness, even if I know the surroundings are safe.

            Or to put it another way, almost every instinct we have is irrational in some sense of the word. They’re just very general tendencies to react, and – as pointed out here – it is impossibly to decide the “correct” level for it, and since situations vary in their specific, any level would be wrong in most situations anyway.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Passed a guy on the sidewalk yesterday shouting and raging against [black people] who weren’t there. That’s pretty either-or.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Is that better or worse than shouting and raging against black people who are there?

          • The Nybbler says:

            If someone’s shouting and raging at black people who are there, they might be crazy*, or they might just be a racist ass. If they’re not there, crazy is pretty much the only possibility.

            * Layman’s term; not intended to be a diagnosis of any particular mental illness.

          • Randy M says:

            If they’re not there, crazy is pretty much the only possibility.

            Or all of the above, of course.

  11. christianschwalbach says:

    What is your opinion of the “Engineered Complete Foods” trend in the tech world right now? Ie the stuff like Soylent, and various cake-like foods. I for one, have a hard time seeing how its much different than past attempts, like that to create military rations and/or survival foods, and my opinion on all of it is that its still severely lacking in completeness and overall healthful benefit.

    • j1000000 says:

      I’d imagine you’re almost certainly right about it lacking in optimal nutritional completeness, but it seems most relevant to compare Soylent to what these people would be eating otherwise. For the people drinking Soylent, I doubt they abandoned a diet of varied meat, fruit and vegetables and decided that Soylent is healthier. Just a guess, but they probably decided they needed an easy way to get full but wanted to eat less Doritos and pizza. In that case they’re probably right that they’re better off.

      Paleo people used to hate soylent with a passion and reference anecdotes about it giving you diarrhea etc. But now it seems like a source of pride for keto/carnivore people to talk about their diarrhea as they made the switch, so whatever.

      • toastengineer says:

        For the people drinking Soylent, I doubt they abandoned a diet of varied meat, fruit and vegetables and decided that Soylent is healthier. Just a guess, but they probably decided they needed an easy way to get full but wanted to eat less Doritos and pizza.

        I know this exact thing has been said twice already, but: surely the kind of people you’re thinking of don’t know about Soylent and wouldn’t trust it anyway?

        And you can totally have a varied diet of meat, fruit, and vegetables while also eating nothing but pizza.

        Hmm… “MealCircle?” “Pizzlent?” “Complizza?”

        • Matt M says:

          Eh, that’s not quite true.

          I eat very unhealthy but due to posting here, decided to give MealSquares a try. Gave them up because they tasted bad and I think a couple of them arrived already moldy.

        • j1000000 says:

          I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill junk-food-eating American. I think there’s a stereotype that many high IQ programmers/gamers eat nothing but chips/junk food all the time.

          When Soylent was released, they marketed to a very specific sort of person, something like busy programmer types who don’t really think about food and are weird enough to be into meal replacements and like the mathematical slant to its formula, but aren’t contrarian enough to be into low carb stuff. (Probably a lot of rationalists are like that and that’s why MealSquares advertises here.)

          For that very tiny slice of the population it seems like an improvement.

    • Nick says:

      I’ve been pretty happy with MealSquares, which I bought for a few months last year. I got a friend hooked on them too. I don’t mind the taste, and they look nutritive enough to me, they’re just very dense.

    • johan_larson says:

      Not really sure I see the niche for such foods. Soylent in particular tastes like liquid cardboard and is not all that cheap. The only way I could see it being the right solution is if you were really monstrously squeezed for time. For every other case I can think of, you can do better. If you want cheap, cook yourself. If you want easy, eat out three times a day.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        This is my viewpoint. Soylent to me, is just another meal replacement product , useful in certain scenarios, but thats about it

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m just waiting for someone to figure out that they could just figure out how to stop meat from spoiling, and be done with it.

      • Lambert says:

        Smoking, curing, freezers, freeze-drying?

        I’ve had a just-add-hot-water game stew before, as well as various boil in the bag meals. Some of them are reasonably tasty, and I could see myself eating them if my time became more economically valuable.
        OTOH, they’re optimised for people on things like hiking holidays, so they have far more calories than you would want for a sedentary lifestyle.

    • fion says:

      I drink the English version of Soylent. I replace breakfast with it, and if I’m doing a lot of exercise (which is most evenings) I’ll add an extra “meal” before dinner.

      Using it for breakfast is super-convenient because I can prepare it very quickly and drink it on the way to work, which means I can sleep in a little later. It’s also a lot healthier than what I would normally have for breakfast: cereal.

      Using it for exercise is super-convenient because I exercise after I finish work and before I have dinner. If I didn’t have something to keep me going I wouldn’t be able to exercise so hard and I’d get really hungry. Also, I can actually drink it while exercising without feeling sick. With its high protein content I guess I’m using it almost like a protein shake, but it has the added benefit that it’s also more healthy.

      Sometimes I replace lunch with it. I only do this when I haven’t managed to be organised enough to cook leftovers in advance. It might be more expensive than home cooking, but it’s cheaper than buying a sandwich.

      I don’t get why people complain about the taste. Sure, it’s boring, but it’s not unpleasant.

      I also like that it’s vegan.

      Having said all that, I think replacing all your meals with it is bonkers. I don’t trust humanity’s collective understanding of nutrition enough to think we can identify everything we ever need and put it in a powder. Also for the amount of calories I eat (3000/day) it would come out at about $12 a day, which is more than I’m prepared to spend on food.

    • beleester says:

      Military or trail rations have a number of extra constraints – need to be shelf-stable for decades, need to be small and light enough to be carried on the march, can’t rely on having heating or refrigeration available, etc. I haven’t tried any myself, but I can believe that a “complete food” designed to be eaten in the comfort of your home could be better than one designed to be eaten on the march.

      • Aapje says:

        American MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) have a guaranteed shelf life of 3 years at 80°F (27°C). So not decades.

        The lack of available kitchens is solved by including a flameless ration heater in most MREs. This is a water-activated exothermic chemical heater, consisting of finely powdered magnesium metal, alloyed with a small amount of iron, and table salt. When adding water, it is able to heat up an 8-ounce (226.8 g) entree by 100 °F (56 °C) in twelve minutes.

        MREs were found to be impractical for high intensity combat operations and in 2008 the US fielded FSRs (First Strike Ration). These are lighter and more compact. Guaranteed shelf life is 2 years at 80°F (27°C). These do not include a heater.

        The US military also supplies survival rations, which are intended for survival situations where there is little potable water. These don’t have to provide all nutrients, but merely have to be suitable for short term survival (up to 5 days). These have a guaranteed shelf life of 5 years at 80°F (27°C).

        More info.

      • bean says:

        Aapje covers a lot of the major differences, but there are a few more. (Also, there’s a more recent version of that pamphlet here.) First, the military rarely provides a complete food in the same sense as Soylent or MealSquares are designed to. The entire ration is intended to provide complete nutrition, but a given component isn’t. That said, the tendency of troops to only eat some of a ration is well-known, so the designers usually do try to make the components reasonably complete. Survival rations are a partial exception, but even they are designed for short-term use, so making sure that you don’t pick up micronutrient deficiencies is not a major concern. Soylent and co seem to claim that you could use them pretty much exclusively.

        Second, the target audiences are very different. Soylent is selling to programmers who want something they can use to fill the tank easily. It’s voluntary, and if they don’t eat as much as they should, it’s not Soylent’s problem. The military’s target is an 18-year-old, and if he doesn’t eat, his performance in combat suffers. Also, he’s likely to have other things on his mind. So the ration people are much more concerned about palatability. (They may not be great at it, but it is on their priority list.)

        Personally, I’ve had both MealSquares and MREs, and I’d much rather live on a diet of MREs. But they’re aimed at very different markets.

        • Matt M says:

          Aren’t MREs also surprisingly expensive?

          That is to say – being portable and durable costs something, and to actually buy one yourself would require you to pay a lot more money to get far less tasty and nutritious food than you could obtain otherwise.

          • johan_larson says:

            About US$10 per meal if bought in bulk. For some reason it’s illegal to sell real MREs, but there are some unofficial sources, and there are companies that sell close-enough legal copies. “XMRE” is one name to look for.

            The calorie counts (1250 or so) are high enough that if you do sedentary work, you might only need two per day.

          • bean says:

            The internal cost of an MRE was apparently around $7.25/meal in 2005 ($9.58 today), and that looks to be about the retail price of the legal versions, too. Given that it’s a fairly hearty meal, shelf-stable, and subject to government overhead, that doesn’t strike me as a particularly surprising number. Yes, it’s obviously more expensive than getting the same amount of food in your home kitchen, but it’s not that much more than buying a similar meal at a restaurant. (Yes, the quality at the restaurant will be better, but that’s the price you pay for it being shelf-stable. I will defend MREs as being pretty good if you’re only eating them occasionally, although I can see how they would get old if they were all you were eating.)

            It’s illegal to sell the real ones because the government is trying to stop profiteering. They got really irritated after Katrina when a bunch of cases they’d given out started popping up on EBay. I suspect that they’re also worried about people who don’t eat theirs in the field trying to make money off of them.

          • gbdub says:

            How often do soldiers actually eat MREs? It seems like any permanent installation is going to have kitchen facilities that turn out cheaper and probably tastier mass meals, and “permanent” probably means anything more than, what, a month? A week?

            Even in WWII, wasn’t the usual setup that a particular unit would only remain on the actual front line (where they might be eating portable rations) for days or weeks at a time, and then they’d be rotated back to a rear command area, where things might still be pretty spartan but there’d be a camp mess hall with hot food available?

          • johan_larson says:

            How often do soldiers actually eat MREs?

            The unit of recon Marines shown in the TV series Generation Kill seems to have been subsisting on MREs for at least a couple of weeks during the attack into Iraq. And sometimes when there were supply issues, they were on short rations.

          • Matt M says:


            Seems to me that’s roughly the price of a burrito at Chipotle.

            I’m not saying being portable and durable isn’t a positive attribute – far from it. But I suspect that if given the money and the choice, the vast majority of people would rather have Chipotle 🙂

          • bean says:

            How often do soldiers actually eat MREs? It seems like any permanent installation is going to have kitchen facilities that turn out cheaper and probably tastier mass meals, and “permanent” probably means anything more than, what, a month? A week?

            It depends on the situation. If you’re near the front lines, then a permanent kitchen doesn’t work very well. I believe that units in OIF lived on MREs for north of a month, and they’re definitely designed to support that. That may have been the impetuous for the UGR-E and UGR-M.

            Even in WWII, wasn’t the usual setup that a particular unit would only remain on the actual front line (where they might be eating portable rations) for days or weeks at a time, and then they’d be rotated back to a rear command area, where things might still be pretty spartan but there’d be a camp mess hall with hot food available?

            In theory. In practice, units often stayed on the front lines for extended periods, and some lived on K-rations for weeks.


            Agreed on all counts. My point is that when you look at it relative to Chipotle, it’s not expensive at all.

          • Matt M says:


            But of course, the Soylent and other such people are intending their foods to be able to replace every meal you ever eat.

            I don’t think $8 a pop is reasonable for such a goal. The vast majority of people won’t spend that much money on a delicious treat, much less a strange liquidy substance that does unspeakable things to your stomach until you adapt to it by sheer repetition.

            If the cost of product X is nearly twice the cost of product Y on a per-serving basis, I think it’s safe to say they are not substitutes and are not really intending to serve the same purpose or go after the same market.

          • Randy M says:

            The vast majority of people won’t spend that much money on a delicious treat, much less a strange liquidy substance that does unspeakable things to your stomach until you adapt to it by sheer repetition.

            You mean worldwide? Of course not. But of their target market? Starbucks is a thing.

          • CatCube says:

            @Matt M

            I’m sure everybody would rather have the Chipotle for the same price, but you’re forgetting the counterparty here–Chipotle isn’t willing to provide an $8 burrito under the conditions at discussion.

            Unless you know a way to convince them to set up a storefront in a shell scrape.

          • bean says:

            Matt, Soylent is about $3/meal, not $8. That strikes me as pretty reasonable for what they’re doing. And I wasn’t suggesting that MREs were a good substitute for Soylent. The opposite, in fact. MREs have entirely different design drivers, are are distinguished only in that they’re packaged into “complete meals”.

          • johan_larson says:

            Bean, where are you getting the $3/meal price for Soylent? I’m seeing $3 or so per bottle, but that’s for 400 calorie bottles, which are too small. Are you pricing the powder alone?

          • Matt M says:

            Matt, Soylent is about $3/meal, not $8. That strikes me as pretty reasonable for what they’re doing. And I wasn’t suggesting that MREs were a good substitute for Soylent. The opposite, in fact. MREs have entirely different design drivers, are are distinguished only in that they’re packaged into “complete meals”.

            Overall we definitely agree that they are different products for different markets.

            My only point was to add “cost” as one of the dimensions on which they differ. And yes, there are various reasons why MREs cost more, but that’s beside the point here. There are also reasons why an airline ticket costs more than a Greyhound bus.

          • bean says:

            Yeah, that’s just the powder. A 12-meal tub of powder was $34 on their website.


            Fair enough.

          • j1000000 says:

            @johan_larson: Powder was the original form of Soylent. On their site, it says a case of powder pouches has 35 “meals” for $60.80. That’s $1.74 per “meal.” All you need is a shaker bottle. Slightly more expensive than a McDouble. I’d go with the McDouble myself but to each their own.

            Granted $1.74 assumes you’re ordering in semi-bulk and getting a subscription discount but in the hypothetical we’re presumably talking about someone ready to live off soylent.

          • Randy M says:

            This is probably answered as a faq on their page, but how well would Soylent replace protein powder as one ingredient in an occasional homemade smoothie? Basically functioning as a multivitamin or the like.

          • j1000000 says:

            @Randy, that seems like a tough question to answer. Soylent and protein powder have different makeups and different uses. But if you’re just trying to get a bunch of different stuff that’s recommended by the USDA without an exact sense of what you want, Soylent would be more up to the task than just protein powder.

            (Obviously that is contingent on not thinking the USDA are a bunch of shills for sugar/wheat/poultry/whatever else people hate.)

          • Matt M says:

            I’d go with the McDouble myself but to each their own.

            It is the “most nutritious food in human history”

          • gbdub says:

            “In theory. In practice, units often stayed on the front lines for extended periods, and some lived on K-rations for weeks.”

            Right. All I was trying to get at is that MREs (and K-Rats) weren’t actually intended to be an indefinite food source. They are designed to function that way when needed, but I suspect the temporary mess hall in a rear area is both more palatable and more efficient to provide on a per-soldier basis, and will thus be the preferred method whenever possible.

            Whereas Soylent is explicitly (at least in theory) designed to be a sensible choice for a complete food replacement in a place where essentially every other option is also available.

            EDIT: My new Wikipedia level understanding is that there is such a thing as “B Rations” which are prepackaged / preserved foods designed for group meals prepared in field kitchens (or worse) without access to refrigeration. Are those any better than MREs, or are they basically just giant MREs packaged into multiple servings for efficiency’s sake?

          • bean says:

            Right. All I was trying to get at is that MREs (and K-Rats) weren’t actually intended to be an indefinite food source. They are designed to function that way when needed, but I suspect the temporary mess hall in a rear area is both more palatable and more efficient to provide on a per-soldier basis, and will thus be the preferred method whenever possible.

            Sort of. Yes, the ideal is to move soldiers, where possible, to UGRs. In practice, they know that the soldiers might have to stay in MREs indefinitely, and the rations are designed that way.

            As for K-rations, those were explicitly designed to be assault rations, rather like the modern FSRs. The C-rations were the ones that were supposed to be the long-term combat rations. I should have said that at the start.

          • Lambert says:

            How much less time does Soylent take than the alternatives?
            a 100k salary works out to about $30 per hour.
            That puts $8 at the same marginal value as 16 minutes.

          • Randy M says:

            How much less time does Soylent take than the alternatives?
            a 100k salary works out to about $30 per hour.
            That puts $8 at the same marginal value as 16 minutes.

            I’ve never really agreed with this utilitarian argument, at least in any but a weak form. For one thing, almost anyone making six figures works on salary, which complicates the dollars per hour calculation somewhat. But moreover, it only applies if the free time the consumer is paying to retain is worth that much to himself. If you get any enjoyment out of cooking above and beyond the unenjoyment you get from working (say, you were going to spend some time listening to new or music at home, and now you do that as well as cooking) it’s probably worth the marginal effort to save the salary time equivalent in money. And lastly, while we are able to convert chunks of time into money, few people are in a position to easily convert one to another, especially not at a high rate of pay. All told, I expect few people actually do the math, but go by a gut feeling that only indirectly relates to their actual rate of pay.

          • Aapje says:

            Some interesting factoids:

            Soldiers are known to trade their MREs with soldiers from others countries and the exchange rate depends on how much the soldiers like the MREs. It seems fairly typical for US MREs to trade for less than 1:1, suggesting that foreign nations, like the French make nicer meals (or that because there are more American soldiers around, there is more supply).

            There is a community of MRE connoisseurs. Because of this, fake and real MREs of various nations are sold online. For example, there is this fake Russian Children’s MRE. Useful for child soldiers.

            There are also people who buy and taste old MREs and such. The most popular youtube guy reviewing those even bought and tasted an 1863 Civil War cracker. His video’s are partly cringe, as he eats fairly icky stuff. He has an amusing voice and it’s funny how he psychs himself up to eat poorly preserved food. This is his channel. Watching his videos you can get a decent sense of the MREs they gave to soldiers in the past.

            The most durable food item seems to be crackers. When stored in a water- and airtight container, they seem to last 70+ years in good condition. During WW II times, some MREs came in cans and when not rusted through, some of that food is still quite well preserved.

    • gbdub says:

      FWIW, the marketing on the Soylent site is fairly clear that the product is intended to “fill food voids” and be a simple, quick, healthy alternative to take out or vending machine meals, rather than something that is literally all you ever eat for extended periods of time. I seem to remember some rather more grandiose claims when Soylent was first coming out, so I don’t know if the current toned down claims are just CYA, or if the original hype was just runaway hype by journalists.

      • j1000000 says:

        That hype more or less came from one of the founders of Soylent, not the media — he said that he didn’t envision it replacing ALL meals necessarily, but that it could, and that he had improved his health by doing so Here’s a New Yorker article from 2014 where they talk to him:

        “I feel like the six million dollar man. My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone.” He concluded, “I haven’t eaten a bite of food in thirty days, and it’s changed my life.”

        Their new marketing strategy of “once in a while when in a pinch” is a better idea and casts a wider net, but I’d say it was smart to go the “end of food” route at the start since it got them a ton of media coverage driven by eye rolling toward Silicon Valley disruption.

    • sunnydestroy says:

      I actually like the meal replacement powder I bought, Huel. You mix with water and shake it up. The vanilla tastes sort of like a runny oatmeal milkshake. I find it pretty good since I like oatmeal.

      I like that it’s mostly made of whole plant based foods, just ground up into a soluble powder. Then they basically throw a multivitamin in there. I’d feel pretty fine eating this a couple meals and having a salad for dinner. I definitely feel like the focus on whole foods in the ingredients probably brings a broader spectrum of micronutrients that wouldn’t typically be reported on a label.

  12. theredsheep says:

    Since this blog gets commenters from every conceivable career field:

    I’m an English major. I got the diploma in a fit of youthful naivete–it was my best subject in high school, so I kept pursuing it–and I’ve found no use for it except as a generic not-a-moron certificate, the way that one economist whose name I can never remember claims. I’ve spent more than a decade bouncing between crummy dead-end jobs, long enough to learn what I’m not good at. I’m definitely not a teacher of any kind, for example, and I can’t do much good at mechanical work. I have no knack for coding or computers; I got myself Cisco certification with painstaking effort, only to discover everyone wanted that, plus five other certifications, ten programming languages, and five years’ experience. And I just said blehhhhhhh. I’m not incompetent with computers, but staring at a screen typing in brackets and semicolons is just dreary for me.

    I’ve finally settled on medicine as the general field I’d like to get into. I like helping people (and hate the feeling that I’m doing useless work), biology is also a strong subject for me, the industry is growing and hard to outsource, and I enjoy my work as a pharmacy tech, which I’ve been doing since 2/16. But pharmacy tech work won’t pay enough long-term, and I can’t advance further in pharmacy without a doctorate. I’m thinking of one of the multiple associate’s-degree jobs in medicine: respiratory therapist, PT assistant, various kinds of imaging tech, etc. A number of such degrees are available at the local community college.

    The ideal would be PT assistant, which might eventually transformed into full physical therapist. There is a program. However, it’s extraordinarily competitive (1/6 acceptance rate) because everyone else knows PT is an awesome field. I failed to get into this year’s class despite doing a lot of the prerequisites and getting a hundred observation hours. I could probably get into the program if I took on a (ridiculously low-paying) job as a PT aide for a while, wiping down beds and such. I’m looking for openings basically every day.

    I turn 35 this Saturday, and feel like I really need to settle into a viable career soon. To end this lengthy post, are there opportunities I’m missing? Careers in medicine you can get into without a doctorate. I know nursing is desperate for people, but I don’t think I could do what nurses do. I’m not terribly squeamish, but all the mucking around with needles is not my thing–which is also why I’m leery of respiratory therapy, since they do artery sticks routinely. But maybe I’m being too picky.

    • quanta413 says:

      Maybe a little bit distant from what you’re looking for, but speech pathologist takes a masters degree, not a doctorate. Typically a three year program where the third is a residency.

      However, may be a little bit of a pain to enter a program since sometimes the prerequisites list is practically another year of courses.

      So I guess that puts the time commitment halfway between a doctorate and getting an associates degree.

    • johan_larson says:

      How are you with paperwork? Apparently you can make money haggling with insurance companies as a Medical Billing Specialist. There are training programs, and their requirements look tractable:

      A brief search shows pay averaging $15.87 per hour.

      Or would you be interested in working for the military in a non-combat job? The pay for enlisted personnel isn’t great but they provide training. And even at 35 you are still well below the max age for the Air Force, which is 39.

      • theredsheep says:

        $15.87 is a bit low; I could get about that at my current job if I switched to PRN. Not that saving people from absurd medical bills is not a noble endeavor, but I have a wife and two kids, and even in my low-cost-of-living neck of FL it’s going to take something close to twice my current income if I want to become independent. Also, I’m not much for paperwork.

        My favorite part of my current job is that moment when a patient some distance away in the hospital needs a med NOW and I get to be the one who’s flat out running to get it before their heart stops. I love that rush. Maybe I can get over my thing about needles.

        • j1000000 says:

          How long would you have to do the ridiculously low-paying PT assistant job to improve the standing of your application, and could your family live comfortably in the meantime between that and school if you got accepted?

          • theredsheep says:

            At present, we’re living in a house that my wife’s grandfather built. Her family owns it entirely, so we have no rent or mortgage. However, the house is quite decrepit and slowly falling apart, so it’s not a long-term option (plus my kids will want college, etc.).

            I’d want about six months of PT experience, I suppose; the program is looking for people who would do well at it and give it a good name, so an applicant who knows what he’s getting into would be a good fit.

    • Urstoff says:

      Being an nurse is close to guaranteed employment, so maybe try get over your squeamishness? Unless you think you’d absolutely hate it. Plus there are lots of ways to advance past being an entry-level nurse.

      • theredsheep says:

        Do you know anything about respiratory therapy? I think that might be a closer fit, not sure. Just to map the boundaries of my squeamishness: I don’t especially like powerful odors, but I’m not much bothered by fluids. I’ve been in rooms during surgery, and watched instruments poking around inside guts, etc. And also walked over the bloody floors after to restock the carts. At one point I restocked a cart feet away from a recently-deceased cadaver still sitting on the table. I’m fine there.

        Areas of concern: I am very nervous about the idea of actually taking a sharp implement to human flesh, particularly since I sometimes get shaky hands. I also don’t know how well I’ll adapt to trying and failing to save a dying person.

        • Beck says:

          My ex-wife is a respiratory therapist. I don’t know as much about the job as I should (which might be part of why she’s an ex), but I did pick up a bit.
          The blood gas sticks seem to be considered very routine, so you may be able to get past any squeamishness fairly quickly. Intubating patients for ventilators was a little more of an occasion. Other than that, they don’t seem to have much contact with the interior bits of people.

          Neonatal respiratory care might be an area to avoid, or at least approach cautiously. A lot of the babies they deal with are in pretty bad shape and quite a lot of them die during treatment (I suppose that varies depending on the hospital). I’ve never understood how therapists and nurses deal with that as well as they do.

        • Urstoff says:

          According to my wife, you better be comfortable with mucus of all kinds if you want to go into respiratory therapy. However, that is probably a decent “clinician” job to have if you want to get into administration at some point (better than, say, ultrasound tech or something like that).

          • theredsheep says:

            Don’t care about mucus; I’m a father of two, and I’ve had small-boy feces smeared on my hands without freaking out. Just give me gloves and I’ll be fine.

            I had considered imaging, but it looked like both varieties of imaging certs available locally would require me to learn and practice female-specific procedures (mammograms and TV ultrasounds), which prudish ol’ me would not be comfortable with even if the woman in question was.

          • theredsheep says:

            Okay, concerns about RT I’ve read from browsing google searches:

            –Nurses treat you like crap, especially because a lot of RTs are lazy and phone it in. This isn’t that bad, since I’m a pharmacy tech now, and nurses already want us to to die by prolapse. I deal with it.
            –I might have to troubleshoot fiddly machines. I could probably do that, as long as I didn’t have to muck around with command lines all the time.
            –Some job markets are tight. My area does not seem to be one of them.
            –You’ll sometimes be overridden by imbeciles who don’t know lungs as well as you do but think you’re “just” an RT. So they give inappropriate medicines and the patient gets worse.

            Upside is that you don’t have to deal with enemas, catheters, or patients’ families. You walk around giving people neb treatments, with occasional breaks for a mad rush when somebody codes. This sounds doable.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      Nursing is pretty broad. I wouldn’t count it out completely. I was a pre-physical therapy major (with some experience doing sports medicine) myself and I ended up completing roughly 3 yrs of the undergrad work before quitting (a decision I occasionally do regret) and PT work can be pretty repetitive and unless you find a niche of sorts, your clientele is likely to be much older and feeble. The sports medicine allowed me to work with a more motivated clientele but the pay in general is pretty bad and even more narrow field of employment options unless you work part (or sometimes full) time in a clinic and also for a team of sorts.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        Nursing is pretty broad. I wouldn’t count it out completely. I was a pre-physical therapy major (with some experience doing sports medicine) myself and I ended up completing roughly 3 yrs of the undergrad work before quitting (a decision I occasionally do regret) and PT work can be pretty repetitive and unless you find a niche of sorts, your clientele is likely to be much older and feeble. The sports medicine allowed me to work with a more motivated clientele but the pay in general is pretty bad and even more narrow field of employment options unless you work part (or sometimes full) time in a clinic and also for a team of sorts. In Sports Med, when you are attached to a team or an institution, you are very much their servant, and of course this is true for many jobs, but for me personally it was hard to by on the sidelines during sporting events and not be actively playing. I just didn’t get the same level of excitement and enthusiasm as some of the other student trainers did

      • theredsheep says:

        Well, my mother was an RN, I can ask her about the variants. I may not have the aggressive “okay, here’s what we’re going to do and don’t you give me any nonsense” demeanor of a successful nurse. I have shadowed PT and seen what it’s like; I grant you that it’s somewhat repetitive. I actually like the idea of helping old people recover mobility, even if it’s only temporary reversal of entropy.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          I see. I am sure if I was in the PT field and as I got older I would sympathize more with older patients, but who’s to say burnout would not be an issue either? As for Nursing, we need less “direct nurses” anyways…healthcare is about care, and in many cases, interventions are unnecessary, so critical thinking nurses would be an asset

  13. johan_larson says:

    Building big structures is impressive, but digging big holes can be impressive too. Have some pictures of open pit mines.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I don’t know what it is about these sites, but their photos refuse to load in either Chrome or Firefox for me, even if I whitelist them in uBlock and AdBlock+.

      And now, miningglobal is throwing me a 500 error.

  14. fion says:

    Does anybody understand the bizarre humour on the blogroll? I used to think the categories were just a rough list of how much Scott liked them, with “Embalmed Ones” being his favourites, “Fabulous Ones” being his second-favourites and so on, but this doesn’t seem right. For a bit I thought “Embalmed Ones” were blogs that were no longer active, but that only seems true of two of them.

    Are Innumerable Ones all something about maths?

    Are Mermaids just all the ones that have something sounding like “Mer” in their title?

    What about Stray Dogs, Suckling Pigs, Those That Have Just Broken The Flower Vase??? Some of them sound like they’re completely arbitrary titles, but some of the groups of blogs do seem to have something in common.

    Is the whole thing just to drive people like me mad trying to work it out? 😛

    • johan_larson says:

      I don’t think there’s any particular logic to the categories. It’s just a fanciful reference to a taxonomy of animals from an essay by Jorge Luis Borges.

      • Ketil says:

        Amazing! Thanks for this link. Not only does the superficial nonsensical categorization by Scott now make sense, but it is also a succinct illustration of everything that’s wrong with ontologies and the Semantic Web. Here I thought it was just me, and it turns out that line of thought was pursued – and abandoned – in 1668.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          Back when I used to work with ontologies and semantic indexing, Semantic Web tech used to be the David E. Kelley to our Rob Fields – the current hotness sucking all the air out of the room, while we were trying to make a structure that could actually solve problems. We had a meta-ontology that encouraged you to ask questions such as whether certain properties of objects you wanted to track via database were rigid (possessed at all times) or non-rigid (could change over time), and would shard off a working database that answered one class of questions swiftly here, or an API that let you automatically integrate with another database mapped to the same semantic model there. It required its own inference engine, but by jove, it worked.

          But we couldn’t get visibility, because effing Tim Berners-Lee and his army of SWWs would go everywhere and give everyone a nasty taste in their mouth for semantic technologies when their stuff wouldn’t work.

          I might be ranting.

          In some of our tutorial material we created to show people how to build good models, we included a reference to the Borges model as an obvious joke.

          • Ketil says:

            I might be ranting.

            Yes, but in some cases it’s warranted. Maybe we should call it war-ranting?

    • beleester says:

      As johan_larson said, it’s mainly a Borges reference.

      There is a pattern to all of them, but some times it’s a stretch or a tortured pun. For instance, “Suckling Pigs” includes food-related blogs, but also Freddie DeBoer as a pun on “boar.”

      “Embalmed Ones” don’t update or hardly ever update (jai does a few posts a year, LessWrong still gets posts but I don’t think EY writes there anymore).
      “Fabulous Ones” are web fiction and Alicorn (who writes web fiction), as a pun on “fables.”
      Those That Have Just Broken The Flower Vase is mostly libertarian-related blogs, plus “Don’t Worry About the Vase.”
      Those That Belong To The Emperor are Voldemort-related blogs (damn word filter).

      I can’t remember what Stray Dogs are.

      • Lambert says:

        Innumerable ones are disproportionately maths-related.
        Camel-hair brush is webcomics
        those that grumble as if they are mad is psychiatry

      • Eric Rall says:

        Stray Dogs looks like econ-related blogs. There’s a bunch of econ in Those That Have Just Broken The Flower Vase (especially Caplan and Friedman), too, and there’s a fair amount of libertarian in Stray Dogs (Tyler Cowen and Scott Sumner both lean libertarian, not sure about the others).

        I think the distinction is that Dogs is for blogs where the focus is on technical aspects of econ, while Flower Vase is for blogs where if there is econ it’s heavily flavored with libertarian philosophy and policy arguments.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Those That Have Just Broken The Flower Vase could be a riff on anarchism.

          • Eric Rall says:

            That had occurred to me, since I’m familiar with Friedman and Caplan being anarchocapitalists, but I decided against it as an explanation since I don’t think Popehat or Hanson (despite libertarian leanings) are particularly anarchist or anarchist-adjacent.

            But as I’m typing up my reply, it occurs to me that the unifying principle of the category might be an inclination to argue against authority and contrary to conventional wisdom. Since one word for that is “iconoclastic” (literally “image-breaking”), it seems a pretty good fit for “broken the flower vase”.

      • Orpheus says:

        Those That Belong To The Emperor are Voldemort-related blogs (damn word filter).

        How is Sam[]zdat Voldemort related? Also that category used to house Current Affairs, which is about as far as you can get from Voldemort (unless we are thinking of a different Voldemort??).

        • beleester says:

          Xenosystems is Voldemort-related, IIRC. Sam[]zdat is so opaque I can’t really tell what it’s related to. I forgot what else used to be there.

          • Nick says:

            Xenosystems is Nick Land, so definitely qualifies. I don’t think sam[]zdat qualifies as rightwing; maybe Scott considers it a left analogue to Enn Arr Ex? I asked a while back what that would look like and got some interesting answers, but sam[]zdat didn’t exist at the time, so it didn’t come up.

  15. Ketil says:


    However, the economics of ‘crowded fields’ means the larger the number of participants, the more randomness and luck play a role in determining success.

    This was news to me. Is it true? Googling for “economics of crowded fields” didn’t bring up anything that seemed useful.

    • Ketil says:

      Oh, and a counterpoint. Sure, everybody and her grandmother can now be a writer on the internet. Yes, most of the content produced is tripe. And granted, traditional media has, on average, higher quality. But this isn’t about averages, and some of the self-published or indie stuff is much better and more interesting. And this being the internet, stuff is easy to find. Why should I care about mediocrity? Why should I worry about prizes being awarded arbitrarily or for political reasons?

      • Deiseach says:

        Why should I worry about prizes being awarded arbitrarily or for political reasons?

        This seems pertinent right now with N.K. Jemisin and the Hugos and her acceptance speech:

        This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers — every single mediocre insecure wanna-be who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s meritocracy but when we win it’s identity politics. I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.

        I’m told she’s a good writer and so deserves to win (she may be, but like China Miéville whom I do acknowledge is a good writer, you could not pay me to read her stuff – the prose may be excellent but I dislike the worlds built and the politics), but I also think there is a whiff of identity politics about her start, or let’s be charitable and say she was the recipient of affirmative action.

        She’s a good writer, so whether she was picked originally for “well, we need a black woman on the list” does not substantially matter, but it does matter if she were a bad writer. If bad or poor works are given prizes because the political content over-rides the other criteria, then this devalues the field (since people will generally be able to tell ‘this is crap even if it is in line with values of Current Year’), drives people away, and disadvantages good writers who are not getting recognition or promotion because they don’t fit the list of requirements, and worst of all it inculcates an attitude of knowing nods and winks that the Purple Lustrum prize winner must be really bad if their career needed to be propped up by giving them the Loosey-Goosey (as the prize is informally known since its creation in the 1830s by Gernsback’s third cousin on his granny’s side). You no longer have a yardstick to judge the quality of a winner since the prizes are now meaningless and so criticism itself has failed in its duty to the audience.

        I’ve seen a lot of “who cares about the Hugos? they’re meaningless” and that makes me sad, because the Hugos used to be a big deal and a Hugo nomination/win generally was worth checking out. But if they’ve become just one more badge to pin on the backpack then I don’t care and a lot of other people don’t care and you’ll end up with Paul awarding Peter and Peter awarding Paul.

        • Matt M says:

          It also seems to me that

          I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction

          cannot coexist with

          I’ve seen a lot of “who cares about the Hugos? they’re meaningless”

          Either the award is some sort of objective quality, the winning of which proves someones work is valid regardless of identity politics… or it isn’t. It can’t be both.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            They co-exist by way of two different groups of people holding each of those sentiments.

            (With the possibility of a much smaller group of bomb-lobbers expressing each sentiment to different audiences.)

        • engleberg says:

          I don’t think the Hugos are now meaningless. As a marker of SF quality, sure, they’ve burned that brand. If Jemisin develops good SF chops and writes her next book in the tradition of Anderson, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Zelazny- she won’t get a fourth award next year. But for the 2018 D party line, the Hugos work great. People who care about toeing the D party line on gender politics quote Jemisin’s essays with gratitude.

        • gbdub says:

          Anything vaguely puppy related is peak culture war, and this is the non culture war OT. This is also not the first not-really-culture war subthread you’ve left a very culture war reply to in this OT, please kindly refrain (especially since the CW thread comes out tomorrow).

          EDIT: I should have read past the first few paragraphs of the link, where it takes a hard turn into a rant about overselling diversity. So it probably shouldn’t have been posted at all on this OT. I will still finger wag gently at Deiseach for taking the bait hard while others on the thread passed it up.

          • Deiseach says:

            Okay, I’ll take the knuckle-rap for culture-warring which wasn’t my intent, but I always forget which OT is which – tomorrow we can fight, you say?

            So thanks for the reminder and if this is brought up again tomorrow, it’ll be pistols at dawn!

          • gbdub says:

            X.5 (the Sunday thread that ISN’T on the main page) is CW free. But sometimes the timing is off. And sometimes the numbering is wrong. So I’d suggest just doing a ctrl-f on “culture war” (the warning text atop the page is always the same).

            And yes, tomorrow it’s back on. Keep your powder dry.

          • Ketil says:

            this is the non culture war OT.

            I have to admit that I don’t know or understand the rules about this. I am a little bit sorry if I broke them, if it helps.

            But when I’m supposed to follow some rules, it would help if they were explicit and concrete. I guess “Culture War” refers to controversial topics, like idunno, SJWs and feminism or assisted suicides or… but where the line is drawn is far from clear to me. And it’s okay if people speak in codes and internal lingo, I mean, it gives a group some coherence and sense of belonging. But maybe not for the rules, which in particular must be comprehensible to newcomers? So “puppy related”? Seriously? This is just confusing to me.

          • bean says:


            “Culture War” is a bit vague, but basically refers to anything that’s likely to cause intense political battles. I’m not sure assisted suicide would count here, but that’s because we’re very strange. A discussion of, say, baking cakes for gay weddings certainly would count.

            Re “puppies”, it’s a reference to the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies of SF Fandom. The very high-level is that some fans thought the nominations at the Hugo Awards (voted by the fans) were too left-leaning, and tried to get their own picks nominated. This didn’t go over well with other elements in SF fandom, and there was a big fight.

          • gbdub says:

            Well, Scott does post, right on top of the open thread, if this is the “culture war free” thread.

            Culture war is a bit vague, but it would be impossible to list everything that is or isn’t culture war. Stay away from anything that can’t be talked about without debating partisan, racial, gender, or other identity politics, and you’re most of the way there.

            In the old days of 3 years ago or so, it was explicitly “no race or gender on the open threads”, but that was when there were fewer open threads and Ozy hosted a race and gender focused open thread on Thing of Things, but when that went away Scott opened up the open threads here. The current system is a compromise (that worked a lot better when the threads were actually posted on time).

            Sorry about “puppies”, I wasn’t sure if Sad Puppies was a banned term. Evidently it is not. A lot of the jargon here is euphemisms for banned terms, which Scott recognizes is awkward, but the bans are primarily in place to avoid raising the profile of the blog for random Google searches on “banned term”.

            My favorite of these is “ants”, short for “reproductively viable worker ants” as a euphemism for the entertainment controversy that sounds like what you’d call the portal a lesbian horse walks through to leave the pasture.

    • Shion Arita says:

      There’s a reason lawyers and doctors make so much money: they have professional associations restricting access to the right to work as one.

      They say that like it’s a good thing?

      Plus, Pot and Kettle; this thing reads more like a shitpost someone wrote late at night on some forum than a professional article.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Ah yes, the famously easy to objectively identify set of “mediocre artists”, which just always happens to coincidently almost completely overlap with the set of “artists I don’t like” of whoever is talking about mediocre artists at that moment.

      “But skill is an objective criteria by which–” you like skill, good for you (but do you really? if I look at your list of supposed “good artists”, are you really going to claim that they’re all geniuses at the top of their art? are you going to tell me that Haydn is as skilled of a composer as Mozart? That Jules Verne’s prose is on par with that of Flaubert? That John Boorman’s directorial technique equals that of Stanley Kubrick?) – but most people’s liking of art is grounded in other criteria than “skill” (otherwise everyone would listen to classical music, a handful of jazz bands, and little else).

      Rant asides, the claim of the article that most artists outthere want to be the next sensation simply doesn’t ring true. On the contrary, it seems that the vast majority of artists approach their art as a hobby, as something they do on the side to have fun, and are already more than fulfilled if the internet can provide them with a small circle of admirrers.

      Likewise, I wonder in which segment of society this person lives that they see artistic careers painted as an achievable and desirable goal for everyone – my experience, on the contrary, is that the most segments of society regard art as a frivolity, as a childish hobby you do on the side of your Real Job™, and certainly not as a serious career path; the vast majority of messages adressed to aspiring artists are discouraging ones, dire warning abouts about The Harsh Realities of the Real World and really now, artist, that’s not serious, why can’t you be an office drone like your brother?

      Whenever people complain about vanity in arts, about award shows catering to specific crowds, rewarding mediocrity if it fits a certain political angle, they’re really just complaining about people liking different things than them. The Hugo Awards mostly go to a left-leaning stories because the majority of the voters are left-leaning, and they vote for what they like, which is stories that share their values. The Academy Awards mostly go to actor-vehicle dramas because the majority of voters of the Academy are actors, and that’s the kind of thing they like the most as actors.

      You want an “objective” award show? There’s already one: it’s called Amazon Best Sellers – with as many categories as you want!

    • S_J says:

      The author of that piece refers to the economics of ‘crowded fields’. I don’t know if that is a technical term or not.

      However, it appears to describe fields like the following: fields that have a large number of candidates trying to enter, and a small number of incredibly-wealthy-successful-participants.

      1. Author of popular fiction
      2. Professional musician
      3. Professional athlete
      4. Television/Movie actor

      That article apparently claims that the same effect is in play in the world of representational art.

      In most of the items I listed, there is a hard-to-notice difference in skill/talent between the incredibly-successful and barely-able-to-make-a-living levels of success. This often gives the appearance that success is more luck than talent. [1]

      There’s also a small difference in skill between someone who never makes money in such a field, and someone who can make money but never hit incredibly-successful. [2]

      Both of these levels of skill give the appearance that there is lots of luck involved. I can’t tell whether luck or skill is more important in the job markets I mentioned. Nor can I tell which is more important in the world of representational-art.

      I suspect that representational-art world has an in-group and an out-group (kind of like professional actor in TV/Movie world), which might appear to an outsider to increase the role that luck plays in success. But I can’t really tell.

      Is the problem too many mediocre artists, or is the problem small difference in skill between mediocre success and wealthy success ?

      [1] For kicks and giggles…a second-cousin of mine was moderately successful in American football. He received a scholarship to a University that played in NCAA-division-I, and had at least one chance to play in one of the NCAA championship Bowl games. During his final year in college, he suffered an injury that put him on the sidelines for the remainder of the year. His name showed up on a draftee-list for an NFL team the year after he graduated, but he couldn’t recover in time to begin the season that year. The next year, he had disappeared from the NFL, and was never mentioned in sports news. I’m not certain what he’s doing now, but he might have parlayed this collegiate success into a coach position somewhere. Or he might be in another field entirely.
      Sadly, due to the way that NCAA-level-athletics plays the role of “minor-league team” for American football, he could never get more than a scholarship-to-a-University out of his short career.

      [2] Another story: a different relative, on the other side of the family, was always bouncing between jobs. He would intermittently do a run of gigs singing-and-playing-music in bars.
      He claimed that, one time, he had a contract that would allow him to record/publish an album of music…but the record company didn’t want to float him money for the recording side. So he begged everyone for money, but couldn’t scrape it together in time. I can’t tell whether that story was reported to me accurately.
      Anyway, this man never got further than ‘plays music in bars’ in his musical career. It was a pittance, and never a job he could live on.

      • Deiseach says:

        Is the problem too many mediocre artists, or is the problem small difference in skill between mediocre success and wealthy success ?

        To take the second one first, I think there is more than a small difference between “highly successful” and “barely/never made it”. In football (soccer) you have the good solid journeyman player who is dependable and will have a decent career and may be lucky enough to get into a good team which means that yes, they’ll do much better than an equivalently talented player who only managed a second or third division team. Then you have the stars, the ones who do have incredible talents, and are very much visibly so superior that if they start off as the star player on the under-tens team, those big clubs are sending out scouts to report back on them and snap them up (take Steven Gerrard who joined the Liverpool Academy aged nine and spent his professional career, save for the last year, there, and much as I love Stevie G he is not a superstar like Messi or Ronaldo). If they play for those second or third division clubs, the big clubs will want to sign them up.

        So I would say that between people of equivalent talent, there may be a measure of luck as to who catches the favour of the masses or the elite (depending on the field and who makes the judgements; see the ‘graffiti artist taken up by influential art critic/gallery owner/rich moneybags patron’) and more importantly who keeps that favour (pop music being littered with ‘one hit wonders’ who never were able to maintain that success). But the real stars? There’s a huge level of difference in skill/talent there.

        So since we’re dividing the sheep from the goats, then I think the answer is “overcrowding in the field”. Not everybody is going to be a star, so the mass of any field is going to be “people of equivalent, good enough for semi-professional or professional but not star quality talent” all competing for limited places. There are only so many opera companies, art galleries, orchestras, professional publishing houses, etc. Mid-list authors do struggle, particularly when the publisher is reserving the big push for the perceived stars or next generation stars and are ruthlessly pruning the “sells respectably but not huge number” authors as soon as sales dip below a certain level (this, by the way, was part of the reason for the Sad Puppies Hugo campaign: a “Hugo Award nominee”, not even “winner”, sticker on the cover of the book means your publisher will put in the effort to publicise and sell the work which means your survival as a professional author relying on your writing to make a living and keep your family. Being arbitrarily excluded from Hugo nomination on the grounds of being “male, pale and stale” or too conservative and not representative enough meant a real blow to the economic well-being of these authors, and I think there was also some internal row over Tor which should be impartially pushing all its authors as a publishing company but due to the influence of the Neilsen Haydens as editors there were definite favoured and disfavoured authors based on SJW principles, or so it was perceived and alleged).

        So to sum up: too many ‘mediocre’ (where that means ‘good but not outstanding’) in a crowded field all trying for the same limited pool of opportunities and depending heavily on luck if they, rather than another, tickle popular fancy or attract a patron.

        To throw in my own cousins, there’s a musical gene (which has skipped me) where the paternal family ranges all the way from “play instruments and sing well to a decent amateur level” to “do side gigs singing at weddings, funerals, etc” to “bona fide real rock star” 🙂 There’s also some “involved with small independent horror/fantasy movie company” and “semi-pro to professional artist” to “general career path is going to be in the Humanities” cousins and others as well included (we also have a poet or two from “amateur versifier of the kind you see published in your local paper” to “real poet published by real professional publisher” and one Genuine Famous in the Field Back in the Day Scholar), so we’re an artistic bunch all told! Most of the semi-pros make reasonable livings, if helped out by ‘day jobs’ and the like but big time stardom only happened for one cousin.

        • gbdub says:

          “I think the answer is “overcrowding in the field”. Not everybody is going to be a star, so the mass of any field is going to be “people of equivalent, good enough for semi-professional or professional but not star quality talent” all competing for limited places.”

          I’ll repeat my admonishment about bringing puppies into the CW free thread, but this was a really good point. There are a lot of workaday actors, artists, and musicians, making enough to live on but not to be rich, who are, in terms of talent and skill, probably not that distinguishable from some truly famous names… but also not that distinguishable from people who max out at a few bit parts / little gigs / minor publications and need to do something else for a living. The difference between them could often be luck (who gets noticed, who knows somebody, who happens to be talented in the random thing that happens to get popular at just the right time).

          Other luck: in acting you’ve got the “character actors” who are never out of work, clearly high talent, but aren’t pretty enough to get lead roles. In sports you’ve got the guy who’d be a brilliant soccer forward but is from Alabama instead of Argentina and becomes a middling gridiron cornerback that tops out in college ball.

          There are probably some people who are just exemplary talents that are always going to find their way to the top, but they are few (fewer than there are slots available, maybe).

          Part of the problem with art, music, and acting is that (as the author notes) the barrier to entry is basically non-existent. A website and an Instagram page are all you need to call yourself an “artist”. A blog makes you an “author”. Being an extra / going to one audition makes you an “actor”. So you have hordes of no-talent and/or low-effort hacks that are going to drive the success rate down, and should probably be excluded from the stats.

          • Matt M says:

            So you have hordes of no-talent and/or low-effort hacks that are going to drive the success rate down

            But why does “low success rate” even matter?

            Furthermore, what if this state of affairs increases the absolute number of successes?

            I have to imagine the total number of people who make enough money to support themselves via appearing in video clips went up, significant, after the invention of Youtube. So why would we frame this in a negative way and say “Darn Youtube makes it less likely someone who tries to make a living appearing in video clips will succeed!”

            I don’t want to get CW here so I won’t make the obvious analogy here, but I will say that this seems to be a person who is upset about how the pie is being sliced, while ignoring that certain advances have vastly expanded the total size of the pie.

          • gbdub says:

            I don’t think it’s bad, per se. And it probably doesn’t matter all that much for the average consumer – they have access to a wider variety of stuff, but do have to spend more effort filtering for quality. Probably helps you a lot if you’re someone with weird taste.

            I think it does matter though, if you’re one of those middling artists that used to get by.

            What YouTube and technology and the rest have done is vastly lowered the barrier to entry, and blurred the distinction, between low end professional and high end amateur output.

            Yes, the pie can get bigger, but it’s not clear that it has, where the pie is entertainment dollars and eyeball time. The number of people competing for that pie is much bigger though.

            Where before a middling workaday professional only had to compete against middling workaday professionals, now they have to compete against amateurs just screwing around as a hobby.

            So the pie that used to support 10 people full time now provides second job income for 100 and pocket change for 1000, even if that pie grew in size quite a bit.

            Art always was a tournament economy at the very top, but maybe before you could force your way into the lower ranks with just basic talent and effort. Now low-effort stuff by people who don’t care if they make a dime floods the lower ranks, and the tournament economy extends all the way to the bottom.

    • Matt M says:

      Her overall thesis seems to be that this is bad for the aspiring artists because it sets them up with false expectations and high hopes that will result in failure and disappointment for 99% of them. The part about intersectional diversity quotas seems irrelevant to the headline – you could have those even in a world where entry is restricted (I’m sure similar pressures still exist, although perhaps not to the same degree, in law and medicine) or you could also choose to not have them in a field where entry is unrestricted (say, athletics).

      That said, I disagree with the specific line you quoted. Or, I should say, my reaction is “so what?” These days, art of all kinds is more easily accessible than ever. I suppose I might find some cosmic injustice in the fact that my own personal favorite authors and musicians aren’t as popular, and therefore not as financially successful as I might think they “deserve” to be. But given the ease of accessibility, this doesn’t affect my opportunity to seek and enjoy and share their work.

    • SamChevre says:

      If you are looking for the economics literature on this phenomenon, the key word to start with is “tournaments

    • Eric Boesch says:

      If there are 100 candidates in an election, then there are many statistical reasons why the winner might be more random than if there are just 2 candidates. (Just to get this out of the way — none of these are convincing reasons why a voting system that supports more candidates is worse. I’m trying to stick to facts here. Also, some of these sources of noise are negligible in elections with many voters.)

      More candidates means a wider range of choices and fewer votes for the top two. Fewer votes means more noise and a greater chance the candidate gets more votes even for a fixed pair of candidates. Suppose a random voter’s likelihood of preferring candidate A to candidate B is 52% versus 48%. The expected difference between votes for A versus B equals 0.04 n where n is the number of voters. The standard deviation of the number of votes for A is sqrt (0.48 * 0.52 * n). The bigger n is, the more likely the signal overwhelms the noise. If there are 10 votes for A or B, it’s almost a tossup who gets more; if there are 100,000 votes, B is toast.

      If the choice of two candidates is not already the result of effective winnowing, then more candidates also means the inherent difference between the two candidates is probably less, under many distributions. The expected difference two samples of a normal random variable is less than the expected difference between the highest and second highest samples out of 100.

      More candidates also means voters have less time to evaluate each candidate, which increases the inaccuracy of their estimated preference.

      More candidates don’t just mean relatively more noise per candidate, it also means more chances for someone to get very lucky. In a two player match, the better player usually wins. In a 100 player poker tournament, you usually expect the best player to lose to someone with better luck.

      • gbdub says:

        It’s even worse in art – with 100 candidates, at least they will all be on the ballot, probably in random order. With art, each additional “vote” (viewer) makes that art more likely to get seen by the next viewer. This is even more explicit and harder to avoid with YouTube and the like, where the algorithms for recommending stuff are going to tend to snowball popularity. (As opposed to, say, an editor’s choice list that is manually curated)

        Sort of like how the universe went from nearly uniform random blob with tiny random variations to scattered galaxies surrounded by vast emptiness.

  16. HaraldN says:

    They say politics is mindkiller, so I will attempt to move carefully and suggest any responders do too (and if this is deemed too controversial I will apologize and delete it).

    There’s an election coming up in my country, and I am not sure what to vote for. Assuming I think voting is worthwhile (I do), does anyone have any tips for how to make an attempt at coming to a decision on what to vote for in a rational way?

    • fion says:

      If your country uses a voting system which allows votes to be wasted, don’t waste your vote. I.e. vote for the least bad party/candidate who might win.*

      If your country has a voting system which does not allow votes to be wasted, then it’s basically a balancing act between how well a party/candidate’s views match your own and how competent you estimate them to be.

      The above is assuming you have definite views and you are aware of what they are.** If you don’t, I’d suggest you should probably vote either for the ruling party or the main opposition. Try to look at times when these parties were in power. Did it go well? Did it go badly? Try to factor out big global events that weren’t their fault.

      I dunno. I’m kind of stabbing in the dark here. There are lots of reasons you could be unsure who to vote for and I’m not sure which reason I’m addressing. Are you able to give any more explanation without getting CW?

      *Sometimes I do think it’s worth voting for somebody who definitely won’t win, to raise their profile slightly and perhaps make the case for electoral reform, but I would only do this if I very much believed in that person/party such that I thought giving them a bit of a morale boost was more important than actually influencing the result. Given that you say you’re not sure who to vote for, I suspect you’re not in this situation.

      **Gosh, this would be rather easier to discuss in a non-CW thread. 😛

      • HaraldN says:

        Hmm, well I suppose the question I am really asking is “How do I determine a political party’s fitness to rule”.

        I’ve done some online tests to figure out how my opinions match with the available likely to win parties, but the matches go between 1/3 and 2/3. Given that such online tests are likely quite noisy (and just because something is agreed doesn’t mean it will be pushed actively), there’s a good chance any choice is below half agreement (half agreement being a likely gain of 0).

        The conclusion from this is that I am not suited to rule, or none of the political parties are. And since they carry the burden of ideology, and I carry the burden of being unwise it’s not obvious which is which.

        Asking if it went well/badly in past is a good suggestion, but hard question to answer since I don’t have access to the alternative history branch where someone else ruled, and humans are bad at disregarding certain pieces of evidence when making a decision.

        I realize this become a very large question, and I’m not looking for a perfect answer, just something in the right direction.

        I suppose it is also safe to mention that it is the Swedish election to which I refer (probably not hard to guess if anyone tried anyway).

        • fion says:

          I don’t agree that half agreement would be a likely gain of 0. If the current president is The Dark Lord Sauron and his main opponent is some guy called Tim whose education policy is pretty rubbish but you agree with what he says about the environment, then even if you have a less than 50% agreement with Tim, you should definitely still vote for him because he’s not intent on plunging your world into darkness.

          So I would say that you shouldn’t worry about the absolute magnitude of the match, but the relative match for different parties. Is there one party that you get a higher match with than the others? If so, vote for that one.

          If there’s two parties that both come to a similar score, then you could try looking at their actual manifestos and see which one you’re more impressed with. See which policies they emphasise and see how you feel about them.

          I agree that looking at past performance is far from perfect for the reason you say, but I think in the absence of other approaches it’s better than nothing.

          • HaraldN says:

            I think gain of 0 is correct, but of course one must remember that a gain of 0 is better than a loss of 100, so your argument still stands.

            Looking at past performance (or judging future performance based on manifesto) is also especially tricky in sweden, where no party ever rules alone.

            A difficult task to be sure.

          • fion says:


            I don’t really want to split hairs, but I still disagree. What do you mean by “gain”? I was thinking “improvement relative to the status quo” or “improvement relative to if the other party had won” in which case I think I’m right. Are you saying something like “improvement relative to some hypothetical situation where a party that I agreed with on 50% of their platform won”?

            How likely is it that the alliances that currently exist in the Riksdag will be the same ones after the next election? If they were (broadly) the same, which one would you support more? (Probs best not to actually answer to avoid breaking the CW ban.)

            If they are likely to be the same, then I think you should choose whichever party in your favourite alliance you like best.

            If they are likely to not be the same, then I think you should vote for whichever of S and M you like best. (I see that SD are just ahead of M in the polls, but I think they’re less likely to be able to form a coalition.)

            If you genuinely don’t know which party you “like best” then I think it’s worth going for a low-variance option, which will be to vote for either the larger party in the currently ruling coalition, or the larger party of the main opposition coalition, so again either S or M. Choosing which is hard. Pro status-quo or anti status-quo? Not really sure what else to say.

          • HaraldN says:

            You’ve been helpful though.

            I was thinking gain relative to status quo I guess. Laws that I don’t like being implemented -> loss, laws I do like -> gain.

            The main blocs are likely to be the same. There is a slight chance SD might split the right bloc and join with M and KD, and slight chance S will split it and join with L and C, but both are unlikely.

    • Aapje says:


      The smart strategy depends heavily on your electoral system, the expected behavior of other voters and such. It also depends on your goals/desires. Do you mostly want your pet issue to be addressed, do you mostly like the status quo or do you heavily detest it, etc? Without knowing the country you are in or your goals, it is impossible to give good advice.

      At the level of detail you have given, the best advice I can give is: vote for the party where your vote is most likely to achieve the outcome you prefer.

  17. cfanbc says:

    A lot of people oppose Facebook or Google using user data for profit. Wouldn’t the natural response be for some movement or organisation to intentionally populate their data set with fake users, fake queries, and fake posts? Obviously there are plenty of fake Facebook profile already, but I’m talking about an attempt to do it on such a scale that would cause a lot of doubt to spread about the possibility of finding any signal in the noise.

    • arlie says:

      What would it take for advertisers to stop paying for the ‘eyeballs’, real and fake? Facebook will laugh all the way to the bank if their viewership statistics are inflated by bots creating bogus users, *unless* the advertisers reduce what they are willing to pay per “user”, by enough that the total face book receives is less than what they are already receiving.

      I haven’t heard anything about e.g. advertisers refusing to pay for ads that are never viewed, e.g. because the user is using ad block technology. Maybe there are technical reasons why they aren’t even billed in that particular case. But OTOH, maybe they are just as gullible as those who give (real) data to facebook in exchange for being subjected to an algorithm clearly designed to create addiction.

      • Matt M says:

        I haven’t heard anything about e.g. advertisers refusing to pay for ads that are never viewed, e.g. because the user is using ad block technology.

        This is definitely a thing. That’s why every website either blocks adblockers, or annoyingly begs you to turn them off.

      • beleester says:

        Advertisers track the click-through rate and the conversion rate (how often showing an ad leads the user to actually click on the ad, and how often a click on an ad turns into a purchase). There are various things you can do to identify where a user is coming from when they land on your page and which ad sent them there. That allows them to judge if the ads are actually bringing in enough users to be worth the cost.

        So if you create enough bots to double the ad views, advertisers will notice that they’re paying for twice as many eyeballs but haven’t gotten twice the sales, and maybe they reconsider paying for Facebook ads because it’s not worth the money anymore.

        However, I’m not sure that bots would cause such a problem in practice, because a bot isn’t going to be generating page views like a human. Humans go onto Facebook frequently and browse around because they want to see what their friends are up to. Bots don’t do that – they want to set up a human-looking profile, and then forget about it.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          How many bots deliberately “click” on ads to throw off the advertiser’s numbers?

          • beleester says:

            It’s common enough for Google to put some work into detecting robo-clicks, although I can’t put a number on it. They have an entire FAQ on invalid clicks. It makes sense that it would happen – if you’re hosting ads on your site, and you get a bot to click on them for you, that means you make more money off of ads (at the advertiser’s expense).

            Doing just to mess with an advertiser you really don’t like? Probably less common. Although I once saw someone joking about how they always click on a certain candidate’s campaign ads, because each click-through costs them a few pennies. “It’s like a reverse donation!”

      • Nornagest says:

        What would it take for advertisers to stop paying for the ‘eyeballs’, real and fake?

        Six or eight mg/kg of cyanide ought to do it.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Trying to bilk online advertisers with fake traffic is approximately as old as online advertising. See wiki on ad fraud. The big online advertising companies have pretty much spent their whole existences in state of continual war against this, and they’ve succeeded well enough to stay in business this long.

    • beleester says:

      Mass-producing fake posts that look like real human posts basically boils down to passing a Turing Test, so I think this is more complicated than it sounds.

      Also, I’m not sure you can even get the necessary scale without being a tech giant yourself, since there are about 2 billion active Facebook users up against whatever server farm you can buy for yourself (which is definitely not going to make a profit). And if you want to do this quickly rather than waiting a decade or so for the bots to establish themselves, it’ll be obvious what you’re doing when Facebook suddenly gains a few billion users overnight.

      It might be possible with enough effort, but it’s definitely more effort than can be mustered by the small group of people who care about online anonymity enough to do something about it.

      (And those people have probably decided that simply not creating a Facebook account is easier than trying to jam the entire system.)

      • Matt M says:

        Yeah, to make this work, you’d have to be better/faster/more efficient at faking accounts than Facebook is at detecting and dealing with fake accounts.

        And given the massive scale, existing infrastructure, and huge financial incentives Facebook has… it seems unlikely that a bunch of uppity consumers are going to defeat them in this war.

  18. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    It seems reasonable. It doesn’t need for any new hardware to be invented. It’s just cranes, computers, and low-quality concrete blocks.

    This bit nerd-sniped one of my friends, so it seemed reasonable to post it here– how could you store and move a season’s worth of energy?

    “The third category doesn’t exist yet. In theory, yet-to-be-invented, extra-cheap technologies could store months worth of energy—in the range of tens or hundreds of thousands of MWh—which would be used to deal with interseasonal demands. For example, Mumbai hits peak consumption in the summer when air conditioners are on full blast, whereas London peaks in winters because of household heating. Ideally, energy captured in one season could be stored for months during low-use seasons, and then deployed later in the high-use seasons.”

    • helloo says:

      The issues here are often with scale and cost, not possibility.

      Physically (just expand this thing or the hydro-pump thing to build entire pyramids or large lakes – there’s concepts to use the Sahara desert as a large globally used solar plant, why can’t they do something similar to make a large lake battery).
      Chemically (possibly processing things to fuel -ie hydrolysis of water to hydrogen and oxygen – both fuels)
      Thermal (no idea)
      Biologically (lots of trees and biomass I guess?)
      Nuclear (less than 0 ideas)

    • The Nybbler says:

      I expect the power of that storage system is too low to be practical (you’d need too many cranes to really make a difference). Very cool though.

      There used to be a really cool phase-change based system for storing energy, but it kinda worked backwards. In the winter, you’d let ice freeze outside, then cut out blocks and store them in an insulating material. In the summer, use ice blocks directly for cooling/refrigeration.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      I would think that instead of cranes some sort of conveyor belt system would be better in the end. It is a good idea though. And not just summer vs. winter, there are peak use and peak generation issues with most renewables. So you can stack during the day for solar, and go down during the night.

    • Lambert says:

      I don’t see the advantage of stacking concrete over building a giant water tower.

      To heat London in winter, pump/exchange heat up from the tube, which is too hot.

      • Nornagest says:

        It’s probably cheaper to build a million tons of concrete blocks than to build a water tower big enough to hold a million tons of water, especially if it doesn’t have to be very good concrete.

      • hls2003 says:

        I assume the advantage is that concrete has a much greater density than water, and in this situation physical density correlates with energy density.

        That said, this sounds a lot like the “gravity train” energy storage concept, except with more vulnerability to high winds and weather. I suppose the advantage is that it doesn’t require natural elevation differences in the terrain to make it work.

        • Lambert says:

          Concrete isn’t that dense. only 2.4x as much as water.

          • hls2003 says:

            Their proposed crane-tower is already something like 400 feet tall. A much larger water tower to hold the same mass seems like an engineering challenge. Plus, water has a habit of leaking out of structures; concrete blocks are more likely to stay put.

          • CatCube says:


            Yeah, but if the water does decide to go walkabout, it’s going to be a lot less tragic than if the concrete blocks decide to do so*.

            As I said in my post below, I’m not sure that you won’t develop tension (with no reinforcement to carry it) in one face of that tower during a design-basis event.

            * Edit to add: obviously, if the water lets loose all at once in a gross tank failure, it could easily be just as bad. I was thinking a leak, as you alluded, vs. displacement of the blocks.

          • hls2003 says:


            Fair enough. My biggest concern just looking at their video is that the tower doesn’t look obviously stable to me, especially if you get high-speed winds or other weather buffeting both the crane and the blocks. But I’m no structural engineer.

          • Nornagest says:

            Make them out of olivine and they’ll be denser, plus they’ll sequester CO2 as they weather.

            (This won’t actually work, thanks to surface area issues, but it might help get funding.)

          • CatCube says:


            … My biggest concern just looking at their video is that the tower doesn’t look obviously stable to me, especially if you get high-speed winds or other weather buffeting both the crane and the blocks….

            I am a structural engineer, and I’m thinking the exact same thing.

          • Lambert says:

            The trick would be to build a water tower with many small compartments.
            This would provide redundancy, reduce the damage caused by a failure, and lower the water pressure compared to a single column of water.

            To avoid the concrete tower falling over, you should make the bottom much bigger than the top. Rectangular blocks would also be more stable than cylinders.
            Of course, this would take up more space, so you’d want to build it in the desert, but next to a city where the power is needed. The outskirts of Cairo, perhaps?

          • hls2003 says:


            I’m not an expert, but I think that your large, segmented water tower might compare unfavorably to pumped storage. Granted that pumped storage is expensive because doing anything underground is expensive (which is why most major pumped-storage projects are in abandoned mines where the earth has already been moved). But I would think it has to be a lot safer and more stable than having the water 600 feet in the air, and that decreases risk and cost on the back end.

          • CatCube says:


            The problem with making the tower larger at the bottom (and you’re right that’s the obvious solution–that’s how gravity dams work) is that you’ll dramatically reduce the mass at upper levels, which is where you’re making your money in terms of energy storage. It feels like that should be a second-power relationship but I’d have to do the math for the amount of energy stored in a cone and a cylinder of the same volume (probably starting with an assumption of a 0.4 or 0.5:1 slope on the sides of the cone)

          • idontknow131647093 says:


            The Potential energy stored in a column is:

            eP = p*A*h*g*S

            p= density
            h = height
            g= gravity
            S= distance of work (in this case h/2)

            this can be simplified to


            where M is mass.

            A cone has a S of h/4 instead of h/2, but a cone of the same mass of a cylinder will have a base 3 times as large (and sqrt(3) times as wide), but will store only 1/2 the potential energy.

          • Lambert says:

            Well my joke about the Pyramids was far too subtle.
            Maybe I should pitch it to the ‘History’ channel.

          • AnarchyDice says:

            Well, they were built for energy storage… just spiritual energy/wealth storage for the afterlife.

            If we did dissemble them this way, would that make them the longest stored human-made energy?

    • CatCube says:

      I’m not totally sure that tower is stable under extreme load events. I’m not going to spend the time to look at it at work, and might take an hour or so tonight.

      • CatCube says:

        I did do a little bit of analysis. When I actually started digging into the pictures, it turns out that the aspect ratio (h/D) of the tower is less than I thought, which makes it much more stable.

        I assumed that each barrel is 77.16 kips (equivalent in weight to 35 tonnes) as stated in the article. I further assumed that each barrel has an aspect ratio equivalent to a 55-gal drum, since that’s about what they looked like.

        For a barrel of 77.16 kips and a unit weight of concrete of 0.150 kips/ft³, each barrel needs to be 514.4 ft³, and given that the height is 1.5 the diameter, that comes out to a barrel of 7.59′ in diameter and 11.4′ tall.

        Each level had 102 barrels, by counting the picture at 1:20 in the video. There were 25 levels of drums. That means that the weight of each level is 7870 kips, and the total weight of the tower is 196800 kips. The height is 25×11.4’=285′. However, per @idontknow131647093 comment at 20:40, that comes out to a total stored energy of P=196800 kips×285’/2=28.04×10⁶ ft-kip, and with 2.65×10⁶ ft-kip/MWh, that comes out to 10.6 MWh.­

        Getting 20 MWh with the 102 barrels/level requires 35 levels, which works out to a tower 399′ tall, right at the 120m mark they have for the crane. So the promised energy storage with the tower they picture will require a larger crane, to avoid two-blocking it when placing the top rows. Maybe there’s some playing with the aspect ratio of the barrels that makes it work.

        The diameter of the tower worked out to about 100′ (13 barrel diameters across, from their video at 1:26). That works out to an aspect ratio of 4:1. Global stability works fine for a 170 mph wind per ASCE 7-10 (Risk Category I–300-yr event–in Florida per figure 26.5-1C, Exposure Category C, no terrain effects Kzt=1.0, and Kd=0.95 for a hexagonal tank per Table 26.6-1).

        The lateral load works out to about 4060 kips, which only pushes the resultant about 3.3′ off center. I didn’t check local forces, but I don’t think you’ll have much force trying to pull individual barrels out. Note that I didn’t check vortex shedding or anything, because that’s a more complex analysis than I feel like doing right now, but it can generate some large deflections in the right conditions.

        I might play with seismic loading tomorrow, but that’s a lot more complicated because of all the assumptions you’ll have to make about the fundamental period of this thing–as well as picking where it’s built. The maximum considered earthquake in California vs. the Midwest will make a bigger difference than differing wind conditions across the US.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Thanks for doing the work. I was wondering about earthquakes.

          Optimal height of stacks/crane doesn’t strike me as obvious. More/shorter stacks means using more land. I’m assuming (pure intuition, not math) that moving a block up or down involves the same amount of energy regardless of the height of the stack. Or would there be less energy wasted for shorter stacks because less time is spent on moving blocks?

          • CatCube says:

            Thanks for doing the work. I was wondering about earthquakes.

            I’m more interested in the earthquakes too, TBH. Seismic is more likely to be a problem, but it’s waaaay more complicated than wind. I was about two gin and tonics in to get a basic wind analysis last night, and it still took until about midnight. I’ll see if I can pull something together for seismic tonight.

            I’m still not sure how to work with the problem of determining exactly where you want to do the analysis. California is densely populated, and this kind of twee device is likely to be attractive there, but it’s also kind of not giving this idea a fair shot because the seismic loads are so likely to work against you. OTOH, trying to look at, say, northern Minnesota that’s in the middle of the geologically-stable-for-like-a-billion-years Laurentian shield is making things too easy for the tower.

            More/shorter stacks means using more land.

            I don’t think that land use is going to be the long pole in the tent. Crane capacity drops off with pick radius, and it drops off dramatically. For example, the Terex CTT721-40 has a listed capacity of 40 tonnes, but if you dig into the actual data sheet that’s at a radius of 18m (59′, or juuust at the face of the tower). At 24m (78′), or only 3 barrel radii outside of the tower, you’re at a capacity of 29.57 tonnes, or not enough to pick up a barrel. And if you can’t reach very far, you’re going to be stacking a lot of barrels on other barrels, so you’re not going to get the energy release of letting the barrels all the way to the ground. (Your “battery” will run out when the “stockpile” stack is equal in height to your “battery” stack, and if you’re not reaching far it won’t take long for this to happen.)

            Now, since you’re talking a purpose-built crane instead of an off-the-shelf construction crane you can work on extending these. You can include opposing cranes acting as counterweights for each other somewhat, but you’re then limited to making picks exactly opposing each other. It’s going to be a lot fiddlier than the article and video promise.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            If I understand you correctly, shorter cranes have less reach.

            This would probably mean that if you have shorter stacks, you need more cranes, so the economic/energy calculations get more complicated.

          • Beck says:

            @ CatCube

            I’m still not sure how to work with the problem of determining exactly where you want to do the analysis.

            If you design for the upper bound of Seismic Design Category C (and assume a Site Class D), that eliminates all of the really high-risk areas but likely leaves most of the country. It’s a fairly arbitrary cutoff, but seems like a decent compromise.

          • CatCube says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            To a certain extent, shorter (I mean in height from the ground) cranes will have more reach. The tower supporting the crane has its own limits, and above a certain height it will start to vary with the inverse of the square of height. Off-the-shelf designs will have this taken into account, and they’ll usually set their max limits accordingly. Bracing the tower crane, whether off the building under construction or with guys, will allow extremely high cranes, but you obviously can’t do either of those here.


            I’m not totally sure what you’re saying…determining the Site Class is upstream of determining the Seismic Design Category (SDC is based off of the final SDS and SD1, both of which are adjusted from the mapped spectral values based on the Site Class). So you can have Site Class D soils with an SDC of A if Ss and S1 are small enough, and you could theoretically have SDC D with modest Ss and S1 if your soil sucks enough.**

            Do you mean just take the maximum limits for SDS and SD1 that put you in SDC C? I’m assuming a low risk category (unoccupied structure in the middle of nowhere), so that would be SDS=0.5g and SD1=0.2g

            ** Edit to add: I guess when I think of it further the adjustment coefficients aren’t enough to guarantee you can reach any SDC from any Site Class with arbitrary spectral values.

          • Beck says:


            Do you mean just take the maximum limits for SDS and SD1 that put you in SDC C? I’m assuming a low risk category (unoccupied structure in the middle of nowhere), so that would be SDS=0.5g and SD1=0.2g

            That’s what I meant. And you’re right that, if I’m pulling coefficients out of the air, the Site Class doesn’t matter and I shouldn’t have mentioned it in the comment.
            SDC D feels like the line where seismic design gets a lot more restrictive (a lot of lateral systems go from No Limit to Not Permitted between C & D), so it seemed like it might be an appropriate place to make the cut.

            EDIT: Looking at the table of Seismic Coefficients for Nonbuilding Structures not Similar to Buildings under ‘all other nonreinforced masonry structures not similar to buildings’, the height limit in SDC C is No Limit and for SDC D is Not Permitted. That may not be an exact match for this pile of things, but it isn’t too dissimilar.

          • CatCube says:

            Just some random thoughts:

            Well, to be really strict, no tables have “Unreinforced Masonry Structure”, so there’s no column to have a maximum height, or NL. (Or, I guess, NP…)

            This type of structure is really pushing ASCE 7 outside of its bounds, anyway. Technically, I don’t think that either it or the IBC apply in any meaningful sense, and I don’t know how an AHJ would classify it if you did try to build it. If they decided to use the IBC, I don’t know that this would be permitted, as an unreinforced masonry structure 400′ high!

            Engineer Manuals for dams are probably a better guide, but for the most part we still defer to the site for response spectra, unless we have site-specific analyses on hand.

            It really is a weird animal, being a segmented structure with no continuity. I don’t know that you can count on any ductility, so if I do end up doing an analysis, I’m going to assume R=1.0. I’m also thinking to calculate the period of the structure using Roark & Young for a uniform cantilever, I assuming an annulus, and E=57000*SQRT(f’c). I suspect that the period will quite nicely fit at <Ts, and sit right on top of the response spectrum.

            The 5% damping assumed in ASCE 7 (or other sources of ground motions) is probably not all that accurate, since small movements of individual barrels restrained by friction will probably dissipate some energy that you wouldn't get in a true frame. On the other hand, you're also not dissipating any energy plastically. Even in dams, you can accept at least a little tension, because you're probably not going to have individual pieces start wandering away from the upstream face, leaving more individual pieces above unsupported.

            I'm thinking the limit state would be loss of compression on the extreme fiber (i.e., keep the resultant in the middle third). Even that might be unconservative as individual barrels being pulled out by their own inertia when there's no longer enough normal force above them to keep them in place is a consideration.

            Edit: saw your edit after my post–I’m looking at ASCE 7-10, Table 15.4-2, and the break is NL for A&B, and >C is NP. Also, it still technically requires the structure to be IAW 14.4.1, which directs you to comply with TMS402/ACI 530/ASCE5… I don’t do much masonry, but it would surprise me to find that this meets that standard!

            * Further edit: I had originally incorrectly recalled that there was a height limit and put this as “Unreinforced Masonry Structure >160′”, then deleted the 160′, rather than the whole statement as not technically true, though I do think that regardless of it being there it’s probably not what they were thinking of when they drafted that table!.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I believe the Philadelphia City Hall is well over 400′ and made of unreinforced masonry. Of course it’s grandfathered; no one would let you build it today.

          • CatCube says:

            The Washington Monument, too. Neither will probably fare well during a design basis earthquake, which is why they won’t let you build them today. The Washington Monument is undergoing some retrofits, but there’s only so much you can do.

            The tower discussed here at least has the advantage of being unoccupied in normal use, so the risk to personnel is low (presuming you’re not in the middle of a city or something).

          • Beck says:

            I’d agree that this is well outside of anything covered in ASCE 7 or IBC. It’s also well beyond the little I’ve read on unreinforced masonry design (that was pretty focused on arches and vaults and I didn’t dig very deep into it).
            I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

          • CatCube says:

            I did a very basic analysis, after deciding that a more complex analysis would require a great deal of computer modeling. What I did get I’m not sure I trust. I expected this tower to fail, but it failed more spectacularly than I was expecting, to the point I suspect I made an error. However, I’ve reached maximum caring at this point tonight.

            As before, I assumed a tower consisting of 35 levels of 102 barrels/level; each barrel was 7.59′ in diameter and 11.4′ tall. That gives a tower with total weight 275450 kips (or 8554 kslug, if you’re interested in mass).

            As we discussed, I did use SDS=0.5 and SD1=0.2. I assumed each cross-section was an annulus, with outside diameter 100′ and inside diameter 57.3′. That came up with a second moment of area of 4.52×10⁶ ft⁴. I assumed f’c=3 ksi (at the low end of modern structural concrete), which gives a Youngs modulus of 3120 ksi. I calculated the period of vibration of the tower using an equation from continuum mechanics (from Roark & Young), but got what I think is an unreasonably low number of T=0.0092 sec (or I outright made an error). Upon reflection, this structure so abjectly violates the assumptions used to develop that equation that I’m not comfortable using anything below T0, which pushes towards using a lateral load coefficient Cs=SDS=0.5g

            The section on nonbuilding structures, 15.4, does have an equation for the base shear, V=0.3*SDS*W*Ie, for structures with very small periods (T<0.06s); however, the commentary states that this period was chosen in part because it is very unlikely for any structure to have a period that small. Since I agree that this is unlikely, I went with the assumption that T=Ts, or Cs=SDS=0.5g. The tower is very regular in plan and has no irregularities, so I think that a basic screening with the Equivalent Lateral Force procedure isn't too unreasonable.

            That comes up with a lateral load of 0.5*275450=137700 kips, which I assumed to act at the midpoint of the tower (200'). Since there is no good criteria in the building code, I elected to screen this for rotational stability as outlined in Engineer Manual 1110-2-2100, Stability Analysis of Concrete Structures, Paragraph 3-9 (A more detailed treatment is in EM 1110-2-2200, para 4-5, but the process is the same).

            The overturning analysis looks at the location of the resultant foundation force; if it's in the middle third of the foundation, the whole foundation is in compression (basic foundation mechanics). The EMs permit the resultant to be outside the middle third for unusual or extreme load events, but there's also an assumption that the structure will stay together (if not suffer severe damage) even if part of it goes into tension. Since I don't think that the barrels will stay in place if there isn't sufficient normal force from above, I think a reasonable limit state would be for the entire cross-section to stay in compression (actually, it should stay above some minimum, since low but non-zero vertical loads will still permit the barrels to move).

            When summing moments about the toe of the structure, the resultant is well outside the base, much less outside the middle third. It ends up being almost 50' outside of the tower; as a practical matter this means that the tower is grossly unstable against overturning at that level of lateral load.

            Now, this thing isn't capable of holding together to reach that point, so figuring out exactly how and when failure will occur will require a detailed nonlinear dynamic analysis. I don't have the tools to do that on my own time, and even doing it in the office would be tough. It's not immediately apparent to me how you'd go about modeling this. Using compression-only finite elements for the barrels is a start, but how you'd interconnect the nodes to correctly model the behavior globally is going to be fiendish.

            I did figure out what lateral load would keep the entire cross-section in compression; it's about 0.08 g, which is very small and only appropriate for the Midwest and most of the Great Plains for normal design loads.

            You may be able to argue that a lower design earthquake is appropriate. The building code uses the 4975-yr event as the maximum considered earthquake, since that has a 1% chance of occurring in 50 years. This was chosen for life safety reasons, and there's an argument that allowing this to collapse at a lower quake is reasonable since it's unlikely to kill anybody directly. However, if it's part of the electricity infrastructure, knocking out a major energy source may or may not be acceptable depending on how the grid is connected. If the power grid is sufficient to bring in generation from outside the affected area and it's just a matter of reconstructing power lines, that may be acceptable. But if these are in wide use to maintain stability of the grid it may not be.

          • bean says:

            SSC: Rationality, Psychiatry, Battleships and now Structural Engineering.

            I only understood about a third of this conversation, but it was interesting, and seems like the sort of thing which makes a good effortpost. Thanks to you both.

          • Beck says:

            Oh, man; that seems…less than ideal.
            Unreinforced solid masonry analysis like this is tough for me to get my head around. Material properties kind of go out the window since it has no strength in tension between units and will almost never get near crushing (maybe toe crushing at a wall base due to out-of-plane loads). So you wind up with something that can be idealized as having infinite strength one way and zero strength the other and everything is dependent on geometry (arches) and friction (walls or this thing).

            You did a much better job with this than I could have managed and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. I appreciate you taking the time to look at it properly.

          • CatCube says:


            I kind of drifted more and more into inside-baseball as that went on. If there’s interest, it might be worth an effortpost to explain some of this further.

          • bean says:


            I was thinking more of doing “Basics of structural engineering”, whatever that happens to look like, not necessarily this specific case. Things like the stuff on limits on steel reinforcement in concrete, of which I’m sure there are dozens.

          • CatCube says:


            I’m in exactly the same place you are. I just got there by doing a couple of calculations and getting results so strange that I realized they couldn’t possibly be right. But yeah, the high strength in one direction and no tensile behavior in the other is even difficult to account for with FEM. But it’s not quite infinite horizontally; if the barrels on one face move, the barrels at the middle will move outward faces at the springline will move outwards unrestrained, so you’ll develop “tension” down the middle of this thing, just like in a split cylinder test on concrete.

            As I said to @johan_larson, below, I don’t know that this is “properly”. I did chew through a quick ELF procedure, but it’s still pretty ugly and probably not the right tool.

            I learned something, though, so I call that a victory.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I mentioned this to one of my friends, and he was concerned that the low quality concrete could mean that the bottom third of a block might fall off as it was being moved.

          • CatCube says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            That’s probably the least concern that I’d have. You need a minimum amount of reinforcing steel just to control temperature cracking. That steel is more than sufficient to keep these together under their own self-weight when distributed in a cage around the outside perimeter.

        • johan_larson says:

          Cool post. Glad to hear from a real professional.

          I’m surprised to see an analysis like this that doesn’t use SI units. I thought all of science and engineering had switched over at this point.

          • CatCube says:

            Cool post. Glad to hear from a real professional.

            Well, at the end of the day it turned out to be about 5 pages of hand calcs, using relatively simple arithmetic.

            The analysis was a lot more limited that I was hoping, because as I dug into it I realized doing it to anything more than a very approximate level would require an extreme amount of time and computing effort. Most of the tools we use today assume certain behaviors from the materials we construct, and these large stacked blocks violate those assumptions to the point that accounting for it in other than general terms is difficult.

            I do work with dams and appurtenant structures, but even there we can assume that if you develop tension in a face that the structure will hang together more or less. The building codes, which give you standards for new buildings, have requirements for how materials will behave throughout a loading cycle.

            For example, there are upper and lower bounds on reinforcement that can be placed in a concrete beam. The upper bound requirements come from the fact that as you put more steel into a bending member, it does get stronger, but how it responds to increasing load changes. A concrete beam is considered to have failed when the concrete crushes. Given a particular cross-section, when the amount of reinforcing steel is less than a certain limit (called the balanced reinforcement ratio, and a beam with less than this is referred to as “underreinforced”), the steel will yield before the concrete crushes. This produces large deflections and obvious cracking before failure, referred to as “ductile failure”. When the steel is above the balanced reinforcement ratio (overreinforced), the concrete crushes before the steel reaches its yield point, and failures are sudden (brittle failure). Current design codes require that beams be unreinforced, both because incipient failures are likely to be much more visible, even to untrained building occupants (this is referred to as “running time”), and because these large deflections provide structural properties that are desirable in earthquakes. For members that are primarily in compression, you obviously can’t do this, but there are other requirements to mitigate some of the downsides and provide known behavior.

            The loading code I was using (ASCE 7) has the assumption of ductile behavior pretty tightly wound into it. So I have to be careful using it for a structure that has really strange not-quite-ductile behavior. The blocks separating wouldn’t provide ductility as commonly understood, but their ability to separate means it isn’t quite brittle either–though a separation means that they’re likely to fall out, and it’s not obvious to me how to handle that.

            I also can’t rule out that there is a simple analysis for this kind of structure that I don’t know about due to ignorance, since I’ve not worked with anything like this before.

            I’m surprised to see an analysis like this that doesn’t use SI units. I thought all of science and engineering had switched over at this point.

            Civil engineering in the US still uses US Customary. The road design standards (the AASHTO Green Book) tried to go all metric back in the late ’90s, IIRC, and were forced by pushback from industry to go back to US Customary in the next edition.

            It’s going to be feet, inches, and pounds on the drawings. Doing it in metric and converting back and forth is asking for a mistake* for no real benefit, since US Customary is perfectly rational within itself**. The only real problem is having a factor of 12 between feet and inches, and since I’m not using a slide rule, I don’t lose accuracy from the additional slide movement. It costs me nothing to throw the 12 into the calculator with everything else.

            Since I don’t use metric day-to-day (and doubt I could find a metric steel or concrete design code anywhere in my office if you put a gun to my head), that’s my default mode since it’s what I have an intuitive feel for. Hence, it gets used here. I was really pissed off when that Terex data sheet didn’t have feet or kips (or short tons), since I had to
            convert the meters to feet to get a feel for how far the reach was.

            * The failure that everybody likes to cite, the Mars Climate Orbiter, occurred due to a missed conversion. If you work entirely in one system or the other, it’s not going to make much difference.

            ** There have been some workarounds that are in common use to make this so. The biggest you see here, the kip, is simply a common term for “kilopound”, or 1000 lbs. The other is defining a unit of mass, the slug, as the mass accelerated 1 ft/s² by a force of 1 lb. Using slugs means that you can use mass in its own units without carrying g through, just like working with kg and newtons. Because of this, “lb” unadorned in structural engineering practice almost always means a unit of force (unless you’re using something like Mathcad that forces you to use lbf). I’ve never seen it used to mean mass (again, except for Mathcad), but I can’t rule out there’s a metric partisan somewhere out there trying to make a point.

    • Ketil says:

      Related: using a train of railway carriages filled with rocks/cement. Energy storage of 12.5 MWh is about 140 Tesla S’es (90kWh each), so at USD 50M, it is close to ten times the price. Plus maintenance. And that’s using a complete expensive luxury car as energy storage, not just its battery.

      My (overly rash) heuristic is to file this in my overflowing bin of wishful thinking that doesn’t solve anything, but attracts investors with hopes of government subsidies.

    • Deiseach says:

      I don’t know, this seems like a “digging holes and filling them in again” kind of proposal. I imagine the idea is releasing all the kinetic energy by knocking over the blocks? I really want to see the model in action as it just seems too much on the perpetual motion machine side to be true. Surely there must be energy loss due to the working of the cranes needing to pick out the blocks to let them fall, for instance?

      I don’t know. I’d like to think it was this simple but I have the nagging feeling scaling it up will mean a lot of problems become apparent.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I imagine the idea is releasing all the kinetic energy by knocking over the blocks?

        Did you read the article, it’s probably more clear (I thought you did not like videos)? The electric motor that powers the crane that is used to lift the blocks will generate electricity when the block “falls” back to earth. Falling is quite right though. It is lowered by the crane. The energy returned is 85% of the energy input. The idea of rotary motion and magnets generating electricity is really old, and it’s the same kind of technology that allows electric hybrid vehicles to recapture kinetic energy during braking.

      • lvlln says:

        I don’t think they’re claiming that this is a perpetual motion machine that won’t lose energy that’s stored – rather, the claim seems to be that it’s a particularly cheap and efficient way to store energy. The article claims an 85% efficiency rate – i.e. for every 100 MWh of energy stored, it can produce 85 MWh of energy when it’s released – which would make it somewhat more efficient than hydro pumped storage which is already very common (FYI they both use the same principle of storing energy as potential energy by pushing mass to higher places, and then converting that potential energy to kinetic energy and thus generating electricity by letting that mass fall by gravity). But pump storage is also more limited in geographic constraints.

        The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so we’ll see if they can actually deliver on the promise of more flexible, cheaper, more efficient energy storage. But in principle, there’s nothing wrong with it – “digging holes and filling them in again” – with energy lost in the process – is just how energy storage works.

        • Deiseach says:

          I think I know what was niggling at me, and it’s covered in earlier comments. Plainly, the higher you can build your stacks, the better but there’s going to be a limit to how high you can go. And that also means that as you move blocks off the stack, you’re going to reach a layer where the energy output is decreasing (whether that’s half-way down or three-quarters I have no idea). So there will be a layer or layers of blocks that it is not worth unstacking, and the energy you used to put those foundational layer(s) in place is going to remain tied up.

          This “we can get 85% of stored energy back” sounds great but I really do wonder if, in reality, it would get that high.

          • beleester says:

            I would expect that they don’t count the “foundation” as stored energy at all, in the same way that a hydro plant doesn’t “store” the energy used to build the dam. That’s just a fixed cost of building the facility in the first place.

            Also, the “foundation” is going to be the same height regardless of how tall the tower gets. If it’s worthwhile to unstack a block 3 layers high, then it’ll always be worthwhile to unstack that block no matter how many blocks you took off the top before it. So once you’ve got the foundation, all the blocks you lift higher than that are gravy.

            In fact, don’t even make the foundations out of blocks, just make a big concrete pedestal.

          • Deiseach says:

            beleester, if they had a foundation like that in the model, I think I might take it more seriously. As it is, it looks like a model – something that works on a small scale, but if you’re seriously talking about this as mass energy storage, there would appear to be a lot of bugs to be worked out.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        The energy is released (with some losses) by lowering the blocks with the crane.

      • AnarchyDice says:

        Any electrical motor not specifically designed to prevent it can be turned into a generator by turning its shaft. The trick will be in designing the system to tune the electricity generated from the up and down runs of the crane, but it isn’t much of a trick considering how intermittent wind power can be.

        Electrical Engineering Tangent: This actually becomes a concern in building design where big HVAC or equipment motors can cause issues during energy spikes because the spike might shut down the equipment but they are still spinning. They act like flywheels and put more energy back into the building from the “load side”. In effect, we have to design circuit breakers, wires, and the like for the worst case of an inrush of energy from both the utility side and load side at the same time.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Any electrical motor not specifically designed to prevent it can be turned into a generator by turning its shaft.

          Only permanent magnet motors. It’s slightly trickier for induction motors.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I hope to read this in the next few days, here is my pre registered complaint:. I expect that the article uses energy in a fungible way which is often a deal breaker for the efficiency gians. A simple example:. Not haiving AC and living the n Pennsylvania my ‘energy’ bills are much higher in the winter than the summer, but my winter energy bills are dominated by my natural gas bill, and gas is way more efficient at heating than turning gas into electricity. Storage efficiencies won’t make up for this, and when people cite cold areas perhaps being able to store off season energy thY are almost always talking electricity on one end and general energy use on the other.

      It is more plausible for AC heavy areas as they run off electricity but total potential gains are often exaggerated when applied across all seasons and energy platforms.

      • pjs says:

        Here’s one article ( saying that “as far north as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts” you can save energy by generating electricity in a high efficiency power plant then driving residential heat pumps, compared to residential gas furnaces. (Not so, they say, any further north, given current heat pump technology.)

        • The Nybbler says:

          Air source heat pumps are terrible in Pennsylvania, and certainly Massachusetts. The article says they’ve improved; I consider that as likely as clean coal.

          • pjs says:

            Ah well, I was reading about very-recent-year developments in commercially-available, so-called, Cold-Climate Heap Pumps and may have been too credulous.
            But I still don’t understand the parent comment’s complaint. Surely (?) no one is proposing to burn gas in summer to produce electricity, store it as potential energy, then later on regenerate electricity to heat houses. Even if the URL I gave was 100% right, that’s still 10-20% loss compared to just burning gas in winter (for any purpose, even those for which electricity is best). But the question is, can you save something like summer solar and regenerate electricity later to do good stuff. Unless both: the latest heat pumps are essentially useless everywhere in the region (not just _you_), AND heating is the overwhelming winter energy demand, how can this not be helpful? I just don’t understand the implicit comparison to “if we had gas, it would be more efficient” concern (but what does this even mean in this context?!). Unless one thinks the plan is to burn gas for electricity in summer and store it – which sounds nuts.

          • The Nybbler says:

            They’re suggesting burning gas in centralized high-efficiency power plants and using the electricity to drive heat pumps; they’re not talking about storing the energy in the summer. Once you have the heat pumps and a storage system you can of course store the energy in the summer if that makes sense, but it’s almost never going to make sense to store electricity produced from gas.

            Two articles in the sidebar, though, reflect my view in a nutshell.

            Just Two Minisplits Heat and Cool the Whole House

            Ductless Minisplits May Not Be As Efficient As We Thought

            The proposition in the first article’s headline is ludicrous (unless the house is both tiny and open. The second article (subtitle “New England researchers find that minisplits have lower air flow rates and lower COPs than expected”) is perhaps the inevitable correction.

            Heat-pump boosters have been swearing up and down that “really, these new heat pumps actually work when it gets below freezing” for decades. They still don’t.

          • baconbits9 says:

            But I still don’t understand the parent comment’s complaint. Surely (?) no one is proposing to burn gas in summer to produce electricity, store it as potential energy, then later on regenerate electricity to heat houses.

            The original complaint, which was mine, is about the seamless switching between energy and electricity to make the potential gains seem larger. They note that there is higher energy usage in cold weather climates in the winter as part of their discussion on the potential value of storing electricity off peak for peak usage, but they don’t actually note that electricity usage has a much smaller seasonal differential than energy usage due to people using gas (and a handful of other sources) to heat their homes. Because home heating with gas is much cheaper than with most other options you will not find as much room for carrying electricity across seasons.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          That link says that you can save energy but it explicitly says that you cannot save money in PA and MA, because the cost of a heat pump is so much more than the cost of a gas furnace.

          There are two advantages to using a heat pump further south than further north. One advantage is that the air is warmer, so the operation of the pump is more efficient. The other issue is the size of a heat pump. It is a reversible A/C that you use both in the summer and the winter. The cost of the pump is divided over both seasons. If your total heating is more than your total cooling, switching to a heat pump means buying more A/C than you need. In the South, you need an A/C and buying a heat pump is adding special features to it, but not enlarging it. If you live in an apartment building in the North, then you don’t need a lot of total heat and a heat pump is a reasonable choice, even though it is inefficient because of the cold air. But it is a terrible choice in a freestanding house in PA or MA. I have met a person with a heat pump in a freestanding house in PA, but he didn’t claim it was a good idea, just something that came with the house. I also know someone with a heat pump in MA, but just for the spring and fall, using gas for the winter.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            I’ve been hearing that the Dutch government is trying to encourage people to replace their gas-fired boilers with heat pumps (there is a plan to stop using natural gas by 2050, AFAIK because of the combination of CO2 emissions and complaints from people in the province of Groningen, where the gas fields are, about the effects of fracking).

            Uptake has been slower than expected- in fact, sales of new gas boilers went up last year, probably because people want to replace their boiler before sales are phased out (planned for 2021).

            Of course, @Aapje, please feel free to correct me if I;m wrong about any of this.

          • Aapje says:

            It has little to do with fracking, but rather with gas extraction causing subsidence and earthquakes that upset people and possibly severely damages buildings. However, many scientists do not seem convinced that this is the main cause for most building damage, but that other causes play a bigger role (subsidence and other building-damaging effects are common issues elsewhere in The Netherlands too, where the soil is peat or clay). Then again, lots of people in Groningen feel very unsafe due to the earthquakes.

            The Dutch government has recently decided to drastically reduce gas extraction, which in turn has led to a rather sudden desire to rapidly get rid of gas for cooking and heating. A problem is that relatively little thought has gone into (the suitability of) alternatives, that no decision has been made what alternatives people should use, that there is a lack of plans for collective solutions, whether to subsidize alternatives, etc.

            There is also the possibility to (partially) switch to Russian gas or such (although that requires conversion in an expensive factory, because Dutch gas is low caloric and Russian gas is high in calories). In fact, the Dutch government has the ambition to manage the distribution of Russian gas, through a system called the gas roundabout (gasrotonde in Dutch).

            Heat pumps only work for well insulated houses where low temperature radiators can be used. Also, the more efficient heat pumps use a well, but you can’t necessarily dig a well everywhere.

            A more suitable choice for many homes may be a hybrid system, where a heat pump is used in addition to a gas boiler, which drastically reduces gas usage.

            Anyway, I think that many Dutch citizens are being very rational by waiting for the Dutch politicians to stop acting like headless chickens and to instead come up with some proper long-term plans.

            PS. To indicate how sudden this change is: Dutch law still requires new housing to have a gas supply. So politicians went from ‘gas is standard’ to ‘no more gas’ without reasonable intermediate steps like: ‘let’s discourage gas use.’

    • Machine Interface says:

      It seems like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.

      This wheel, to be precise:

      • Lambert says:

        That loses energy constantly to friction.
        A big tower hangs around indefinitely.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Not really? At all? Unless you just mean “they are trying to store energy some way other than chemical/nuclear”.

        Flywheels store their energy kinetically and loses energy over time (absent a truly frictionless environment). In order to construct a flywheel that stores massive amounts of energy.

        This system stores energy strictly as (gravitational) potential. To the extent that this system does not fail, it is lossless over time.

        • Machine Interface says:

          I was more going for the pun, but in all seriousness I understand flywheels in a frictionless environment (true vacuum + magnetic bearings) are already widely used, extremely efficient, and a common way to store energy mechanically.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I believe the limiting factor of flywheels is the material from which the wheel is made, which imposes a top end on limit on how fast you can spin it, and therefore how much energy can be stored. But I’m not positive about that.

            But, I am fairly certain that storage generated electrical energy at power grid capacity is not a solved problem, otherwise people wouldn’t be so concerned about things like peak demand not coinciding with peak generation when using renewables. I don’t know why flywheels aren’t adequate for this, but I’m fairly certain they are not.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      You mentioned that crane systems suffer loss of load potential the longer the boom is. This seems axiomatic given a basic knowledge of levers.

      When we see truly massive lift crane systems, they are supported on two ends.

      Is their any good reason why a production version of this system wouldn’t have a multi-supported rail system of some sort for the lift motor? It seems like an obvious solution to me, as the whole thing would always be fixed in place. I’m sure for a demonstration system the easiest thing to do is take an “off the shelf” crane, but I would think a production version would be more tailored.

      • CatCube says:

        I took their picture as the proposal. Sure, using a gantry crane will minimize that particular problem. I don’t know if they were counting on being able to handle multiple weights at once for energy throughput, though. A gantry crane wouldn’t be able to do that. (Neither could a single off-the-shelf tower crane, for that matter.)

        • HeelBearCub says:

          A gantry crane wouldn’t be able to do that.

          Hmmm, I was more thinking about some sort of the circular support structure for the other end of a tower crane (I think that would be custom). I think a circular design is necessary to make this tower self supporting? Although I suppose a gantry of width equal to the diameter could do what a tower of length equal to the radius would. Not sure what that does to the maximum load, but I think it still increases it substantially? I think you could also add a third rail to the gantry system, put a tower in the middle, and have two motors?

          As to whether multiple weights are needed at once, I think you will need at least two available active in a system at any one time, just to ensure a consistent output/input when the motor is moving to the next weight. Although I suppose that can be handled in other ways.

          But, there isn’t anything that says you need multiple motors on one support system. You can have many of them. Then it just becomes about efficiency in build costs, I think.

          • CatCube says:

            I think you’re right about a circular track on the outside running around a center pivot as being a possible solution. I work with gantry and bridge cranes, and I had an image that popped into my head with little thought, and upon reflection your proposal is probably a better answer to the problem.

            For consistency of output, one other way is to have two separate towers operating in parallel, where you could ensure that at least one is always lifting while the other is rigging a new barrel. However, these would have to be operated as a single system to ensure that, and I assume they’d have to be located within some (powerline) distance of each other.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I think you’re right about a circular track on the outside running around a center pivot as being a possible solution.

            So, how much (roughly) does this increase the maximum weight/load for a given radius? Do you have a guess?

            My thought is that this makes the overall system much more efficient, allowing a much greater storage potential for a given motor, or lowering the height (and increasing the safety) of a given storage pile.

            As to “number of motors needed in a system” I think the ideal number depends on the ratio of lift time loaded : lower time unloaded (assuming that ratio is the same in reverse). If it is one to one then you need two sites (or motors on one site). If it is say 4:1, then you need 5 motors in the system to be optimally efficient.

      • Garrett says:

        Would cable tie-downs like those used for large antennas work? Do so off the end of the spokes as drawn.

  19. James Miller says:

    Someone is spoofing my phone number to make marketing calls to people in my area code. I live in the US. I get calls from people in my town asking why I keep calling them. My name appears on their caller ID from these calls. One hysterical elderly woman called me and said she knew what I was doing and was going to call the police. I called the police and gave them her number from my caller ID and they explained the situation to her, but still I worry about the people who don’t call me. The police can’t do anything and my phone provider (Comcast) said that all they could do was to change my phone number. Why isn’t this easier to fix?

    • Matt says:

      I am also curious about this. My wife had the same thing happen to her last Friday (that is, someone spoofed her number to make marketing calls locally) and at least one person called her up to yell at her for harassing him.

      Part of the problem is (I may get some technical details wrong, but I think I have the gist) that it’s legal to spoof a number for business reasons – that is, your Doctor’s office can call you from any number in their business and your caller ID reports their ‘official’ phone number so that you can’t call the nurse back directly but rather have to call back the main number and are forced to work your way through the phone tree. I think this also allows their affiliated businesses (let’s say they have an outsourced or even offshore company do lab work and call you with the results) It’s obvious why they would want the ability to do that so there apparently aren’t any rules against it.

      Unfortunately, I believe the way the law is written, your phone provider can’t act against known bad actors who robo-call millions of us from overseas call centers and market to us shotgun-style. (I don’t have Credit card debt / I don’t have student debt / I don’t have back pain / etc.) It’s my impression that the phone companies are lobbying for the authority to block all of these calls or at least report them (correctly) as coming from overseas rather than appearing like they are from our area code. I’m not sure who opposes this change to the law, but it’s got to be people who don’t answer their own phone.

      • Aapje says:

        Isn’t the obvious solution to require that they either own the number or have permission from the person who owns the number they are spoofing? Then the doctor can do her thing and the marketeer can’t.

    • S_J says:

      My (limited) knowledge is that the phone network isn’t built to keep people from spoofing phone numbers.

      Which is troublesome, as the phone network does have a unique ID for each end-point, so that the phone company can bill the correct person for the call. Apparently, the data-field that shows the call is coming from this XXX-YYZZ isn’t verified by the phone network before it is sent to your phone.

      On your phone, if the number XXX-YYZZ matches an entry in your phone-book, you will see that name instead of the number.

      This feature allows some phone users to configure their personal phone to send calls with a “from-my-business-phone” ID, when they are making business phone calls.

      This feature also allows various robo-dialing call centers to call you from a number that is in your “neighborhood”, or from a number that they suspect is in your phone-book.

      As an analogy, most email clients and servers don’t verify the “FROM:” record on any piece of email. A skilled person can figure out, from the data-block about email routing, whether or not it was sent from the email server that the FROM address claims. (But this, too, can be deceptive…even for the people who know how to ask their email client to show that block of data.)

      Another analogy: neither does the Post Office require that the return-address on your mail actually match the location of the person/business who sent the mail to you. (Again…if you look at the canceled stamp, you can tell where the Post Office first handled the mail…but you can’t guarantee that the return address is the address of the person who sent it.)

      In all of these scenarios, we have a communication system that produces a challenging problem whenever you attempt to verify the source of a message. [1]

      [1] In the world of email, verifying the source of a message is possible, but not certain, if the sender has appended a special blob of encrypted data to the email. That blob can be verified by the public half of a public/private pair of special numbers. It can only be created by the private half, but can also be decrypted by the public half.

      Whether the reputed sender is actually the only person who has access to that private key is another question entirely. This has moved the challenge of verifying the source to the challenge of verifying that the owner of the private key is careful not to allow anyone else to have access to it…

      • Brad says:

        Your telecom provider is able to tell that most spoofed calls are spoofed. Often the number being spoofed is one that they control yet the call is being peered in from shady-voip-provider. It should offer customers the option to silently drop obviously spoofed calls.

        • Matt says:

          But if they do that, Senator Leghorn’s push-polling won’t get through, though.

          Senator Leghorn will not approve of your solution.

          • j1000000 says:

            I agree with you that there are almost certainly annoying big business/ lobby reasons for the laws that prevent these people from being stopped, and the little Googling I’ve done on the matter seems to support that.

            To be facile for a moment: I have to imagine that if Osama bin Laden had called the President from one of these spoofed numbers in 2001, they’d have found him in 10 minutes. I find it hard to believe there’s no way to find the people who are doing this.

  20. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Welcome to the first in a series of effort-posts organizing my knowledge of Late Bronze Age Greece. This is a subject that touches on archaeology, Greek mythology, and Egyptian and Biblical (slightly) history.
    While writing was known throughout the LBA Eastern Mediterranean (the Greek language is first documented on clay tablets using a syllabary called Linear B), so few clay tablets have survived that archaeology is our main source of knowledge, and that means relying on pot pottery for knowledge. The relevant pottery sequence is Late Helladic IIA, IIB, IIIA1, IIIA2, IIIB1 & IIIB2, with IIIC seemingly associated with the Bronze Age Collapse. Archaeologists’s attempts to assign dates to pottery have weak epistemic status, but lucky for us Egypt was engaged in foreign trade of perishables. So for example, when the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten’s capital was abandoned, shards of small closed Late Helladic IIIA2 pots suitable for transport of costly perishables were left behind for archaeologists to find. Some Egyptians were buried with IIA pots while Thutmose III ruled (for reasons unclear to me, archaeologists assume IIA as already in use in Ahmose I’s time). IIIB1 & IIIB2 in Egypt have been found in the context of Pi-Ramesses, the capital Ramesses II built on/near the site of the old Hyksos capital Avaris.

    As can be seen in any Classical historian from Herodotus on, Greek mythology was conceptualized as taking place over a few hundred years up to the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War, circa 1200 BC. The early Hellenistic Parian chronicle furnishes a particularly exact example of this mindset. Though such things must be taken with a mine of salt, a date range of 1574/3 to 1209/8 BC for the span from Deucalion to the fall of Troy approximately matches the 18th and 19th Dynasties of Egypt that the Mycenaean civilization was demonstrably contemporary with.

    During the IIA phase, Crete was culturally dominant over Mycenae and the other cities of the mainland (Tiryns, Pylos & the Menalaion of Laconia in the Peloponnese, Athens, Thebes & Orchomenos in central Greece, Iolkos in Thessaly). “It is during LH IIB that the dependence on Minoan ceramics is completely erased. In fact, looking at the pottery found on Crete during this phase suggests that artistic influence is now flowing in the opposite direction; the Minoans are now using Mycenaean pottery as a reference.”

    The term “Minoan” for the Bronze Age civilization of Crete is problematic, as the Cretan palace-states came into existence circa 2000 BC, while the mythic kings of that name are a nephew of Kadmos and an older contemporary of Theseus. Some of our sources for Greek mythology, like the Bibliotheka of pseudo-Apollodoros, provide a king list for Knossos, the most important Cretan palace and city. It goes Asterion (mortal husband of Europa, who was abducted from Phoenicia by an amorous Zeus) – Minos son of Europa – Lykastos – Minos II, who was husband of Pasiphae, father of Ariadne and Deucalion, stepfather of the Minotaur – Deucalion’s son Idomeneus, who had the authority to involve all Crete in the Trojan War with 80 ships. Folk memory recorded no dynastic break in the relevant time frame except perhaps Minos son of Europa himself.

    IIIA is an era of uniform mass production. Potters employed in all the palace-states (note, not necessarily by the palaces – we can actually see a mix of state-run and free market industries in palace-states) produced indistinguishable output, which was spread by trade networks from Upper Egypt to islands north of Sicily. I’d think this implies generations of internal peace, if not a single “Achaean” (Ahhiya(wa) in Hittite) kingdom.
    IIIB (starts after the abandonment of Akhenaten’s capital, post-1334 BC) saw a decrease in uniformity and a dramatic decrease in trade with Cyprus. It would be nice to know why, but Late Bronze Age Cyprus with its cities and scribes is a lost civilization. The corresponding period in Egypt was Ramesses II and his 19th Dynasty predecessors. At the end of this period, the palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos were burned. While mobs who burn buildings are usually enemies of civilization, the fire at Pylos baked the clay tablets that had most recently been written on. Numerous Pylos tablets record assignments against an expected sea attack, while Py 1184 says:
    “The enemy grabbed all the priests from everywhere and without reason murdered them secretly by simple drowning. I am calling out to my descendants for history. I am told that the northern strangers continued their attack, terrorizing and plundering a short time ago.” (Michael Ventris translation)

    NEXT TIME: Sea Peoples and northern strangers.

    • Nornagest says:

      “The enemy grabbed all the priests from everywhere and without reason murdered them secretly by simple drowning. I am calling out to my descendants for history. I am told that the northern strangers continued their attack, terrorizing and plundering a short time ago.”

      A rare real-life example of a narrator writing until the monster eats them. That’s pretty cool.

    • Deiseach says:

      Thanks for this, Le Maistre Chat, I am going to really enjoy it!

      • Nornagest says:

        Yeah, thanks! The Late Bronze Age collapse is one of the rare things in history that I find genuinely spooky as opposed to routinely horrible, so I’m glad to see a series on the leadup to it from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

      • marshwiggle says:

        Let me add my thanks. The subject is fascinating, and I’m glad you took the time to write this up.

      • bean says:

        I’ll add to the thanks. I’m really looking forward to this.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Thank you Nornagest, Deiseach.

      So, at the end of Late Helladic IIIB, the palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns & Pylos were destroyed by fire, and the scribes of Pylos tell us they were watching for attack by sea.
      “The Sea Peoples” are a famous term in ancient history. The term finds its origin with French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé in 1855, describing a pylon documenting Year 8 of Ramesses III. Ramesses III was crowned in 1186 BC, second pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, son of two nobodies – no confirmed relation to the first two Ramesseses. However, Egypt’s troubles with Sea Peoples started with Merneptah (1213-1203). In his Year 5, the Libyans (barbarian fishermen and/or nomads) formed an alliance with “Northerners coming from all lands”: Ekwesh, Teresh, Lukka, Sherden, and Shekelesh. If people want, I can go into the links between the names Lukka, Sherden and Shekelesh and the Classical Lycia region of modern Turkey, Sardinia and Siceloi of pre-Classical Sicily.
      Anyway, 30 years later in the Ramesses III narrative, the list of attackers has changed to Denyen (could be Danaan, one of Homer’s two terms for all “Greeks”), Peleset (very probably Hebrew Plišt, Philistine), Shekelesh, Sherden, Teresh, Tjekker, and Weshesh. The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Philistines lived in the coastal cities of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath, where archaeologists have found locally-made Late Helladic IIIC pottery – above a terminal Bronze Age destruction layer at Ashdod and Ashkelon. Hazor, Acre, Megiddo, Sukkot (last scarab before destruction was of Queen Twosret, ruled 1191–1189 BC), Bethel and Lachish are other sites in Canaan with evidence of terminal Bronze Age destruction.

      Now if Sea Peoples were threatening the civilizations of Egypt, Canaan, and mainland Greece, you’d expect ports in between to feel the effects too. Indeed, just like Pylos, we have clay tablets from the port of Ugarit baked during the fire, from the city’s prince/king to a senior king of Cyprus:
      “My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came; my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hittites, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?… Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.”

      Per Wikipedia, Ugarit’s destruction level contained LH IIIB ware, but no LH IIIC (see Mycenaean period). Therefore, the date of the destruction is important for the dating of the LH IIIC phase. An Egyptian sword bearing the name of Pharaoh Merneptah was found in the destruction levels.
      The Hittite Empire ports of Mersin, Tarsus and Alalakh also have fire-destruction layers, as does Byblos in northern Lebanon. Further inland, Aleppo, Carchemish on the Euphrates and the Hittite capital Hattusas have terminal Bronze Age destruction layers, with AFAIK no known connection to the Sea Peoples alliance. So which happened to the high king in Hattusas first, burning of ports or badly losing a war inland? I don’t know!

      Finally we must mention Troy VIIa, perhaps the most famous destruction layer of the Bronze Age collapse (I won’t mention Cyprus, because the texts are “lost” and fire-destruction there could be associated with invasions by two Hittite kings, father and son, the father Tudhaliya IV ruling during the last 25 years of Ramesses II). Mainstream archaeologists date Troy VIIa to 1300-1190 BC, with its predecessor Troy VI destroyed by an earthquake. In Greek mythology, “earthshaker” Poseidon and his nephew Apollo built Troy walls during the reign of Laomedon, an ancestor of Priam (of confused genealogy). I need to research the rationale behind that absolute date of ~1190 BC, but if its place in the relative, material-based chronology can be pushed up to more than a decade before the Mycenaean palace burning and burning of Ugarit at the end of LH IIIB, it raises the credibility of Homer as a source.

      Speaking of Greek mythology, the last etiological myth is “the return of the Heraclidae”, which they used to explain the population speaking the Dorian dialect. Heracles’s son Hyllus was said to be an exile in Thessaly because of the schemes of Eurystheus, king of Mycenae before Atreus and Agamemnon, and his patron Hera. Aegimius the Dorian adopted him and, skipping irrelevant details, the third generation of Heraclidae built a fleet to land a Dorian army on the coast of the Argolid, ending the dynasty of Mycenaean kings by defeating the son of Agamemnon’s son Orestes, burning the city, and transferring power to Argos as well as taking over the isthmus of Corinth, Sparta and conquering Messenia, which had been ruled from Pylos in the mythic age.

      What next? The ethnicity of Sea Peoples, who else did the Hittite Empire lose to, or attempts to match documented kings to mythology?

      • Beck says:

        I’d be interested in reading about the ethnicity of the Sea Peoples.
        And thanks for this.

        • Deiseach says:

          Seconding the ethnicity; the old sources I’ve read tend to go “Who were the Sea Peoples? We just don’t know” and if there is better, more solid modern “We have a pretty good idea this is them”, I’d be very interested!

          The Hittites kind of lost to everybody, didn’t they? Hit a bad patch and it just went on going 🙂

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          So, the Sea Peoples! Only two of these groups are named before the Bronze Age collapse apparently starts (which is in the middle of Merneptah’s 10-year reign).
          The Sherden are first mentioned, already as sea raiders, in the context of Ramesses II’s Year 2 (1278 BC):
          “The unruly Sherden whom no one had ever known how to combat, they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.”
          Having defeated them at Egypt’s coast, he incorporated many of them into his royal guard. They armed themselves with torso armor, horned helmets, shields and long swords (by bronze standards). Now here’s the weird part: as early as 1200 BC, bronze statues of warriors wearing those horned helmets appear on Sardinia. Isolated from the eastern Mediterranean world by the Strait of Messina, Sardinia was already home to what’s called the Nuragic civilization (despite lack of cities and writing), a culture whose striking feature is that almost every square mile, every village in a settlement density equal to 11th century England, had a stone tower (nuraghe). Did they have a reliable route from Sardinian to Egypt and the Levant throughout the 13th century BC, or were they conquistadors who conquered Sardinia after being defeated in Egypt? This theory points to the plain around Sardis whose farms later supported the Lydian capital being called the Sardinian plain, suggesting that the island was “new Sardinia.”
          The Lukka were Hittite vassals from the western part of modern Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, called Lycia in Classical times, when Ramesses II fought the Great King and his assembled vassals at Kadesh.

          In Merneptah’s great Karnak inscription, the Sherden and Lukka are joined by never-before-attested groups called the Shekelesh, Eqwesh and Teresh. The theory of de Rougé was that Shekel- could be identified as Sikel-oi, Eqw-esh as Homeric Achaeans and Ter-esh as Turrhēn-oi. Thucydides mentions the Sikeloi in vi.4 when recounting background on Sicily, and says they lived on the east coast of Italy before migrating to the island which took their name. Turrhenoi are… more complicated.
          Then Ramesses’s mortuary temple hieroglyphs and Papyrus Harris I found nearby say that during his late majesty’s Year 8 (1178 BC), Sherden, Shekelesh and Teresh teamed up with more peoples we’ve never heard of before, the Denyen, Peleset, Tjekker and Weshesh. Denyen could be Homer’s Danaans (interchangeable with “Achaean”) or the Israelite tribe of Dan (see second page of Kelder 2010 here). The Peleset are very probably the Philistines (Hebrew Pleset), who manufactured Late Helladic IIIC pottery in Canaan. But if they were from the Greek sphere, why “Pleset” and not “Achaean” or “Danaan”? Ah, well just because they had Greek material culture doesn’t mean they were ethnic Greeks: since 1873, the name has suggested to have the same root as Pelasgoi, the indigenous people Greek historians say their ancestors replaced.

          Still, it’s very weird for three ethnic groups no one had ever heard of to appear as raiders ~1208 BC and more to team up with them 30 years later, don’t you think? So NEXT TIME, drought-induced Volkerwanderung?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Did 150 years of drought cause the Bronze Age collapse?

            We left off with my asking, isn’t it weird for the Bronze Age collapse to be caused by the Sherden, who may or may not have been from the Sardinian plain of Turkey’s Aegean region and were definitely in Sardinia, Lycians from the western part of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and some people from the Mycenaean civilization to team up with a bunch of groups that can scarcely be identified to destroy civilization?

            Well as of 2013, we have a possible motive. WARNING: science journalism! Hasty generalization!
            A study of fossilized pollen particles from the Sea of Galilee shows a 150 year drought. In the region where pollen would waft into the Sea of Galilee, apparently climate change caused a succession of severe droughts from about 1250 BC to about 1100 BC, leading to a sharp decline in oak, pine and carob trees… and the economically-important olive tree. If this finding could be replicated further north, we might have a story of agricultural laborers turned desperadoes.

          • Deiseach says:

            The long drought sounds like a very interesting area to explore, because even if you don’t have pressure on your borders from invaders, a century and a half of low harvests and water shortages is going to hurt your kingdom and chip away at the foundations. Add in those same invaders being put under equal pressure to raid or starve, and a weakened kingdom goes down in flames.

            But is that just an appealing explanation which isn’t quite the case as to what really happened?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Deiseach: That could definitely be what happened, but we need the pollen study to be replicated in places like western Turkey, Crete, and the European side of the central Med. The Sea Peoples, the majority of which were ethnic groups no one mentioned before 1208 BC, were coming to drought-stricken Canaan. Were their lands of origin under pressure to raid or starve, or did the Sherden just organize other peoples to strike at weakened targets together?

          • Deiseach says:

            the majority of which were ethnic groups no one mentioned before 1208 BC

            Yeah, that’s the mystery isn’t it? Where did all these guys pop up out of? Why did they decide to go pirating/viking raiding? Why hit those places (unless, as you say, somebody said ‘hey here’s easy pickings, lemme get a crew together’)?

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      City 1: Mycenae.
      “Rich in gold” was its Homeric epithet, and in the Iliad its king was able to command the kings of other cities. The citadel covered ~3 hectares, almost 50% larger than the unfortified palace of Thebes, with a peak city size of 32 hectares.
      The sequence Late Helladic IIA-IIIB2 purportedly spanned 350-plus years ending ~1190 BC. Greek mythology only records seven generations of kings, two of which ruled after the sack of Troy:
      Electryon (father of Alcmene, Heracles’s mother), Sthenelus
      Atreus (new dynasty)
      Orestes (also king of Argos and Sparta)
      Tisamenus (same, Mycenae destroyed)
      However, the facts on the ground are that Mycenae either had the oldest royal line in mainland Greece, or we’re looking at preservation bias. Grave Circle B, 117 meters west of the Lion Gate, has 12 simple cist graves and 14 shaft graves, at least 6 of which were family tombs because multiple bodies were found in them. The latest pottery found in the graves is LH I. The oldest graves are cists for men, with poor grave goods. The later the grave, the more they found women, along with gold and unknown imports once contained in Cycladic and Cretan pots.
      The younger Grave Circle A has 5 family shaft graves plus a lone male grave, whose 19 bodies and their grave goods were excavated by Schliemann. He gave artifacts names associated with the Iliad, which is much too young: there was nothing in them later than LH IIA. In later phases, royalty was buried in more imposing tholos tombs. We know the people in “A” continued to be seen as important ancestors until the Bronze Age collapse, because it was one of the sites the LH IIIB walls were built to enclose. It’s tempting to think of Atreus as a real person, ordering the building of walls around the palace as well as the 9 tholos tombs (of the Perseids?) and Grave Circle A from whose dead the King of Mycenae derived his authority.

      • hls2003 says:

        Thanks for the write-up. I was fortunate enough to visit Mycenae some years ago; it’s a very impressive site. Easy to understand how the ancients described the architecture as “Cyclopean.” The tholos tombs are also very imposing. I had not heard the conjecture about Atreus potentially building those (to re-inter ancestors?), but it does make a certain amount of sense.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        City 2: Tiryns

        The site of Tiryns is only 15 km SE of Mycenae in the Argolid. Pausanias reports the tradition that the walls of both were “cyclopean”, i.e. must have been built by cyclopes. “Even two mules working together couldn’t have moved the smaller stones.” In mythology, it was said to have been founded by Proteus, twin brother of Perseus’s grandfather Acrisius. The twins were enemies and Proteus fled to Lycia (Lukka land), raising an army to help him return to Argos, where they recruited cyclopes and founded Tiryns over Acrisius’s objections.
        The 2-hectare acropolis hill of Tiryns actually goes back much further than even myth, with a poor Neolithic village succeeding by a larger Early Helladic (Early Bronze Age, third millenium BC) village. In LH IIA, the village on the south half of the hill was turned into a palace. On the plain below the hill, a city grew to more than 20 hectares during LH IIA-IIIB. At some point the entire hill was fortified even though there was nothing of value on the north half – besides the high ground itself. Nonetheless, mysterious attackers still managed to burn the palace at the end of LH IIIB.
        However, Tiryns was reoccupied and the lower town grew to 25 hectares in LH IIIC. It was not abandoned until the 8th century BC, when the city of Argos gained hegemony in the Argolid.

        Argos, did you steal my ancestors?
        If oral traditions have a core of truth, we still have to expect them to get reworked for propaganda purposes. Near the beginning of the Classical Period, 490 BC or a bit later, Aeschylus the Athenian wrote a tragedy about Danaus the Egyptian and his 50 daughters, who fled to Argos in the first pentekonter so the king of Egypt couldn’t force them to marry their first cousins. They beg King Pelasgos of Argos for protection.
        “Pelasgos” is obviously a mythic ancestor for Pelasgoi, who Greek historians say were in the land when their ancestors arrived. Mythographers, writing in Classical through Roman times, assigned the Danaid Hypermnestra and her husband Lynceus, their son, grandsons Acrisius and Proteus and Acrisius’s daughter who gave birth to Perseus to Argos. If we assign the characters to Tiryns and Mycenae instead, we can associate the Danaids with the mysterious gold-bearing women of Grave Circle B & A.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        City 3: Pylos, in writing

        Pylos was a town even in the Middle Bronze Age, occupying an area of 5.5 hectares and growing to 14 in Late Helladic IIIA, when the palace is believed to have been built.
        Greek mythology records only four kings of Messenia, the region Pylos controlled: Perieres (son-in-law of Perseus), his son Aphareus, Neleus, and his son Nestor (who adventured with three generations of heroes).
        The number of Linear B tablets recovered from Pylos is 1,087 – a quarter as many as Knossos, Crete but an order of magnitude more than anywhere else on the mainland. Surviving tablets were used for administrative records, so what they reveal are divine and personal names, land ownership, tax collection, what craftspeople were employed by the palace, and at Pylos in particular orders for soldiers.

        The largest landowner was the wanax. He owned three times as much land as anyone else and it was tenemos, perhaps meaning sacrosanct. Centuries later, in Homer’s still-archaic Ionian dialect, this word reappears as anax, referring to the high kings Agamemnon and Priam… and Zeus. The word definitely had divine as well as “feudal” connotations, just like English “Lord.” This title also shows up later in personal names like Demonax (“people-lord”) and the pre-Socratic philosophers Anaxagoras (“lord of the forum”), Anaximander (“lord of the estate”) and Anaximenes (“the lord endures”).
        Next came the lawagetas, whose duties in the tablets are scarcely distinguished from his superior. Just before Pylos palace was burned, there were three other landowners who owned as much, but he was the only person besides the wanax whose land was a tenemos.
        Pylos was one of only two towns in Messenia: the average settlement size, even for tax collection centers of which there were 9 in the eastern province alone, was 1.53 hectares, meaning their population was probably just under Dunbar’s Number.

        Administrative activity was closely related to religion, and we have preserved numerous deities:
        Anemoi (the winds) in the form Anemon Hiereia (wind priestess), Ares, Artemis, Dionysus, Diwo (i.e. Zeus), Diwia (“Goddess” – Dione?), Eileithyia, Enyalius (later both an epithet and a son of Ares), the Erinyes, Hephaetus (indirectly through personal name Hephaistion), Hera, “Mater Theia”, Paean, Poseidon and Posidaeia.
        Some goddesses are uncertain because they were called by the titles wanassoin, “two ladies” – the mainstream guess is Demeter and Persephone, or potnia, “our lady.” a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja seems to be Athena, but there was also “Our Lady of Thebes”, “Our Lady of Grain” (Demeter?), “Our Lady of the Labyrinth”, etc.

        Personal names! Female names attested at Pylos include Alexandra, Theodora, Eritha, Korinsia (Korinth-woman, a slave) and a VIP named Karpathia, a “key-bearer” who owned two plots in the Sphagianes district. Male names: Wedaneos the lawagetas, Akhilles, Alektruon, Amphimedes, Augewas (who the wanax feasted when he was appointed a ko-ro of the demos), Echelawon (who owned a ship of the fleet and huge estates), Glaukos, Hektor, Khalkeos (“smith”), Klumenos (a commander in the coast guard and ko-re-te official), Lukios (Lukka-man, a slave), Ploutinos (“rich”), Poimen (“shepherd”), Orestes (a junior officer), Tros, Turios (Tyre-man).

        • Deiseach says:

          This has me purring like a cat that has just rolled around in a large patch of catnip 🙂 This is exactly the kind of thing I love, thank you so much for doing this!

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        City 4: Near! Sparta!

        Sparta and its region Laconia are fundamental to the Iliad. But when Mycenae, Pylos and other LBA cities were surveyed by archaeologists and Athens and Thebes were shown to be power centers at the time, Sparta was missing. The closest connection to the Bronze Age world was the Menelaion 5 km away, where an Archaic hero cult to Helen and her husband grew up around a Mycenaean aristo’s great hall (megaron).
        That changed in 2008 when farmers who owned land 11 km south of Sparta, in the parish of a one-room church named Ayios Vasileios, tried to dig a new terrace for their olive orchard and dug up a Linear B tablet instead. Since writing was used for palace management in LBA Greece, archaeologists knew the farmers had dug into a palace archive and swept in.
        The first tablets published were about the sale of weapons, textiles and perfume, showing you what industries a Mycenaean palace engaged in rather than leaving to independent craftspeople.
        Ayios Vasileios was a large town even before the LHIIIA palace buildings archaeologists have found so far: growing from nearly nothing to 21 hectares during Late Helladic I. Those buildings were destroyed at the end of LHIIIA, a century before the Bronze Age collapse. Stone foundations were split, there’s a fire destruction layer, and one room had 20 bronze swords in a layer of organic debris. More mysteriously, another room had a thick layer of animal bones, potsherds and precious objects, as if a sacrificial sanctum left a big mess.

        Greek mythographers like the Bibliotheke author record a substantial list of “Spartan” kings. The first inhabitants of Laconia were said to be the Leleges under an eponymous leader Lelex. Like him, his son and grandson Eurotas (also the name of the river where Ayios Vasileios and Sparta were located) were petty chiefs of marsh land, until Eurotas drained it to improve farming.
        Interestingly, a prestigious linguist proposed that Lelege is cognate to lulahi, a class or tribe mentioned in Hittite texts as too impure for priests and other temple servants to talk to.
        Eurotas married his daughter Sparta to Lakedaemon, supposedly the son of Zeus and a star (the Pleaid Taygete). Their dynasty lasted another 4 generations: Amyklas, Kynortas, his sons Perieres and Oibalos, and Oibalos’s sons Hippokoon and Tyndareos. Tyndareos’s “sons” the Dioskuri died young and the Atreides married into his family, triggering the Trojan War. That was the end of the independent kingdom until supposedly two Heraclidae founded a new one after destroying the Mycenaean state.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        @mrjeremyfade: Thank you. Seeing more replies keeps me motivated. So thank you to everyone else who’s replied. 🙂
        (Still not Wednesday OT? Well then…)

        City 5: Athens

        It may not have had anything to do with Jerusalem, but Mycenaean Athens might have had to do with ancient Israel. The acropolis continued to be occupied throughout the “Greek Dark Ages”, with a dramatically impoverished population huddling inside Mycenaean walls called “Pelasgian” throughout the Archaic period (~776-490 BC), after which new fortifications were built in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. Although they’re not identified as Pelasgoi in the Iliad, the Athenians maintained a tradition that they were indigenous people who picked up the Ionian Greek dialect from their neighbors, having neither been conquered at the beginning of the Heroic Age by Achaeos and Ion nor by the Heraclidae.
        So if the “Pelasgian” tradition isn’t a later fiction, Late Helladic IIIC Athenians emigrating from the overpopulated acropolis might have been one element in the Peleset who conquered the southern coast of Canaan during the reign of Ramesses III.
        Because it was continuously occupied and became a large, rich city again, preservation bias works against the LBA acropolis and lower town of Athens. It’s known that the Erechtheion, which gets its name from a mythic king, Erechthonios or Erechtheos, was built on top of a palace building. The association with both a Heroic age king and Athena (the Periclean Erechthion was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, but replaced a mid-6th century temple of Athena burned by the Persians) suggests a folk memory of the sacred function of a Mycenaean king. Another of the few Mycenaean finds on the acropolis is a fountain associated with Late Helladic IIIB/IIIC, echoing the strategic water source attested in Classical times.

        The coastal towns of Thorikos, Brauron (later called sacred to bear-Artemis) and Marathon have LHI material including tholos tombs at Thorikos and Marathon, making it possible they developed before Athens had a lower town. The agora had a LHIIB cemetary, and it’s certain that the palace was built by this phase.
        A tradition reported by Strabo was that when Kekrops the serpent man was king of Attica, his subjects lived on farmsteads in the midst of their fields, and because they were being attacked by pirates and the Boeotians to their north, he ordered them to move into 12 towns for protection: Kekropia (Athens or the acropolis), Thorikos, Brauron, Eleusis, Aphidna, Tetrapolis (all archaeologically identified), Tetrakomoi, Epakria, Dekeleia, Kytheros, Sphettos and Kephisia. Eleusis subsequently had its own priest-kings, and Kekrops’s descendant Erechtheos was said to have gone to war with Eumolpos of Eleusis to reunify Attica, in a myth that suggests the existence of Mycenaean period human sacrifice.

        In the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, Menestheus son of Theseus brings half as many ships (50) as Mycenae, suggesting a realm half as populous or developed, which does not contradict the LH IIIB evidence.

        Mythic kings of Athens:
        Kekrops -> Kranaos -> Amphiktyon, uncle of the first “Hellenes” -> Kekrops’s foster-grandson Erichthonios or Erechtheos the serpent man -> his son Pandion I -> another Erechtheos and his brother Kekrops II -> Pandion II -> Aegeas (usurper) -> his son Theseus -> Theseus’s sons Menestheus and Demophon, who fought at Troy

  21. rlms says:

    Is there a limit to how native-polylingual a child can be, other than the minimum amount of time they need to be exposed to a language to pick it up?

    • C_B says:

      I don’t think anybody knows.

      There’s lots of work on the effect of native multilingualism, and all of it suggests that acquiring multiple L1 languages is good for you (a little fuzzy evidence of positive effect on IQ, better evidence that it’s a protective factor against dementia). But all of these studies are on kids who know 2 or at most 3 languages, because there simply aren’t enough children being exposed to >3 languages to practically study them.

      There’s also lots of good evidence that knowing multiple languages requires exercising executive control to prevent cross-talk. For instance, there are plenty of case studies of multilingual people who suffered brain injuries and lost the ability to prevent cross-talk, and they have a ton of trouble communicating because they’re constantly code switching without meaning to. It would make sense to me that the difficulty of this executive control task would increase with the number of languages known, and that at a certain point it would become overtaxed and start having negative effects. But practically, I don’t think anybody actually learns that many languages as a kid, so this doesn’t really happen often enough for anybody to study it.

      This wikipedia page (mostly its References section) is a pretty good place to start paper-chasing if you want to do more reading:

  22. helloo says:

    Hide and ^ arrow buttons are again unavailable when logged out.

    • helloo says:

      Ok, they are available if you have cookies but are logged out, but are not if you simply block/clear cookies.

  23. Well... says:

    In a previous OT I asked about possible reasons why an unusual, strongly-held, well-articulated opinion on a non-obscure topic might garner very little response, and especially very little opposition. Some people seemed to assume I was referring to an opinion of my own. That assumption was correct:

    I was thinking of my opinion about journalism, which is that journalism is nothing but a pseudo-scholarly affect meant to convey authority and impartiality. The affect is presented via typefaces, tones of voice, wardrobe choices, set design, music, graphics, and so on. Once you look past the affect, you will see that journalism is not some dignified “fourth estate” but rather just another form of vaguely non-fictional mass media (to include opinion-blogging, cat videos, late-night comedy talk shows, etc. This is true of all journalism, not just the journalism you don’t like. Despite what journalists themselves might believe, there is no such thing as journalistic “misconduct” or “standards”, journalistic codes of ethics are an empty dance, and “unbiased” journalism is an absurd fantasy. Being “informed” is a meaningless status contrived to prop up the journalism industry. On a positive note, because there is so much journalism to choose from and because public awareness of how the journalism sausage gets made is so much more widespread now, journalism is actually better now than it used to be.

    I’ve never seen anyone else say this, but despite myself saying it lots of times (including on this site as some of you are familiar), I’ve also never had anyone else argue against it.

    (BTW, for those interested, similar arguments can be made about “documentary” films, some of which are completely scripted and staged without being considered “mockumentaries” — see docudramas or reenactments.)

    CW note: I assume this should be fairly controversial, but I don’t think it’s “culture war”.

    • Matt M says:

      If you are the one who originated the analogy to professional wrestling, I have to say, I’m becoming more and more enamored with the concept every day, and have shared the suggestion with people I speak to on other forums as well.

      • Well... says:

        Instinctively, I like that analogy too (this is the first I’ve heard of it), but it implies there is also something analogous to real wrestling. In the case of journalism, what would that be? Memos internal to an organization?

        • Matt M says:

          Well, I guess that’s where I disagree with you a little. The steelman of journalism is probably some sort of investigative reporter getting to the truth of an unknown or contested matter. I think there are still some people out there still trying to do that. Glenn Greenwald comes to mind.

          It’s just rare, and not nearly as popular or as profitable as the fake kind. Much like how amateur wrestling is not nearly as popular or as profitable as the fake kind.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Glenn Greenwald comes to mind.

            Glenn Greenwald is not the scion of objective journalistic integrity you are looking for.

            He might be on the opposite end of that, actually.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Glenn Greenwald is the only current-events MSM journalist who I trust not to be lying to me.

            And this is not just because I’ve had lunch with him.

          • BBA says:

            Greenwald is pushing as much of an agenda as anyone else. It’s just that his agenda – that the US national security state and everything it has ever done is evil – happens to be correct.

          • Matt M says:

            Well, he’s also seemingly the only journalist whose agenda doesn’t change depending on which party holds the white house.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            At various times Greenwald has out and out said he is pushing an agenda and that he will act as someone with an agenda. He doesn’t try to hold himself to any objective standard. He has basically admitted to being a PR flack for whatever agenda he is pushing.

            He also, conveniently, has pushed the line that everyone does this and therefore he is somehow more principled by admitting he is pushing a bias. Let me just say I find this argument unconvincing.

            Now, I stopped paying any attention to him years ago for all these reasons , so I suppose he could somehow have changed his tune, but I doubt it. My sense is that those who trust Greenwald do so because he is telling them what they want to hear.

          • Well... says:

            The steelman of journalism is probably some sort of investigative reporter getting to the truth of an unknown or contested matter.

            How? On what authority? Is he a licensed private investigator? Is he a police detective? Is he a scientist? Forget credentials — does he at least have training equivalent to any of these?

            No, he’s just some failed actor or writer who doesn’t really have expert level knowledge in anything except how to read from a teleprompter or deliver a written report on a tight deadline.

          • So when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were investigating Watergate, was that also the equivalent of reading from a teleprompter rather than an actual investigation?

          • Well... says:

            Bob Woodward studied history and literature as an undergrad at Yale. That’s it. His investigation of Watergate amounts to a kind of vigilantism, doesn’t it? If not, why not?

            BTW I’m not saying it’s bad he investigated Watergate.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            While his qualifications are interesting, the important question re: your thesis is whether or not he actually did a good job of investigating Watergate, and to what extent his good job of investigating Watergate was related to his employment at the Washington Post: did Ben Bradlee’s oversight and the resources and standards of the Post make a difference in his reporting? To whatever degree Woodward relied on the resources of the Post, that’s the extent to which it wasn’t vigilantism.

          • Matt M says:

            Of the total amount of words that have been written and said about Watergate that go into forming people’s thoughts and opinions about what happened and why it was important, what percentage of them do you think consist of Woodward and/or Bernstein’s simple primary-source reporting of facts?

          • @Well

            You didn’t answer my question. I don’t care about his credentials.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Of the total amount of words that have been written and said about Watergate that go into forming people’s thoughts and opinions about what happened and why it was important, what percentage of them do you think consist of Woodward and/or Bernstein’s simple primary-source reporting of facts?

            I have no idea?
            You’re the one who suggested that the steelman of journalism is an “investigative reporter getting to the truth of an unknown or contested matter”; to the extent that Woodward and Bernstein succeeded at getting to the truth of an unknown or contested matter this demonstrates their qualifications, and to the extent that they couldn’t have done it had they not been professional journalists, it’s evidence that journalism is capable of more than Well… thinks it is.

          • John Schilling says:

            [Woodward and Bernstein are] evidence that journalism is capable of more than Well… thinks it is.

            Was. Was more capable than Well thinks it presently is.

            The usual form of the argument he is making, is that journalism of the modern era does not live up to the standards and reputation it earned in a lost, arguably “golden”, age, under the rule of the wise and benevolent Walter Cronkite, you know the rest. And while I’m not normally one to buy into “lost golden age” narratives, to the extent that everyone’s go-to counterexample is almost half a century old, the lost golden age may story may be worth a look.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Well… made no distinctions between past and present so to the extent that there exist counterexamples in the recent past, that’s still evidence against their claim.

            And…who says Watergate is the last time great investigative reporting was done? Watergate is the go-to example at least in part because of the stakes: not every story can lead to the President resigning.

            Ronan Farrow’s stories on Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman come to mind as recent examples of high-profile investigative reporting that caused powerful figures to step down; for something a little more Watergate-y, Clare Rewcastle Brown reported on a corruption case in Malaysia that brought down the ruling party in recent elections, and in South Africa Jacob Zuma resigned in part due to reporting by a team of investigative journalists looking into connections between Zuma and the Gupta family.

            I think the “golden age” view is just as suspect for investigative journalism as for everything else.

            EDIT to add one more topical example: the WSJ reporting on the Michael Cohen payoff to Stormy Daniels.

          • @John

            But Well isn’t making an argument about a lost golden age. He’s suggesting that no such thing has ever existed. When I brought it up, the first thing he did was talk about credentials. Since Woodward and Bernstein are universally considered good examples of investigative journalism, then it seems like a worthy counterexample to his claim.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The mainstream media has certainly broken some big stories recently that would not have been broken without them. But I have a counter-example.

            From late 2007-2008, the National Enquirer was the only publication willing to investigate the story of Jonathan Edwards and his mistress. They finally cracked the story open when they caught him with her in a hotel lobby and literally chased him into the men’s room.

            Undeniable true story, broken by the National Enquirer. But does that mean we should trust their journalism now?

          • Matt M says:

            Didn’t the Monica Lewinsky case originate in the tabloids too, or am I remembering that wrong?

          • Well... says:

            Correct: I am NOT making the claim that there’s a lost golden age of journalism to which we ought to return. I have said many times that I think journalism is in much better shape now than it ever was, primarily because people are more cynical about it now and have more insight into how the sausage gets made.

            @Wrong Species:

            Credentials are merely the clearest way of differentiating the hypothetical investigative journalist, who I’m saying is a kind of vigilante, from a legitimate investigator (e.g. a scientist or a detective).

            The key differentiating characteristic between them is of course not the title or the slip of paper on the wall, but the process used by each: investigative journalism is done “by hook or by crook”, using the resources (including the interpersonal connections and shiny, official-looking “press badges”) supplied by the journalism organization to which the investigative journalist belongs. The investigative journalist can conclude his investigations at whatever point he wants, as long as he feels he has something his audience will pay money or look at ads to consume, and so long as he doesn’t think he’ll get called out for lying (and sometimes even then…).

            Contrast with e.g. scientists, who have a transparent process (scientific method) and are peer reviewed by other scientists (in actual journals), or the detective whose process is bound up in vetted laws and regulations and whose output is reviewed by a court of law. Note that this allows for the possibility that scientists and detectives will occasionally fail to adhere to their processes, but it’s the establishment and public acceptance of these processes that makes their work legitimate.

          • I don’t even understand what the meaning of legitimate is in this instance. You said that “it’s not bad” that watergate was investigated. If they had “legitimately” investigated it, they wouldn’t have been successful. So would you rather they had “legitimately” investigated and failed or do what they did, which no one else has a problem with, and uncover an important story?

          • Eugene Dawn says:


            Undeniable true story, broken by the National Enquirer. But does that mean we should trust their journalism now?

            As with any other issue, one doesn’t judge accuracy based on single anecdotes–ideally, to answer your question, we should construct some measure of “trustworthiness”, perhaps by developing an “accuracy score” for news articles, subjecting some large random sample of Enquirer stories to this accuracy score, and comparing the results with other newspapers. Methodologically this feels pretty difficult, but you could imagine some shortcut methods that would at least give you a sense.


            The key differentiating characteristic between them is of course not the title or the slip of paper on the wall, but the process used by each

            It would be enormously clarifying if you could suggest a process that journalists could be following that would give them legitimacy, in your opinion. FWIW, I am not sure that the methods used by PIs are so different from the ones you attribute to journalists.

            Contrast with e.g. scientists, who have a transparent process (scientific method) and are peer reviewed by other scientists (in actual journals), or the detective whose process is bound up in vetted laws and regulations and whose output is reviewed by a court of law.

            As I’ve already mentioned, journalists also have to grapple with laws and regulations governing what they can print, and how they can investigate: journalists have to be careful not to write anything defamatory, they have to worry about protecting their sources, they have to worry about protecting privacy, and they have to worry about not publishing anything that could harm national security, etc.
            Journalists can and have been sued for practicing journalism.

          • Well... says:

            I think the methods the FBI uses to investigate things are pretty legit. Same with scientists. These methods are transparent, documented, and involve inviting the refutation of initial conclusions. In the case of scientists they also involve acknowledging the limits of those conclusions.

            If a journalist was capable of adhering to these methods, and not just whatever frustrated actors and writers with Bachelor’s degrees in English or History or PoliSci are capable of, then that’d make his investigations legit — but then he wouldn’t be a journalist. He’d be an FBI investigator or a scientist.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            What are you basing any of this on? Do you have some source for the claim that journalists are all failed actors, and not Masters students of Columbia’s journalism program? Do you know anything about the methods of journalism?

            You have given literally no evidence for any of your claims at all. As it happens, there are journalists who have trained in journalism–I don’t know much about the methods they are taught, but you haven’t demonstrated any knowledge here either. My prior is, if investigative reporting were something that anyone, not just journalists, could do and do well, we should see plenty if important stories broken by amateurs–roughly equal in number to those broken by actual journalists (after normalizing for the sizes of the two populations). Do we see that? Since this is your claim, can you provide some evidence for it?

            Or is your entire argument composed of snide dismissals of journalists as failed writers and actors, repeated over and over again with no corroborating evidence?

        • Nornagest says:

          Journalism hasn’t been reliable since back in 1998 when the Undertaker threw Mankind off Hell in a Cell and he plummeted sixteen feet through an announcer’s table.

          (I’m not normally a meme guy, but this was too good to pass up.)

        • dndnrsn says:

          So, I think the pro wrestling analogy is actually more complex than it looks. Pro wrestling is actually really hard – requires a lot of skill – and quite dangerous. It is probably safer to be an MMA fighter than a pro wrestler. The one is stuff that is meant to be safeish (getting punched in the head ain’t great for you, but stuff that could only happen to a person once or twice before they can never compete again is banned) being done at full speed; the other is stunts that even if they go off right hurt, and if they go wrong you can die. And pro wrestlers perform a lot more often.

          I think this is unfairly crapping on journalism and is basically CW. The major newspapers rarely tell lies of commission. The facts are usually correct; all the lying (fibbing really) is done by spin, omission, juxtaposition, and so forth.

          To complete the analogy: most journalism is like pro wrestling in that there is real stuff going on, but the real stuff going on is not necessarily the real stuff they say is going on.

          • Matt M says:

            I don’t see how that doesn’t help the analogy hold.

            What our current “journalists” do is also hard. Much like pro wrestling, it’s also a very competitive field with a very specific and unique skillset.

            It might actually be harder to be a successful TV pundit than it is to be a successful investigative reporter, just as it might be harder to be a successful WWE wrestler than a successful MMA fighter or olympic wrestler.

            Danger is almost beside the point, but if for some reason you do think it’s relevant, I’d be willing to bet Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow get more death threats than any “real” reporters do…

          • dndnrsn says:

            A lot of people see pro wrestling as fake in the sense of somehow dishonourable. Further, if you know what to watch for, you can see what’s real.

            If you pick up a random newspaper – it’s gonna be centre-left or maybe centre-right – you’re going to be getting its narrative. If you are aware of this, you can see the facts behind the narrative.

            Similarly, if you watch pro wrestling, and you know what to look for, you can realize it’s ballet but with jacked dudes pretending to kill each other

          • Matt M says:

            OK, and my point is that what journalists do, despite being “fake” in a similar sense, isn’t necessarily dishonorable either. They are filling a market need. They are providing something people want, just like pro wrestlers do.

            I feel like maybe we’re in violent agreement here?

          • dndnrsn says:

            It’s just that… I guess that, I don’t think that journalists are hugely dishonest. If you pick up the NYT or the WSJ – I’d say they’re both about equally slanted in opposite directions, and not hugely slanted either – the facts are correct. They won’t outright lie. Everything gets presented to fit a narrative – but they still include facts that don’t really fit. So sometimes you get the weird situation of an article that says x, but all the facts in it say y. They’re biased, but so is everyone; I’m not confident I’d do better in their shoes.

          • Matt M says:

            But that’s not the point.

            Yes, the WSJ and NYT occasionally report actual facts that might not fit their intended message. And a WWE wrestler occasionally actually hits his opponent, causing real pain in a way that was not necessarily intended by the script.

            But overall, the script is still there. The result is still pre-determined. The overall message that the NYT or WSJ is going to take is not altered or effected by the facts at hand.

          • dndnrsn says:

            When the facts can be checked, they’re usually pretty reliable – it’s not something they do by accident. Presumably everyone here has at least one belief that is contrary to the evidence. It’s more like… I don’t know, a bad decision in boxing.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            But overall, the script is still there. The result is still pre-determined. The overall message that the NYT or WSJ is going to take is not altered or effected by the facts at hand.

            This is a pretty strong claim, and could do with some evidence for it. Also: the NYT reports on events all over the world. Do they have an “overall message” across all of their reporting, from their Malaysia coverage to their health coverage?

          • Matt M says:

            But the facts aren’t particularly relevant. They’re an afterthought. The “facts” are as important to the message the journalist is telling as the amount of actual landed punches is important to the outcome of a WWE match.

            The message is crafted first, and the facts are filled in later. At least, that’s how I’ve written all of my blog posts. I’m not a “professional” journalist though.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I recall reading, years ago, a centre-left source (the sort that would be expected to dislike the WSJ; I cannot remember where I read this, so take this with a grain of salt) reporting on a study of media bias. They found that the WSJ’s reporting was generally factually accurate, and further that one only found a great deal of bias in the opinion section.

            I imagine the NYT is similar; additionally, any difference is likely due to time – internet news is a lot bigger than it was back when I read whatever it was, so there’s probably more of an incentive to print toxoplasma.


            @Matt M

            If the facts weren’t important at all, they wouldn’t print them. You, I, NYT writers, WSJ writers, all look at the facts and think “yeah, these accord with my beliefs” – everyone thinks this. It is impossible for everyone to be correct in this regard.

          • Matt M says:

            Do they have an “overall message” across all of their reporting, from their Malaysia coverage to their health coverage?

            Probably. I don’t read that coverage so it’s hard for me to speculate what it might be.

            But the fact that stories about Malaysia are relegated to the back page is itself, part of the message.

            Prioritizing coverage of some things over other things is completely in-line with the results being, essentially, pre-determined. And professional wrestling does that too. Certain wrestlers performances are emphasized over certain others, to promote storylines, sometimes against the seemingly expressed wishes of the fanbase.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I picked Malaysia because the leading story on their World News section is about Malaysia. Perhaps your confidence in the message the NYT is pushing is unwarranted.

          • Matt M says:

            If the facts weren’t important at all, they wouldn’t print them.

            They don’t print a lot of them. They run stories on gun control while omitting facts about other nations with gun control and higher murder rates. The WSJ runs stories on economic growth while omitting facts about rising inequality.

            I’m really trying to keep this non-CW but overall I think it’s the same on both sides. You know what your narrative is that you want to promote. You find the facts that help support your narrative, and ignore the ones you don’t. Occasionally there might be some uncomfortable ones you simply can’t ignore, so you downplay them or quickly provide excuses or commentary to minimize their effect.

          • Matt M says:

            Perhaps your confidence in the message the NYT is pushing is unwarranted.

            What confidence? I told you that I don’t know what their message is. Just that they have one. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the world. It’s a big world. The fact that they choose to report on Malaysia and not Ecudaor is not a coincidence.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            You also told me the fact that Malaysia coverage is consistently backpage is “part of the message”–if you don’t know what the message is, and you are wrong about where their Malaysia coverage appears, maybe they just report on Malaysia roughly in proportion to the degree to which they can find interesting and important Malaysia stories?

            The fact that they choose to report on Malaysia and not Ecudaor is not a coincidence.

            It’s obviously not a coincidence, that would be absurd. The counterargument is that they chose to report on Malaysia because there was an interesting and important story from Malaysia, and currently no stories satisfying those criteria coming from Ecuador.

          • Matt M says:

            Interesting and important is entirely subjective.

            I just went to CNN’s world page and there’s nothing about Malaysia. Lead story is about flooding in India.

            Why are they different?

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Because different news outlets will make slightly different judgments about exactly how interesting and important various stories are?

            There’s obviously a subjective component to interesting and important, and no one denies that. But “entirely” subjective strikes me as crazy. 300 dead in floods in Kerala is obviously interesting and important. Malaysia pushing back against Chinese influence in their country is interesting and important.
            Both are more interesting and important than the recent news out of Bhutan (which appears to be that they have not yet won any medals at the Asian Games), and both are less interesting and important (at least to an American audience) than wildfires in California.

            Obviously the fact that the NYT and CNN are both produced for American audiences will influence their coverage; also where their correspondents are, what they’ve covered recently, what their other big stories are, etc., etc., etc.

            If your point is just that there are editorial judgments to be made and there is no way to avoid those judgments being affected by subjective factors, then that’s true but it’s also trivial. That’s true not just of journalism, but of science, of history, and of every human attempt to understand the world.

            My issue is that you and Well… seem to both be equivocating between “journalists are biased” and “all journalists are equally biased, and their coverage is almost completely determined by their biases”:
            The claim that started the thread is that there are literally no distinctions to be made at all among different types of journalism or journalistic outlets other than distinctions of style.
            Your claim is that the NYT only “occasionally” publishes inconvenient facts, and has pre-committed to a message.
            These are much stronger claims than “the NYT, like all human institutions, cannot completely escape its biases”, and you need to offer some pretty strong evidence for it if you want to be convincing.

          • beleester says:

            I’m with @Eugene Dawn here. How can you consider both “Malaysia is on the back page” and “Malaysia was actually on the front page” to be consistent with your theory? How can you be confident that they’re pushing a specific message (and not just in the “everyone has biases” sense, pushing it so hard that the facts reported are literally irrelevant), and yet have no idea what their message is?

            Your model of the media appears to make no predictions and to be unfalsifiable.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            A lot of the problem here is that the proof you’re asking for isn’t possible in a non-CW thread. Better to wait.

            Meanwhile, I encourage people yet again to find a copy of Neil Postman’s How to Watch TV News for some relevant insights to the business model that drives mass media.

          • beleester says:

            @Matt M sure seemed confident that the Malaysia thing was proof of something. Both sides of the Malaysia thing, even! He can address that much without entering CW territory, at least.

            Also, if you say that there’s no evidence that the media is pushing a message except on CW topics, then you’ve pretty much conceded that the media does do actual journalism sometimes.

        • cassander says:

          Industry and trade publications come to mind. Not all of them, of course, but there is a definite subset of them that use “reporters” who are legitimate industry experts that can and do write seriously and knowledgeably about their little corner of the universe instead of hiring know nothing 20 somethings who turn tweets into stories. Aviation Week springs to mind as an example.

          • engleberg says:

            My dad said a good newspaper has stories that make you smarter and editorials that make you dumber. The Wall Street Journal was especially famous for this, and you could see the Economist getting dumber as its editorials and columnists took over around 1995.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        If you are the one who originated the analogy to professional wrestling,

        That was me.

    • Randy M says:

      I’m pretty sure that either you are right, or I am too intellectually lazy and vain to put in the efforts to find reliable sources. I’m betting on the former, but being intellectually lazy and vain, I would, wouldn’t I?

      Also, I think this is probably level 1 or at best 2 of the exploding brain meme, followed by “Historical sources are no better”

      Also^2, isn’t this culture war? Or are Journalists not a SSC CW protected group?

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      Despite what journalists themselves might believe, there is no such thing as journalistic “misconduct” or “standards”, journalistic codes of ethics are an empty dance, and “unbiased” journalism is an absurd fantasy.

      I’m not sure what you mean by there being “no such thing” as journalistic misconduct: it seems clear to me that fabrication and plagiarism are widely regarded as constituting some kind of misconduct, and are treated as scandalous both within and without journalism. It also seems to me that people implicitly have some standards for journalism, in the sense that pieces get withdrawn, corrected, or updated if they fail to meet some kind of standard, and news network presidents have resigned over misrepresentations.
      If you’re just arguing that there is no widely agreed upon set of standards, or that the standards are not enforced, then you should provide some evidence that this is the case. It would be even more useful to compare and contrast journalism to other professions with standards bodies and ethics codes: how well is journalistic malpractice handled in comparison to medical malpractice, or engineering malpractice? Do you have some specific reasons for believing that journalism is worse at upholding its purported values and standards?

      As to “unbiased”, I agree that eliminating bias completely is impossible, but on a rationalist blog, that shouldn’t be very surprising: the question is, how badly biased is journalism (again, comparisons to other professions would be useful), and how seriously do journalists work to overcome their bias?

      Finally, does your opinion apply to all forms of journalism equally? I would guess that New York Times investigative journalism would come out much better than Buzzfeed “reporting on a Twitter controversy” journalism, and that in general investigative journalism and “beat” reporting would fare better than tabloid journalism and “gonzo” journalism–does your opinion allow for distinctions like this, or do you treat all forms of journalism equally?

      • Well... says:

        There’s no such thing as “journalistic misconduct” in the same sense as there is no such thing as bans on “performance enhancement” in sports. People may talk about it a lot and put on a lot of airs about being against it, but it’s a rather vague, constantly moving set of goalposts that aren’t (and can’t be) really enforced anyway. Fabrication and plagiarism are easy, extreme examples but they don’t happen that often and frequently enough go unpunished. Same goes for corrections/errata. Yes, occasionally there is a high profile mea culpa, but that’s pretty far from a consistently enforced standard.

        I don’t know much about medical malpractice, but engineering codes of ethics might be somewhat of a decent comparison — except in the case of engineering the ethics standards are to a significant degree there to ensure nobody gets killed (e.g. by a bridge collapsing). What are the standards there for in journalism, except to further prop up the affect? In other words, suppose journalists adhered to their stated standards perfectly. Would journalism essentially be any more than an affect? I don’t think so.

        Different journalists and journalism organizations of course succumb to their biases to different degrees and in different ways, but fundamentally there seems to be an idea among journalists that if you can just check boxes A B and C, then you have earned the right to say you are unbiased. There’s a basic lack of understanding (and maybe curiosity) about bias there.

        Yes, my opinion applies to all forms of journalism equally. Journalism varies only in the thickness of its affect — so, BBC or NPR news presents the affect quite thickly, FOX News or MSNBC more thinly than that, and National Enquirer or Buzzfeed more thinly still. The thicker it is, the more people tend to say “Well at least that’s a respectable journalistic institution even if I sometimes disagree with it,” without demonstrating that this has anything to do with the quality of the content itself.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          Others elsewhere are asking similar questions, but if you don’t mind me keeping going in this thread, I’ll keep engaging you here.

          I guess my first point is, there’s a lot of assertion here, but not much evidence: why can’t journalistic standards be imposed? Can you give an example of how the goalposts move? I don’t have any metrics that spring to mind in terms of how to evaluate journalism as a profession, but I’d like to hear more about how you came to these conclusions.

          As to the stakes: journalists can be sued for violating some of their standards, and the consequences can be severe for a journalistic outlet. Handling of sources is another area where there are real-life consequences for the actions of journalists. National security and handling of classified information have also come up as issues of serious consequence facing journalists.
          The above doesn’t mean that journalists uniformly handle these issues well, but there are definitely real pressures on journalists to adhere to meaningful standards.

          ut fundamentally there seems to be an idea among journalists that if you can just check boxes A B and C, then you have earned the right to say you are unbiased. There’s a basic lack of understanding (and maybe curiosity) about bias there.

          Again, do you have any evidence for this? Also, depending on what boxes A,B, and C are, then perhaps that is in fact a decent safeguard against (the worst forms of bias)? Couldn’t the same be said of the scientific method: as long as you check box A (double-blind methodology), B (pre-register your hypothesis), and C (make your data available), you have earned the right to say you are unbiased?
          Are you sure you’re not holding journalists to an unreasonable standard? Some examples would really help make your case here.

          Journalism varies only in the thickness of its affect — so, BBC or NPR news presents the affect quite thickly, FOX News or MSNBC more thinly than that, and National Enquirer or Buzzfeed more thinly still.

          This also strikes me as a dramatic overstatement. Here is the website for the National Enquirer, and here is the BBC. Aside from the difference in affect, I notice a pronounced difference in the sort of news they cover (Enquirer is almost all celebrity news: the first few headlines are about Glen Frey of the Eagles, Lisa Marie Presley, and Ben Affleck; BBC leads with the Pope condemning the sex abuse scandal, record high Measles cases, and Rudy Giuliani defending Trump). The BBC has separate categories for news from different regions of the world, for business, for sports, for tech, and for science; the Enquirer bills itself only as providing the “Hottest Celebrity Gossip & Entertainment News”.
          The BBC has correspondents in all parts of the Globe, and specialists on different issues; sampling their Wiki pages I find PoliSci and language degrees from LSE and Oxford, stints at the Bank of England, and so forth. The backgrounds of the Enquirer reporters I can find are much thinner: one was a recurring guest on the Howard Stern show for 14 years.
          So it seems to me the BBC differs from the Enquirer in the type of news it covers, the resources it devotes to finding news, and the backgrounds and experiences of the reporters who cover the news. All of these seem likely to produce meaningful differences in the quality of their coverage beyond just their affect.

          • Well... says:

            the BBC differs from the Enquirer in the type of news it covers, the resources it devotes to finding news, and the backgrounds and experiences of the reporters who cover the news.

            I wonder about the ratio of revenue the BBC gets from ads placed next to stories about celebrities vs ads placed next to stories about the economy or events in distant parts of the world. It doesn’t seem crazy to hypothesize that the BBC could remain solvent and perhaps even increase its bottom line by dropping all coverage except about celebrities and sensational events. Why don’t they? Because they want to look serious and grown-up. Similarly, I don’t think it’s crazy to hypothesize that their reporter-hiring process includes consideration of having worked at the Bank of England or Oxford more for image reasons than because that’s what makes someone good at being a reporter, since many of the most celebrated and esteemed reporters have absolutely no formal background in the things they report on.

          • beleester says:

            How would the BBC’s website look different, if they were actually serious instead of merely trying to look serious? Is there actually a visible difference? Currently, you’ve got a lot of Bulverism but no concrete claims.

            Also, I suspect that they wouldn’t make more profit if they cut out the serious stuff, because that’s their competitive advantage. The National Enquirer is better at publishing celebrity gossip than the BBC, and they’ll probably lose money trying to compete on those grounds.

          • Lambert says:

            > I wonder about the ratio of revenue the BBC gets from ads placed next to stories about celebrities vs ads placed next to stories about the economy or events in distant parts of the world.

            NaN. The Beeb is funded by tax (technically license fee) and not allowed to show advertisements.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            It doesn’t seem crazy to hypothesize that the BBC could remain solvent and perhaps even increase its bottom line by dropping all coverage except about celebrities and sensational events. Why don’t they? Because they want to look serious and grown-up

            As has been pointed out, the BBC is publicly owned, so your model of its internal reasoning is badly wrong.

            But, even putting this aside, this is still massively unconvincing. Even if the reasoning behind the BBC’s choices owes to its desire to adopt a particular affect, that doesn’t mean those choices don’t make substantial differences to their coverage.
            If the BBC only covered celebrity news, but used “US & Canada”, “UK”, and “World” tabs to break up their celebrity coverage by region, you would have an argument that their decision to do coverage by region is about style and not substance. But, in fact, the BBC does cover actual news from all around the world in a way that the Enquirer does not. This is a serious substantive difference in the type of journalism they do, and you can’t just wave it away.

            As an example, imagine I claim that restaurants are only distinguished from each other by their ambience–so-called fancy restaurants only differ from so-called fast food restaurants only in the choice of decor and stylistic choices on the menu.
            You point out that McDonald’s and Keens Steakhouse serve different cuts of meat, offer different items on their menu, and while the chef at Keens is a famous chef with his own cookbook, the chefs at McDonald’s are 17 year olds reheating frozen french fries.
            I respond, true, but these differences aren’t substantive differences in the quality or type of food, they are really choices of decor after all: Keens only serves fancy food because putting fancy food on their “Specials” board is a type of decor choice; and they only hired a fancy chef because having a “Chef Biography” on the menu is a fancy thing for restaurants to do.
            How convincing do you find this?

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Going to respond only to the statement about engineering codes of ethics; I disagree with your argument in the essentials, but I feel it’s important to point this out:
          The strength of an engineering code of ethics is limited by the degree to which it is taken seriously by professional engineers (not limited to Professional Engineers).
          There are people who sincerely believe that it is a violation of their particular variant of this code to give a neighbor advice on building a chicken coop, even if they have built one themselves, if they are not a structural engineer. This is because they believe that the *fact that they are an engineer* lends their advice undue weight, and that it undermines the integrity of their profession.
          There are other engineers who see a bridge that they’re in charge of cracking and consider their duty fulfilled when they leave a voicemail saying,

          Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend. Um, so, uh, we’ve taken a look at it and, uh, obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that. At any rate, I wanted to chat with you about that because I suspect at some point that’s gonna get to your desk. So, uh, at any rate, call me back when you can. Thank you. Bye.

          And there are other engineers who work on sites that threaten the lives of other people daily – the kind who help Qatar figure out how to build their slave-labor stadium.
          Engineering codes of ethics are actually fairly toothless, and often unenforced. Lots of people don’t take them seriously, but lots of us do, too. The meme persists through cynicism, somehow, and I honestly believe that most engineers do their best. I see no reason why journalism is fundamentally different.

          • quanta413 says:

            I think Well…’s model is too far. But engineering is not like journalism.

            When a bridge breaks, anyone who can see it can tell it broke. Checking that a phone or the internet or your car works (or doesn’t) is easy. From the physical point of view, you can confirm that stuff engineers make is working all the time. Constantly.

            But journalism is social. If the goal is for journalism to report true facts, that’s actually hard to check. Most true facts have very little impact on the reader’s life, and the reader has no serious motivation to spend the immense effort to really check. On top of that, in the truthful journalism model we’re supposed to rely on journalists to some extent to figure out what facts are important and relevant.

            Currently the only solution anyone has to these problems under the typical paradigm is to… add more journalists. And hope that enough of them go in different directions to get some amount of coverage and enough disagree with each other that there’s some significant motivation for them not to lie through their teeth when convenient because getting caught would be embarrassing. But you’re still relying on a lot of self-policing by the profession itself. And you still lack a reliable way of confirming what’s really going on except when journalists work cuts across your own experience or expertise. The results of which are often… pretty bad.

            I’ll bet that engineers behave as if they were more ethical the easier it is to check if what an engineer does works. I’d think this should hold true among engineers too and not just in comparing engineers to other professions.

    • helloo says:

      Both news and journalism have been accused of being essentially and primarily entertainment esp. with the modern capitalistic driving force (differentiating it from being propaganda, referential or scholarly in nature).

      Is this opinion not similar enough to what you stated? It’s maybe? fringe but hardly obscure.

      • Well... says:

        I don’t think the “modern capitalistic driving force” contributes to it being essentially and primarily entertainment. If anything, that force helps people understand it better for what it really is.

        • helloo says:

          Then ignore that part, it isn’t a main part of the argument, nor does it particularly change what the post was trying to address – that your opinion hasn’t exactly never been previously stated.

          • Well... says:

            I don’t doubt you’re correct — that news/journalism have accused of being essentially/primarily entertainment — but I can’t remember having seen anyone argue it. Sources welcome.

            Also, I’m curious if the people arguing this have deconstructed journalism to demonstrate their points.

    • LadyJane says:

      Considering that suspicion of the mainstream media almost always consists of far-rightists, far-leftists, or hardcore libertarians/anarchists railing against the establishment’s perceived left-wing/right-wing/statist bias (which in actuality is more of a slight center-left bias, aside from a few mainstream publications like The Economist that have an even slighter center-right bias), I’d consider this to be a borderline Culture War topic. To prevent it from going all the way, I’ll try to avoid criticizing any specific people or groups or ideologies in my posts here.

      At any rate, while I agree that the mainstream media isn’t infallible and certainly makes its share errors – some resulting from inherent biases, most resulting from honest mistakes – I find the idea that “there’s no such thing as journalistic integrity” to be far worse of an error. If you honestly think that Reuters is no more trustworthy or reliable than the average conspiracy theorist’s blog, or that your preferred alt-right/tankie/ancap news site is a better and more accurate source than CNN because it doesn’t have any liberal bias, then you may as well just throw up your hands and admit that you won’t trust anything that you don’t personally confirm with your own eyes. The same goes for people who have similar levels of mistrust and skepticism for the scientific and medical and academic establishments. That kind of anti-intellectual postmodernist nonsense is exactly why society is becoming more polarized. (That also ties into one of the main problems I have with the rationalist community; despite being a highly intellectual sphere in its own right, it seems very prone to a specific kind of intellectual anti-intellectualism, with far too many would-be Galileos thinking they know better than the thousands of people who’ve spent their whole lives studying the topics in question.)

      To quote Asimov: “When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” Saying that the journalistic/scientific/medical/academic establishment is wrong on a specific topic that you’re well informed about is valid criticism; saying that the establishment is inherently unreliable as a matter of course and that establishment consensus doesn’t have any weight to you at all (or worse, that establishment consensus has negative truth value in your eyes, where a fact seems less likely to be true to you if the establishment supports it) is the height of folly.

      • Well... says:

        More later when I have time, but right now let me just say that I consider myself fairly centrist, and my criticism of journalism has nothing to do with politics (mine or journalists’).

        • Well... says:

          OK, I have a little more time. The notion of journalistic integrity is sort of like a hand-written nutrition content label slapped onto a bale of wheat.

          The bale of wheat has been processed in such a way that it technically contains nutrients and, if put through a certain process (one most consumers of wheat can’t perform on their own), the baled wheat could be transformed into an edible form so the nutrients become digestible. But as it is, you can’t practically obtain nutrients from a bale of wheat. Really, if you want nutrients from wheat, you should get them from other wheat products such as bread or pasta — not from bales.

          Similarly, there is potentially value in disseminating information about some remarkable event, since people are naturally curious about remarkable events and some people might even palpably benefit from gaining information about those events. But journalism as we know it is a completely inappropriate delivery method for that information, and the notion of a “journalistic code of conduct” or whatever fails to compensate for that inappropriateness.

      • Nootropic cormorant says:

        But if there were cases in which you are certain you were right and the authority right, wouldn’t it be irrational not to consider it unreliable as a matter of course, to experience Gell-Mann amnesia effect as Crichton calls it?

        The cost of misinformation can vastly overwhelm the benefit of information, so believing an unreliable source can easily have a negative expected value even if it’s “mostly” accurate.

        Polarization wouldn’t be happening if authorities hadn’t cannibalized their credibility out of incompetence and for personal gain, you cannot inflate a punctured balloon, we will need to see a renaissance of intellectual honesty, stricter methodologies and demonstrated integrity before granting confidence to the intellectual establishment becomes reasonable again.

        • LadyJane says:

          But if there were cases in which you are certain you were right and the authority right, wouldn’t it be irrational not to consider it unreliable as a matter of course, to experience Gell-Mann amnesia effect as Crichton calls it?

          Not necessarily. Let’s say you’re a physicist and notice that journalistic articles about physics are usually only 60% correct, since physics is a complicated topic and new findings need to be simplified for journalists to understand and then further simplified for audiences to understand. It’s reasonable to assume that journalistic articles about biology are also about 60% correct, but if you know literally nothing about biology, then even that simplified, low-resolution, 60% correct version of the findings will leave you better informed than if you’d read nothing. And as @Eugene Dawn pointed out, journalists are likely to be more accurate when it comes to subjects they’re better versed in (like politics or current events), or subjects that are just simpler and more accessible. So you could reasonably conclude that articles about economics or foreign affairs or local elections are more than 60% correct.

          Of course, if the reason that physics articles are only 60% correct is because journalists are bad faith actors who are either too lazy to do the required research or deliberately trying to push a specific agenda, rather than merely simplifying complex ideas and occasionally making honest mistakes, that’s an entirely different story. If that were the case, I would agree that it might be wiser not to trust the mainstream media at all. But that seems like an unreasonably uncharitable assumption.

          The cost of misinformation can vastly overwhelm the benefit of information, so believing an unreliable source can easily have a negative expected value even if it’s “mostly” accurate.

          Deliberate attempts to spread disinformation or even incomplete information can be harmful, especially when done in the service of a particular agenda. Isolated mistakes here and there are less likely to be harmful. Low-resolution/lie-to-children versions of complicated ideas are even less harmful still. Most of the inaccuracies in the mainstream media fall under the latter two categories.

          In any case, the alternative to trusting the mainstream media is not going to be “people spend all their time and energy trying to independently research and verify everything themselves,” because that’s an impossible task. The alternative is going to be that they stop learning anything about the topic in question at all, or they try to figure everything out on their own but do a very poor job because they don’t have the required education and experience (a trap that a lot of rationalists and Galileo wannabes and pseudo-intellectuals fall into), or worst of all, they trust fringe sources that are vastly less reliable than the mainstream media but sound more accurate because they conform to people’s existing beliefs and biases (as is the case with conspiracy theorists and ideological extremists of all stripes). All three of those options leave people with far less of a correct understanding of the world than if they’d simply trusted the mainstream media’s mostly correct interpretation.

          • quanta413 says:

            I think what you’re saying is reasonable except for this

            All three of those options leave people with far less of a correct understanding of the world than if they’d simply trusted the mainstream media’s mostly correct interpretation.

            The mainstream media’s interpretation is often wrong even when its facts are reasonably accurate. I’d prefer to discourage people from worrying too much about interpretation. Not much in the news will affect the actions a normal human has to take.

            The editorial page is amusing junk basically, but Dow Jones Index numbers are almost certainly right and it’s pretty unlikely that reported events or quotes in even a middling reputable newspaper are just made up. Although quotes may have been aggressively cherry-picked.

            But the interpretation is junk for most of the fields I know very well, and facts that the media often reports later show its own earlier interpretations of politics or economics were wrong too often for me to take interpretations too seriously.

            EDIT: Of course, there are enough media outlets that typically a couple will turn out to have interpreted some given event more accurately. But I don’t see enough pattern in who gets this sort of thing right that I’m going to trust a single source of interpretations. The pattern of success looks a lot like random chance.

            Although some get it wrong consistently enough they can be ignored.

          • Nootropic cormorant says:

            Indeed, physics is a hard topic and it might cause misunderstandings on the journalist’s side, but it also not a very contentious topic (among the public) so the journalist’s reporting is probably unbiased.
            Other topics the journalist is more familiar with will proabably contain less variance but more bias, and as you may know this may or may not reduce actual error.
            What Gell-Mann should infer is that as far as general error reducing mechanisms go, which should stop inaccuracies no matter their source, journalism doesn’t possess many.

            Perhaps people cocooning into their preexisting biases is a feature, not a bug. Having many smaller bad ideas floating around is perhaps less dangerous long term than having everyone agree on a single bad idea.

          • Matt M says:

            it’s pretty unlikely that reported events or quotes in even a middling reputable newspaper are just made up. Although quotes may have been aggressively cherry-picked

            Is that really so different?

          • quanta413 says:

            @Matt M

            It’s different when there are enough different media slants that you can kind of jigsaw together something a little more reliable. It’s not great though.

            Also, media sometimes fail to cherrypick quotes that anyone would automatically find objectionable. Rather they’ll sometimes cherrypick a quote that people with similar politics find objectionable. This can help identify what the slant is, and sometimes the quote might even be interesting.

          • John Schilling says:

            It’s reasonable to assume that journalistic articles about biology are also about 60% correct, but if you know literally nothing about biology, then even that simplified, low-resolution, 60% correct version of the findings will leave you better informed than if you’d read nothing.

            And then you go out to lobby and protest against childhood vaccinations, because that was in the 40%.

            Or maybe you just stay home feeling frightened and confused, when in fact your children are largely safe from disease. And knowing lots of true facts about biology as well, doesn’t actually make that better.

            How about we take that 60% rate and apply it to criminal justice? Now you know the names of a hundred murderers and rapists and child molesters that the police weren’t able to punish, sixty of whom are actually guilty. This surely makes the world a better place, right?

            And then there’s political science…

            An exciting lie will, on average, cause far more damage than a boring truth will do good. It is safer to be wholly ignorant and to know one is ignorant, than to “know” a bunch of stuff that is only 60% true and with the falsehoods chosen for their excitement value.

            We live in a generally well-run world where the default behavior of trusting professionals to do their jobs right, usually works pretty well. In such a world, if we are going to use journalism as a source of actionable intelligence rather than just entertainment, don’t we need reporters to be at least as accurate in their work as are the other professionals they are reporting on? Certainly we need better than 60%.

          • LadyJane says:

            @John Schilling: People deciding that vaccines are harmful because they can’t trust the medical establishment and think that is a more reliable source of information is exactly the kind of thinking that I’m fighting against here.

            If the establishment consensus can’t be trusted, then people are left in an inhospitable and unnavigable no man’s land where no one can be reasonably expected to know anything they can’t confirm with their own senses. Science would be impossible, because there would be no giants on whose shoulders new researchers could stand on. Democracy would be impossible, because voters would have no way of knowing what politicians actually supported what policies, or what any of those policies actually entailed. Capitalism would be impossible in all but the worst possible forms, because consumers wouldn’t have the requisite information to make purchasing decisions that were in their best interests, and the market would come to reward deception and corruption more than quality and affordability. We would be living in a relativistic postmodern nightmare world, a dystopia where ‘truth’ was just another commodity to be sold and purchased, where everyone told whatever blatant lies would further their own interests, where everyone willingly believed whatever blatant lies felt the most comfortable to them on some intuitive level.

            A widespread distrust of establishment sources will not result in most people becoming independent rationally-minded truth-seekers (and of the few who do take that route, the vast majority will nonetheless end up coming to incorrect conclusions, because figuring out the way the world works is not a one person job). It will result in a lot of people becoming withdrawn and paranoid to the point where they decide to check out altogether and ignore all topics that they don’t have direct experience in, and it will result in even more people deciding to trust whatever fringe sources feel true to them by conforming to their existing worldview. You’d be turning everyone into apathetic bystanders, confused wannabe autodidacts, or delusional polarized extremists.

            Even in this very thread, I have to wonder how many of the people claiming they distrust journalism as a concept are really just looking for excuse to trust Breitbart (or its socialist/libertarian/anarchist equivalents) over The New York Times. And I would assume better faith of the people here than of people making similar arguments almost anywhere else.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Nootropic cormorant:

            Perhaps people cocooning into their preexisting biases is a feature, not a bug. Having many smaller bad ideas floating around is perhaps less dangerous long term than having everyone agree on a single bad idea.

            I don’t want a world where everyone agrees on everything. I do want to move closer to a world where not everything (even things as fundamental as the Earth being round and not flat!) is seen as totally up for debate, where everyone can agree on certain basic facts to build their arguments around, where there’s some common ground on which people can discuss and debate their differences of opinion.

            There would still be disagreements, for a number of reasons: Because scientists haven’t yet discovered how something works (e.g. whether a specific new drug is more likely to be harmful or helpful), because policymakers can’t be entirely sure what the results of a proposed policy will be (e.g. whether tariffs will save more jobs then they’ll cost), because some people simply have conflicting interests (e.g. steel workers who’d be more likely to keep their jobs if steel tariffs were implemented vs. auto workers who’d be more likely to lose their jobs in that situation). What you’d have a lot less of is people deciding that a new drug is definitely harmful because Big Pharma is evil, and furthermore that even the old drugs that have been conclusively proven to be safe aren’t actually safe, the FDA just says they are because of corruption. What you’d have less of is people deciding to oppose tariffs in one election and then support them in the next based on what their chosen party’s candidate says, because the issue of tariffs is actually irrelevant to them except as part of some Grand Referendum on Everything in the Culture War. What you’d have less of is people debating whether climate change was real at all, rather than debating the extent to which it’s anthropogenic and the likely severity of its effects.

          • albatross11 says:

            One aside of this is that I think entertainment often imparts negative knowledge. For example, millions of Americans feel like they know how police work normally goes, or what combat looks like, because they’ve seen both portrayed a lot on TV and in movies. Unfortunately, mostly their “knowledge” (most of it implicit, nonverbal mental picture of the world stuff) is all wrong.

          • albatross11 says:


            One pretty obvious problem with the establishment view being widely accepted is that the people who define that view have all kinds of incentives to shade it to accomplish their political or social goals. For example, the Bush administration found the New York Times *really* useful in pushing their case for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The fact that lots of people take NYT articles as accurate makes it extra-valuable to play the NYT’s reporters and editors to get your spin into the newspaper.

          • Nootropic cormorant says:

            Alright, but all of us here know about the replication crisis, we’ve read “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” and “The garden of forking paths”, we’ve seen the power posing fiasco and read the article about the joke the Stanford prison experiment was.
            I am sure everyone has their favorite political analogies they can share in the next culture war thread.

            When someone tells me that “a recent study found that…” I am perfectly entitled to say “a funny sampling of noise you have there” as I would if they were to show me a suggestively shaped cloud, four notable persons having the same birthday or English-Elamite cognates.

            I might choose to believe in something stupid instead, but I’d rather have strong priors anyway and not be lead around by noise.

            Besides, claims don’t convince only through credibility, logic (and emotion although that’s another topic) also plays a role. I might be biased against accepting uncomfortable truths, but sufficient evidence might convince me anyways, or if I am unable to review the evidence myself, I’ll ask someone whom I trust, who might hold the same bias that I have but is intellectually honest enough to recognize a strong argument.

            I don’t think that humans are by nature solipsistic, I think everyone wants to know the truth deep down, although not everyone has the same ability to do so. People form bubbles of confirmation bias to avoid being deceived or otherwise misinformed, but these bubbles are far from impenetrable, it just requires more evidence or otherwise more convincing narratives.

      • Enkidum says:

        Yes, I think @LadyJane is giving what would be the bog-standard answer that the majority of people would articulate if they had the time and inclination to think about it. I don’t mean to be insulting, but I think the reason people don’t respond to your point is that they think it’s obviously silly enough to not be worth taking seriously.

      • arlie says:

        I’m afraid I just have to applaud this.

        To quote Asimov: “When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

        My apologies for the lack or original content.

      • Mark Atwood says:

        saying that the establishment inherently unreliable as a matter of course and that establishment consensus doesn’t have any weight to you at all (or worse, that establishment consensus has negative truth value in your eyes, where a fact seems less likely to be true to you if the establishment supports it) is the height of folly

        Every single time I’ve read a general-audience mainstream media periodical article about the details of any of my areas of expertise, or about any technical project I’m heavily involved in, or any complex social context that I am heavily involved in, they get it wrong. Not just a little wrong, very wrong, usually completely wrong. Every time.

        Why should my experience be unique? I don’t think it is. I think my experience is pretty common, maybe universal.

        And as for the anti-truth-ness of mainstream journalism extruded media product, I would very much rather nobody read a general audience mainstream media article about any of my fields. Not because anything I do is esoteric or has to be secret. Completely the opposite.

        Because whenever someone may actually need to know and understand anything in those areas that I practice and teach, I first have to UN-“educate” them out of the falsehoods they’ve been authoritatively convinced to be true by some column-inch generating hack who’s salable skill is torquing text to truthyness to fit some masthead’s narrative of the day, before I can fill any of that now warped and damaged mindspace with a narrow little tiny serving of narrowly focused truth.

        There is no Superman, and there never has been. And that’s okay. What’s really heartbreaking to come to grow up and face the horrific reality of is that there never has been a Clark Kent, nor has there ever been a Perry White.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          Why should my experience be unique?

          Well, it depends on your area of expertise, surely. If you are a scientist, for example, given the arts and humanities background of most journalists, you might expect coverage of your specialty to be pretty poor. But this would be less likely to apply to other areas of expertise, if journalists can be expected to have a stronger training in those areas, or adjacent ones.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            As an patent attorney, being schooled in (and employed in) both the law and engineering, I would say that the wrongness seems fairly similar for both, and you would typically expect the law side to be better with all the ex-lawyers in the media. Its not. I can’t tell you why but places of high reputation will treat simple things like SCOTUS denying cert (not hearing a case) as the equivalent of affirming (its not, its more about docket management), or there was recently an article about the Manafort case I think in WAPO and I think by an ex-attorney, saying that the judge’s conduct was abnormal in the case. This is an insane statement by anyone who has been in a courtroom more than twice. Judges are constantly exasperated by parties that don’t appear to be 100% forthcoming or 100% compliant (even when the parties might be in the right).

            When it comes to engineering and science I used to understand it. A lot of journalists and editors are the people who are proud to have never taken a math course after algebra. But that excuse is no longer applicable. It appears to me that journalists appear to be in about the 50th percentile in knowledge of any type of thing. This is just enough that, when given a platform, they become particularly dangerous. A totally ignorant person could persuade no one, a knowledgeable person would persuade them well, but a journalist persuades people in a very corrupt way.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Judge Ellis’s conduct, according to other lawyers who have appeared before him, was not unusual for Ellis. They indicated (by omission) that it was idiosyncratic, saying it was typical for Ellis in particular, but not the Federal judiciary in general.

            That seems more noteworthy than the gloss you are putting on it.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Its very similar to the conduct of the judge I externed for, and she isn’t considered very notorious. It also is similar to the state court judge/ex prosecutor one of my friends works for as a staff attorney.

            There are some very patient judges, but the job generally consists of reading and listening to bad arguments all day.

        • LadyJane says:

          @Mark Atwood: See my response to @Nootropic cormorant above, it addresses a lot of the same points you raised.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            In my case, a set of 60% correct “lies to children” is worse than blank ignorance. And even if I was to grant that, they always pick the worst and most deceptive 39.5% to get wrong. And that part they get wrong is not wrong by simplification, its wrong by being wrong. Often reversed. (“Wet sidewalks causing rain”, from the original Gell-Mann essay.)

            And it’s not even that good, in that I’ve always had to contend against at least one giant well-capitalized corporation who spends large amounts of lobby and PR money telling Lies To Adults, and they are lies that fit many journalists’ preconceived notions.

            Again, I don’t think my fields are unique or special, either.

            So, no, you’ve not persuaded me.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I’ve always had to contend against at least one giant well-capitalized corporation who spends large amounts of lobby and PR money telling Lies To Adults

            That seems fairly significant…

        • This seems like a really narrow concern. If I see a news report that the President declared war against some country, what expertise am I missing? Should I find a general to confirm that the newspaper isn’t lying to me? Sure there’s always some editorial discretion but most of what you read isn’t pure editorial but some reporting of things that happened.

          • helloo says:

            If you are an American, you are missing the part where Congress has the exclusive power to declare war.

            Though the President can sidestep this various ways (and have increasing been the case) and send troops WITHOUT technically declaring war, they haven’t outright stated that they have the power to declare war on a foreign state.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            If you are an American, you are missing the part where Congress has the exclusive power to declare war.

            … and this is why (unless we are talking about a tweet by Trump) you won’t actually see that reported.

            And usually in that article about the President sending troops to some new theater, you will see some coverage of the War Powers Act, how Rand Paul (or similar) feels about this action, and other things. They will be fairly boring, and below the fold. Everyone who has read an article about previous actions will know roughly what will be below the fold, but that won’t stop them from being there.

            Now, it is the fact that these concerns won’t be reported as novel, and there is a bias on journalism for things that are novel. Novel things get more coverage. It’s why it’s called “the news”.

          • Matt M says:

            It is incredibly unlikely that the news report will simply report “congress declared war” and not attempt to provide some overall context in which subjective opinions will dictate “what it means” that congress declared war.

        • albatross11 says:

          Marc Atwood:


          When mainstream serious news sources (NYT, WSJ, Wash Post, Economist, Atlantic, CNN, NPR, etc.) report on any technical subject I understand well, they get everything comically wrong. The right way to think about this, IMO, is to assume that most technical subjects or subjects requiring detailed knowledge are probably being badly reported on by those sources–not because they don’t *want* to do a good job[1], but because they just don’t know enough.

          Direct factual stuff seems to be reported straight. Things inside the expertise of the reporter writing the story are worthwhile. But I assume that when the NYT writes an article on the Syrian civil war or the Venezuelan economy or how our latest trade barriers will affect the domestic car industry, they’re every bit as accurate and thoughtful as they are when they talk about, say, blockchain.

          [1] Though sometimes they don’t, to avoid p-ssing off advertisers or for tribal/partisan reasons.

          • Aapje says:

            An issue is that they often take their information from quite biased ‘experts’ that are commonly perceived to be neutral & they don’t have the expertise and/or time to recognize the bias for what it is.

            My newspaper is actually relatively good at going to decent primary sources if they proactively try to answer a specific question. They usually don’t even bury heterodox conclusions like the NYT does, but the more incidental information they present is to the main trust of the story, the more biased it tends to be.

            However, aside from investigative reporting they also do a lot of press release rewrites and rewrites of stories from other newspapers, where presumably the time pressure of ‘breaking news’ leads to unquestioningly accepting most of the claims from their sources.

    • Protagoras says:

      I’m surprised you feel like nobody else says this, as I feel like there are a lot of people who express some variant of this view. As to why you don’t get responses from those who disagree, I suspect almost everybody agrees with you partly. Many no doubt also partly disagree, but “journalism is and has always been pretty terrible, but not quite as bad as you say” isn’t a very exciting cause to argue for.

      • Well... says:

        I’ve seen one or two people express a much weaker version of this point of view. I’ve not seen anyone express it the way I do.

        BTW, I make no claim about journalism being terrible or bad or whatever, only that it isn’t what it purports to be. (In that sense Matt M’s pro wrestling analogy is cogent, although I think even pro wrestling is transparent, when pressed, about their storylines and feuds etc. being contrived.)

        • Protagoras says:

          I think I have to agree with the other people in this thread that suggest that the vagueness/unclarity of your points are largely responsible for people failing to respond to you in the way you would expect. You seem to think your point is clearly different from positions it seems to me to closely resemble. I cannot tell if you are misinterpreting others as being further from you than they are, or if I am misunderstanding your position (if the latter, again, probably because you are unclear, based on how many others in this thread seem to have similarly misunderstood).

          • Well... says:

            the vagueness/unclarity of your points are largely responsible for people failing to respond to you in the way you would expect.

            That’s good information. I’ll have to think about how I can be more clear/precise.

        • Matt M says:

          although I think even pro wrestling is transparent, when pressed, about their storylines and feuds etc. being contrived


          Although I’ve definitely heard some people who have been on cable news regularly (more in the “member of a panel” sense than a “guy who pretends to be a serious journalist” sense) report that it’s all basically fake and everyone involved knows it.

    • If the opposite of this was true, where journalism was something important but still written by biased, flawed individuals, what would that look like? I think the reason people don’t usually articulate a strong response is because a lot of what you said is pretty vague. What does it mean that journalism is pseudo-scholarly? What does it mean to say that journalism is not the “fourth estate”?

      One thing I would definitely dispute is you saying that being informed is meaningless. Two people, all other things equal, with different levels of awareness of the news are going to have different levels of information. Now maybe that information is slanted to one side or the other but it’s not usually completely false, just incomplete. People who are informed are almost always more knowledgeable and have a better idea of what’s happening in the world than those who aren’t.

      • Well... says:

        The opposite would be that journalism is important and written by flawless individuals who claim to be able to follow a set of very official rules that would make their work flawed and human.

        Journalism is pseudo-scholarly because it imitates the style of scholarly work without journalists themselves actually being expert in what they write about, and without the work being inaccessible to ignoramuses with only a 3rd-grade reading level.

        The concept of a “fourth estate” denotes that journalism holds some special status among media that sets it apart and makes it sort of official. It doesn’t actually have any such status except that which it has convinced itself of through sheer repetition.

        Who cares if you have a better understanding of what’s happening in the world? Why is that important, unless you’re a diplomat or a national leader or top advisor or something? Note: I do think being informed is good in a narrow sense, e.g. if you’re a neurological researcher you should be informed about the latest advances in your area of neurology. But you don’t go to journalism for that, you go to actual journals (and conferences, etc.).

        • You’re doing it again. What would it mean for journalism to have special status? I just don’t see how anyone can really argue against your claims because they aren’t concrete enough. Are you critical of journalism in general or the way it’s done? If it’s the latter, what exactly do you think needs to be reformed? If it’s the former, what exactly is the alternative?

          • Well... says:

            Official propaganda arms of various governments (or other organizations?) count as journalism that actually has special status. The western “free press” likes to both brag about how it has special status while also proclaiming its independence from direct government control (which to at least a large extent it has).

            I’m not sure how journalism ought to be reformed, despite having thought about it a lot. When remarkable things happen people are curious about them (and in a few extreme cases have an actual interest, beyond curiosity, in knowing about them) so there’s value in some entity that can very ably gather information about that remarkable thing and make it widely available. On one end of the extreme, scholarly journals do this, and on the other end of the extreme, the gossip you hear around the water cooler does this too. Journalism tries to model itself after the scholarly journals when it’s really more like water-cooler gossip, but I’m open to the idea that some actually middle-ground thing would be a positive reformation.

        • As far as understanding the world, it’s important because we live in a democracy and everyone votes on this stuff. I also think just knowledge is Good but I don’t have any underlying reason beyond that.

          • Matt M says:

            I believe the allegation here would be that journalism, as currently practiced, does not actually increase someone’s objective-level knowledge about a particular topic at all.

            It increases your knowledge in the particular ideological angle the journalist wants it to be increased in, but that’s about it. Knowing more about what they choose to tell you about does not necessarily mean you know more about the issue – in fact, if what they tell you is wrong or misleading, you might end up knowing less than you did before.

          • He’s making a stronger claim than that. He seems to have a problem with the entire idea of journalism.

          • Matt M says:

            I don’t think that’s inconsistent with my point.

            To the extent that journalism causes one to believe they are more informed than they actually are, that is a harm. An even stronger form would be that to the extent that journalism is actually giving people “anti-knowledge” that’s even worse.

          • That’s an empirical question. Have a group of liberals and conservatives come up with a quiz related to current events and then test those who keep up with news compared to those who don’t. I’m pretty confident that the former would do far better than the latter.

          • Matt M says:

            “More informed” on what the news that they have been reading is telling them, as judged by those who are telling them the news? Sure.

            But that’s no more significant than saying “If we get a bunch of students in a room and teach them to do well on a test, they’ll do better on the test than those who didn’t have that experience.”

            Unless you propose a method to judge how “informed” someone is that is completely and totally independent from media coverage, this doesn’t seem to prove anything.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            Okay, can we be totally clear about which claims are being made?
            a) “Being informed” is not useful except as entertainment, regardless of how accurate and well-selected the information.
            b) “Being informed” is not useful except as entertainment *because* the information it’s inevitably inaccurate and/or poorly selected.

            (I disagree with both)

          • Matt M says:


            I think a world where “being informed based on accurately selected information” is theoretically possible, but not achievable currently in today’s environment. Perhaps this is where I differ from Well

          • LadyJane says:

            @Matt M: Why is it impossible in today’s environment, and what would be required to make it possible? What would a functional journalistic establishment look like, in your eyes? How would it be different than the current system?

            And if the truth about a given issue was something that seemed extremely uncomfortable or unintuitive, wouldn’t people still be highly skeptical even of this ideal institution? How would this principled journalistic establishment convince people to believe it on issues like that?

          • @Matt

            Obviously nothing is flawless. But you’re making perfect the enemy of good. The reason I said getting a test made by conservatives and liberals is to lessen the political bias as much as possible. And you don’t have people in media write the test so you lessen that bias. If you set the conditions so that your position is unfalsifiable, then how do you expect to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe you?

          • Well... says:

            Wrong Species is on the right track. In this thread I’m taking issue with the entire notion of “being informed”. When people talk about being informed through the consumption of journalism, it implies several things:

            1) consuming journalism is sufficient — and sometimes more strongly: necessary — for “being informed”
            2) “being informed” is equivalent to knowing about the things that are covered by journalism content
            3) knowing about those things is valuable beyond merely satisfying curiosity or providing entertainment (or a topic for chit-chat)

            I don’t think any of the above are true.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            1) I don’t think anyone thinks it is either necessary or sufficient: domain experts stay informed on their area of expertise without needing to read the news, and reading the news can’t make someone informed for the same reason that reading a Quantum Mechanics textbook isn’t sufficient for someone to learn some useful things about QM.

            The argument you should be considering is, reading the news makes people more informed on average.

            2) Again, I think you’re making too strong of a demand. There’s a lot of things covered by the news, from World Affairs to Sports to Business, so the idea that everything the news covers is an essential component of being “informed” is ridiculous. Rather, there are many different ways of being “informed” depending on who you are and why you want to be informed, and the news attempts to satisfy that desire for as many people as possible.

            I’d be curious to know if there is some component of being “informed” that the news regularly misses–given your point 3, perhaps you think this question is ill-posed. But maybe you can still think of an example of a subject that the news studiously ignores, that you think to be unaware of makes a person “uninformed”.

            3) It’s probably true that keeping up with the news isn’t necessary for most people most of the time, but
            a) so long as people really do desire to be informed about the sorts of things the news informs them of, even if they don’t do anything with it, journalism can be justified and
            b) there are specific people, and specific times, where being informed is important: if you’re going to vote in an election you probably want some idea of what’s been happening politically and what the candidates are campaigning on; if you travel to a foreign country you might want to know if there have been major health-scares, or terrorist attacks, or whatever.
            Even if these things don’t affect everyone every day, they’re still worth reporting on if enough people each day will care.

          • Well... says:

            1) Reading the news makes you more informed than sitting in a windowless room alone, staring at a wall. I’ll grant you that.

            2) If I read the sales papers from my local grocery store and occasionally turn on a police radio scanner when I hear sirens go by my house, but never glance at a newspaper’s Politics section or listen to a cable news station, I will know more about the things that really matter in my life than if I did the opposite. In a practical sense I am more informed than Bob who does the opposite, yet most people would say Bob is the more “informed” one since he can discuss Trump’s latest tweets or which country just got bombed or where there are currently floods and forest fires.

            3. a) That’s basically “satisfying one’s curiosity”.
            b) I basically already said that:

            I do think being informed is good in a narrow sense, e.g. if you’re a neurological researcher you should be informed about the latest advances in your area of neurology.

            But then I also said:

            you don’t go to journalism for that, you go to actual journals (and conferences, etc.).

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Reading the news makes you more informed than sitting in a windowless room alone, staring at a wall. I’ll grant you that.

            That’s a start! Next: would a society without journalists be more or less informed than a society with journalists? Are people who read the news more or less informed on average than those who don’t?

            In a practical sense I am more informed than Bob who does the opposite, yet most people would say Bob is the more “informed” one since he can discuss Trump’s latest tweets or which country just got bombed or where there are currently floods and forest fires.

            If Bob is a voter, I think it’s important for him to be informed about which countries are being bombed; Bob might have family or friends in areas with floods or forest fires, or he might just want to donate to help victims–there are plenty of reasons why someone might rationally wish to be informed about parts of the world that don’t directly affect them, not least since we can’t always predict what parts of the world will directly affect us.
            Moreover, having more information lets us model the world more accurately. Of course, not everyone will need all the information in the newspaper at any given moment, but newspapers can’t be that tailored, so they have to print everything that any reasonable person might need to be informed about to cover their bases.

            3. a) That’s basically “satisfying one’s curiosity”.
            b) I basically already said that:

            Right, I was agreeing with you about curiousity.
            As to the second point, the idea that it is reasonable for the average person to turn to journal articles, much less attend conferences, to find out about the parts of the world that might affect them is preposterous.
            Here in Ontario, the Premier is changing the sex-ed curriculum–should parents who are interested in school curricula be expected to keep up with academic journals on school policy, or attend education conferences to stay informed of changes to their kids’ curriculum? I find that absurd.
            That one can instead turn to a simply written, accessible account that summarizes the important changes rather than having to immerse oneself in the professional literature strikes me as completely reasonable.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      journalism is nothing but

      a) This is absolutely Culture War. I cant actually address the question without going into the history of conspiratorial nonsense going back The John Birch Society and before.
      b) The reason that your “well reasoned” critique is ignored is because in the bolded portion above you reveal that you are not willing to be a fair interlocutor. You will get some “nodding head” agreement from others who share your view, but otherwise, why would I engage with someone who is so uncharitable in interpretation of evidence as to think of the entire profession as nothing more than, in essence, charlatans?
      c) The project of journalism certainly has challenges, but the idea that journalism can be judged on a binary rather than analog scale is a mistake. A study of the history of the form would reveal why taking an analog approach is much more likely to illuminate the subject area.

      • Well... says:

        a) Eh, I don’t see it. Surely someone can address this without having to focus on the John Birch society. Referential discussion of conspiracy theories in general, if that’s where you want to take it, needn’t be CW.

        b) Should I add explicitly that I’m willing to be persuaded? Show me what else journalism is besides an affect. Consider me unaware of the evidence but curious about it if you have some.

        c) What binary scale was I presenting? I said journalism is just an affect. The converse could be that journalism is NOT an affect, or that it’s an affect but also something else. At the very least that’s trinary, not binary.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Let’s take (c) first. And let’s reduce it to an absurdity.

          If there is an journalism, anywhere, which meets the standards of journalistic conduct as laid out by schools of journalism, is your theory disproved?

          • Thegnskald says:

            I mean, he’s right. It is all just an affectation.

            He just hasn’t yet realized that all of human society is an affectation, that civilization itself is an affectation. Civilization is an immense and highly functional polite fiction.

          • Well... says:


            I have considered that before. But, treating the civilizational affect as background/baseline, journalism is an affect compared with, say, the difference between fiction and non-fiction genres in literature.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Eh. Nah.

            Journalism as an affect is like the affect in any profession. It is more visible in journalism because journalism is more visible.

            If you were to translate how well your average programmer lives up to programming ideals into journalism, journalism might even do better.

          • Well... says:

            I’ll agree that the affect in journalism is like the affect in other professions, but other professions have substance beneath the affect.

            Yes, a law firm will write its name in a regal-looking serif font with a logo that includes the top of an Ionic column, and the lawyers will all dress in suits, etc. — that is an affect meant to make the law firm and its employees seem more serious and trustworthy. But beneath all that they do actually engage in arguing cases in courts of law. (Many of which actually do have Ionic columns outside the front doors.)

            If a journalism organization was a law firm, they’d have the same classical-looking logos and fancy suits and stuff but once you hire them you’d find out nobody there had passed the bar or even gone to law school, they don’t actually argue cases in courts or conference rooms or anything, and really all they do is sit around opining at a 5th-grade level about whether this or that ought to be legal.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            But beneath all that they do actually engage in arguing cases in courts of law.

            Yes, and beneath the fancy fonts of the New York Times, they actually do investigative reporting. You keep waving this way, but you haven’t actually justified doing so.

          • Well... says:

            they actually do investigative reporting

            What does that actually mean? How is it consistent with or worthy of the blackletter fonts and authoritative tones used by the newspaper?

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            If you don’t know what investigative reporting is, maybe you don’t know enough about journalism to judge it?

        • Dan L says:

          c) What binary scale was I presenting? I said journalism is just an affect. The converse could be that journalism is NOT an affect, or that it’s an affect but also something else. At the very least that’s trinary, not binary.

          I think binary is the wrong word here, try “absolutist”. Journalism is an affect (though I think “style” fits better), but it’s also an a abstract ideal, a type of informational product, and an everyday profession. And people’s definitions of each of those four will slightly vary. Compare and contrast the word “engineering”.

          It looks like you’re making the argument that the professionals typically fail to live up to the ideal, which is a point of reasonable debate. But that has no bearing on whether the non-style definitions point to meaningful and distinct concepts, which is where you’re taking the claim.

          • Well... says:

            Whether journalists live up to their ideal is sort of a side-track. I’m saying that if you strip away the affect, what remains is basically nothing that might distinguish journalism from, say, opinion blogging or gossip.

          • John Schilling says:

            what remains is basically nothing that might distinguish journalism from, say, opinion blogging or gossip.

            Except for the bit where journalists are the ones who actually find and report the facts that opinion bloggers opine about.

            I had to go back two OTs to find you talking about anything other than the sad state of journalism, but you also seem to care about the removal of Confederate monuments and the possible appearance of Harriett Tubman on US currency. And OK, possibly you learned about those things through opinion bloggers opining about them. How did they learn about them?

            I’m pretty sure your favorite opinion blogger doesn’t check the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s website on a regular basis, nor does the BEP include them on their press releases. It’s possible that an opinion blogger might get an emailed tip from a like-minded college student saying “They took down the statue of Robert E Lee at my school, the damyankee bastards!”, but from that spring obvious questions like whether the monument was public or private property, who ordered the removal and why, and whether this is a simple matter of restoring a crumbling concrete base so the monument can be displayed in greater glory next month. Reporters are actually pretty good at asking those questions and getting answers from the right people; opinion bloggers not so much.

            In actual practice, opinion blogging is mostly talking about what reporters report, and without the reporters, neither you nor the opinion bloggers would be at all well informed.

          • Well... says:

            Yes, I often get information that at some point has passed through a journalist. Elsewhere on this thread I have supported the idea that there is utility in disseminating information about remarkable events. That doesn’t mean the fact that journalists happen to do work that overlaps with this makes journalism a good thing as currently conceived.

          • John Schilling says:

            journalists happen to do work that overlaps with this

            In roughly the same way that soldiers happen to do work that overlaps with defending their nation against its enemies in battle and war.

    • ilikekittycat says:

      This is a fairly common view on the Chomskyish-to-Marxist left, esp. the futility of unbiased, impartial reporting (“the view from nowhere”)

      There’s lefty podcasts like Radio War Nerd and Chapo Trap House where at least 50% of the discussion just tearing the press apart for failing to deliver on their pretenses, how journalistic standards are almost uniformly biased in favor of protecting the reputations of the established and powerful, etc.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Let’s assume for a moment you are 100% correct. The media is, basically, just a bunch of kids playing grown-up. Like every other occupation.

      Which do you prefer – the version of reality where they play grown-up pretending to be responsible adults living up to a code of integrity, or the version of reality where they just behave like the children they are?

      • Matt M says:

        Definitely the latter.

        • Thegnskald says:

          Do you think that would actually be an improvement? Or would it merely be satisfying?

          • Matt M says:

            An improvement. Teeki below put it more eloquently than I would, but it’s basically the same idea. Fraudsters are dangerous because they have credibility. Taking away their credibility takes away their capacity to defraud people.

            The journalistic profession has managed to con a lot of people into believing they are credible sources worthy of authority and respect. This is a problem because some people believe it.

          • Thegnskald says:

            I think you have things a bit backward.

            The people listening to respectable news are themselves adopting an affectation.

            Their professed belief in what they are told is also an affectation. Do you think the people tweeting about black holes as reported in the media generally understand what a black hole is in sufficient detail for them to even be able to be said to have beliefs about them?

            You seem to think the problem is one layer deep, that the problem is that the media is respectable. No. The problem is the people are respectable, the sort of people who follow the news and understand what is going on in the world.

            Remove their respectable media and you aren’t going to improve their beliefs, because they will just substitute in the closest equivalent and keep on holding respectable beliefs.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            This conversation seems to be entering into sort of a parody of nihilism. There is a kind of jaded cynicality that is fairly common , but I think is more rooted in ego and the protection of self than it is in reality.

          • Thegnskald says:

            HBC –


            I guess. I just look at it as the bright meadow on the far side of the dark forest of nihilism.

          • BBA says:

            In a recent discussion here (the details are CW-related and irrelevant) I submitted a link to a more-or-less respectable source saying X was true, to which someone else responded with a link to a different more-or-less respectable source saying not-X was true. At which point I realized that there was no point discussing it, or anything else contentious, since everyone has their own sources and facts to choose from. So what else is there but to descend into nihilism and solipsism?

          • Thegnskald says:

            BBA –

            I mean… that is one approach?

            Alternatively, just laugh quietly at the fact that the best we can do is to disagree about the facts, and delight in a universe that hasn’t been mapped nearly as well as many people seem to think. The frontier is still everywhere!

            (Or, more cynically but still positive, laugh quietly and enjoy your job security, given the competition.)

          • albatross11 says:

            Seems like the next step is trying to figure out which source is right, and how you’d tell. Sometimes you can’t, but sometimes it’s knowable.

          • Aapje says:


            Would you disagree that the non-cynical stories that people tell themselves are often “more rooted in ego and the protection of self than it is in reality?”

            Infinite cynicism is not correct (or healthy), but a decent amount of it seems to result in better predictions than its absence.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            This seems irrelevant to the existing conversation, but yes, all kinds of irrational thinking is motivated by ego protection.

            As I’ve pointed out several times in recent threads, I am also slightly mystified when people are surprised by the ability of other humans, even life itself, to be cruel and unfair. In fact, I’d say the move to infinite cynicism is not an uncommon phenomenon in those who originally over estimate the probability of various positive outcomes.

            I continue to maintain that these things are best understood on a continuum. Everyone evidences these behaviors, partially because I think this is best modeled as outcomes of competing heuristics of assessment. Thus, I am not making any claim to be perfectly rational myself. Perhaps the most I can say about myself is that I have a decent ability to become aware of my own irrationality.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Seems like the next step is trying to figure out which source is right, and how you’d tell. Sometimes you can’t, but sometimes it’s knowable.

            If there was ever a reason for this community to exist…

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I answer complete cynicism by observing that people are accurate and cooperative enough for the human race to survive, even though entropy is grinding away at us.

            The challenge is figuring out an adequately correct amount of cynicism for your situations.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Nancy –

            That isn’t incompatible with the cynical view of reality.

            It is rather incompatible with the sort of gloomy cynicism a lot of cynics tend to adopt, granted. I tend towards an optimistic version of cynicism: The fake values and principles everybody pretends to hold are a form of social technology, and it doesn’t particularly matter whether or not people actually believe in them, it is just fine if they mostly behave like they do.

            That is the disparity between communism and capitalism; capitalistic principles work whether you believe in them or not, communistic principles only work if people genuinely believe. I am trying to figure out a version of communism with the same property, but it is difficult.

            Which is to say, the values that survive possess a fascinating kind of fault tolerance bordering on empiricism.

            So the world functions even when it is running on lies. It is pretty cool.

          • johan_larson says:

            Seems like the next step is trying to figure out which source is right, and how you’d tell. Sometimes you can’t, but sometimes it’s knowable.

            I could imagine a system whereby a group of professionals from diverse fields volunteer to rate or comment on the stories in a major news source. Picture some sort of app that you read the through, and for each article there’s a thumbs-up thumbs-down and a bit of commentary from someone who works in the field being addressed.

            I’m sure I could build such a thing. But there are hard questions about how to recruit and retain the commentators, starting with what they are getting out of it.

          • Matt M says:

            The NYT once had that (although albeit without the screening for expertise in field).

            They disabled it because too many people were disagreeing with them. (Erm, I mean, because it “was not conducive to productive discourse” or whatever the hell their excuse was).

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            They disabled it because too many people were disagreeing with them. (Erm, I mean, because it “was not conducive to productive discourse” or whatever the hell their excuse was).

            We’re still in a non-CW thread, and I claim my five pounds.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I’m sure I could build such a [system whereby a group of professionals from diverse fields volunteer to rate or comment on the stories in a major news source]. But there are hard questions about how to recruit and retain the commentators, starting with what they are getting out of it.

            Right. A sufficiently advanced expert is likely too busy maintaining expert status to spend that time making corrections to an article, especially if readers are likely to misinterpret their corrections anyway.

            And there are other problems. Who rates the raters? What if they’re skewed in viewpoint, either because they’re intimidated into being so, or because someone in control was able to carefully select raters? Or what if they’re skewed because the evidence really does go in that direction? How could you tell which is the actual case?

            And in the end, who’s going to pay for all this time spent?

            I’ve long since felt that an authority-based system would be ultimately impractical for such reasons. Ideally, it shouldn’t be based on authority at all. It should be based on evidence and facts, checkable on their face, and with utter honesty in cases where the evidence simply isn’t available. (I would expect a great many more articles concluding “we don’t know”. Most of them, even.)

          • johan_larson says:

            Ideally, it shouldn’t be based on authority at all. It should be based on evidence and facts, checkable on their face, and with utter honesty in cases where the evidence simply isn’t available.

            I’m not quite sure what you mean by “checkable on their face” but if this is roughly “provably true”, then I think the bar is simply unusably high. Even courts don’t require the judge and jury to be able to go and verify things themselves; they accept testimony by witnesses about events and expert witnesses about facts in general.

            What might work is something like careful footnoting. Every statement of consequence would have to have a source, whether another publication or a subject matter expert of some sort or a set of steps for direct verification. Everything else would be carefully flagged as the author’s own (at best) educated supposition. That could certainly be done.

            The question I have is whether it is worth it. I you are a publisher trying to make money, is it worth trying to serve the (presumably small) audience whose standards for truth are so very high that this sort of fiddlework is necessary to satisfy them? Because it is going to take time and effort. And that effort might be better spent on hiring knowledgeable and honest journalists, holding them to high standards, and building trust with the audience by sticking to a consistent perspective.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Fair point. Some examples:

            The 10% interest rate meant that they would be able to double their money in about 7 years. Checkable on its face; all you need to know is the rule of 69.

            Stocks were up an average of 10% among companies working directly in cloud technology. Specific, but uncheckable; no source.

            Stocks were up an average of 10% among companies working directly in cloud technology, according to Gartner’s FY2017 report. Very close. The main clause is no longer an isolated statement of fact; there’s a source, and you now have a chance to ask what’s defined as “working directly in cloud tech”, and see their data, even if you have to buy it.

            Workplace safety was the biggest issue for voters in southern Indiana last midterm. Totally uncheckable and unsupported.

            Workplace safety was the biggest issue for voters in southern Indiana last midterm, according to Rod Sayers, an analyst with Rotexis. Much better; you could theoretically find this statement on a site, or call Mr. Sayers and ask him. Thing is, this remark might have been made in context, and Rotexis might be an advocacy group; the claim might not be very strong. Which might be fine, depending on what the story later infers from it.

            If Sayers is correct, it means that candidate Garcia made the right call by campaigning on her relationship with OSHA. Checkable on its face, given even just the prior weak claim above.

            And yes, footnotes, or tooltips on online sources, could make this even easier to use.

            Based on my rough cross section above, I’d say most statements of fact aren’t easily verifiable by the reader, but all such statements might still be usable, depending on how much the author tries to prove. I think most articles try to prove too much on evidence that doesn’t cover the gap, and readers have become either too willing to accept that, if it confirms their priors, or too willing to simply distrust the source if it doesn’t.

            To lay it out more starkly, and hopefully in a non-CW way: Joe the journalist writes an article with lots of facts and a conclusion. Joe does ace work digging up the facts, but they’re complicated facts, and don’t quite support the conclusion Joe chose to draw – there were some cases he didn’t consider, some of his sources might have been tainted, etc. Joe’s aware of this possibility, but the conclusion he knows he could draw would make for a boring article in his editor’s eyes, so he runs with the former. // Rachael reads Joe’s article and likes the conclusion enough to share it with Reggie. Reggie dislikes the conclusion, and infers that Joe is biased and says so. Rachael checks the facts and finds them upheld by other sources, and infers that Reggie is biased. Reggie might either look closer himself and discover what Joe knew – that the conclusion didn’t quite hold up – but maybe it’s close, and the boring conclusion was something both Rachael and Reggie might have agreed with. But that means Reggie would have to do a lot of work Joe already did.

            Is it worth the cost to fix this? I believe so. It’s not so much that journalism needs to do even more scutwork to back up its facts; rather, it could be more honest in how incomplete its data is. Meanwhile, readers would need to be more accepting of boring conclusions like “this might be true, but to be more certain, we’d need to get other information that’s hard to get, even for us”.

      • Teeki says:

        I would prefer them to behave like the children they are.

        When they present themselves as professional journalists with a strict code of conduct and integrity, they increase their persuasiveness. Consumers tend to be less skeptical of the claims made, especially if they’re in the same tribe.

        Articles on any CW topics are bad, I’m sure I don’t have to go into how bad they are here, but even if I were to exclude those, the number articles [on esoteric topic that I’m familiar with] that didn’t survive basic fact-checking far out numbers the articles that I thought were moderately credible.

        From the data that I have seen, faith in the mainstream media as a whole is declining. I don’t like the current ratio of fair-reporting to viewer-skepticism is at a good place, but it is at least trending in the right direction. If the facade of authority and integrity is stripped, I think it’ll hasten the process and whatever place it converges will ultimately be better than where it is today.

        Would you prefer a poorly dressed, inarticulate hobo to peddle snake oil to your grandmother to someone who looks like a doctor with a fake degree and all?

        • LadyJane says:

          Except what @Well… is saying is that there are no real doctors, and there’s no real difference between the shambling hobo and the well-dressed physician with several medical degrees on his office wall. At which point, your only options are to either accept that real medicine doesn’t exist and that you’re totally fucked if you get sick, or try to figure it out on your own with no experience, or rely on your Aunt Sally’s homebrew concoctions for treatment because they’re just as good as anything else and they taste better than the snake oil potions or the pharmaceutical pills.

          • Matt M says:

            Can you not imagine a situation in which this would have been true?

            Perhaps hundreds of years ago when all the official “real” western doctors would prescribe bleeding for a fever, and meanwhile, the native medicine men would advise doing some sort of dance to appease the gods?

          • LadyJane says:

            @Matt M: That’s a good analogy, but I don’t think the modern journalistic (or scientific, or academic) establishment is so far gone as to be comparable to medieval medicine. Any kind of civilized liberal democratic society would be functionally impossible if that were the case.

          • Matt M says:

            Who says we’re “civilized, liberal, and democratic”?

            Perhaps relatively so, compared to some other especially terrible civilizations that have been observed throughout history. But we still have poverty. We still punish people for thoughtcrime. We still lock up people for victimless crimes. We still bomb weddings overseas. We still tax people at 50% of their income, and use that money to pay overseas terrorist groups to commit atrocities. We still have a political class that is mistrusted by huge majorities of the population. And our lovely media that has bestowed us with all of these gifts is trusted even less than that.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Matt M: You’re right about every one of those points, of course. Yet we’re still more civilized and liberal and democratic than much of the modern world, and certainly more than the vast majority of societies to exist in human history. And what’s more, we’re moving in the right direction (at least broadly speaking, even if we’ve suffered some temporary setbacks over the past 15 years or so). Resorting to anti-intellectual postmodernist cynicism is not the way forward. That kind of counter-enlightenment thinking only led to bad outcomes in the past, and it will only lead to bad outcomes now.

          • Teeki says:

            @LadyJane you’re right, I think Well… overgeneralized a little by saying there does not exist any real doctors. For me, they exist but they are in the minority (though I think it gets a lot better if you ignore the publicans who have national reach)

            I am not as confident about being on the right track for the last decade or two, I have trouble quantifying the state of the west into a single metric. I’m not even sure if the media is worse now than it was 20 years ago. But I totally agree that it’s important to not let cynicism brew nihilism.

        • Thegnskald says:

          I’ll take the fake doctor, because he is going to make an effort to be convincing, to the extent that he will, assuming he wants to be accepted as the real thing, probably be frantically researching the problem out of sight of me and might even come up with the correct solution.

          That is the state of affairs right now. That is what a real doctor looks like.

          • Teeki says:

            I see where you’re coming from, but I reject that as the state of affairs of media with how extremely politicized everything is. I have seen too many instances of omission of key information, spin, stealth edits, etc. to remain charitable. I will avoid going into specific examples since that is definitely CW.

            I applaud journalists who try spends their time to get to the bottom of controversial or partisan issues, they certainly exist and do important work. However that is not the brush that I use to paint most mainstream journalists.

            I will nitpick on something else however: In order to be persuasive, knowledge is not the main dish, I’d argue that it’s 25% of it and the other 75% is in the presentation. Certain rationalist groups would have it a lot easier if it was. Peruasion depends on a completely separate toolbox I’d have to pull up my notes for the full list, but here are a few examples:

            Authority – Hire an articulate and attractive anchor and have them speak as if they were an expert on the subject without any doubts. Preface what you’re going to say with “Experts say …”

            Scarcity – Convince them that what you’re about to tell them is something that [Opposite party] wants to censor or hide.

            Chuting – Provide the conclusion before you even give the analysis. It is no coincidence that certain articles are titled as “X Does Y, Here’s Why It’s Bad.” Naturally, there are ways of using chuting in less obvious ways.

            Association – Try to build a mental association between the X and [historical hero or villan]. Or just make claims like X has attracted the admiration of the Extreme Centrists.

            Attention – Constantly hammer on the same subject. Attention boils down to the fact that we think in associations, not implications. i.e. instead of This is important to I must pay attention to it we think I paid attention, therefore it must be important

            These are just a few examples, but none of these tricks requires anyone to know the correct solution. A lot of this stuff I never noticed before or wrote off until I read Cialdini, but I see they are ubiquitously applied in the media.

      • toastengineer says:

        The second one, because they behave like that anyway but the common people are still told to believe everything they say. You know schools still tell kids that random-ass news articles count as an “authoritative source,” right?

      • Well... says:

        If you interrupt kindergartners playing and say “Hey you kids, what are you doing?” they will usually tell you “We [kindergartners] were pretending to be X.” If they don’t admit they were pretending and instead continue to insist that they are in fact X, then you shrug and know that in a few years they’ll grow out of it and will eventually have a better grasp of where their fantasies end and reality begins. The problem is if they don’t.

        Yes, all people to some extent model their behavior on an ideal and so even mature adults are in a sense “playing grown-up”, but some ideals are coherent, realistic, and useful whereas other ideals are not. The journalist, as this trustworthy person who has the most up-to-date knowledge about the most important things and is qualified to disseminate it, and capable of doing so in an unbiased way, is one of those ideals that’s not coherent, realistic, or useful.

        How has an incoherent, unrealistic, useless ideal perpetuated itself? Because it’s a powerful, widely-accepted affect and they’ve got it down to a science.

        • Thegnskald says:

          Hang on for a second.

          I will agree it is incoherent, but in the same respect that the ideal of knowledge itself is incoherent – which is to say, there will be disagreements on what exactly the ideal looks like. A right-wing version of the ideal looks different from a left-wing version of the ideal, because they understand the world differently.

          Unrealistic doesn’t enter into it – all ideals are unrealistic, they are aspirational.

          Useless, however, is entirely wrong. It is an ideal that leads people to question the status quo, it is an ideal that pushes journalists to do better, to be better. I doubt you disagree that if they did a better job of living up to the ideal, that journalism would be better?

          Or do you think journalism would be just as well if journalists never bothered being as well-informed as possible about the latest information?

          • Well... says:

            Journalists don’t bother to be as well-informed as possible, because if they did they wouldn’t be journalists. They’d have to quit their jobs and become scholars or scientists or any other kind of expert in whatever it is they chose to report on, and their reporting wouldn’t come in the form of a newspaper article or a radio or TV show segment, it would come in the form of a scholarly journal article or a presentation at a symposium, etc., at the end of which they’d list limitations of their findings and invite criticism and follow-up studies.

            And that’s my point: if your ideal says “the ideal journalist is maximally informed” but being maximally informed means pursuing a career other than journalist, then your ideal is incoherent, unrealistic, and useless.

          • Matt M says:

            And that’s my point: if your ideal says “the ideal journalist is maximally informed” but being maximally informed means pursuing a career other than journalist, then your ideal is incoherent, unrealistic, and useless.

            I like this phrasing.

            Basically, the skillset of “maximally informed” has little overlap with the skillset of “able to tell stories that the public likes to consume.” Such that it’s basically impossible (and would make little to no economic sense) to get people who are both.

          • bean says:

            And that’s my point: if your ideal says “the ideal journalist is maximally informed” but being maximally informed means pursuing a career other than journalist, then your ideal is incoherent, unrealistic, and useless.

            This seems entirely too high a standard to demand that journalists (or anyone who isn’t a professor specializing in that specific field) meet. Why do they need to be “maximally informed”, and is there any room for translation by someone who is well-informed, but less than maximally so?

            Let’s use an analogy. You show up at the Iowa, and ask for a tour guide to show you around. Because I no longer live there, the guide you get almost certainly does not have “be maximally informed about battleships” as a goal. But you get one of my friends, who’s a good tour guide. She knows a lot about the ship, and battleships in general, and is good at explaining it to you. Has she added value? Absolutely.
            The same analogy extends to teaching. Your physics teacher did not try to be maximally informed about physics. He did know enough about physics to teach me a lot of useful things.
            So at least in principle, I’ll defend the utility of journalists, who are basically doing the same thing about current events. In practice, the media lately hasn’t been doing a particularly good job of doing so. But the critique should be on the object-level, not the meta-level. Or at the very least, not at this meta-level.

          • Well... says:

            Right. A physics teacher is specialized not in some area of physics but in teaching physics to students at such and such a level.

            What is a journalist specialized in?

            Elsewhere on this thread I’ve defended the utility of disseminating information about remarkable events and such, since people tend to be curious about those kinds of things. But I don’t think that’s a good description of what journalism really is, in practice.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      The reason no one engaged with this (until now) is that we’ve all heard a bunch of ‘boo journalism’ before and from the reader’s perspective yours doesn’t stand out. (Which is mostly orthogonal to whether it’s correct)

      • Well... says:

        Usually “boo journalism” = “I don’t like journalism because it usually carries a bias I don’t share”. I’m not saying anything like that.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Sure, but people making that case are pretty good at hiding their own ideology below the cut.

          Like they’ll say that journalism is meaningless blather to entertain the masses, then when you engage them they say that’s because it doesn’t question capitalism enough or whatever.

          Not saying it’s fair, but you can see how the well was kinda poisoned before you showed up?

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      If it’s as you say, a lot of dictators have wasted a lot of effort suppressing journalism.

      • Randy M says:

        The ability of journalism to incite is orthogonal to it’s ability to accurately convey information.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          a) Acknowledging that already suggests there’s something special about journalism, even if it’s not especially good.

          b) Worse regimes suppress journalism harder, suggesting it disproportionately incites against bad regimes. (Defending the empirical claim here would be an effortpost I’m not prepared to make… if you disagree, we agree to disagree for now)

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          The most famous case of arrested journalists currently is the case of two journalists in Myanmar arrested last December, widely thought to have been arrested for reporting on the massacres in Rakhine state.
          An Egyptian photographer is in jail for taking a picture of government crackdowns after the military coup in 2013; he is facing the death penalty.
          Turkey is the most prolific journalist-arrester these days: among the arrested journalists are Canan Coskun, arrested for an article “about a group of lawyers who were taken into custody on September 20, 2017, by Turkish authorities and questioned by state prosecutors.” Can Dundar is being charged on the basis of an article “that alleged Turkey smuggled weapons into Syria under cover of humanitarian aid”. Idris Yilmaz was sentenced to 15 months for a video that “shows local militia groups– formed to assist the military in rural south and southeastern regions– mistreating a minor”.

          So, in fact, journalists are arrested for their ability to accurately convey information.

          • Randy M says:

            So, in fact, journalists are arrested for their ability to accurately convey information.

            Betcha if they faked the photos they’d still have been arrested. (And don’t you need at least one more source in each instance to establish accuracy?)
            Pictures are more convincing and harder for amateurs to fake.
            And dictators who will resort to punishing dissent usually have plenty of true inflammatory events to publicize.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Not all of them took photos, so far as I understand: the ones in Myanmar were investigating a massacre after the fact, and I can’t imagine the articles about “lawyers being taken into custody” or even “smuggled weapons” produce particularly dramatic photos.

          • Randy M says:

            Well–“orthogonal” is hyperbolic, certainly. Let’s instead say that dictators would almost certainly punish people publicizing equally inflammatory lies about them; however, the truth is an easier schelling point, especially for people who have trouble organizing effectively.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Yes, that sounds fair to me. Dictators suppress lots of things, for lots of different reasons.
            But the fact that, among the things they suppress is honest investigative journalism into the regime suggests that a populace informed by the press really is hostile to some extent to dictatorial power.

    • Dan L says:

      Surprising amount of postmodernism going on in this thread. Not sure how much to read into that.

      • johan_larson says:

        I don’t think it’s so much postmodernism in the sense of there being no objective truth as potent cynicism about who you can trust to tell you the truth. The government? No, it’s incompetent or corrupt. Credentialed professions? No, they’re just cartels looking to bleed us dry. The media? No, they’re propagandists or it-bleeds-it-leads eyeball harvesters.

        So who’s left? You can trust own painstaking efforts, I suppose, but you can’t investigate much by your own efforts. You end up vaguely skeptical of everything. From the outside, credicide looks like postmodernism.

        • LadyJane says:

          I don’t see much of a functional difference there, especially since a lot of postmodernist thought (perhaps not all of it, but a sizable portion, especially in academic circles) is built upon the idea that truth – in terms of both the actual information being disseminated and the very concept of an objective truth that can be known and understood by human minds – is manufactured by those in power to serve their own interests.

        • theredsheep says:

          Ages back somebody–the Economist?–said that a lot of our current polarization woes were due to the proliferation of media and loss of centralized control of information. It used to be that there were three big TV stations and they all had to moderate their tone for fear of alienating advertisers. Not so much, now. When anybody can make information and distribute it, that leads to a flowering of new arts, in one sense, but it also means confusion and conflict since there’s no clear direction to follow. From one perspective, it almost doesn’t matter what the truth is, so long as everybody’s agreed where it’s coming from. If the objective truth is being spoken on one YouTube channel, and there are three thousand others, we’re almost better off with a single consistent set of lies. Almost.

          Probably Scott posted something like this, but far more thought-out, two years ago.

          • LadyJane says:

            @theredsheep: Almost better off with a single consistent set of lies, yes – and absolutely, positively, definitely better off with a single consistent set of more-than-half-truths, which is exactly what we were getting from the mainstream media before the current avalanche of alternative sources.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            There might be something to this account, but I’m a little sceptical. TV isn’t the only medium, and people have been able to make their own information and distribute it for as long as we’ve had the printing press–pamphlet wars and competing newspapers and news magazines are not a new feature of the discourse.
            It’s possible that TV is so dominant that three big TV networks can forge a consensus even over the squabbling of the magazines and newspapers, but I don’t think it’s true just by inspection.
            It’s also worth noting that other eras of political polarization and party polarization have happened in the past: 1968 was a pretty politically contentious year, right in the middle of the golden age of dominant TV.

    • Plumber says:

      In a previous OT I asked about possible reasons why an unusual, strongly-held, well-articulated opinion on a non-obscure topic might garner very little response, and especially very little opposition. Some people seemed to assume I was referring to an opinion of my own. That assumption was correct:

      I was thinking of my opinion about journalism, which is that journalism is nothing but a pseudo-scholarly affect meant to convey authority and impartiality. The affect is presented via typefaces, tones of voice, wardrobe choices, set design, music, graphics, and so on. Once you look past the affect, you will see that journalism is not some dignified “fourth estate” but rather just another form of vaguely non-fictional mass media (to include opinion-blogging, cat videos, late-night comedy talk shows, etc. This is true of all journalism, not just the journalism you don’t like. Despite what journalists themselves might believe, there is no such thing as journalistic “misconduct” or “standards”, journalistic codes of ethics are an empty dance, and “unbiased” journalism is an absurd fantasy. Being “informed” is a meaningless status contrived to prop up the journalism industry. On a positive note, because there is so much journalism to choose from and because public awareness of how the journalism sausage gets made is so much more widespread now, journalism is actually better now than it used to be.

      I’ve never seen anyone else say this, but despite myself saying it lots of times (including on this site as some of you are familiar), I’ve also never had anyone else argue against it.

      (BTW, for those interested, similar arguments can be made about “documentary” films, some of which are completely scripted and staged without being considered “mockumentaries” — see docudramas or reenactments.)

      CW note: I assume this should be fairly controversial, but I don’t think it’s “culture war”


      There’s a lot to unpack there.

      Are false facts printed?

      Absolutely, I’ve been at the scene of events that later were printed in the news and a “may have been the cause” absolutely was, I was there!, and other things that were bad guesses by white-collars who didn’t touch it were reported without question, but that’s just journalist being mistaken not malicious. 

      My mom worked for the New York Times (office not reporter) in the 1980’s and my step-dad was an AP and UPI press photographer in the 1970’s, and I have little doubt that “legacy” journalist try to be accurate, but they’re human and make mistakes, and news is a business so getting a “scoop” (being fast to broadcast or print) can get in the way of the full story, as there’s a tradeoff of speed versus quality, just like many other tasks.

      As for “being informed is s meaningless status”?

      My eyesight isn’t as good as it once was, but there’s still a difference between eyes open and eyes shut.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      For example, one gene called Septin-2 is commonly shortened to SEPT2, but is changed to 2-SEP and stored as the date 2 September 2016 by Excel

      It’s really depressing this doesn’t caught.
      We run into this kind of issue pretty frequently, but normally it becomes pretty obvious when you try to do any sort of look-up or mathematical function. One of the QA steps would be seeing why your index-match isn’t returning the value you expect (and definitely checking if it returns no value).

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I read the comments on Atlantic article.

        A high proportion of them blamed the scientists for not knowing better, but I’m not sure that’s reasonable. Does it make sense to expect your spreadsheet to attack your entries? Do we need a better subculture where scientists tell each other?

        One person mentioned programs which keep track of changes, which sounds like a lovely idea.

        • CatCube says:

          It boils down to what you mean by “attack your entries.” I’d refer to what Excel does as “obvious expected behavior,” but I also would only ever be putting in something that looks like “SEP 2” or “SEPT2” expecting it to convert it to the date Sep-2, and I’d get pretty salty if it didn’t do that.

          OTOH, I did have a problem once where when I needed to put in elapsed times as “mm:ss” (for two-mile run times for PT tests), and had to work around the fact that Excel defaulted to treating that as a time of day in “hh:mm” format. This was coming in as a comma-separated value file, so I didn’t really have the chance to override what it was doing before it got its hooks in. I think I eventually just used VB to reformat the cells in batch. (I was already doing a bunch of data processing with VB, so adding a few lines for this was easier than fiddling with Excel’s cell formatting tools).

          However, most everybody who would be putting in two two-digit numbers separated by a colon would expect it to be treated as a time, so it puts the developers into a bind: more flexibility for weird situations, or pushbutton results for the vast majority of users?.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            A change log sounds very helpful.

          • Nick says:

            more flexibility for weird situations, or pushbutton results for the vast majority of users?

            The issue here, I think, is that you couldn’t push a button for results, because Excel is “smart” now and does it for you. Except being “smart” often means unpredictable behavior, behavior you can’t easily or consistently route around. “Smart” things make bad tools.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Yeah, I’m sort of on-board with this. The “smart” corrections would be expected by the majority of normal users. I’d expect normal users to run into problems. I’d expect experienced users to think about and resolve certain problems before they occur, especially if they are high-level people (like the sort who would be sending data to a journal for review).

            I don’t know how much of an issue this would cause in the review. Like the poster below says, it all I see is a pivot-table that says 9/4 instead of Sept-4, I can interpret the results correctly. A meta-analysis would have more difficulty because attempting to compile those 9/4s might run into errors, especially if you are trying to combine 9/4 with Sept-4 with Septim 4 (I don’t remember the actual full name of the gene). But that’d be on the meta-analysis team.

            So going off catcube’s example, I’d have a separate column that specifies the completion time in seconds and go off of that for all my formulas (if needed), because there’s a damn good chance someone might screw up a mm:ss format. But I wouldn’t expect the average person to immediately reach for that.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            but I also would only ever be putting in something that looks like “SEP 2” or “SEPT2” expecting it to convert it to the date Sep-2, and I’d get pretty salty if it didn’t do that.

            SEPT2 is only one example. If it’s mixed in with GENE1, GENE2, … GENEX rows, I absolutely would expect (as in demand, not predict) Excel to not reformat the SEPT2 cells. It’s clever enough to bother me when I manually enter differently formatted cells next to each other, it should be clever enough to notice “oh hey this whole column is plain strings” and not mess with SEPT2.

            However, if it’s in comparison to Septim-3, Septim-4, etc, then yeah, Excel is gonna convert everything. But you should be able to notice that right away.

        • arlie says:

          Personally, I turn all auto-correct functions off – and *still* have trouble with spreadsheets playing guess-what-this-is, and deciding it’s a date, or a $ amount, or similar.

          The one thing I’ve found to halfway work for that is to select the whole spreadsheet, and change the format of the cell (ie all cells) to whatever that vendor calls their “treat this like a literal string” format. But you can still get bit if you add additonal rowscolumns by any means other than duplicating existing rows/columns. And of course you may want *some* fields treated as numeric.

          If they would just remember **what you typed** and restore that when you tell them to change the format of the cell they just modified – but nope, you get their underlying representation of e.g. Sep-2-2018, which is probably going to be an integer, as the contents of your string, and have to delete and retype it.

          I imagine it’s even more fun if loading programmatic output en masse 🙁 Then you won’t even notice the error, unlike when typing.

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        Maybe unpopular opinion: if you are doing serious statistical analysis of any kind in Microsoft Excel, you’re doing it wrong. Sheets avoids some of the autoformatting bullshit (as the article mentions) but they really are the wrong tools for the job.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          “if you are doing serious statistical analysis of any kind in Microsoft Excel, you’re doing it wrong.”

          Probably true, but what I’m interested in is how scientists find out that they shouldn’t be using Excel.

        • Lambert says:

          Yes. Even switching to Matlab would be an improvement.

          Universities should be teaching people how to use tools for big boys and girls, like TeX and R or SciPy.

          • johan_larson says:

            At least in some fields, Excel is absolutely the industry standard, to the point that some people basically live in it. Among these are various sorts of accounting, financial modelling, and corporate finance. It is so much the standard tool that Google, a company that generally refuses to run anything by Microsoft, gives some of their money geeks Windows systems just so they can run Excel.

            If that’s the market Excel is based on, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Excel sometimes tripped up people trying to use it for science. The obvious shorthand of one profession can the be baffling nonsense to another.

          • Lambert says:

            But science is a different field from accountancy, and they should use different tools.

            A 3lb club hammer is a perfectly appropriate tool for a building site, but I’d be a little concerned if I saw a dentist using one.

          • Matt M says:

            But science is a different field from accountancy, and they should use different tools.

            Not only that, but everyone knows this including the business people. I’m an MBA, not a scientist, but literally everyone I know would consider it incredibly obvious that if you’re doing any sort of advanced statistical analysis, excel is not the tool of choice. Even aside these opportunities for conversion errors, it’s just less efficient for this type of work.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            If your boss wants to see an Excel spreadsheet, is it possible to store your data in something better and copy it into Excel?

          • quanta413 says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            Often yes. The big issue though is that then your boss may do further analysis on the spreadsheet and pass that around. All the problems with spreadsheets will then re-arise. Their may be some way to lock a spreadsheet’s cells or functionality, but I don’t think it’s easy to do or would be appreciated.

            Getting scientists to use the right tool for the job can be really torturous because often the right tool is additional work to learn. They probably already know how to use Microsoft office. On top of that, the new tool is often less friendly, more complicated, and harder to use. Some of that complexity is part of what makes some tools better, but other times it’s just because very few tools have the level of thought put into ease of use as Microsoft Office products.

            Some scientists are tool fiends who enjoy the minutia of learning some complex new widget, but for most it’s just a hassle to get their work done. Some people are one way for some tools and the other way for other tool.

          • CatCube says:

            Yes. Even switching to Matlab would be an improvement.

            Universities should be teaching people how to use tools for big boys and girls, like TeX and R or SciPy.

            This breezes over the fact that these tools are rarely used in current service, and interoperability is a real thing. Maybe you’ll eventually get a critical mass of junior people who know those tools, but you will have to wait for everybody senior (i.e., who knows what they’re doing) to retire because they don’t know them. And right now? The time to retirement of the people for this turnover might be pretty large.

            Let me tell you a story about LaTeX: I found a Python library to develop nomograms (PyNomo), and started playing with it because I’m fascinated by obsolete technology–it goes with my Leroy set, planimeter, and small collection of slide rules.

            I decided to redevelop a work problem for a test (NB: on my own time on weekends, not on the taxpayer’s dime), because it was as good as anything to play with. I further decided to actually write up the equation redevelopment, and decided that it was a great way to learn LaTeX, which I’d always vaguely wanted to do. So I wrote it in LaTeX (and a few people here pointed me to good sources to help learn). And the resulting monograph was gorgeous! A little playing around made the equations come out perfectly aligned, in totally correct form, and with equation numbering that was easy to do and made the resulting logic easy to follow (I think–it’s still being checked by others). Once I learned it, it made working with printed equations easy and took way less time than Word for far better results. It worked great and I was really happy with how it came out and proud of the effort to learn.

            And then we had another project with similar requirements pop up about a month later, so I sent them the PDF of the monograph to get it formally checked for correctness so we could actually use the equations I developed at work (The nomograms are in it, but because we have Excel now there’s not really any reason to use graphical solutions instead of having a computer just do the arithmetic bitchwork on the actual equations). Then the checker said, “There’s a few wording things here that I noticed on my first read-through. Could you send me the original file so I could make comments and changes?” And I had to tell her, “Sure. I can send it to you. But it’s going to require you to get special software installed* and spend two weekends learning a fiddly programming language before you can even start to understand what’s happening.”

            TLDR: No matter how great the tool, if you’re the only one in the office who knows how to use it, the tool is useless for normal business processes. Also, per the footnote below, your IT people might know how to work with Office, but they won’t know this tool.

            * I can’t even work with the raw file at work myself right now, because when IT fixed a problem with certificates in my browser by reimaging my computer, they broke my MiKTeX installation and not one person I’ve come across in IT has the least idea how to work with it, nor the authority to simply upgrade everything to the latest version. Because the latest version hasn’t been formally approved by the central authorities in our organization that have to approve all installation of software on US Government computers. Because there’s probably like 50 people out of 25,000 who use MiKTeX, so it’s not real high on their priority list to check and approve.

          • Lambert says:

            But there shouldn’t be entire departments not using the proper tools in the first place.
            People shouldn’t be graduating without having at least a little experience with the tools that are best suited to their field.

          • AG says:

            But there shouldn’t be entire departments not using the proper tools in the first place.

            Pffffffffft, my Theromdynamics professor refused to do any analysis on anything more recent than VB 4.0. This forced all undergrad students to do assignments using it, which meant that the computer lab had to have computers with old OSs that could run the IDE. And probably any grad students he picked up that had never done coding before (and so didn’t have their own tools already) got stuck with it.

            My company uses minitab for stats, a limited number of MATLAB licenses that very few people use, and zero of any of the other things touted in this thread as superior tools to Excel. We’re currently in a big project for importing our test results and traceability information to an online database using a combination of csvs and Excel Importers. There are multiple companies offering similar services, to export data from various pieces of equipment into Excel formats, meaning that there are lots of company whose entire product model is about getting other people to do Excel databasing.

            There are swaths of people who have never learned what the proper tools are.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Maybe unpopular opinion: if you are doing serious statistical analysis of any kind

          This is definitely a popular opinion.

          Actual my database/network admin/whatever friends all hate Excel with a passion and think it should be banned. Their opinion is that the use of Excel indicates a business failure: someone should’ve created a financial app for that.

          There are definitely situations where I think that’s true. For instance, in my first Fortune 50 company, we were creating invoices in Excel. WTF? My next, Fortune 500 company, had an application that would automatically create an invoice based on the customer’s current balance. Which seems….well, yeah, why wouldn’t you have that?

        • ana53294 says:

          While I use R for statistical analysis, I use Excel/LibreOffice for data entry. I find that having columns and rows, instead of having to type commas or tabs really convenient. Is there a free tool similar to excel for data entry purposes, but without the autocorrect?

    • secondcityscientist says:

      After a quick read of the underlying journal article, it looks like the authors are looking at published Excel files, usually supplementary files. While I prefer to work with non-Excel files, sometimes the journal will require .xls or .xlsx files. The journal author will copy their data to a new file, or open the .csv in Excel and use save-as, or whatever and it’ll end up converted. This is likely mostly a funny-but-not-serious issue, and it mostly affects labels rather than underlying data.

      For individual scientists, this isn’t a real problem. If I open an Excel sheet and see “4-Oct” I don’t really get confused, I know that it’s that Excel is dumb and converted Oct4 to a date format. It could be a problem for any sort meta-analysis though, if some data is formatted in an exceptionally weird way. Hopefully anyone doing that sort of data analysis builds weird formatting assumptions into their work.

      I will say that the conversion to floating-point could be a bigger problem than the date stuff, both because it’s harder to detect and because the underlying numbers generally aren’t meant to be read by humans. A researcher would ask what genes are represented by a big list of numbers, and will get an error (or nothing) where they should have gotten a gene. Still, this shouldn’t affect the underlying data, just the labels put on the data.

      I do wish that Excel had a way to permanently disable this behavior though. As I said I don’t frequently use Excel for data analysis, but Excel’s graphs scale into Powerpoint for readability much better than ggplot’s do, so I’ll make graphs using Excel from time to time. I would rather Excel not mess with my data when I do that.

  24. MrApophenia says:

    Does anyone here have any advice on ways to deal with a persistent tech support scam?

    The context: A close friend of my family, who is on the older side and not tech savvy, got taken in by a tech support scammer. The whole deal – they got tricked into paying $250 bucks to let them install malware on her computer, in the guise of a tech support service contract.

    I found out what happened, cleaned the malware off her machine, and told her she should talk to her credit card company about getting the charge reversed. (And not to be taken in by the secondary con where they offer you a refund and use that to get more credit or bank info.)

    However, literally as soon as I had gotten rid of their malware – like in the same hour – they started calling her claiming she had been hacked and trying to get her to let them back on her computer to “fix” it. They now are just calling constantly (seemingly from India) on a never ending series of spoofed phone numbers, so blocking them isn’t an option.

    We have filed a complaint with the FTC, but that obviously doesn’t mean much by itself- maybe someday they will shut these scammers down, but in the meantime, is there any way that anyone knows of to make the calls stop?

    Also, if anyone knows any other actions that could be taken to just mess their day up in any way, that would also be great.

    • theredsheep says:

      I have often wondered if it would damage the phone line in some way to put an airhorn right up next to it and honk. If it wouldn’t–don’t know how one looks that up–there’s your solution. One airhorn holds many charges, these people are scammers and won’t take you to court, and repeated airhorns should dampen their enthusiasm for tech support calls somewhat. Keep it by the phone.

      EDIT: Actually that probably causes hearing damage, so maybe it shouldn’t be played right next to the phone. I am not an audiologist, I don’t know where the sweet spot would be to balance maximum obnoxiousness with minimal hearing damage.

      • bean says:

        I like how you think. It shouldn’t damage the phone lines themselves. It might damage the microphone itself, though, so I’d exercise caution. I can’t say what the chances of hearing damage on the other end are, but I’d be less worried about that.

        • dodrian says:

          If a smartphone is what’s being card, there must be an airhorn app or something that wouldn’t damage the smartphone, but would send a maximum strength tone back down the line upon the push of a button.

          If it’s a house phone, I’m sure there are ways to rig a physical button to do the same, but would require quite a lot of technical expertise to set up.

      • James Miller says:

        Very bad idea because it could give them a legitimate legal claim against you.

        • Matt M says:

          My guess is the people who are doing this are not particularly enamored with the thought of engaging with the US legal system.

          Assuming they even have the standing to do so (which they probably don’t)

      • BeefSnakStikR says:

        repeated airhorns should dampen their enthusiasm for tech support calls somewhat

        I’m pretty sure that those sort of calls are auto-dialed… which would mean that is happening in a telemarketing-like environment, and the scammer probably doesn’t have a choice in who to call or have a record of who’s difficult.

    • Matt M says:

      As far as I know, these people are compensated similarly to telemarketers, in which case they are highly incentivized to work quickly, and complete their interaction with you (either successfully or not) as fast as possible.

      The most annoying thing you can probably do to them is to lead them on, keeping them on the line, and wasting their time without ever actually giving them any useful information or agreeing to any of their suggestions.

      Of course, the obvious downside to this is that it requires you to waste your time as well.

      • bean says:

        Of course, the obvious downside to this is that it requires you to waste your time as well.

        Is that really true today? There are some scarily good speech synthesis systems (they don’t sound exactly like you, but they could fool a telemarketer after you said “hello”) and I don’t think a chatbot designed to keep them busy would be particularly difficult, either. Making it all easy to use would take some work, but I bet the app would sell well.

      • Mark Atwood says:

        downside to this is that it requires you to waste your time as well.

        Not any more. Wasting telemarketer time is now automated:

        • MrApophenia says:

          Yeah, I looked at this. If it was me they were calling, I would definitely do this. Unfortunately, the friend in question definitely isn’t tech savvy enough to get her phone working with this, and she is geographically distant enough that doing it for her would be tricky.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      I don’t know if it will stop the calls or not, but a traditional way to make sure that you’re a net economic drain on the scammers is to take the call and waste their time endlessly.

      Roleplay someone who is trying to follow their instructions but is hopelessly incompetent. Keep “rebooting” and asking them to wait. Complain that nothing works. Tell them long-winded stories.

    • HeirOfDivineThings says:

      If your friend is getting these calls on a landline, they (or you?) can try installing Nomorobo. It’s free for landlines and I’ve heard it’s pretty good at reducing these scam calls.

    • Deiseach says:

      No useful advice except for the old reliable basic “don’t answer any number you don’t recognise and especially don’t answer any number that is not coming up onscreen when they’re calling you”.

      That kind of scam is particularly despicable, but I suppose if some people are desperate enough morals go out the window. Though I do think it’s mainly professional crooks so may all their tongues melt!

    • Shion Arita says:

      Why don’t you just shout “FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU” a few times into the phone and then hang up whenever they call?

    • jgr314 says:

      Given the ideas listed here, it seems like getting a new phone number might be the only solution.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      No way to undo it, but prevention for the future…is there a way to make it so that they can only run a few apps?

      I just Googled it and there’s a registry option “Run only specified Windows Applications.” Assuming that your family friend doesn’t know how to, or want to, install programs and basically just browses the web. (I may be overestimating their age.)

  25. fion says:

    I’ve been trying to find a LessWrong post and haven’t had much success. It was on the subject of “rational irrationality” and how that’s a load of nonsense but I can’t remember anything else about it. It wasn’t the one about Newcombe’s problem, which is what came up when I googled. Anybody able to help?

    • Thegnskald says:

      It was the post that talked about the fact that buying a lottery ticket when the mafia would kill you if you didn’t provide an amount of money you otherwise wouldn’t be able to provide is a rational action?

      Or was it a different post?

      There were quite a few posts over the years arguing that some specific kind of irrationality is conditionally rational.

      • fion says:

        There were quite a few posts over the years arguing that some specific kind of irrationality is conditionally rational.

        Yes, that’s what I discovered when I tried to google it! 😛

        I can’t seem to find the one about the mafia and the lottery ticket, but from your description I don’t think it was that.

        • arlie says:

          *rofl* Many people talk as if acting based on average returns, for wagers NOT being repeated, is the height of rationality. Yesterday I aced someone’s numeracy survey by guessing that they had made that assumption.

          Economists seem especially prone to this assumption.

          But actually, it’s not. Once the wager is unlikely to be repeated often enough to approach statisticallty average results, there are many more considerations.

          • fion says:

            I don’t think this is related to my question, but ok, I’ll bite.

            Why is there a difference? What sort of situations would you act differently if it was a one-off compared to a repeat? In short, what are these “many more considerations”?

          • Aqua says:

            just brainstorming, but a one shot “attempt” for $10 @ 100%, might be better than an attempt at $200 @ 10% even though on average, the second one would win

          • fion says:


            I accept that may be true, but what’s the measure of “better”? For what it’s worth, I’d go for the 10% chance of $200.

            Maybe it can be better understood with 100% chance of $1M or 10% chance of $20M? In that case I’d go for the 100% chance of $1M.

            I’m not sure if it’s the same thing, but this reminds me of the advice about insurance: if you can cover the cost of losing the thing, don’t get insurance; if you can’t, get the insurance. So you insure your $10,000 violin but not your $400 laptop. My rule of thumb for dilemmas like yours is: if the amounts of money involved would transform your life, go for the more probable one; otherwise go for maximum expected gain.

            Or maybe it’s simpler than that? Maybe it’s just the thing about how the first thousand dollars are worth more to you than the next thousand dollars, and much more than the thousandth thousand dollars. I mean what we’re really optimising is expected utility, which isn’t the same thing as expected money. @arlie, is that what you were referring to?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The utility function for increasing values of money is not linear. That is the point of the mafia example, but there are plenty of other examples of this. That is why the “I’d rather have 100% chance of 1$M” feels correct. The utility curve to most people is on average flatter after $1M than before. $1M lump sum (after tax) is radically life altering if you choose to use it that way.

            As an aside, many of these types of problem setups ignore your Bayesian priors, which I think is a huge mistake. If a friend says to me “Do you want this $10 gift card card for Target I found” I just think they don’t go to Target. If they say “I’ll roll this D20 and if it comes up 19 or 20 I’ll give you this $200 gift card. Deal?” I have to assess what I know about my friend that would cause them to make this offer.

    • mobile says:

      Are you thinking about “rational ignorance”?

  26. Matt says:

    Seat Belts and Air Bags

    I’m curious if anyone knows how much protection frontal airbags offer over the protection one already gets wearing a seat belt. Does that data exist, or can it be teased out?

    My gut feeling is that frontal airbags do a lot to save lives if people aren’t wearing their seat belts, but aren’t particularly lifesaving if everyone in the front seat is. Perhaps they form a barrier against flying glass?

    There’s no such thing as a back-seat frontal airbag, is there?

    • toastengineer says:

      Could see what the NHTSA has to say about it.


      Air bags provide about a 9 percent reduction in fatality risk for the belted driver (relative to a belted driver without air bags), and 14 percent for the unbelted driver in all crashes.

      There’s no airbag in the back seat because the whole reason we get away with having airbags despite the fact that they tend to kill kids is that you’re supposed to put them in the back seat anyway. I assume the seat in front of you does the job of the airbag.

      • Matt M says:

        So you’re saying that to really get my money’s worth out of the air bag… I shouldn’t wear my seat belt?

        • emiliobumachar says:

          Yes, just as you should die early to make the most of your life insurance. And a prolonged death full of intensive care to also get your money’s worth out of the health insurance.

          See that it all aligns?

      • Matt says:

        Thanks. I’m not sure why I could never find that – I went looking for it several times before I gave up. Very grateful you were willing to help me out.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I don’t think the “you’re supposed to put them in the back seat anyway” push really got started until regulations requiring airbags were a few years into the phase-in process.

        I got the impression that the push for children-in-the-back got started in part as a response to the minor scandal when it came out that the NHTSA had known that airbags increased risks for children (and very short adults) in the front seat but had decided to de-emphasize it due to trolley-problem logic that airbags would save a lot more lives than would be lost due to airbag-related injuries and that talking about the injury risk to children risked derailing the push to require airbags.

    • Garrett says:

      As someone in EMS: please, please wear your seat belt. If you are the primary driver in a car, look how to adjust the seat, seat belt, and head restraint system properly and then do it. Wearing a seat belt improperly is almost always better than not wearing it at all, but wearing it properly lets you get the most value out of the system. Also, ensure that everybody else in the vehicle is wearing their seat belt as well – having them crushing into you at 70 mph in a collision isn’t great, either, and can kill you.

      • Matt says:

        I don’t think anyone here is making an argument against seat belts. What I was asking might lead to an argument against (forward) airbags, if there could be some surety that everyone in the car is already wearing their seat belts. I was thinking self-driving cars that don’t go unless all passengers are buckled in.

        It looks to me like airbags are still a good idea, even if people always wear their seat belts.

        Even an accident that might have been relatively minor can get a lot worse without seat belts. For instance locally, we had a bush crash that went from ‘no big deal probably’ to tragic because the driver was not wearing a seat belt and initial contact between his bus and a small car knocked him out of his seat. Suddenly the bus was at highway speeds and had no driver at all and launched itself off the edge of a bridge.

        Huntsville Bus Crash

  27. bean says:

    Naval Gazing looks today at the so-called Standard Type, a series of US battleships built before and during WWI to very similar designs.

  28. johan_larson says:

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to preserve a human body for 10,000 years. The less it deteriorates during that time, the better. Losing the body or having it tampered with count as deterioration. How will you do this?

    EDIT: And for a greater challenge, make sure the body is not hidden away indefinitely, but somehow becomes known again after the 10,000 years are up.

    • Anonymous says:

      Drill down in the Antarctic ice sheet at an undisclosed location, chuck body in, fill with water.

    • johan_larson says:

      My solution is to freeze the body. Put it on a slab in a small cave in a remote place where the temperature never drops below freezing. Add a stainless steel door with notices in several languages explaining that this cave contains a body from 2018 and should be opened in 12018. Have some viewing ports in the door so people can verify that there is nothing inside except a frozen corpse.

      I expect the location will be mostly forgotten since a frozen corpse is not valuable and the area is very remote. But it might be rediscovered every thousand years or so. To avoid having the body tampered with, add 99 other bodies in little caves of their own, with open-by dates staggered by 100 years. Hopefully the curious will be satisfied with the bodies they are allotted and leave the last body alone.

      • Fitzroy says:

        with notices in several languages

        You are going to run into severe problems with linguistic drift over several centuries, let alone ten millennia. The problem has been considered by experts trying to protect nuclear waste disposal sites from human intrusion.

        This is a very good read on the subject:

        • Nornagest says:

          I love everything about the WIPP research plan, but I really don’t think that making a horrifying Lovecraftian concrete hellscape at great expense would make future generations less likely to break into it, relative to, say, digging it into the side of a mountain in Nevada and dropping a landslide over the entrance. Or just burying it real deep in an area where a suburb’s going to be built later, and then building a Wal-Mart on top of it.

        • Shion Arita says:

          I know this is supposed to be CW-free, but the segment beginning at p. C-40 made me lol.

          A little like the conceit of the anime Geneshaft.

          The other following scenarios are interesting too; A lot of them would be good settings for SF novels.

          Also i agree with Nornagest; making a weird artistic-seeming landscape will very strongly attract people’s curiosity. Think of what we would do if we found a site where the Greeks did such a thing, for example.

      • fion says:

        “My solution is to freeze the body…where the temperature never drops below freezing”

        Typo? Or have I misunderstood?

      • RavenclawPrefect says:

        To avoid having the body tampered with, add 99 other bodies in little caves of their own, with open-by dates staggered by 100 years. Hopefully the curious will be satisfied with the bodies they are allotted and leave the last body alone.

        10,000 years and you hope no one will mess it up for the sake of malice? Humans screw everything up. Put 100 bodies in with open-by dates staggered by 100 years from 7018 to 16918, and then put the desired body in the 14318 cave (no rule it’s gotta last exactly 10,000). Maybe rig the last cave with explosives to eliminate at least the first group of vandals.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Froze it in nitrogen ice (I’m not familiar with chemistry at those temperatures, but I chose to believe that nitrogen ice is less susceptible to induce longterm degrading chemical reaction than water ice). Then put it in a space-brobe set to burry itself deeply in a distant solar body with a stable orbit and no active plate techtonics, that men are unlikely to want to do anything with before the next 10.000 years. The probe should be rather imposing and contain highly energy-reflective metals, so that it could easily be detected from an orbital scan of the body.

      Sedna is relatively close right now (86 AU), but for most of its orbit it is much further away, with its furthest distance from the Sun estimated at 937 AU. Its orbital cycle is 11,400 years. By the time it comes back space exploration should be up to the point where we want to look into it, and with a little hope a scan will reveal its presence.

      • James C says:

        You’re going to have trouble keeping nitrogen frozen on any body in the inner solar-system. Might need to start looking at trans-Neptunian objects for your storage site.

        • Machine Interface says:

          Well luckily Sedna fits the bill – at its closest approach to the Sun, it’s still 2.5 as far from the Sun as Neptune. Even at its closest approach and in broad daylight, surface temperature should be well below the melting point of nitrogen.

    • bean says:

      It goes into space. A canister with a nitrogen atmosphere, sealed up, and sterilized with radiation. Wrap in heat shield material. Put on an orbit that will intersect Earth’s in 10,000 years (a bit tricky, but it should be doable). Make sure it will float after entry. Any solution which relies on it being undisturbed on Earth is going to fail hard unless civilization doesn’t get reset and future archeologists respect your wishes.

      • johan_larson says:

        If this canister has a guidance system, it will need to survive 10,000 years in space. If not, you’re taking an artillery shot with a 10,000 year trajectory. Planet Earth is a big target, but 10,000 years is a long time during which any number of things could pull the canister off course.

        • bean says:

          No guidance, not after the initial alignment. There just aren’t that many factors I can’t crank into my math for this, and running it out to 10,000 years is just a matter of doing more calculations. It wouldn’t be trivial, but it’s far from impossible.

          • johan_larson says:

            Perhaps a hybrid solution would be best. Stash the body on Earth somewhere it is very unlikely to be found, like deep in antarctic ice. Then send probes on 10,000 years trajectories that return to Earth carrying announcements of the location of the body. The probes could be far more robust and much smaller since they won’t need to carry a body. That way we could send a shotgun burst of them, boosting the likelihood of arrival.

          • fion says:

            Or a compromise-hybrid solution: start with thousands of bodies and send them all on 10,000 year trajectories and hope that at least one comes back.

          • johan_larson says:

            We have deep time, space travel, and cadavers. We should be close to the Mad Science standard by now.

            Maybe add an exotic energy source? Or eugenics?

          • bean says:


            I’m not sure that would ensure recovery of the body. Maybe technology has crashed, and whoever gets the probe can’t or doesn’t want to exhume it. I also think that has a much higher chance of someone stumbling across the body beforehand. Space is big and predictable. Hide it there.

          • Nick says:

            Or eugenics?

            Send Khan into space, due to return in 10,000 years. I’m sure nothing will go wrong.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            The hardest part of this to my mind is making it survive re-entry.

            Meanwhile, it’s 12018 AD. Why does it have to hit Earth? Just make it not hit anything for 10000 years – much, much easier. You could even put a reasonable battery on it that triggers a beacon at T+316E09 seconds. By that time, humanity will probably be able to go to it.

        • Kestrellius says:

          Ten minutes to contact.

          Sophrogon-Delta flexed xir tertiary manipulators. Even a hundred and eighty years after upload, vestiges of a biological body’s restlessness remained.

          But, of course, there was good reason for nerves. The artifact was less mysterious now than it had been when Outpost Qem had first seen its beacon light up — preliminary scans taken as the Luxiem approached its destination had revealed it to be a rectangular prism several meters long, with a surface composed of simple steel. Nonetheless, there was no telling what was inside.

          Sophrogon-Delta wasn’t worried, not exactly. Not the way a baseline would have been. Software modification did wonders on that count. But, unlike a baseline, xe was well aware of the possibilities — all of them.

          Most likely, this was some long-forgotten test probe launched into space centuries or millennia ago by ancient humanity. But there were other possibilities, too, however slight; and while Sophrogon-Delta’s upgraded software discouraged fear, it was quite averse to dismissing an outcome simply because it was unlikely. “Given enough time,” the program had always repeated, during the early days; “given enough time, even the most unlikely thing will happen.”

          And so xe was well aware that anything could wait within that unremarkable steel box. An alien organism, the first ever to be encountered. An ancient computer-intelligence, preserved for its uniqueness but exiled into space for irreparable malevolence. A virus tailored to annihilate sapient life, born in some otherworldly laboratory a billion years ago and sent out to destroy its creator’s rivals.

          Well. Those possibilities — they were what all the weapons were for.

          The ship had reached the artifact, and matched its orbit — xe was high over Charon, well outside even the furthest edges of Sol’s Dyson-swarm. A sleek gripping-arm emerged from Luxiem’s graphene carapace and seized the artifact — a boy’s hand, plucking a snowflake from the night sky — and pulled it inside.

          Sophrogon-Delta flexed xir joints again, and rolled xir body toward the cargo bay. Xe hoped it really was an ancient probe. It would surely be loaded with contemporary data for just such an occasion, and there was so much that was not known about the early centuries of spaceflight. Xir investors would be pleased indeed at such a find. If it turned out to be nothing — then, xe suspected, they would be less than ecstatic. This journey had not been cheap.

          Then again, perhaps they would be satisfied simply knowing that the mystery which had appeared in their sky was not an existential threat. They’d had enough of those.

          The artifact sat inert within its containment bed — its flat grey top rather unimpressive next to the optimized carbon surfaces making up the rest of the bay. Sophrogon-Delta linked in to the dissection equipment, and began to examine the object.

          It was definitely hollow, or at least not composed of homogeneous matter — it was far lighter than a solid slab of steel would have been. Ray scans revealed little; the steel was too thick to penetrate.

          There were no breaks in the surface, though clearly it had been welded shut. There were no latches or sensors or hinges or motors; nothing hinting at a means of opening it, if indeed it was a container. Presumably, then, a more direct approach should not be expected to harm anything.

          Sophrogon-Delta lit a laser torch and began an incision just below the edge of what xe supposed was the lid. With the torch’s power and the relative weakness of the primitive metal, it didn’t take long to finish the cut.

          With a pair of manipulator-arms, xe lifted the lid cleanly from the artifact.

          It was, indeed, hollow. Inside was yet another blank container, nearly filling the whole interior space — a white box of plastic and metal. This one, however, clearly had a lid. Sophrogon-Delta opened it.

          The inside was crusted with ice — clearly it had been filled with water prior to its stay in the chilled outer reaches of the system. The remarkable thing was the body, though — a frozen corpse, apparently that of an unmodified human. Only — no, not an ordinary human. An ancient one. Red hair hadn’t been seen since the late two-hundreds C.Y.; that had been the time at which the Cairo Convention had decided to eliminate the trait from the species, as part of the ongoing eugenics campaign to prevent the birth and suffering of spiritually-challenged people.

          This wasn’t going to be especially useful, it seemed. The human genome, even the ancient human genome, was well-documented. Unless this thing was modified in some unique and not-immediately-perceptible way, this had been a waste of money and effort.

          Wait, no. There was a note — a paper note. This was most definitely ancient.

          Perhaps some value could be salvaged from this mission after all. Surely nobody would go to the trouble to propel a dead body into space without good reason; the note must explain the purpose — and perhaps that purpose would prove profitable.

          Sophrogon-Delta opened the note, and examined the writing. It was an ancient dialect, but not one so poorly-documented that xir translation software could not parse it with ease. It read:

          “Hi, people in the future! You were probably expecting something super important here. Sorry to waste your time, but I really wanted to win a contest posted by a commenter on an obscure psychiatry and rationalism blog.”

          • Kestrellius says:

            (I hope this doesn’t come across as derisive. It wasn’t meant to be; I was just imagining the absurdity of someone actually coming across a body preserved for this reason.)

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I thought it was entertaining, not derisive.

          • johan_larson says:

            Today I inspired someone to write 906 words of science fiction. It has been a good day.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Tomorrow you can get 582 more.

          • bean says:

            Excellent work.

          • fion says:

            Nice. 🙂

          • johan_larson says:

            All joking aside, the people of 10,000 years in the future might find our reason for sending them a body absurd, but I expect they would be grateful to receive the body itself. Just look at how big a deal we make of mummies, whether natural or deliberately created, even when they are a mere fraction of that age.

  29. Elliot says:

    I’m working on an app for connecting people with mental health issues to treatment services in the UK. The plan is to integrate NHS self-assessment quizzes and information to suggest to people whether they might benefit from treatment, and then to have a checklist/reminder system to break down the process of finding/registering/booking appoinments at a GP into daily steps, as well as specific advice for what they can do to help themselves. More speculatively I’m in touch with some practises to figure out if the app can integrate with online registration/appointment-booking, and it’d be nice if it could list some local community groups/services.

    The project is funded by my university. I’d love people’s input, and if anyone has experience in this kind of thing and would be interested in working on it I do have some surplus funding at the moment. Specific questions:

    – What’s the best way to convince people that exercise/sleeping well etc. might be worth the effort, without putting them off the whole thing or making them feel blamed and guilty (and giving up)? Is anyone aware of any research into this?
    – What’s the best way to promote the app? Students are easier since universities love promoting this kind of thing, but how do you reach the people who are depressed and anxious and don’t leave their room?
    – At the moment the working name is ‘Head Start’ though the metaphor isn’t quite right – anyone got any improvements? Ideally it should suggest some kind of guide. If there was a romantic snappy name for those bamboo sticks that support plants as they grow that’d be perfect but there doesn’t seem to be.

    • Elliot says:

      Also, does anyone have any advice about how to walk the line between offering people useful advice and getting sued for a million pounds for offering medical advice? Are there any guidelines for this (UK specific)? it’s unclear to me what authority I should pay attention to, and the professionals I’ve spoke to so far don’t seem to have much idea either.

    • Lambert says:

      Have you already contacted the SU and any mental health related socs? They might be able to give advice and promote things.
      There seem to be plenty of youtubers/bloggers/tumblrers etc. who give advice about mental health and direct people to various services (from the NHS and various charities). Collaboration with them might help get the message out and get you guidance on how to craft your content.
      I think your best bet is to get it working at your uni, then universities in general, then the general public.

      Concentrate on user friendliness, so that it’s usable by someone lacks energy and motivation. Keep the internal state saved when possible and generally avoid any sources of frustration. Learn about UI/UX/HX, especially as it pertains to accessibility.

  30. Ketil says:

    I’m looking for social media recommendations. I guess I really miss Usenet, where we had a global network of discussion forums, searchable archives, and clients with advanced filtering and ranking features, both on a global and user level. But those days are long gone, and we’re stuck with web forums or whatever large companies find most useful to harvest our personal data.

    I recently quit Facebook, mostly due to the horrible interface, and the lack of topicality. The mixture of faked successfulness, “funny” memes, shallow virtue-signaling memes, cat pictures, and political commentary, well, it doesn’t feel like a good place for intelligent discussion. Some of that can be avoided by using groups, but the inability to refind something I know I just read is a killer. And the broken notification system, and general unreliability.

    I’m now looking at Twitter. It looks like it might be a good platform for brief commentary on things I (we) read. But currently, I mostly find well-known people bragging about how successful they are, and an army of unwashed zombies creating a torrent of stupid comments. E.g Bill Gates says something vague, and then six thousand people respond with vitriol and solicitations, all generally uninformative and uninformed. How can I carve out a bit of Twitter where I avoid all that noise? Any other suggestions on how to use this service?

    Earlier, I used Google+. At least, it allowed me to find and continue discussion with some of the crowd from Usenet. Anybody still use that? How about Reddit?

    I’m curious to hear what the rest of you think.

    • Anonymous says:

      Get on IRC.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        This is the correct answer right here

      • Ketil says:

        IRC? I used to use that a bit, mostly for technical questions – how do I fix this or that compiler error. What channels would discuss topics relevant for SSC. Oh, wait. [time passes] Nope, #ssc does exist, but it just has one participant.

        Anyway, I think I want something a bit more static, rather than an ongoing stream of chatting. (But I am willing to be enlightened if I’m wrong here)

    • johan_larson says:

      I think Reddit is your best bet. The system is designed for discussions and the forums (sub-reddits) are moderated.

      I don’t use Twitter, but doesn’t it have some sort of white-list-only mode where you only see comments from people you have selected? Add your friends and whatever celebrities and experts you are interested in. Filter out everyone else. It seems like that should solve the noise problem.

      • Lambert says:

        Agree about Reddit.
        I find the content on specific subreddits about a specific thing to be far higher quality than the default subreddits (Are they still a thing? Either way, keep your subreddit list tailored to stuff you actually like reading.)
        Try; they recently redesigned the default frontend in a way a lot of people don’t like.
        The main issue with reddit is how the system of upvotes tends to create echo chambers (circlejerks).

      • Brad says:

        Just a warning that the SSC subreddit is … different than here. Quite different.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’ll agree with Brad on this; the sub-reddit is very different. It’s great fun, though that does rely on you obtaining amusement from left-of-centre to all the way SJW progressives foot-stomping over how it’s a nest of vipers of the alt-right (where “alt-right” means “any kind of conservativism expressed openly at all”).

          You can get good conversations going but there is always the risk of someone running to the mods over “this person is a literal Nazi!”, that only adds to the spice though.

          • Nick says:

            The foot-stomping is entertaining, but if you look at some of the crap that gets people banned there, there really does seem to be a regular amount of WTF content which we don’t get here at all. I can’t entirely blame them when they’re running into that on a regular basis.

            ETA: Though to be clear, sometimes the bans are for WTF content, and sometimes the bans are for Star Wars references.

        • quanta413 says:

          I don’t understand why there’s such a big difference between here and there. Moderation isn’t that heavy here.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s probably a founder effects thing. If you’re primarily a Redditor and you found SSC through a Reddit link, then when you go looking for someplace to talk about it you ‘ll end up on the subreddit. If you found SSC through Less Wrong or another indie blog, you probably followed a link to the main blog and so that’s where you’ll end up commenting. So the subreddit’s culture ends up being tinged with Reddit culture, which is terrible, and ours ends up being tinged with Less Wrong‘s, which was also terrible but did at least have a norm of trying to be nonpartisan.

      • lazydragonboy says:

        Agreed on thr different bit. It’s quitr a bit weirder and there is less of a cultivatrd-garden let’s-all-be-friendly feel.

      • RavenclawPrefect says:

        Add your friends and whatever celebrities and experts you are interested in. Filter out everyone else. It seems like that should solve the noise problem.

        As someone who does use Twitter, I can attest to the effectiveness of this strategy (at least as a consumer of content); I follow exceptionally high-quality and interesting people, unfollow those who stir up drama or post boring things with complete ruthlessness, and the result is something really quite pleasant. Same strategy applies to reddit, tumblr, etc.

        (Facebook too, although you have to unfollow a lot more people before things clear up – I just put everyone interesting on “See First” and stop scrolling as soon as I hit the masses’ daily output of crap).

    • Ketil says:

      Just snuck back on my G+ account. Last used four years ago. Gwern is still around, still active, still very interesting. Anybody else?

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I’m now looking at Twitter. It looks like it might be a good platform for brief commentary on things I (we) read

      Twitter has got to be the least useful major media platform. I can see its use in rapidly changing news situations, especially in niche fields. But I assume Reddit has got that covered nearly as well, plus the ability to accommodate long-format posts.

    • 10240 says:

      Internet forums specific to the topic you want to discuss? That’s what would first come into my mind, rather than any One Big Global Social Medium for everything. It may not work well, though, if the topic is not specific enough. (Isn’t that what SSC open threads are used for, though?)

    • dodrian says:

      Medium is an interesting platform, it’s mostly set up for blogging and is good for long form content, allowing you to write a blog-style reply.

      It’s not the easiest platform for discussion, especially if you want to focus on a specific single topic, but I’ve found the signal to noise ratio to be much higher than on places like reddit, etc, and for that reason might be worth checking out.

    • arlie says:

      I never moved from livejournal to facebook etc. Unfortunately, too many other people did. I’m now on dreamwidth, which is a livejournal clone, minues the Russian ownership, and the DDOS attacks.

      I miss having reasonably populated groups. But I don’t at all miss the trolls and spammers far more common in the wider internet, reputedly very much including FaceBook, Twitter, etc.

      I was also an extremely happy user of both google and Yahoo’s “groups” – basically mailing lists, with adequate moderation features, and a web UI for those not liking email – until they succumbed to their owners’ prioritization decisions.

      • Deiseach says:

        It was a shame LiveJournal went downhill so fast; I moved to Dreamwidth too, but it was never the same and the Old Gang never got together again so gradually I’ve let that account die.

        Though I think LJ was an example of “roll hard left and die”, the last straw for me was one particular culture war topic where one staff member, replying to a request on the ‘ask the staff’ thread, made it very clear and apparent that as far as he was concerned those of a socially conservative viewpoint could all DIAF. So I said “to hell with this” and deactivated my account. I had been dissatisfied for a while before that, since it was very plain that SixApart was doing its damnedest to commodify the site (including making it ‘family friendly’ by banning or censoring anything that might possibly be the slightest bit naughty, which had them doing things like marking groups about breastfeeding as porn because oh noes images of bare bosoms!) and monetize the ever-living hell out of it, and the writing was on the wall with the Russian sale because despite the party line being pushed by the staff it was abundantly clear that the emphasis was moving to servicing the Russian users and Russian-language version, but that was the last straw.

        If they don’t want the likes of me, I’ve been thrown out of better places than this before! 🙂

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      How to make Twitter usable, a use-case story. Note: The usual caveats apply, my favored way to engage with Twitter can be very non-standard & peculiar & etc etc.

      I don’t view Twitter as a discussion platform. It’s very rare to have productive discussions on Twitter. At its best, it is a link-and-thought-and-news-sharing platform, where you have an optional opportunity say nice and funny things to other Twitter users who post stuff you like, mostly to encourage them to keep doing exactly that. (And maybe Tweet stuff of your own, if you want to be on the receiving end of that transaction.) Yes, it is partly a vapid signaling game. Sometimes it’s a bit fun to signal that you like something. (Of course there’s the snarky and spiteful and angry and genuinely awful Twitter experience, too. I do my best to ignore it.)

      1. Follow only people who reliably post stuff you want to read (Scroll down their timeline; what is the ratio between stuff you like / dislike; are you comfortable with it?). Avoid following anyone else at all costs. If you don’t find much stuff you like, maybe Twitter isn’t for you.

      1b. I would not recommend starting by looking the celebrities who have lots of followers. Try to find instead an author or a blogger or a journalist whose writing you have enjoyed enough to remember their name. Or maybe professionals / academics in a field that is familiar to you. Then investigate people they interact with (retweet and reply to) if that interaction looks interesting. My main reason to log in to Twitter nowadays is the hope that some of the handful of academics (totally unknown outside their field) has tweeted something related to their research. Their follower count is in the range of 50-5000, not 45M+ Bill Gates has.

      1c. And if you do decide to follow Bill Gates, you don’t have to read the six thousand replies.

      2. If you feel like you should / would like follow someone while you don’t like some of the stuff they tweet (maybe the ratio is 50% ham 50% toxic political spam?): move to Tweetdeck, and make use of the lists functionality. Sort all accounts into different lists according to your preferred criteria. Each list gets a separate column on Tweetdeck. Feel welcome to ignore the columns you don’t feel like that are not worth it at that particular moment.

      3. Your default Twitter home timeline has also for some time included not only the tweets and retweets of the people you follow, also some of the stuff they ‘like’. I have no idea on what basis they choose to what they show and what they don’t, but it is probably state of the art machine learning algorithm which occasionally works. For some people. Another positive side of the Tweetdeck: those likes don’t show up in your lists-as-columns, instead they can be collected in a separate ‘Activity’ column.

      • Matt M says:

        1c. And if you do decide to follow Bill Gates, you don’t have to read the six thousand replies.

        I agree with most of your comments, but I really agree with this one. Never ever ever open and read the replies of anyone who is even marginally famous. It’s just a cesspool of low-quality hate and yelling.

    • johan_larson says:

      I’m seeing some signs of movement to Mastodon among some of the younger people I know. Anyone here tried it?

  31. sunnydestroy says:

    I’m looking for people with a nutrition research background to evaluate the plausability of the Fasting Mimicking Diet. It’s basically a 5 day controlled eating plan that mimics the effects of a 5 day fast, while still getting to eat food. The results so far from the research I’ve seen look very promising, enough that I’m tempted to try it.

    So far there’s studies done on yeast and mouse models, with some in progress clinical trials on humans. In terms of diseases, I’ve seen it mentioned for cancer in combination with traditional therapies (and perhaps leading to new drugs), multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. On the more speculative side, it seems to be effective in slowing markers of aging.

    Now all those linked studies are on either yeast or animal models so caveats apply, but it would appear that fasting and diets promoting ketogenic changes lead to autophagy, or the destruction of dysfunctional cell components/waste products so I think this fasting mimicking diet is at least plausible. Some studies:

    One note, it seems the fasting mimicking diet research all comes from the lead researcher, Dr Valter Longo, who also sells the patented $200 meal kit to execute the diet, though apparently you could DIY it from his book or just by reading the patents. You’ll also note all these news releases come from USC, which is where Longo is a professor at, so there could definitely be a bias there. Usually, that would give me good pause, but the research is very temptingly promising. This doesn’t seem to be a snake oil operation, at least from a cursory exam. There’s a small 100 person randomized controlled crossover study that shows the diet improved a variety of biomarkers, also with Longo as an author and a USC team.

    These results have me pretty stoked, but I’d like to hear more about this from people in the field. I haven’t researched fasting science extremely in depth and I don’t have professional/academic experience in nutrition or bio science so I wanted to submit this to the people here.

    I’d also be happy to hear any anecdotes about experiences with fasting or the fasting mimicking diet.

    • Deiseach says:

      Not particularly informed opinion:

      (1) A five-day anything diet won’t do you any long-term harm and yes you’ll lose weight. This is the basis of all crash diets/fad diets/fit into that little black dress for Christmas/drop a dress size diets. To truly evaluate it, it would need to be long-term or carried out in batches of five-day fasts over a longer period. To be honest, this sounds like one of those crank/fad diets (and the fact that it’s a one-man band doesn’t recommend it very highly to me, either).

      (2) Recently seen a report of study into low-carb diets and the result seems to be very low and very high carb diets are both not so good, but moderate carb intake is the most beneficial. Also, since low-carb diets generally replace the carbs with protein, animal protein is less beneficial than plant-derived protein (one for the vegans there, I guess). Low-carb diets are very popular as recommendation for diabetics (more popular amongst diabetics than medical advisors, in truth) so this is more useful information.

      So to sum up: five days quasi-fast won’t do you any harm but can’t realistically evaluate the long-term benefits, and if you’re fasting by reducing carbs, probably replace those with plant proteins (rather than a nice juicy steak, alas!).

      • sunnydestroy says:

        I broadly agree that over the long term a mostly plant based diet, moderate carb is probably the most likely to be beneficial. From the body of research I’ve seen, the Mediterranean diet has the strongest evidence for healthspan/lifespan.

        One thing to note is that this five day fasting mimicking diet is more of an intervention than a true diet, by that I mean you just do it for 5 days to induce the bodily changes, but then you have to return to eating normally for a regrowth stage. It’s not meant to be done indefinitely, like a caloric restriction diet. The researchers for the FMD mention it’s a key part of how it works to improve health due to the autophagy and subsequent rebuilding of organ function from stem cells.

        I’d also note that study set low carb as less than 40% carbs/total calories which is several times higher than what would induce ketogenic states.

        I’ve never tried fasting before, so it would be interesting to hear some personal stories about the experience.

    • robirahman says:

      I’d be happy to try it out for you next week and tell you my results. Can you tell me exactly what to eat?

      • sunnydestroy says:

        Hmm spam filter keeps catching my links in my reply so just google prolon fmd for the paid version or there’s articles that will tell you how to do it yourself for just the cost of ingredients. Quantified bob has a good one.

  32. wearsshoes says:

    The NYC SSC meetup went well. We had about 45 people in attendance, enough so that we relocated to an outside area where we could all gather comfortably. I enjoyed meeting everyone who attended and hope to see you at Solstice or the spring SSC meetup!

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      That’s amazing. The only other meetups I know of that were that big were DC and Boston and(?) SF itself.

    • Comrade Strelka says:

      Ahh, can’t believe I missed it! Where can I find news and information about future events?

  33. Paul Brinkley says:

    Do US legal procedurals or courtroom dramas ever get aired in other countries? If so, what do others think of them? Do they come across as exciting? Boring? Odd?

    (This is partly inspired by my watching the Legal Eagle channel on YouTube, where he reacts to various TV and movies.)

    • Alexandre Z says:

      They get aired at least in France where I grew up. I recall watching episodes of JAG, Law & Order and Monk for instance which seemed pretty exciting. There is definitely an element of foreign-ness. But to me it was just television having its own rules and logic which I learned pretty quickly and stopped being surprised by. Also, I recall American shows were shot in a different resolution (or at a different frame rate) than French shows, (or something like that) so American shows always had a distinctive look.

      As far as the legal differences, it’s fairly amusing. A bunch of staples of US courtroom dramas, such as lawyers loudly objecting have made it into French courtroom dramas set in French courtrooms even though no such thing exists in French courts. Other things such as suppression of evidence illegally obtained or Miranda-like rights which are just not available in France made it into French police and courtroom procedurals. (Well, at least a few years ago…) So French courtroom dramas were a weird blend of fictionalized French legal procedure and fictionalized American procedures. I was kind of interested in both US and French law at the time so it struck me as amusing.

      • CatCube says:

        That’s interesting to hear that they create a blend of (fictional) US law with (I presume fictional) French law in dramas. I recall reading that police agencies in other countries have run into their citizens believing that they have to be read their Miranda rights, and their flummoxed attorneys having to explain that that isn’t a thing in their country. I don’t know how much to credit that, though.

        I note that there is a version of this in the US: the most common age of consent in the US is 16, but many people believe it to be 18, because that’s what shows up in police dramas. Because the age of consent is 18 in California, where most of them are written.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I recall American shows were shot in a different resolution (or at a different frame rate) than French shows

        Both frame rate and resolution are different. The US, Japan, most of Latin America, and a handful of other countries use the NTSC standard for pre-HDTV broadcasts (60 half-frames per second in 480i resolution), while the rest of the world uses either PAL or SECAM, which have different encoding techniques but the same video format (50 half-frames per second in 576i resolution).

        The frame rate is different because of the household electrical current frequency in the countries where each standard was developed (the US, Germany, and France, respectively): by matching the TV frame rate to the electrical frequency, TVs could just use the power supply as a timing source instead of needing a seperate 60 Hz or 50 Hz clock component.

        The resolution is better for PAL and SECAM for a couple reasons. One is that a lower frame rate allows more time for each frame (more data encoded in the broadcast stream, and more time for the TV to work its way along all the scan lines). The other is that NTSC was designed to be backwards-compatible with an older standard for black-and-white TV, while PAL and SECAM did not attempt to be backwards-compatible, so the latter could take advantage of a decade or so of technology improvements.

        I think with modern HDTV and UHD standards, the resolutions are now the same in NTSC vs PAL/SECAM countries, but frame rates are still different so that older locally-produced content can be converted more cleanly.

    • Michael Handy says:

      We do, and it’s a running theme in our own Dramas (especially the “everyday policing/lawyering soap” sub genre) for crooks to trip themselves up by using American conventions (for instance, in NSW there are (very) rare special situations where you have a right to remain silent, but remaining silent after a special warning, or answering some questions and not others, can be used against you as adverse inference.)

      • The Nybbler says:

        Answering some questions but not others can be used against you _in the US_ in many cases as well. If you want the right to remain silent, you have to actually remain silent, or you risk be deemed to have waived it. There’s a long flowchart a lawyer posted (and has been discussed here before) but the bottom line is that demanding a lawyer and not saying anything further is the minimum. Explicitly claiming your right to remain silent is helpful also.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          I’m guessing you’re talking about this?

          • The Nybbler says:

            That’s the one. “During this proceeding have you ALREADY SAID something relevant to this question (other than a general denial)?” covers the part about answering some questions and not others. You don’t want to get into an argument about whether what you already said is relevant to the question they’re asking; you don’t even want your lawyer to do so.

        • Brad says:

          “I’m not answering any questions, and I want to talk to a lawyer.”