Open Thread 115.25

This is the twice-weekly hidden open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

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610 Responses to Open Thread 115.25

  1. albatross11 says:

    An interesting discussion about #MeToo, presumption of innocence, etc.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Unfortunately, I feel that the key question was dodged.

      [Q]… surely there is some threshold beyond which the public has enough evidence to reach a contrary judgment. I can’t tell you exactly where that line is. I can cite examples that I regard as clearly on one side of it. I watched video tapes of those Los Angeles cops beating Rodney King. No jury verdict is going to cause me to treat them as innocent of wrongdoing, and if one of them applied to work as a private security guard for an event I was organizing, I would reject him on that basis.

      Would I be wrong to do so?

      [A] To ask whether you would be “wrong to do so” may be the wrong question. You’re going to do so, regardless, and you have a right to do so, and a right to be wrong. You include the caveat that “extreme care should be taken when doing so,” which is obviously better than the alternative.

      But is that enough? Who’s to say if the care taken is extreme, or “care” at all? Once someone believes, “motivated cognition” takes over and we argue our point to the bitter end, no matter how wrong we may factually be.

      Well, I’m the one to say, aren’t I? We live in a society, but we still make decisions about who we talk to and what we do. A criminal code is a formalization of the idea, “hold on a second, let’s not do anything we’ll regret.” I think a discussion of which standard of proof universities and workplaces should adhere to is valuable, but I don’t think that trying to universalize a standard of “no reasonable doubt” to one’s entire life is.

      Also, I feel that Greenfield may be addressing the problems that he identifies at the wrong end; he sees hysteria ruining people’s lives and, rather than finding an angle to tackle the hysteria, is challenging the norms and definitions that people are reacting to. If someone feels they were raped (went rigid, didn’t explicitly ask the other person to stop, but felt they should have, say), posts it on Facebook, and then the person they accuse loses their job, I don’t think the broken thing is the person posting on Facebook, or even their use of a nontechnical definition of “rape.” I think the broken thing is the accused losing their job. It’s possible but tricky to attack only the last thing, but I don’t feel that Greenfield is actually trying to.

      • albatross11 says:

        Yeah, I felt like Greenfield was unwilling to acknowledge any points on the other side, probably for arguments-as-soldiers reasons.

        It’s pretty clear to me that the criminal justice system ought to have a very high standard of evidence/proof, given the huge costs to the accused of being falsely put in prison, and the dangers of having the criminal justice system potentially used as a weapon. It’s not clear to me what standards should be used for an on-campus hearing accusing someone of sexual assault. Does it matter if it’s a public university? How about if there is substantial money at stake, as with someone potentially being expelled after three years of college and losing the scholarship that made it viable for them to go to college?

        The public mobbing thing is another animal entirely. Once you get an angry mob whipped up, nobody’s too worried about standards of evidence.

        My not-all-that-well-informed guess is that campus tribunals are probably doing the job poorly now, because there’s not an obvious reason to think the people doing this stuff know what they’re doing, and there’s a substantial reason to think they are heavily influenced by ideological/political commitments to #believeallwomen on one side, and the institutional desire to quiet down scandals on the other side. Which side comes out on top might not be as tightly bound up with which side is telling the truth as we’d like. (As opposed to, say, whether the accused is a football star, or whether the particular university administrator sympathizes more with the accuser or accused.)

        Without knowing a whole lot about the matter, I suspect the best way to proceed for these investigations is to have actual police do the investigation, and then provide the information for whatever tribunal is convened. And it’s really hard for me to imagine how we can expect justice from these tribunals if the accused isn’t allowed to have some kind of representative who can cross examine the accuser and try to poke holes in her story. I understand that this is extremely unpleasant for the accuser, but I don’t see any way to avoid that.

        [ETA] I think the core difficulty here comes down to the fact that date rapes usually don’t produce any evidence. From the outsiders’ perspective, which is all we’ll ever have, two people went into a closed room, had sex, and later on they have conflicting stories about what happened in that closed room. There is simply no good alternative at that point–if you take the accuser’s word for what happened, then anyone you’ve ever slept with can get you expelled from school or put you in jail. If you take the accused word for what happened, then date rape remains relatively easy to get away with.

        I don’t see any fix to this short of a videocamera in the room recording everything. (Even then, who’s to say what threats were whispered in my ear?) “Affirmative consent” rules just change what lie the accuser or accused must tell, they don’t resolve the difficulty when Alice says “I asked every five minutes and he kept telling me he was happy with what we were doing” and Bob says “I froze up and just went along with it even though I didn’t want to do it and she never asked,” we’re still back to the he said/she said situation, for which we have no good answer.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Yeah, I think I agree on most of your points; the fact that it’s not expensive (speaking not only monetarily) for universities to not try to find out the truth is a problem, and cross-examination is important; there are ways around doing this in an adversarial way, like looking more at sworn statements and having the adjudicating body do the questioning, but they rely on the integrity of the institution, so…

          Overall Greenfield reminded me a bit of NAP Libertarians – right that bad things happen, and this principle would prevent them but wrong about this principle is a reasonable foundation for society.

          Anyway, I think that the norm that people don’t talk about being raped is not worth adopting, and also that university tribunals are (often, but not nearly always) bad instuments for dispensing justice. Greenfield hasn’t done anything to change my opinion on either front.

        • The Nybbler says:

          It’s not clear to me what standards should be used for an on-campus hearing accusing someone of sexual assault.

          One thing about a “preponderance” standard is that when there’s no solid evidence at all, when it’s just a matter of “he said, she said” (which is often the case), it all comes down to the credibility of the parties involved. Which basically comes down to who the trier of fact finds more trustworthy. That’s a very unreliable thing under the best of circumstances, and Title IX tribunals, I think it’s safe to say, are not the best of circumstances.

        • Thomas Jørgensen says:

          The lazy solution is that almost all rape is serial, so if you could somehow get everyone to report, you would essentially never go wrong with a “Multiple reports and you are toast” standard.

          • ana53294 says:

            Apparently, there are apps in development for that purpose.

            This doesn’t mean that the universities won’t have the same incentives to protect people who are well respected/bring money, though.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Except, of course, people not only make false reports, they coordinate them.

          • 10240 says:

            Coordinating multiple false reports is risky because it means other people know about your crime. Thus multiple accusations would be strong evidence if proved false reports were severely punished, but that’s often not the case.

          • John Schilling says:

            Coordinating multiple false reports is risky because it means other people know about your crime.

            I’m not sure it is a crime to make a false report of rape to e.g. university administrators, or a corporate HR department for that matter. It would be libel and/or slander, but those are torts rather than crimes (you can get sued but not arrested for them). And I don’t think people are all that often dissuaded from conspiring to commit tortious acts, by the fear that their partners in tort will rat them out. The enforcement incentives aren’t properly aligned for that.

            Note that, in Nybbler’s cited example, everyone now knows about the nefarious deeds of the “Mean Girls” in question, but they aren’t being arrested, sued, expelled, or in any way punished except for being labeled “Mean Girls”

          • 10240 says:

            I’m not sure it is a crime to make a false report of rape to e.g. university administrators, or a corporate HR department for that matter.

            Well, it would work if the punishment was similar to the punishment against the accused if he was found guilty. E.g. if the punishment for rape would be getting expelled from university, then if an accusation is proved false, the accusers are expelled from university.

            they aren’t being arrested, sued, expelled, or in any way punished

            Actually they (or their parents) are getting sued, as is the school district.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The lazy solution is that almost all rape is serial, so if you could somehow get everyone to report, you would essentially never go wrong with a “Multiple reports and you are toast” standard.

            This doesn’t work at all for… well anyone. If you rely on “multiple reports and you are toast” that means you are risking giving a free pass to first offenders. A message of “its fine as long as its only ONCE” isn’t going over well (and shouldn’t).

            You have also just assumed that such a standard + getting reports up wouldn’t lead to an increase in false reports which is a weak assumption and probably fatal.

          • Protagoras says:

            @The Nybbler, They also say three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. A serious investigation has a good chance of cracking the weak link in a conspiracy. As a result, I tend to think of this as more an example of the fact that these things aren’t investigated carefully enough than that there’s nothing that could be done. There’s no way to stop a perfect criminal, to be sure, but most criminals are very, very far from perfect; I suspect there are a lot more cases of lack of investigation leading to evidence not being discovered than there are of cases where finding evidence is actually impossible.

          • John Schilling says:

            Well, it would work if the punishment [for false accusations] was similar to the punishment against the accused if he was found guilty.

            It would also work if the Lord God Almighty were to promptly strike down with lighting anyone who made a false accusation. These two conditional statements are of roughly equal relevance to the real world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

          • Well, it would work if the punishment was similar to the punishment against the accused if he was found guilty.

            Combine that with a preponderance of the evidence standard and now every accusation results in either the accuser or the accused being expelled. Which makes a sort of logical sense–false accusation of rape should be considered a serious offense. Almost nobody would be in favor of it, which suggests some of what is wrong with a preponderance of the evidence standard.

            Something like that does seem to have been the rule in the Code of Hammurabi, however. I’m not finding the relevant notes but, if I remember it correctly, false accusation of murder was a capital offense. In Jewish law, again by memory, it’s only a capital offense if the accused is actually executed due to the false accusation.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @ David

            That level of evidence is clearly the problem with campus rape courts.

            Any higher level of evidence turns most cases that can’t go to the police into one of two scenarios:

            1) He said/she said with no way to meaningfully determine at the higher level of evidence.

            2) Intense grilling of the accuser about their past behaviors and what they did leading up to the incident (commonly known as Slut Shaming).

            This feels to me to be an impasse between the people interested in changing how sexual assault cases go in a practical level (women believed, bad behavior stopped) and any formal fairness in the process that requires a higher level of evidence than the obviously faulty preponderance of the evidence.

          • 10240 says:

            @John Shilling Arguably there is no point in discussing politics at all, as probably none of us has the ability to significantly influence policy. Many of us still discuss whether certain policies would be better or worse than other policies all the time.

            Intense grilling of the accuser about their past behaviors and what they did leading up to the incident (commonly known as Slut Shaming).

            While many object to grilling the accuser about past behaviors, I don’t think it would be called slut shaming unless a sexually promiscuous past is considered to reduce her credibility.

          • Aapje says:


            Collective bad behavior can happen quite easily without an actual conspiracy driving it, because (most) humans are copycats, who take their cue from others. Once a person is being seen as evil, others will have a tendency to reframe their experiences with that person in the worst light (im)possible, where they often unconsciously fill in the missing details with made-up ‘facts’ and ignore details that clash with the narrative (basic cognitive dissonance resolution). Making up missing details and forgetting discordant information is what the brain does to produce coherent narratives.

            There are plenty of cases to point to, like the Salem witch trials, but also a case in my country where there supposedly was a sex dungeon below a school. A school that doesn’t have and never had a cellar.

          • The Nybbler says:

            There’s also the Jian Ghomeshi case, where it was revealed that two of his accusers co-ordinated their story. These are sexual harassment rather than rape, but I see no reason the same issues can’t apply.

            And further, there’s the possibility that someone who is merely, for lack of a better term, a douchebag (but not a rapist), and who has a lot of short-term intimate contact with women who are themselves not of the finest moral quality, could gather uncoordinated but similar-sounding false accusations.

            Like you said, this is a lazy solution, and there is no working lazy solution. If you implement a lazy solution, it will go wrong a LOT.

        • brmic says:

          they don’t resolve the difficulty when Alice says “I asked every five minutes and he kept telling me he was happy with what we were doing” and Bob says “I froze up and just went along with it even though I didn’t want to do it and she never asked,” we’re still back to the he said/she said situation, for which we have no good answe

          Have you researched whether this is actually what happens?

          I haven’t, but my imagined scenario differs from yours substantially, so if you _know_ better, please tell me.

          I think the he said/she said scenario is far less complicated than people make it out to be, and I assume part of this is motivated reasoning. I find that both for trivial things and for stuff like verbal contracts both laymen the justice system usually are able to deal with he said/he said situations quite well. In your example, we can trivially ask Bob and Alice to provide previous partners as reference their claimed behaviour is to be expected of them and adjust our assumptions about the actual course of events accordingly (we can’t _know_ in the sense of having been there, but we don’t demand that standard for death row so it seems odd to require it here). You are also positing a hypothetical in which one side is a highly skilled and unscrupulous liar to which I’d respond that (a) there aren’t that many of those and (b) their ability to do this more than once is severely limited.

          Affirmative consent rules change that a lie must be told. It’s very difficult to misremember or motivated-reason yourself into believing you asked a series of questions when you didn’t or were not asked question when you were, whereas it’s trivially easy to convince yourself you read all signs correctly/signalled clearly and the other side is now maliciously saying otherwise.

          Put another way: Neither I in particular nor society at large is particularly concerned with the scenario where I have a 10 minute conversation with a stranger at a bar whereafter he sues me for the $1000 we either waggered (according to him) or which I made a verbal contract with him in return for him telling me some secret. What makes this he said/he said situation different from the one where he claims I raped him afterwards, with no witnesses?

          • The Nybbler says:

            What makes this he said/he said situation different from the one where he claims I raped him afterwards, with no witnesses?

            Nothing, except that despite that the “preponderance of the evidence” standard is officially the same, it really isn’t. You’re not going to obtain a verdict for the plaintiff about a $1000 verbal bet with no evidence but the fact that a meeting occurred and the word of the plaintiff. Not even if the defendant is known to be somewhat of a dirtbag. You can obtain a decision for the complainant in a Title IX proceeding based just on the fact that a meeting occurred and the complainant says something happened.

          • 10240 says:

            Most of the time when we agree about something that’s anywhere close in importance to getting raped, jailed or expelled from university, we make a written contract.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            In your example, we can trivially ask Bob and Alice to provide previous partners as reference their claimed behaviour is to be expected of them and adjust our assumptions about the actual course of events accordingly

            I believe that’s called “slut shaming” and is Frowned Upon.

        • 10240 says:

          I don’t see why there should be any university proceedings for rape. My preference would be that a university’s rules should only concern matters specific to the university, such as academic cheating or the use of university property. Deterring other wrongdoings should be the job of the criminal and the civil justice systems or, if they are not serious enough to be a crime or tort, social relations only.
          I can think of two possible reasons to punish/expel (suspected) rapists:
          – To deter rape. Having smaller punishments than prison with a lower standard of evidence is an interesting (but questionable) idea (e.g. if the court decides that you are probably guilty, but not beyond reasonable doubt, it fines you), but university tribunals are an ad-hoc and arbitrary implementation. Also, IMO expulsion from university is to severe a punishment to be applied without a high standard of evidence, especially since another university is unlikely to admit someone who has been expelled for rape.
          – To prevent the person from raping someone else. However, expelling him from university only prevents him from raping someone else at the university. If he wants to rape someone (again), he’ll still do so, just not at the university. Expulsion from university thus doesn’t decrease the number of rapes, it just decreases the incidence of rape at universities and increases it elsewhere. It’s a reasonable choice on the part of the university, but not on the part of society as a whole.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            What should exist is a two-tiered system, one at the extreme end of the current punishment, and one less.

            The first tier should closely follow a criminal proceeding or court order. If a student is convicted of a sexual crime against another student, the convicted student should be banned from campus and expelled. Absent the court system, this system is not initiated and has no effect.

            The second tier should be a soft effort to separate students that have any kind of significant issue between them. One or both (or I guess more) of the people involved can petition the school to facilitate separations. That could mean changing class schedules, dorm assignments, etc., in order to keep the students from as much interaction as possible, without banning one of the students. Rape victims, or those who see themselves as such, will obviously find this less agreeable than the expulsion of the person they are accusing – but that brings us back to tier 1. If there’s not enough proof for the court system, then there’s no good method for enforcing their desires/needs that doesn’t implicate another person very strongly in the other direction.

            Tier 2 can be an interactive process with varying degrees of proof required, and notably will affect all participants equally. If you feel aggrieved by someone else, you can petition to be separated from them as much as possible on campus, but you may have to change your dorm or class schedule, rather than only forcing it the other direction. Since Tier 2 is only administrative, it clearly falls within the university’s discretion, without forcing them to litigate criminal proceedings that they are not equipped to handle. It also provides lower-level remedies for situations without clear evidence. A nice benefit here is that it can be used for any number of significant disagreements, and is not just limited to those accusing/accused of sexual crimes.

          • rmtodd says:

            However, expelling him from university only prevents him from raping someone else at the university.

            And possibly not even that much. Universities aren’t usually that restricted access environments. I mean, your typical university isn’t like Tinker AFB with a big fence around it with a gate in front and sentries who (one presumes) are carefully examining the IDs and reasons for entry of everyone who wants to come in. If Mr. Former Student is up to no good, he might find a way on campus, expelled or not.

        • If you take the accused word for what happened, then date rape remains relatively easy to get away with.

          Alternatively, then individuals avoid situations where date rape would be easy to get away with, most obviously avoid being alone with a potential rapist somewhere that nobody else can hear them if they scream. My impression is that that was the traditional solution to the problem

  2. Nick says:

    Andrea Long Chu argues in the New York Times today that the Hippocratic “do no harm” principle doesn’t work. Doctors and patients can disagree about what is harmful, so that the doctor’s actions result in harm to the patient. Chu suggests replacing this with a principle of desire: if the patient wants it, that’s enough.

    It’s not clear to me under this view how much leeway the doctor is supposed to be given for conscience. It’s not mentioned in the op-ed, but I would think a reasonable view would permit doctors to refrain from giving treatments they think would be harmful. But then how is that different from what we have? And conscience is just a special case: Chu’s position seems to be that doctors should ignore their best judgment if their patients contradicts it.

    How unusual is it for a patient and doctor to disagree about, say, what prescription a patient ought to be on, and for the doctor to budge? Are doctors willing to cede if, say, the patient is just suggesting one SSRI instead of another? I’m asking because it sounds to me like the limit case of this position is that doctors just become facilitators of one’s medically-related desires and not much more. You read on the Internet that this one weird trick will help you lose an inch of belly fat or get rid of those crow’s feet once and for all. Come on now, that prescription doesn’t write itself. I’m waiting, doc.

    And how is insurance supposed to interact with this? Suppose doc does write me the prescription for vitamin E supplements or magnets or whatever. Is this going to change whether insurance covers it or not? I don’t see why it should. So as stated Chu’s positions seems to simply shift the gatekeeper role from doctors to insurance companies.

    • quanta413 says:

      Only tangentially related, but there’s a serious public cost to things like overuse of antibiotics. Obviously the article isn’t about that sort of case, but there’s a whole class of situations where at the very least we need some sort of solution to public goods problems involving doctor’s recommending medical care (and veterinarian’s).

      For the actual situation in the article which is a voluntary procedure with physical complications for psychological benefit (although the author seems to indicate they don’t receive positive psychological benefit and instead they prefer to feel more authentic even if that involves wallowing in pain, I’m going to assume that’s not the goal for most people from what I’ve seen in other people’s writings), if patient care was arranged as a free market type situation where the person was paying out of pocket and the doctor could choose to treat or not treat people, I think that would be fine. I don’t think doctors should have to treat someone in this situation though.

      But like you say, I don’t see how this is supposed to interact with insurance. With insurance pooling everyone’s risk, every debatable treatment someone else has comes out of other people’s pockets. It’s crazy in this case to say that insurance should pay for whatever patients want. Maybe if insurers weren’t required to all cover largely similar things etc. you could partially get around the problem. Then you could have the “western medicine only” insurance and the “alternative therapies” insurance and each pool will have different covered treatments, different prices, different standards required to be met in order to receive coverage for care etc.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Sounds like that guy’s got a self-harm compulsion. He needs psychiatric help, not enablement.

  3. johan_larson says:

    In other news, go is a lot less popular in the US (and presumably Canada) than chess. The United States Chess Federation has 85,000 members; the American Go Association has 1,600. I would have guessed a factor of three or four. Strange, particularly given recent immigration patterns.

    Also, I should start preregistering my guesses.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Chess had a head-start of several centuries in the west. Go only started to become known in the west in the late 19th century, arriving in the US in 1905, with the American Go Association funded in 1935. WWII also put a lul to Go activity in the US, since it was perceived as a cultural element coming from a hostile nation.

  4. Uribe says:

    Has the cold war with China begun?

    A lot has changed in recent weeks. The market is pricing in an escalating trade war, China and the US were openly hostile at the APEC Summit, tensions have grown in the South China Sea, The New York Times is running a multi-part series about China’s increasing authoritarianism, militarism, its imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs. Last month we found out that China has been slipping spying hardware into devices for US markets. China and the US are growing more openly nationalistic. I’m seeing talk of the need for Chinese “regime change” on my Twitter feed…

    A week or two ago Tyler Cowen said in an interview with Paul Krugman that he believed the cold war with China had begun and that it will last the rest of his life; Krugman didn’t disagree.

    If Cowen is right, I’d expect it won’t be long before the US is ejected from the South China Sea, maybe as soon as 2019. I’d expect the economic fallout to be massive: perhaps it means the stock market drops another 20% before Christmas.

    Or is this all hyperbole?

    What would confirm that we are in fact currently in a cold war with China? (Since I’m not defining what a cold war is, answering this question requires defining it yourself, at least to some degree.)

    • skef says:

      What would confirm that we are in fact currently in a cold war with China?

      Henry Kissinger is suddenly sexy again?

      More seriously, assuming that we weren’t in a cold war five years ago, it doesn’t seem like anything a) has happened and that b) we are aware of to make the current situation definitively different. It could be that relevant things have happened that we don’t know about, but to discuss those would be to discuss “currently” in hypotheticals, which isn’t much different than discussing what events might soon happen that would tip us into a cold war.

      Anyway, wouldn’t it be really weird to have what is commonly understood as a “cold war” without a substantial shift away from current trade patterns? One could continue to say that a shift would be in neither side’s interests, but neither is war, especially. If China doesn’t even feel it can dump its Treasuries, how much leverage does it really have? (I think China can probably dump its Treasuries if and when it wants to; on the government level it will hurt but at this point they can absorb the hit.) So I would be looking out for at least that kind of shift, and the current trade battles are not yet substantial enough to count.

      • cassander says:

        More seriously, assuming that we weren’t in a cold war five years ago, it doesn’t seem like anything a) has happened and that b) we are aware of to make the current situation definitively different.

        To be fair, if you were going to date the start of a sino-american cold war, 5-6 years ago wouldn’t be a bad date for it. That’s when you get the US formally articulating the pivot to asia, the first FONOP, and the beginning of formal arbitration against chinese claims in the south china sea.

        If China doesn’t even feel it can dump its Treasuries, how much leverage does it really have? (I think China can probably dump its Treasuries if and when it wants to; on the government level it will hurt but at this point they can absorb the hit.) So I would be looking out for at least that kind of shift, and the current trade battles are not yet substantial enough to count.

        I don’t see the tbills giving china leverage. If anything, they give the US leverage over China. Every chinese citizen with money tries to park it abroad because they very sensibly don’t trust their communist government and corrupt financial system to keep it safe. As long as that remains the case, China is going to want and need access to the global financial system, the government and industry for access to FDI and rich chinese (80-90% of whom are CCP members or officials) to keep their money safe. I would worry less about the chinese government reducing its dollar holdings than I would about the chinese economy reducing its desire for dollars.

    • baconbits9 says:

      What would confirm that we are in fact currently in a cold war with China?

      Something like the Korean War where the US and China are overtly supporting opposite sides of a conflict.

    • cassander says:

      Please define “Cold War” in a meaningful way please. If it’s just the existence of great power rivalry, then the world has been in a state of cold war since the founding of whatever city came after Eridu. If by Cold War you mean global ideological struggle between military peers and rival ideological blocs, then obviously not. Presumably you mean something in between, though.

      • Eric Rall says:

        A few features I’d expect to differentiate a “Cold War” from a garden-variety Great Power rivalry are 1) the recurring use of proxy wars and low-intensity conflicts, 2) a serious arms race driven by the potential for a “hot war” being seen as an existential threat, and 3) the rivalry being one of the dominant themes (if not the dominant theme) of the respective Powers foreign policies.

        All three are present in the US/USSR Cold War. 1 and 2 but not 3 are present in the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” of the 19th century, and 2 and 3 but not 1 in the lead-up to WW1, which probably qualifies them as minor/marginal examples of Cold Wars.

        Between the US and China currently, there’s signs that #2 might be developing but it really isn’t there yet (US policy makers and defense planners seem to take China seriously as a potential enemy that we should be prepared to fight if necessary, but a hot war isn’t being treated as likely or as an existential threat). I suppose you could squint at the situation and claim half-credit for #3, but at least on the US side (I’m less familiar with the Chinese perspective) our strategic rivalry with Russia and our ongoing military operations against Al Qaeda and ISIS strike me as bigger themes in US foreign policy than our strategic rivalry with China. And #1 is completely absent, unless I’m more oblivious to current events than usual. So by my proposed criteria, no, there’s no Cold War between the US and China, although there probably is medium-term potential for one to develop.

  5. I have a plumbing question, and there is someone here who can answer it.

    When I take a shower, I have to wait for the water to warm up. To minimize the time, I turn the water all the way to hot then start turning it down when that gets too hot for me. If I could separately control the flow rate of hot and cold, I could set the hot to maximum, the cold to whatever rate gives my desired temperature when hot is at maximum, wait until the water has warmed up, and take my shower with no additional adjustments and no need to be under water that is either too hot or too cold while getting it right. A further advantage of doing it this way is that I would get a higher flow rate of suitable warm water than if I got it by adjusting a value that simultaneously increases cold and decreases hot.

    All of this assumes that that is how the actual single control shower valve works–that as you turn the temperature down it is both increasing the amount of cold water and decreasing the amount of hot. I don’t actually know if that is true, which gets to my first question. When I have the valve set to give me warm water, is it doing it by letting all the hot water through plus an adequate amount of cold or is it adjusting both?

    Assuming the latter, is there any reason it couldn’t do it the other way? That would make the initial process easier, at the cost of wasting some cold water that wouldn’t be wasted with my standard and more complicated approach of running only hot until that gets too hot for me. For a still fancier version, could you have a valve that you set to your desired temperature and then runs only hot water until it gets to that temperature, then gradually increases the amount of cold to keep the mix at that temperature? Do such valves exist?

    • skef says:

      Assuming the latter, is there any reason it couldn’t do it the other way?

      For most showers, yes. It’s possible to have a shower head that isn’t flow-limited in the head itself. For most designs, this would be an unsatisfying shower, because there would be less of a sense of pressure. (I say “most” because I don’t know some or all of the wide “rain-simulation” type heads get around this problem.)

      So for most heads, if you have separate controls and turn the hot all the way up, the rate of flow will be limited at the head. If you then add cold you may get a bit more flow (for one thing the pressure on the hot and cold systems can differ), but for the most part what cold comes through will displace some of the hot. And therefore it won’t really help.

      For tub showers the fastest way to get to the hot water is usually to run the leading cold water out of the hot line through the tub faucet, which has a higher flow rate.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      The gizmo you ask about in the last sentence is called a thermostatic valve. They’re less common here than in Europe but they can be had, at some additional expense. I specified one when I had my bathroom remodeled and wouldn’t want to be without it.

    • Plumber says:

      There are “thermostatic’ shower valves that do what you wish, unfortunately what you’d need to replace is inside the wall (though usually inside the shower there’s a cover plate that if removed will allow access to some of what you’d want to replace, but seldom all).

      My favorite brand for faucets is Chicago Faucets, and I assume that their shower valves are good, but the only single handle shower valves that I can remember their brand names that I’ve encountered at work are Delta, Koehler, Moen, and Symmons, Moen was helpful on the phone but their new stuff is plastic inside not brass or bronze, so not impressive – and after the new lead laws increasingly stuff is sadly plastic not metal.

      The first single handle shower valves were just ports that mixed hot and cold (if it was installed in the ’50’s that’s likely what you have), but later “pressure balancing valves” were introduced as an anti-scald feature (and by code all shower valves now installed must be “anti-scald”), what was happening was that someone else turning on nearby cold water (typically flushing a toilet) would take the cold water out of the shower mix, so now most shower valves reduce the flow either the hot or cold port to match the other when pressure is reduced. 

      Most of the time there’s a limit setting (accessible by removing the cover plate) that has it so some cold water is always mixed in.

      Some shower valves are made as an anti-scald feature so that if the temperature gets hot enough the hot water simply stops flowing, and there’s actually a showerhead made that does this as well, the idea is that you run the shower until it gets hot water, and when it shuts off you know the water is warm (an easy retro-fit).

      I have none of these in my house, I’ve always lived with dual handle showers (like most old faucets) and have always lived in pre-1940’s apartments and houses. 

      What I have under the bathroom sink is a undersink recirculation pump which draws water from the hot side into the cold so that hot water is close on hand, and as long as it’s plugged in and on I don’t have to run the water long to get warm water.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        I installed one of the Laing recirculators under my kitchen sink and found the fact that it pumps into the cold supply (instead of a dedicated recirculation line) to be more of a drawback than I’d expected. I no longer have to wait a minute for hot water, but I now have to wait a minute for cold water.

        • Plumber says:

          That’s true.

          On those rare occasions when I want to splash cold water on my face, without running the water a bit first, I reach under and flip the switch, or (even easier) just unplug it.

          • Uribe says:

            I was staying at a hotel in Glendale last week and the hot water was out. The hotel said it was due to using the water to fight a fire in Griffith Park. I couldn’t make sense of why that would cause the hot water but not the cold water to be out in the hotel. Does that make any sense to you?

          • Plumber says:


            “I was staying at a hotel in Glendale last week and the hot water was out. The hotel said it was due to using the water to fight a fire in Griffith Park. I couldn’t make sense of why that would cause the hot water but not the cold water to be out in the hotel. Does that make any sense to you?”

            The only ways that could make sense ti me is if the hotel had steel pipes and the hot water pipes were more restricted due to rust (it was briefly a practice to have hot water pipes be brass as those pipes often rusted out faster than cold) and when the pressures were reduced because of the demands of fire fighting only the cold water pipes delivered a trickle, but if you were getting full pressure cold and no pressure hot then that makes less sense.

            As an alternative maybe they lost water pressure for a bit, and when it came back grit and rust lodged in the hot water tank inlet or outlet.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      Isn’t there a real problem of the fact that you might have cold pipes so the problem isn’t heat of water, but rather heat transfer?

  6. johan_larson says:

    This list contains the top 250 movies, as rated by IMDB users. Not a bad list, really.

    What’s the first one you haven’t seen?

    For me, it’s #9, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. After that, it’s #25, Life is Beautiful and #31, Interstellar.

    • Machine Interface says:

      I actually haven’t seen #1 The Shawshank Redemption (it’s not really considered a famous classic in France as it is in the US), then #6 Schindler’s list, #17 Goodfellas, #23 Silence of the Lambs, #26 The Usual Suspects, #28 Saving Private Ryan, #29 Léon: The Professional, just in the top 30. Had to get down to the #80s before finding one of my top 5 favorite films though.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      Depending on how you count either #2 or #3. I put on the Godfather maybe ten years back, found it ponderous, ugly, and subject to the Eight Deadly Words, and turned if off after like 45 minutes. Haven’t bothered with the sequel at all.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Haven’t seen #1, the Shawshank Redemption. Nor #5, 12 Angry Men. And IIRC Godfather II was extremely boring, though I may be mixing up II and III.

    • Telemythides says:

      #31 Interstellar and then #34 City Lights and #37 Modern Times.

    • Uribe says:

      #1 The Shawshank Redemption. I once tried to watch it merely because it was on the top of this list, but really hated it from the get go.

    • Protagoras says:

      Forrest Gump at #12 is the first one I haven’t seen. Kind of proud of that, as I understand that one’s reputation has declined over time. I was ignoring it before it was cool to ignore it!

      • DeWitt says:

        It has? How come?

        • tayfie says:

          While I have always enjoyed that movie, there is nothing about it that seems important or notable enough to be worth inclusion on top lists, so it always feels overrated.

          There’s a culture-war perspective, but since I think .25 threads are supposed to be free of that now, I’ll just hint that presenting huge chunks of recent American history in the background without any sort of moralizing irritates the woke by downplaying what they think is very important and the outcomes of the different characters are easy to read as lifestyle endorsements.

    • Elephant says:

      #20 — City of God.

      I agree that it’s a better list than I expected. You really should see The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, though…

    • EchoChaos says:

      #2, the Godfather. It’s a movie I am aware of, but I’ve never sat down and watched.

    • Brad says:

      The Dark Knight (#4) and then after that Seven Samurai (#19).

    • fion says:

      I haven’t seen any of the first six! I watched the first half of The Dark Knight, but didn’t feel like finishing it. I’m not a big fan of overly serious films, which is… most of them.

    • Plumber says:

       From the top 20 on the list:

      1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) I’ve never seen it, so no.

        2.The Godfather (1972) Yes, I’ve seen it.

        3 The Godfather: Part II (1974) Yes.

        4The Dark Knight (2008) No.

        5.12 Angry Men (1957) Yes.

        6 Schindler’s List (1993) Yes.

        7.The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) No.

        8 Pulp Fiction (1994) Yes.

        9.The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Yes.

        10.Fight Club (1999) No.

        11.The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Yes.

        12.Forrest Gump (1994) I’ve only seen some of it.

        13.Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back(1980) Yes.

        14.Inception(2010) No.

        15.The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers(2002) Yes.

        16.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Some.

       17.Goodfellas(1990) Yes.

      18. The Matrix (1999) Some.

      19. Seven Samurai (1954) Yes.

       20. The City of God (2002) No.

      So out of the list of 20 films: I’ve never watched six of them, I’ve only watched some of three of them, and I’ve fully watched eleven of them, but my memory is a bit dim on those. 

      • johan_larson says:

        You’re a lucky guy to have so much great cinema yet unseen. An evening double-feature of The Shawshank Redemption and Inception, both seen with fresh eyes, is a very special treat indeed.

        • Plumber says:

          It’s weird but out of the top 20 of the IMDB list the only one from my personal top 50 is The Seven Samurai

          Anyway, for what it’s worth here’s my off the top of my head picks of 50 films that I liked, and the years they were first screened:

          The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – 1920

          The Thief of Bagdad – 1924

          Things to Come – 1936

          The Prisoner of Zenda – 1937

          Alexander Nevsky – 1938

          The Adventures of Robin Hood – 1938

          His Girl Friday – 1940

          The Grapes of Wrath – 1940

          The Great Dictator – 1940

          The Sea Hawk – 1940

          The Thief of Bagdad – 1940

          The Maltese Falcon– 1941

          Casablanca – 1942

          Double Indemnity – 1944

          It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946

          The Third Man – 1949

          On the Waterfront – 1954

          The Seven Samurai – 1954

          Cyclists Special – 1955

          Paths of Glory – 1957

          The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad – 1958

          The Time Machine – 1960

          First Men in the Moon – 1964

          Le Roi de cœur (King of Hearts) -1966

          De Duva (The Dove) – 1968

          Johnny Got His Gun – 1971

          Monty Python and the Holy Grail – 1975

          Logan’s Run – 1976

          Star Wars – 1977

          Wizards – 1977

          Monty Python’s Life of Brian – 1979

          Dragonslayer– 1981

          Excalibur – 1981

          Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981

          The Road Warrio – 1981

          Time Bandits -1981

          Blade Runner – 1982

          The Wrath of Khan – 1982

          The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – 1984

          Conan the Destroyer – 1984

          This is Spinal Tap – 1984

          Raising Arizona – 1987

          The Adventures of Baron Munchausen– 1988

          The Princess Bride  – 1988

          Gattaca -1997

          Galaxy Quest– 1999

          A Knight’s Tale – 2001

          Hott Fuzz– 2007

          The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

          J. R. R. Tolkien vs George R. R. Martin. Epic Rap Battles of History – 2015

          If anyone has suggestions for more like those please share.


    • Winter Shaker says:

      By my count, I am reasonably confident I’ve seen 35 of those in their entirety (assuming Castle in the Sky is the same movie as Laputa), but I think there are more of them that I’ve seen bits of. To reverse the question, then, the first one that I have seen in its entirety is no. 7: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

    • Nick says:

      Going down the top 20 like Plumber, I haven’t seen 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 16, 17, or 19. Oh, I also haven’t seen #21, Se7en, but it’s on Netflix now and I’ve marked it to watch soon.

    • Brad says:

      The responses so far are surprising to me. It makes me update a little bit in the direction of the gray tribe being about more than just ideology.

      • johan_larson says:

        What were you expecting?

      • quanta413 says:

        Can you explain? I’m so confused what this has to do with movies.

      • Brad says:

        Eh, it turned out to not be as many posters that hadn’t seen anything as I thought the first time I went through.

        But supposing my initial impression had been confirmed, what it has to do with blue/gray separation is that my current prior is that the “gray tribe” isn’t really a tribe. Politics / ideology aside there’s a few sub-cultural aspects but they are layered on top of a basically blue tribe culture rather than being an independent stack. N.B. I don’t think contrarianism with respect to those cultural elements is to the contrary as long as there is ongoing familiarity.

        To give a concrete example, if I’m of a certain age and I know all the Beatles song by the first 5 bars–that says something about my culture even if I think they were trite garbage. On the other hand if me and significant numbers of other people, all of that certain age, avoiding the Beatles for all this time plus can all hum the words to the rationalist solstice playlist then maybe blue tribe heretic isn’t a great fit after all and it’s more reasonable to start talking about a gray tribe.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I’m confused as to what this means as applied here – are you suggesting that the blue tribe doesn’t watch movies? Or that they only watch movies from after the 90s?

          I don’t think that tribes should be properly understood as “completely disconnected,” but rather as having a (non-totally) different set of cultural “basis vectors.” Unless you have strong evidence to the contrary, I wouldn’t predict that “classic movies knowledge” is a place where “red tribe” and “blue tribe” diverge – and if you do have a reason to think so, I’d like to see it.

        • quanta413 says:

          Thanks. I see now. I agree with your original assumption that there isn’t really a separate cultural stack for grey tribe. They really are blue tribe heretics.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            As I recall in Scott’s original out-group posting, he posited that he was in the gray tribe because he enjoyed so his slamming of the blue tribe. His theory at the time was that criticizing your own tribe was not enjoyable, but criticizing the out-group was a lot of fun. Based on that theory, one can have two groups that are very close in culture, but the tribes will tend to strongly criticize some of the few differences between the two. I think the gray tribe is often considered libertarian in SSC, but based on tribal thinking maybe it is more properly those heretics of the blue tribe that strongly criticize the blue tribe’s attachment to identity politics. If you use that basis for the tribe, perhaps most of the commenters on SSC belong to the gray tribe.

          • Brad says:

            I thought the criticism hurts test was for “in group” rather than “tribe”. Whereas tribe was more defined by the idea of dark matter—everyone you know is in that tribe even if you physically share space with people of other tribes.

            Under those definitions it’s possible, likely even, to have as an outgroup some subset of your tribe.

          • Aapje says:

            @Mark V Anderson

            Narcissism of small differences.

    • quanta413 says:

      I’ve seen a lot more of them than I expected. The first one I haven’t seen is #5. Followed by 6, 8, 9, 16, 17, 19, 20.

    • The first one I have seen is number 11—better than I expected, but bad enough so I didn’t watch the other two. The next one I have seen is number 19. Then 36.

      I’m not a movie fan.

    • dorrk says:

      I had seen all of them until the Indian ones* started showing up around #80. Then I hit Bohemian Rhapsody at #123 and gave up. Really?

      * I don’t have any problem with Indian movies. The few I’ve seen from Satyajit Ray are great. But I understand that IMDb has had issues with concentrated voting blocks overrepresenting Indian movies.

      Also, the IMDb list in general is too focused on bro-y adrenaline movies, which explains fairly mediocre gunplay movies like Leon and Once Upon a Time in America getting so much love.

      • Machine Interface says:

        That might be the first time I see “Once Upon a Time in America” described as a “bro-y adrenaline movie”… Although come to think of it that might be an effect of the difference between the European and American versions — the latter cut out 90 minutes of footage from the film (then again the cuts are said to tighten the film but also to tone down the violence).

        • dorrk says:

          I agree it’s not really an apt description, but I also think that IMDb voting is largely based on most voters’ impression of a movie rather than actual consideration of the movie itself. OUATiA is a complete mess and likely isn’t what voters thought they were voting for. They think of Leone and gangsters and De Niro and forget the rest. I’m sure most of the voters never even sat through the whole thing. Yes, I’m being presumptuous. But there is an overriding theme to most of the movies at top of internet-based movie voting lists: movies that make traditional guy things seem super-serious and important: guns, action, male bonding. OUATiA seems like it would hit all of those with prestige, even though it’s kind of a disaster (with great music).

        • dorrk says:

          This is the subject where I get the most nerdy. Here’s my review of OUATiA after revisiting it two years ago.

      • dorrk says:

        Even though I use Flickchart to keep track of my favorite movies, I prefer Letterboxd’s list of the highest-rated movies. Its user-base leans more toward film-as-art rather that film-as-fanboy-member-berries.

    • tayfie says:

      Top one I haven’t seen is #20: City of God. Next is #33: American History X.

      Some advice for you @john_larson: I didn’t enjoy The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly until I had seen A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More. They are nominally separate stories in a series, but I didn’t connect to the protagonist starting at the end.

    • A1987dM says:

      First three I haven’t seen are 4. The Dark Knight, 5. 12 Angry Men and 6. Schindler’s List.

      • Nick says:

        Drop everything and watch 12 Angry Men! The 1957 version. It’s the best movie ever made.

        • dorrk says:

          A travesty of justice in the name of justice? No thanks! None of us would want the Henry Fonda character on any jury determining our fate.

    • Aapje says:

      The first one I haven’t seen is #43 Whiplash (2014).

    • Nornagest says:

      #4, The Dark Knight — at least if you count half-watched cable reruns for the Godfather movies. After that, I’ve seen everything until you get to #16, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and #20, City of God.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Easier for me to list first movie I have seen. Of the top 10, the only ones I have watched are #6, Schindler’s List, and #10, Fight Club. The former was put on by an English teacher in high school to teach us symbolism or something (the girl in the red coat), and the latter I caught on cable; both of them are good.

      Actually, I watched several of these movies at school. The same English teacher showed us #73, Braveheart, because she had a crush on Mel Gibson. A different English teacher put on #16, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because of the book. And the AP American History teacher showed us #12, Forrest Gump, for obvious reasons.

      • Protagoras says:

        If you thought the two top 10 movies you saw were good, doesn’t that suggest that maybe you should check out the other top 10 movies? Maybe being rated highly actually does provide meaningful information.

  7. johan_larson says:

    There are 11 countries with AAA credit ratings: Canada, Denmark, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia. The US, oddly enough, isn’t on that list; wonder what they did to piss off the banker bros. They do have an AA+ rating, the next one down.

    • John Schilling says:

      Standard & Poors made the change from AAA to AA+ in 2011, and they told the world why.

      TL,DR: Debt-to-GDP 74% and rising, Obama and the GOP bickering rather than doing anything useful about it, and nobody even talking about the necessary cuts to entitlement spending.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Though I think that was mostly signalling on the part of S&P. The issues they point out are real, serious, and unaddressed. But the US government has sovereign control over USD. Full stop. Partisan bickering is one thing, an independent fed exists, all that is true: but the federal government never, ever, under any circumstances, has to default on dollar-denominated debt unless it flatly chooses to.

        Even if it so chooses due to political gridlock or insanity, this situation isn’t meaningfully a defaulted bond, it’s a financial apocalypse for everything denominated in dollars. Maybe the world continues on denominated in Bitcoin, Nuyen, mgAu, or slaves. Maybe it doesn’t. But in either case we no longer have a bond market in dollars.

        I’ve always said “don’t bet on the apocalypse, you can’t collect”–maybe you can hedge here by buying bitcoin or ammo or yuan, depending on your model of the US collapsing, so that doesn’t entirely hold here. But in terms of safety of the bond market? There is zero risk in Treasury securities.

        If you disagree, which I’d love to hear about, I’d particularly like you to explain how to hedge risk of US federal default without exposing myself to some new medium of exchange.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The fact that S&P ignored, and continues to ignore, the sovereign ceiling in the US case (normally debt cannot be rated higher than the country its issuer is located in, but US companies can still get a AAA rating) makes the reduction of the rating look a lot like empty signaling.

        • johan_larson says:

          Presumably a default would occur because of some long-brewing problem that finally erupted into a crisis. Suddenly all the options available are bad, and defaulting (perhaps in a small way) is the least bad.

          So, what’s worse than late payment on some obscure class of bonds?

        • Chalid says:

          No, people. S&P estimates *only* the probability of default, not the loss given default. A minor technical meaningless two-day default is still a default. Congress playing footsie with the debt ceiling is absolutely a reason for S&P to lower the USA’s credit ratings, given the metric they have chosen.

          The other major credit rating agencies try to assess expected losses. The increased chance of a minor technical meaningless two-day default due to debt ceiling gamesmanship is not material to a Moody’s ratings.

          This is also why the sovereign ceiling gets ignored for the US. A technical default which the market ignores will not actually make Microsoft less credit-worthy.

        • Uribe says:

          Note that Japan is not on the list either due to its debt level, which is much higher, although many argue that Japan won’t default because the owners of Japanese debt tend to be Japanese.

          I believe that if the US had to massively print money in order to pay its debts, thereby causing massive inflation, that would be tantamount to a default in most people’s eyes, perhaps S&P’s. It’s what most people expect a US “default” to look like.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          Inflation is a real risk regardless of default.

  8. dndnrsn says:

    Hello, and welcome to the fifteenth installment of my Biblical scholarship effortpost series. Last time, we finished up the prophetic books with Jonah. We now enter the Ketuvim with a look at the historical books: Chronicles (a retelling of some of the history we looked at earlier), Ezra, and Nehemiah (the latter two covering the immediate postexilic period, focusing on the two titular individuals).

    The usual caveats: this is about secular scholarship, not theology. I went to school for this, but I’m not a full-on expert. I’m aiming for a 100/200 level of coverage, but if anybody has questions about the material, let me know and I’ll see what I can come up with. I won’t be giving full summaries, due to space constraints – in fact, it’s getting pretty tight for this installment, so feel free to ask about anything that seems dealt with overly quickly.

    Chronicles (often found as two books, but originally one book; we will address it here as one book) is a retelling of history from Adam to the point where Cyrus lets the exiles go home. There are three major sections: genealogies, a history of the united monarchy, and a history of Judah’s monarchy. It is dependent on other books in the Hebrew Bible, much of which was already written by the time that Chronicles was written (more on dating and sources a bit later). Much of Chronicles is a retelling of Samuel and Kings.

    It is not, however, simply a compiled or condensed version of earlier historical books. The author of Chronicles (potentially multiple authors, but for the sake of graceful writing we will refer to them in the singular; some scholars refer to “the Chronicler”) has a clear agenda. Put simply, the author has a view of history in which developments in Temple ritual, the priesthood, and so on that existed by the postexilic period are read back in time – “retconning” in the same way we discussed earlier. These developments are seen as paramount: rulers who ensure Temple services and the like are done properly are rewarded; those who do not are punished. Further, the Chronicler does not merely insert later developments back into the past, but also edits the past so that it comes out looking better.

    David and Solomon both figure heavily, and are presented as developing and entrenching institutions important to the Chronicler. Both come off rather better in Chronicles than the first time we met them: David takes the throne more smoothly, there’s no ugly incident with Bathsheba, there’s no rebellions. Further, when he leaves the throne, it’s a lot smoother: there’s no intrigue, and he spends a lot of effort near the end of his life organizing religious matters – if David is a warrior (at times, a bandit) in Samuel, he is a religious patron in Chronicles. Likewise, Solomon comes out looking better: the division of the kingdom is far less his fault and far more the fault of the north than in the earlier narrative.

    Some scholars have posited messianic tendencies in Chronicles. It is true that the theme of Davidic kingship – a common element in Jewish messianism – is present in Chronicles. However, the role of king is framed more as enabling the proper workings of the Temple than what would expect in a work with a theme of messianic kingship. Another interesting note is that Chronicles pays relatively little attention to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. One scholarly speculation is that this is a response to the situation in Judah at the time Chronicles was written. At that time, Jews were only one element of a fairly mixed population (due to imperial population transfers and so on) in their own ancestral lands. Deemphasizing the Exodus-Sinai tradition might be a reaction to this, emphasizing the link between the people and the land by deemphasizing the idea that they weren’t always there.

    Chronicles was likely produced in the mid-4th century, based on its reference to Cyrus and its genealogy of David. Its language suggests that it is not from before that point and the lack of Hellenistic influence suggests it is not from after that point. As noted earlier, the Chronicler wrote after much of the Hebrew Bible had been written, drawing upon much of it, and possibly also upon no-longer-extant sources.

    Reconstructing the period Ezra and Nehemiah cover is hard, as there’s not a great deal of independent confirmation, but most scholars think a timeline is possible. Following the initial return of some exiles in 538, the reconstruction of the Temple began but was delayed until a second group of returned exiles showed up; the Temple was completed in 515. A group led by Ezra arrived in 458 and established or reestablished normative rules for Jews in the province (generally identified as the Torah or fairly close). Finally, a group led by Nehemiah arrived beginning in 445, rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and repopulating the city. Some scholars think that Ezra actually showed up after Nehemiah, but this is a minority opinion.

    The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, like Chronicles, are one book in the Hebrew. They are frequently thought to share authorship – of this, more later; for the sake of simplicity, we’ll consider them as one book for now. A note: in order to prevent confusion, after this point “Ezra” and “Nehemiah” refer to the persons; the documents are “the book of Ezra” and “the book of Nehemiah.”

    The book of Ezra covers the return from the exile and reconstruction of the Temple, followed by Ezra’s activities in Jerusalem. It includes sections that are, or are presented as, source documents, largely letters. It opens with the return of the exiles and the beginning of the construction of the Temple, which locals attempt to stymie after their offers of help in rebuilding are rejected. The narrative then skips forward to Ezra’s part of the story. He is sent to Jerusalem by the Persian king along with other exiles “to regulate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God, which is in your care” (7:14) and empowered to do this. In Jerusalem, the most significant thing he deals with is a crisis involving intermarriage with non-Israelites. The book of Nehemiah, meanwhile, is about how the king of Persia sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. While there, Nehemiah deals with intrigues against him, resolves an economic crisis, ensures proper religious practice, and addresses another intermarriage crisis.

    The theme of the two might be summarized as the exiles returning and establishing religious practices which fit their understanding of the Torah (which reached its final form in the late exilic or early postexilic period), and their understanding of their return and establishment of Second Temple norms as fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant. This is seen especially strongly when we consider the issue of intermarriage in the book of Ezra. Shortly after Ezra and company arrive in Jerusalem, they discover that the “people of Israel” have not separated themselves from “the peoples of the land whose abhorrent practices are like those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites” (9:1) – they’ve married local women (note that the prohibitions are stricter than those found in Deuteronomy). Ezra is very upset “because of the returning exiles’ trespass.” (9:4) The situation is dealt with by summoning all the returned exiles (on pain of exclusion and property confiscation if they don’t show up) and determining which of them intermarried. The wives and children are then expelled.

    Reading between the lines, there’s some interesting stuff going on here. Who are “the peoples of the land” mentioned? Note the “are like” in the quotation – some of these groups still existed, but others did not. The people who undermined the rebuilding of the Temple are described as foreign settlers brought in by the Assyrians who started worshipping God at that time; the people in the land may also include Samaritans (whose origins are debated). The book of Ezra’s account shows a division, then, between exiles and local peoples who, even if they worship God, are not the “real Israel.” However, there had not been a deportation of the entire population – see, for example, 2 Kings 25:12. Further, we know that there was continued contact between the deportees and those who hadn’t been deported. The book of Ezra may consider those with no experience of exile, essentially, as foreigners – and intermarriage with them to be wrong. Economic factors likely played a role in this: those who had remained in the land would have claimed lands that the exiles wanted back (see Ezekiel 11:15). In any case, the language in the book of Ezra is about the returnees: those who were not exiled do not appear to be considered, by the book of Ezra, to be a part of the group. Only the exiles (who would have experienced the changes it wrought more strongly) are the real deal.

    Based on details such as the historical figures mentioned, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably composed a little bit into the 4th century. Both incorporate contemporary sources into the account; based on the use of Aramaic in Ezra, it is likely that both the author(s) and intended readers were bilingual in Hebrew and Aramaic. One question, mentioned earlier, is that of whether Ezra and Nehemiah were composed by the same author(s). This was the traditional view, supported by many modern scholars, but more recently this notion has been challenged. There are some linguistic differences, a few inconsistencies in genealogies, and some differences in theme and attitude. However, there is not much evidence either way.

    Another major question mentioned earlier, is whether Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah share authorship (assuming the latter two do). Again, traditionally they have been linked, but modern scholarship disagrees on the matter. On the one hand, there are linguistic and theological similarities, and the conclusion of Chronicles matches up with the introduction of the book of Ezra. However, linguistic similarities might just be due to being written in the same period. Chronicles has a more expansive view of who makes up the “real Israel” and has a less negative view of marrying outside the group than is found in the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, especially the book of Ezra. Chronicles also pays more attention to the Davidic tradition, and the books of Ezra-Nehemiah to the Sinai-Exodus tradition. Again, none of this is decisive.

    In conclusion: Chronicles is a retelling of parts of Jewish history, retconning some later developments in and removing some embarrassing bits. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah concern the consolidation of the return of the exiles to Judah, and (depending on how you look at it) either the reestablishment or the establishment of normative rules.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Also, I ended up cutting this for space, but there’s some books associated with Ezra which didn’t make their way into Jewish canon, but did into various Christian canons (in varying collections). If anyone wants to know a little about those I can say something on that.

      • dodrian says:

        I’d be interested in hearing more: I’ve read the stuff associated with Daniel, and I at least know the vague events described in Maccabees, but I keep failing to look at some of the other deuterocanonical books.

        I grew up in mainline protestant churches and once spent a very puzzled high-anglican chapel service in a vein attempt to remember what the book of Sirach was about and what the reading was supposed to relate to.

        • dndnrsn says:

          High Anglican services are great, because they’re simultaneously really weird for ordinary Protestants and for Catholics.

        • Aron Wall says:

          “The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach” is basically Proverbs II, but now with Greek influence. It’s one of the more spiritually useful books in the Apocrypha.

          One of the confusing things about the Ezra apocrypha is the inconsistent naming schemes. There are 2 additional books that are sometimes called 1 and 2 Esdras, and sometimes called 3 and 4 Esdras (on the theory that the canonical Ezra and Nehemiah are 1 and 2).

          3 Esdras is canon to Eastern Orthodox, but both 3-4 Esdras seem to have been regarded as Scriptural by many people in the medieval West but for some reason were left out of the canon decided by the Council of Trent.

          4 Esdras is kind of remarkable for containing the first really explicit attempt I know of to grapple with the justification of eternal damnation (assuming that this section predates Christianity). Ezra has a dialogue with the angel Uriel on the subject, and basically refuses to accept any of his answers. Then it gets into weird apocalypticism, like Daniel on steroids.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Further to this:

            1/3 Esdras seems to be a composition done from bits of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, covering a period from Josiah to the restoration. It has a unique story, that of three guards of King Darius who have a competition over what thing is strongest (one says wine, the second the king, and the third that women are stronger than these other things, but that truth is the strongest thing of all). It probably dates to the second century. It’s only been preserved in Greek and it’s unclear whether it was produced first in Greek or whether it was produced in Hebrew or Aramaic and translated.

            2/4 Esdras seems to be multiple compositions that have been combined. The largest part of it is a Jewish author writing in the name of Ezra, thirty years after the Temple was destroyed by Babylon. This doesn’t fit with the historical Ezra, and seems to be an analogy for the Roman destruction of the Temple – if thirty years after that, late 1st century. As noted it’s a mix of disputation (over theodicy, mainly) and apocalyptic imagery. There’s also a couple of later Christian compositions in there but they’re much shorter.

    • Aron Wall says:

      As noted earlier, the Chronicler wrote after much of the Hebrew Bible had been written, drawing upon much of it, and possibly also upon no-longer-extant sources.

      “Possibly” seems a little weak given that the Chronicler explicitly cites other sources for the material (e.g. 2 Chron 9:29 or 25:26).

      For the same reason, it seems to be going beyond the data to say that the Chronicler “retconned” in certain information, when we know he had access to sources beyond what we have. Yes, the Chronicler is presenting a more idealized version of David and Solomon, but he could easily do that simply by selecting among the available data. (Note that while the Chronicler fails to include the incident of Bathsheba, he has to record God punishing Israel when David orders a census, because this is how the plot for the Temple was acquired.)

      We already know from Samuel/Kings that David and Solomon had an interest in building the Temple and in Temple worship. And David is presented as interested in sacred music. Really it is not surprising that there would be additional records of these things beyond what Samuel-Kings reported.

      As for Messianism, surely the crucial passage to mention is 1 Chronicles 17 (parallel to 2 Samuel 7) where God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, makes David an (explicitly unconditional) promise that his dynasty will endure forever. This is the original seed for the thread of Messianic prophecy, that runs through nearly all of the prophetic books. The promise is a little ambiguous—at first it may have been interpreted as meaning that there would be an infinite number of kings after David, but as the inadequacy and failures of the Davidic dynasty became clear, it became interpreted as there being one particular righteous king, descended from David, who would reign forever.

      I’ve never heard before the idea that the returning Israelites excluded people simply for being locals, and I doubt the text really supports that. Not having gone into exile is hardly the same as being a Canaanite. Passages like Ezra 2:62-63 suggest there was also a major concern about restricting the priesthood to individuals who could prove their descent, but those excluded are told to wait for a high priest who could divine their status with the Urim and Thummin (which I guess never ended up actually happening?) The harsh response to intermarriage may seem rather strict to us, but we have to bear in mind that this may well have been an existential issue, concerning whether Judaism would continue as a distinctive religion or not.

      People may also be wondering why Cyrus, a pagan ruler, was so cooperative when the Jews wanted to rebuild their Temple in Jersualem. The answer is that Cyrus had a policy of religious tolerance/patronage towards all the inhabitants of his empire; he did the same sort of thing for many other client states.

      • dndnrsn says:

        “Possibly” seems a little weak given that the Chronicler explicitly cites other sources for the material (e.g. 2 Chron 9:29 or 25:26).

        I believe that there is scholarly speculation regarding the reliability of claims (by the books themselves or by later interpreters) to other sources. There’s arguments about the extent to which the relevant areas of Chronicles are reliant on earlier canonical stuff; it’s above my pay grade mostly.

        For the same reason, it seems to be going beyond the data to say that the Chronicler “retconned” in certain information, when we know he had access to sources beyond what we have. Yes, the Chronicler is presenting a more idealized version of David and Solomon, but he could easily do that simply by selecting among the available data. (Note that while the Chronicler fails to include the incident of Bathsheba, he has to record God punishing Israel when David orders a census, because this is how the plot for the Temple was acquired.)

        There’s some interesting stuff about Chronicles’ version of the census that I will try and remember to take a minute to read up on and post something.

        We already know from Samuel/Kings that David and Solomon had an interest in building the Temple and in Temple worship. And David is presented as interested in sacred music. Really it is not surprising that there would be additional records of these things beyond what Samuel-Kings reported.

        A lot of the stuff detailed is stuff that would seem to be important enough that a supposedly-authoritative history would include. It’s not the focus on music or the focus on building, it’s that the stuff it’s describing makes more sense as coming from the postexilic period. The author has a clear tendency to produce an idealized past, and seems willing to report against a major source. Stuff that seems to be describing later developments therefore bear a decent chance of being part of the idealizing tendency.

        As for Messianism, surely the crucial passage to mention is 1 Chronicles 17 (parallel to 2 Samuel 7) where God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, makes David an (explicitly unconditional) promise that his dynasty will endure forever. This is the original seed for the thread of Messianic prophecy, that runs through nearly all of the prophetic books. The promise is a little ambiguous—at first it may have been interpreted as meaning that there would be an infinite number of kings after David, but as the inadequacy and failures of the Davidic dynasty became clear, it became interpreted as there being one particular righteous king, descended from David, who would reign forever.

        Yeah. I think the scholarly debate is over the degree to which Chronicles understood it in the simplest sense (“your dynasty is gonna last forever” is not an insignificant promise) or whether the author was supporting the later understandings as well. I think this one is a case where there’s no strong consensus.

        I’ve never heard before the idea that the returning Israelites excluded people simply for being locals, and I doubt the text really supports that. Not having gone into exile is hardly the same as being a Canaanite.

        At this point the region seems to have been pretty mixed, due to stuff like deliberate deportations of people (I think primarily by the Assyrians, but this getting really far away from my wheelhouse). Here, some of them talk about having been brought there by an Assyrian king – so, these are people who have been in the area relatively briefly.

        The stuff about the exiles vs those who hadn’t been exiled is mostly an argument from silence, but otherwise some of the stuff is really weird: why is the anti-intermarriage assembly in ch10 only for “all who had returned from the exile” and why was being “excluded from the congregation of the returning exiles” something to avoid? The text doesn’t necessarily accurately depict what happened, but Ezra may represent the perspective of exiles saw themselves as better than those who hadn’t experienced the experience of exile.

        • marshwiggle says:

          Thanks for doing these posts. Count me as interested what you’ll post about the scholarly take on the census issue.

          Arguments about stuff not being included need a lot more than ‘that should have been in there’. They need to interact with the purpose of Samuel/Kings and the narrative structure of Samuel/Kings in a sane way. That is to say, you need a theory of whether the potential material would have helped to communicate what the author wanted to communicate and whether it would have fit with the structure he was building for that communication.

          Scholarship tends to go more for a gut feeling that the author would have included it if he knew it instead, possibly related to an overall agenda. Plus an awful lot of it tends to be unaware of narrative structures.

          About returning exiles vs people who never left: the exiles tended to be more educated, wealthy, and so on. Both due to their numbers, their position, and their ties to the leadership, the leadership may have found it much easier to summon them. In short, the exiles are way more legible. Also, the leadership may have found it much more important to set a precedent with the exiles. See the focus of Ezra 9:2 on the intermarriages by officials. Also, even though they summoned all the exiles, they quickly narrowed that down to just meeting with the officials. The end result of this was to make a list of guys who intermarried that fits in about 25 verses. If they had aimed at a broader net they might have failed and lost legitimacy. Instead, they held the officials to account, hoping that would change the trajectory of the nation. I’m not sure if that moment was decisive, but from what we know of the history it more or less seems to have worked?

          • Aron Wall says:

            Especially since the unique material included by the Chronicler is usually significantly more boring than the material included in Samuel/Kings, at least for those who don’t share his priestly “facts and figures” focus. This is the guy that decided to start out his historical text with 8 chapters (!) of nearly straight genealogy. A lot of the new material about David is considerably more dull as well (e.g. here is the list of all his gatekeepers and singers, here is the exact numbers of each tribe that supported him).

            The most obvious difference in the census story is that Samuel says that God incited David to take the census, while Chronicles says that Satan did. Sort of a Calvinism vs. Arminianism thing…

          • dndnrsn says:

            It’s true that the stuff is more boring. Interesting stories are probably more likely to be made up; does it follow that boring stories are more likely to be true?

        • dndnrsn says:

          Arguments about stuff not being included need a lot more than ‘that should have been in there’. They need to interact with the purpose of Samuel/Kings and the narrative structure of Samuel/Kings in a sane way. That is to say, you need a theory of whether the potential material would have helped to communicate what the author wanted to communicate and whether it would have fit with the structure he was building for that communication.

          One beef I do have with the scholarship on Chronicles is that, when discussing Samuel and Kings alone, they’ll do all the usual scholarly stuff, but then when Chronicles shows up, Samuel and Kings gets treated as a known quantity so they can talk about what Chronicles is doing.

          Scholarship tends to go more for a gut feeling that the author would have included it if he knew it instead, possibly related to an overall agenda. Plus an awful lot of it tends to be unaware of narrative structures.

          Off the top of my head, I remember more focus on narrative structures in New Testament scholarship, but I’m not sure if that’s because we know more about Hellenistic Greek literary/narrative conventions and so have more stuff to analogize from, or whether it’s just that I got rather deeper into NT scholarship, so there’s stuff I’m missing in the Hebrew Bible.

          I think at a minimum it’s quite plausible that Chronicles was, at least in part, an attempt to round off rough edges. I seem to recall other issues in Jewish interpretation where it’s treated as problematic that, say, David in the earliest texts can be read as a fairly roguish figure.

          About returning exiles vs people who never left: the exiles tended to be more educated, wealthy, and so on. Both due to their numbers, their position, and their ties to the leadership, the leadership may have found it much easier to summon them. In short, the exiles are way more legible. Also, the leadership may have found it much more important to set a precedent with the exiles. See the focus of Ezra 9:2 on the intermarriages by officials. Also, even though they summoned all the exiles, they quickly narrowed that down to just meeting with the officials. The end result of this was to make a list of guys who intermarried that fits in about 25 verses. If they had aimed at a broader net they might have failed and lost legitimacy. Instead, they held the officials to account, hoping that would change the trajectory of the nation. I’m not sure if that moment was decisive, but from what we know of the history it more or less seems to have worked?

          In either case, though, the book of Ezra seems to show the priorities of someone who at a minimum cares far more about the returning exiles than about those who hadn’t been deported. It neither specifically says “the ones who didn’t get deported didn’t experience and can’t understand, and also they took our land” nor “Ezra decided to focus on the disproportionately educated and wealthy returnees because that was easier and more bang for the buck” but there’s some indications here and there of friction between the returnees and those who had never been deported and some indications that the returnees would have felt superior to those who hadn’t been deported. I figured the speculation was interesting in light of the question of who exactly the people being intermarried with were.

          • marshwiggle says:

            Unless things have gotten better in the last 10 years or so, secular scholarship on the Hebrew Bible doesn’t do super great with narrative structure. NT criticism is as you say much much better there.

            Chronicles is definitely trying to round off rough edges. The interesting thing is why. One pattern in Chronicles is that a lot of people repent and then it goes well for them. Showing that repentance is possible and leads to good results seems to be at least a partial explanation for the rounding off of edges. Combine that with Messianic themes and I think you’re most of the way there.

            As to the returning exiles thing, I’m not super sold on the legibility and social class explanations either, given the lack of evidence. I guess I should have said I was adding a speculation there to the one you offered.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Yeah, Chronicles seems to link repentance and divine mercy more than is the norm in the Hebrew Bible.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Census stuff:

      One big and obvious difference is that in 2 Samuel God incites David to have a census done, but in Chronicles it’s “Satan.” This is probably (?) the adversary figure one sees in Zecheriah and Job, but it could possibly be a reference to some human adversary of David’s. Removing God from the equation might be there in order to avoid the issue of God causing someone to sin. Another difference: Levi and Benjamin are left out as Job becomes disgusted by the census: this might be the Chronicler removing these two tribes, important to worship, from associations with the census, or it might be the Chronicler providing a reason why Jerusalem was spared.

      Why are censuses bad? Israel wasn’t the only society to consider them taboo. They were thought to bring misfortune. The simplest explanation is that censuses enable war and taxation; the misfortunes here are obvious. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, census-taking for military reasons might also imply a lack of faith in God in matters of war.

  9. a reader says:

    I hope “Post about anything you want” includes ads.

    I have a new kinda hobby, decorating objects using vintage / antique art – from famous paintings to fashion plates, from Renaissance to La Belle Epoque’s Art Nouveau, through Regency and Victorian periods – to give a retro air to modern objects:


    • toastengineer says:

      It doesn’t, and there’s a highly irregular “classifieds thread” that’s specifically for that kind of thing, but I don’t think anyone really cares; the real rule is “don’t damage the commons” and aside from “pick two” and “no CW in the no CW thread” the ‘rules’ are just advice for how not to get perceived as damaging the commons.

  10. arlie says:

    Question for everyone: How many times have you found yourself in a situation where you felt it appropriate to use lethal force against another human being? I don’t mean as a general concept – I mean, a particular situation where you decided to use lethal force – presumably because of a serious threat.

    For context, how old are you now, and where have you lived/were you living at the time? Also, if you have every been miltary or law enforcement, were these incident(s) in that context?

    Yes, I’m looking for a crowdsourced estimate of experienced risk.

    • arlie says:

      Answering for myself, I’m 61 years old. I lived in Canada until I was 35 (except 4 years of college), and have lived in the USA ever since. I’ve only been in that situation once in my life and I was in Canada at the time. Bonus extra detail: I didn’t actually kill anyone.

    • SamChevre says:

      For myself, zero. I’ve lived in the US all my life, but I’ve never done the kind of things that makes being attacked likely.

      For contrast, my first employer had been in that kind of situation several times–maybe a couple times per decade. He routinely collected rent in cash in a low-income apartment complex; while I was working for him, he was cornered by several young men with baseball bats, who ran away when he drew his gun.

      • SamChevre says:

        Adding: I’m in my mid-40’s, have never lived in a jurisdiction with an average household income above the US average except while a college student.

    • fion says:

      Not sure how interested you are in negative responses, but whatever.

      Never, 24 years old, UK all my life.

      • arlie says:

        Thanks. Negative responses are good too – the whole thing would be completely biased if negative responses self selected out.

    • Fitzroy says:

      First off, apologies, I accidentally hit ‘report’ rather than ‘reply’, but I’m still not sure whether that actually does anything.

      Secondly, assuming you’re interested in negative responses:

      41, UK, working all my adult life in law enforcement, and I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve considered the use of lethal force.

    • John Schilling says:

      I’ve been the victim of two violent robbery attempts where I would have felt justified in using lethal force if explicit threat of lethal force hadn’t promptly convinced the robbers to go away. Both of these while I was a graduate student at USC, living in Los Angeles.

    • LesHapablap says:

      I have come across people that I would have killed had I been able to get away with it, people that clearly make the world a much worse place.

      More on topic, I have been in threatening situations but have gotten out of them without injury. I’ll never know how close I came to needing a weapon.

    • I have never used lethal force against another human being, nor felt it would be appropriate to do so. I was once witness to a shooting (in Philadelphia), and I think the shooter, running away, pointed his gun at me at some point, so I suppose if I had had easy access to lethal force I might have thought it appropriate to use it, but probably not.

      I am 73, have never been military or law enforcement, have mostly lived in places near universities. As a graduate student I was living in moderately high crime parts of Chicago near the university.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I am a white 30-something male that has exclusively lived and worked in North Suburban Chicago neighborhoods that are 90%+ White/Asian, with average household income exceeding twice the national average. Think “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Mean Girls” and you aren’t far off. My Mom occasionally ran into Michael Jordan in the grocery store (back when he was on his rookie contract).

      I spent some time in Chicago for school and occasionally moved through relatively nice neighborhoods late at night. There was occasional crime, but never anything that affected me.

    • toastengineer says:

      This is second-hand, but the lady at the counter at my favorite local restaurant concealed-carries and they keep another pistol under the counter. They have a couple people who have directly threatened them so they have a pretty clear justification. 40-something, major U.S. city.

    • Betty Cook says:


      Female, 63, respectable neighborhoods in various parts of the US (although sometimes in walking range of non-respectable neighborhoods.)

    • Dack says:

      Zero, 34, Midwest.

    • S_J says:

      I’m in my late-30s. I’ve lived most of my life in the Metro Area surrounding Detroit.

      I have experienced no situation where I felt lethal force was justified. I’ve had a permit to carry a concealed pistol since my mid-20s. For most of those years, I’ve carried a pistol to many, but not all, places I’ve visited. But I’ve also followed the standard suburbanite rules for avoiding the troublesome parts of the City.

      I’ve had one experience of moderate-level danger while carrying a sidearm. There was no specific danger in this scenario, and no direct threat to myself. This event happened while sitting near the waterfront of Detroit with two friends, and waiting for the sun to set before the annual Fireworks celebration over the Detroit River. We were seated behind a sidewalk near Hart Plaza. Most of the grassy area on the other side of the sidewalk was filled. One moment, all was peaceful. The next moment, a crowd of several hundred people were moving along the sidewalk, away from the waterfront. For about a minute, all three of us stood up, and we grabbed something that we’d like to take with us if we wanted to run away quickly. But we couldn’t tell what had triggered the rush, and there wasn’t any sense of danger in the crowd movement. One minute later, the stream of people thinned out.

      The rest of the evening passed without incident. We enjoyed the fireworks. Later, one of my friends commented that the fireworks were loud: so loud, that any gunshot in the vicinity would have been mistaken for the explosions of the fireworks. We agreed, but didn’t really have an answer to that problem. The next morning, news reports mentioned the inexplicable mass of people moving. They also mentioned that no one could tell what had started that movement.

      One experience at which I wish I had been carrying my sidearm: while vacationing in Arizona, I took an afternoon to walk in a park near the Air-B-and-B rental that I was staying in. Both the rental and the park were near the downtown area of Phoenix. It was my last afternoon in Phoenix, before heading towards Sedona (and later, on to the Grand Canyon). On the other edge of the park, a large picnic was going on. It looked like 50ish-to-100 people at the picnic. About ten minutes after I sat down to rest in a shady area, I heard shouting and saw commotion at the picnic area. There was obviously a verbal dispute, but the motions of the people convinced me that the dispute might rapidly become violent. I estimated that they were still more than 200 feet away from me, but decided to move away anyways. Things quieted down within a minute or two, and I relaxed–mostly. I kept walking around the periphery of the park, glancing towards the picnic area every minute or so.

      About 20 minutes after the shouting, I noticed a pair of Police cruisers had come up. Police were talking to the people at the picnic about something.

      For several reasons, I had not packed my personal sidearm along on that trip. (Despite the fact that my permit would be honored by Arizona Police.) If I had been carrying, I think my reaction would have been the same.

    • David Speyer says:

      Never. 38, white male. Currently living in US college town, have lived in areas with substantial homeless populations but not any really bad places.

    • Brad says:

      Zero. Late 30s. NYC for most of my adult life.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      USA, 0. But I will say I have had to kill wildlife as a precaution. One was a raccoon with rabies (probably). Another was a feral boar.

      I do not live rural but like to travel there on occasion. The boar was on a relative’s property (she basically doesn’t let you go anywhere without a gun because there are so many).

    • Plumber says:

      I’ve never felt the need to use lethal force, pepper spray has been effective deterant (last used on Blake Street near Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley I think in the 1990’s).

      50 years old, have lived most of my life in Oakland, California.


    • Hoopyfreud says:


      Also due to clustering, this is likely to be worthless if you want to use it for an estimate.

      • arlie says:

        Well, I’m not trying to estimate my own personal risk. At 61, I can use my own history to estimate that.

        Where my question came from was reading a very informative effort post about gun selection and training, specifically for self defence, and thinking “what an awful lot of work for someone who doesn’t do target shooting for pleasure, or have any other use for a firearm.” Given that the one time in my life I ever decided that lethal force was warranted, an improvised club/spear was sufficient to do the job – I figured that for me this simply wouldn’t be cost effective. But lots of people – even on this blog – seem to feel a need for self defence. So I wondered whether I had unusually low risk, they had unusually high risk, or they were the kind to carry expensive insurance for extreme rarities, or what. (Expensive in time and effort, in this case.)

        OTOH – I did get a dog, parly for related reasons. But I enjoy the dog on a daily basis, regardless of whether she is or isn’t acting as a burglar alarm and deterrent rolled into one large furry package, let alone helping me deal with hypothetical assailants. So the time and money spent on her doesn’t seem like a cost of dealing with potential crime.

    • A1987dM says:

      Zero, as far as I can tell. 31 years. Mostly lived in medium-sized towns in central Italy, except one year in Dublin and three years in Brussels. Never been in the military or law enforcement.

    • Elementaldex says:

      One-ish times. I was in India in the middle of the night and encountered a group of aggressive rickshaw drivers. I used my belt (heavy leather with a heavy steel head) as a weapon. I do not believe anyone was permanently damaged.

      I also once threatened a drunk Arab man in Argentina (with the same belt) after he struck me in the face with a stick. That one I don’t believe had the same potential for escalation which existed with the rickshaw drivers because I think I could have run.

      I was also once in a situation where i feared for my life but being armed would not have been helpful (and may have been harmful) because the aggressors were heavily armed police officers in Zimbabwe.

      I am roughly 30 years old, white, and male. I do not own a firearm but I intentionally wear belts that serve as functional weapons.

      I have never thought it would be appropriate to use any substantial amount of force against another human in the United States where I have lived for 20+ years.

  11. Uribe says:

    The main reason we can’t have good things like green energy is due to the absence of inexpensive battery technology to store for instance solar power for use when the sun doesn’t shine. But I get the sense that most people don’t realize that batteries are the big bottleneck for green energy since investing in building a better battery doesn’t get much political airplay.

    If externalities from conventional power were correctly priced, there would likely be a rush to find smart minds to think about batteries.

    Or am I wrong? Are there enough smart minds working on battery technology, and the problem is simply that it’s a hard problem to solve and it will take a long time to if ever?

    I’m fascinated by approaches which use forces such as gravity instead of electricity for large batteries. I wonder if the prior of “batteries are small things” isn’t impeding some of the creativity in this field.

    • dorrk says:

      Last year, Elon Musk built a giant lithium ion battery in Australia. I could see this kind of thing becoming the power plant of the future, if it turns out to be energy efficient to build them and they provide enough of the energy we need, and in a cleaner manner than our current energy sources.

      I don’t know how this Australian project has worked out since then, and if this looks like a practical solution to energy issues, but I wondered at the time what kind of trade-offs green advocates would be willing to make in exchange for an aggressive commitment to a new clean energy paradigm. Since this issue is so often presented in apocalyptic terms — that our current energy usage is destroying the planet and we only have decades to fix it — would the Democrats accept a deal like: The U.S. will contract with Musk to build a certain number of super batteries per capita in each state (creating lots of jobs in the process). The funding for this will come from defunding federal programs, as chosen by Republicans, in equal measure. Need $68 billion to build more big batteries? Shut down the Dept. of Education, which spends that in a year. Need more $$ for more batteries? Chop off something else.

      Since we are talking about saving the planet, after all, and sacrifices need to be made by everyone to do so, this seems like a reasonable swap. It would be an interesting gauge of seriousness, at least.

      • secondcityscientist says:

        I see proposals for political “Sophie’s Choice” of the kind you are describing occasionally (from multiple perspectives, I should say – not always from an anti-Democrat angle) and I wonder whether I am missing something or whether the proposers are missing something.
        -If Democrats control congress, they’ll pass a bill that funds what they want using funding sources they approve, like raising taxes on rich people.
        -If Republicans control congress, they just won’t fund a proposal for many giant batteries. They don’t even agree that the USA curbing fossil fuel emissions will affect the climate.
        -If you have a split between houses, you’re probably still getting the Republican preference. They really don’t want to divest from fossil fuels and can very easily not pass bills that encourage people to do so.
        -Any bill passed like this can relatively easily be “taken back” at a later date if congress changes hands – if Democrats win they can rebuild the DoEd, if Republicans win they can block the battery installation.

        There’s just no inducement for Republicans to come to the table right now on carbon emissions, and it’s not clear what it would take to get them there. Even inducing them with “cut whatever you want” isn’t really gonna do it.

        • The Nybbler says:

          What you’re missing is that it’s easier to obstruct new initiatives than to pass them, and easier to continue Federal spending programs than to cut them. So even if the Democrats control Congress, it’s quite possible the Republicans can get enough defectors to block massive new carbon restrictions. And even if Republicans control congress, it’s unlikely they can cut those spending programs. So there’s room for compromise if those really are the top priorities.

          The Republicans think the climate change stuff is just an excuse for programs the Democrats want anyway, and the Democrats think the Republicans just don’t care about all the poor Democratic constituents that climate change will kill, so we have an impasse.

          • secondcityscientist says:

            The possibility of defectors is fair, but I think it would be easier to bring in defecting Democrats than to induce Republicans to defect. I also disagree with the original framing in that I don’t think Republicans really want to cut federal programs as their top priority. If they cut out, as in the example, the entire Department of Education, then Democrats will be running on “Evil Republicans cut $68B from children’s education”.

          • dorrk says:

            The Republicans think the climate change stuff is just an excuse for programs the Democrats want anyway, and the Democrats think the Republicans just don’t care about all the poor Democratic constituents that climate change will kill, so we have an impasse.

            Right. One of the big concerns is the potential harm to the economy that will be caused by chasing a disingenuous solution to an exaggerated problem.

            What I’m wondering is — assuming that Democrats are sincere about their environmental fears, and that hypothetically these superbatteries become a compelling alternative to fossil fuels — what would Democrats sacrifice to “save the world?” There might less resistance to a solution that:

            — Has real-world rather than theoretical practical benefits
            — Makes engineering and economic sense regardless of climate controversies
            — Is forward-looking rather than restrictive
            — Is paid for by cuts in other programs

            If the alarmists are right, the Dept. of Education (or whatever other hypothetical sacrificial lamb) isn’t going to exist if nothing is done, so nothing is lost by repurposing its budget toward energy infrastructure.

            While the idea of using superbatteries gets pretty far into a hypothetical warren, I don’t see why, if this issue is really the “global killer” it’s presented as, there are any other priorities whatsoever.

          • sandoratthezoo says:


            I wrote a blog post about this:


            Basically, environmentalists of the type who fundamentally want to make the most effective possible change to stop climate warming are minor members of the democratic coalition, controlling little power, who show well on the media. The way that works is that they get some lip service from the power blocs in the party, but do not lead policy.

          • dorrk says:

            I wrote a blog post about this:


            Basically, environmentalists of the type who fundamentally want to make the most effective possible change to stop climate warming are minor members of the democratic coalition, controlling little power, who show well on the media. The way that works is that they get some lip service from the power blocs in the party, but do not lead policy.

            I certainly think you’re right about that, but doesn’t this also mean that the senior coalition members don’t really believe in catastrophic climate change, as they are unwilling to address it beyond using it as a political cudgel?

            Getting way off the batteries topic (which is completely my fault), but I’m fascinated by the argument: “WE think this thing is so important that YOU must sacrifice everything to fix it,” when it seems like a more persuasive argument is “WE think this thing is so important, that WE are willing to sacrifice everything to fix it.”

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      My money is on “hard problem”.

      Even currently there’s a multitude of reasons to build a better battery – and we’ve had them for decades. I don’t think there’s a dearth of investment in battery technology.

      It’s worth repeating what I wrote upthread whilst being nasty about Bostrom’s Dragon: science doesn’t work by throwing money at the problem until you find the solution. Lack of money may be a filter, but money isn’t an enabler until you have a reasonable idea of what you’re doing.

      I strongly recommend John Drury Clark’s Ignition! for an object lesson on how throwing money at a problem actually fits into practical research. The book’s subject matter – rocket fuels – is an excellent example because:
      1. The principles behind rocketry and rocket fuels were already known and tested (much like batteries today),

      2. The “customer” (US armed forces developing nuclear ballistic missiles during the Cold War) was able and motivated to throw a lot of money at the problem.

      Quick summary: the end result turned out to be rather boring and the vast majority of avenues pursued turned out to be dead ends.

      • Aapje says:

        There may be a relative lack of interest in heavy and/or big batteries. For many purposes you want light and/or small batteries, but for long term storage of solar energy it’s much more important to have cheap storage with low losses.

        Ultimately, it seems to me that much research consists of taking a chance. Having more money allows you to take more gambles, although people generally take the best gambles first, of course. So having more money results in worse gambles being made.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        There may be a relative lack of interest in heavy and/or big batteries. For many purposes you want light and/or small batteries, but for long term storage of solar energy it’s much more important to have cheap storage with low losses.

        That’s a very valid point.

        However, I find it curious that big batteries have been mostly absent from the whole “how do we ensure renewable energy generators are capable of delivering power when we need it?” conversation, with a lot of emphasis on ideas like pumped storage – that seem, prima facie, to introduce additional difficulties in getting them set up where we need them.

        Coupled with the standard “energy density issues” of batteries that seem to come up in answer to “why isn’t *thing* electric?”, I do have to wonder if the reason for the lack of interest in big batteries doesn’t stem from the specialists thinking it’s not a particularly promising avenue.

    • Eltargrim says:

      So I’m not going to be able to provide many sources, but I’m friends with a number of researchers in the battery field, and am somewhat familiar with the literature.

      It’s a hard problem. You need to consider a huge array of physical constraints, and then also have to contend with chemical constraints. There are only so many elements in the periodic table, and so many structures that do what you need to do.

      Grid-scale batteries are being researched (often in the form of redox flow batteries) and are receiving substantial funding, but at the end of the day keep in mind that our current battery paradigm is *young*. Lithium-ion batteries have only been commercially practical for thirty years, and the fundamental research framework is easily sixty to seventy years old.

      Energy storage, either device-scale or grid-scale, is a very active field of academic research with huge amounts of research funding. I’m not going to say that there are enough smart minds; we could always use more. But this isn’t a problem that’s being ignored, and it is fundamentally a hard problem.

    • fraza077 says:

      There are a couple of other technologies you didn’t mention:

      1. Molten Salt storage. Concentrated Solar Thermal stations usually have this feature, and it’s a feasible method for day/night leveling.

      2. Hydro pumping. This is already installed in a lot of hydro stations around the world. But it’s limited by the hydro dam needing to already exist, and of course resevoir size. You did mention “gravity-based methods”, but didn’t put this in the category of seasonal storage. Is it really not feasible for seasonal storage? Winter tends to be drier, which is annoying, but assuming you have a giant reservoir, it’s still feasible, right?

    • Robin says:

      I thought sodium solid state batteries are the most promising new battery technology?

      • John Schilling says:

        Every new battery technology is the most promising new battery technology. The web sites and the press releases of the people developing every new battery technology say so.

        But what they usually brag about, is the very high energy or power density of their spiffy new batteries. In this context, we don’t care. We really, really don’t care how much the batteries weigh, and anyone using the word “density” in their brag sheet is either trying to solve a completely different problem or they do not understand the problem. What we need to solve this problem is a type of battery that can be very cheaply mass-produced, and that has a very long cycle life without being picky about what form those cycles take.

        Per your source, “Solid-state batteries are traditionally expensive to make and current manufacturing processes are noted to be immune to economies of scale.”

        So, probably not the answer.

        Lithium batteries are probably also not the answer. It is at least possible that economies of scale in manufacturing will work for them; that’s Elon Musk’s bet, but there is no particular reason to believe that economies of scale will work better for them than for other less exotic technologies, and the only reason I’ve ever seen for pushing lithium over other materials in this context is “Lithium is the New Hotness, because energy density, and what sort of loser invests in big factories for Old and Busted when the New Hotness is right here?”

        Also not a good sign, and as Eltargrim notes this may turn out to be a Hard Problem. Meanwhile, most of the research and development money is going into electric-vehicle batteries, which are a Different Problem.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Musk uses lithium because he has to use it for cars. If he can make batteries cheaper* than the competition, he might as well sell them for non-mobile use. Maybe someone else could have pushed the price even lower by building another factory for another technology, but that person doesn’t exist. Maybe that person doesn’t exist for bad reasons, like VCs being star-struck or obsessed with visible green tech like electric cars, or badly targeted green subsidies, but that’s very different from Musk making a mistake.

          My understanding is that lithium batteries do have a big advantage for retail use, which is that they are clean. Tesla sells an appliance that you just hang on the wall, while lead acid batteries require maintenance. If you’re running a power plant, this doesn’t matter because you know how to manage a little more maintenance, but if you want to power an off-grid house, it’s great.

          * Telsa’s claimed prices are at least as good as any battery people use to store power in their home, but not as good as molten salt. When they first launched, it wasn’t clear how meaningful the prices were because they were so back-ordered, but I think it is possible to buy them now.

    • The Nybbler says:

      If externalities from conventional power were correctly priced

      If we knew how to correctly price externalities. Every attempt I’ve seen (for more than just power) not only picks only one side of the equation (taking into account positive but not negative externalities, or negative but not positive), but pretty much pulls the numbers out of the air. Worse attempts blatantly double or triple count or count things which aren’t externalities.

      Or am I wrong? Are there enough smart minds working on battery technology, and the problem is simply that it’s a hard problem to solve and it will take a long time to if ever?

      It’s this. We’ve come a long way from lead acid to a modern lithium polymer battery, but we have an even longer way to go to match chemical energy storage, and there’s no obvious path.

      Edit: As John Schilling points out, the load-smoothing battery problem is different than the one lithium polymers are trying to solve; for that, you need something cheap that you can put truly massive amounts of energy into and out of quickly, but not as much worry about weight or volume. But it’s still a hard problem.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Why do you believe that inter-seasonal energy transfer is important? Can you put any of your beliefs in numbers?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        What do you mean by “need to”? Why not just build larger capacity for solar power during the day and larger storage? Wouldn’t that accomplish everything at 1/100 the cost? For inter-decade transfers, just forget it and burn gas.

      • albatross11 says:

        How much difference in solar power do you get from winter to summer at the latitudes that most Americans live?

      • Uribe says:

        For inter-decade transfers, just forget it and burn gas.

        That means keeping those gas plants on the ready. Would be a lot sweeter to not have to have them on the ready.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        how much sweeter? Compared to what? It appears to me maybe 1/10,000 the price to keep the plants around than to use inter-decade transfer. Do you have some other metric?
        On the inter-decade scale, no, you don’t have to keep the gas plants around. You can build them as-needed. Kieran says that he agrees with you, but then he turns around and says use methane storage, rather than methane mining, which means he wants just as many plants.

        I already said that I don’t care about that kind of efficiency. If winter solar is 1/10 of summer solar, then build 10x as much solar capacity as would be most “efficient.” That is orders of magnitude cheaper than inter-seasonal energy storage.

      • John Schilling says:

        How much difference in solar power do you get from winter to summer at the latitudes that most Americans live?

        For an optimal solar power installation in the vicinity of New York City, I find a 42% reduction in December vs peak (June) performance, and 31% reduction vs. year-round average. It isn’t out of the question to deal with that by simply overbuilding solar cells.

        You definitely need a day’s worth of battery capacity, and I expect that there are frequent weather events that would have people pining for a good old-fashioned nuclear reactor if they didn’t have at least a week’s worth of battery reserve behind their solar panels.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        You probably have to roughly square that to take into account the length of the day. But I was trying to be very conservative with 1/10.

        “Not being efficient with energy” is meaningless in the context of generating energy. Not being using the minimal amount of land is true, but so what? Why should I care when I’m saving so many other resources? Money isn’t everything, but it’s a much better summary of many resources. Why do you believe that inter-seasonal energy transfer is cheaper than excess capacity? Sure, excess capacity costs money, but so does long-term storage. Are you aware that the cost of energy storage scales at roughly the square of the time stored?

      • Uribe says:

        Are you aware that the cost of energy storage scales at roughly the square of the time stored?

        Wouldn’t that vary depending on the type of storage, and isn’t that why different types of storage are being suggested for different time scales?

        For instance, is the cost of storing hydrogen really the square of the time stored?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        It’s all quadratic. The constants vary. There are lots of details. But if you don’t know that it’s quadratic, claiming that unspecified details will solve the problems is not very plausible, since you don’t know what the problem is. I would be happy to hear specific details, though.

      • The Nybbler says:

        At least for the US, availability of land for solar probably just isn’t an issue. The US has no shortage of land that would be quite good for solar, and I believe most of it is owned by the Federal government. Building out infrastructure to all this land would be an issue, and it tends to be concentrated in one region so not only do you need significant long distance transmission, you’re more vulnerable to medium-scale weather events.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      A number of companies are pursuing compressed air energy storage.

      Another way that prices could change is by introducing peak pricing. For an individual household that already has solar panels and is then faced with peak pricing, it makes sense to get a battery. This doesn’t require pricing externalities, but it does require another difficult pricing calculation.

      What to do with all this excess power? Instead of time-shifting it, can you think of something else to do with it? An application whose dominant cost is energy, but doesn’t care when the energy comes in, and with low capital costs, so that you can cheaply build capacity. Such an industry is currently subsidized by erratic energy sources. If such industries expanded, they would act as a subsidy to erratic energy sources.

      Decades ago, some commercial buildings faced with peak energy charges ran A/C at night to generate ice to cool the building during the day. That pattern is less relevant in the solar era, but I think Texas has consistent night wind and large cooling demands.

    • Or am I wrong? Are there enough smart minds working on battery technology, and the problem is simply that it’s a hard problem to solve and it will take a long time to if ever?

      I think the problem is that it’s an old technology, there have been reasons to want to get power/weight ratios up and costs down for a long time, so most ideas worth trying have been tried and either failed or in current use.

      It isn’t that batteries are a hard problem, it’s that making batteries better than they now are is. Running a foot race is pretty easy. Beating the current world record isn’t.

      • Uribe says:

        I’m a salesman with a background in oil & gas and utilities (Mainly O&G but with recent years working with power plants), but my experience has been with niche technical products and services, meaning that I’m acknowledging that these are broad fields and I have some learning to do when I jump into a different niche. I’m currently looking for a job and trying to position myself in a new niche that is likely to do well over the next decade or so.

        Do you have an opinion about what specific niche in this field is likely to thrive in the near and medium term?

        Oh yeah, also, I’m the person who wrote the original question here, and I really appreciate all the responses. To me, “battery” means energy storage. I didn’t just mean chemical batteries and I’m glad you understood it to be much more than that.

      • LesHapablap says:

        What are you thoughts on batteries for aircraft propulsion? Will it ever go beyond hybrids?

        • John Schilling says:

          “Ever” is a long time, but for the next few decades at least we’re looking at pure-electric aircraft mostly for the sky-Uberish “urban air mobility” applications that are supposed to replace boring old groundcars Real Soon Now. Anything more than a hundred miles of travel distance is probably going to be hybrid or straight kerosene for some time to come.

        • LesHapablap says:

          I’m pretty skeptical about the quadcopter style air taxis. For one they’d make a hell of a lot of noise. But also, certifying anything new is a very long, expensive process. It’s likely that self driving cars have fulfilled all of their promises before drone-style air taxis get going, which would curtail the demand quite a bit.

          It would be nice if we could get engine replacements with hybrid or electric systems in some small aircraft, but that will be a long way down the track and may never be financially viable over just purchasing a new airframe. I’ve been following the diesel engine, which would be great at filling the gap between the 300hp pistons and the 550+ hp turboprops, being 350-420hp and burning JetA, and burning less fuel than a 300hp lycoming. It appears to be mired in the certification battle, having flown a few years ago and with seemingly plenty of financial backing and still not certified.

          Some hybrids and electrics that look pretty cool:

    • skef says:

      Without contradicting any of the other contributions to this thread:

      It’s worth noting that there are already a number of ways of storing energy at given up-front costs and efficiencies, with relatively low operating costs. In a pinch you can split water into hydrogen and oxygen, store the former, and burn it in a relatively conventional power plant. Many of these systems are well under 90% efficient. But the current power grid is also not very efficient, and much less efficient than it could be, and doesn’t make it irrational.

      So what a lot of researchers are chasing right now is the possibility of making energy that is stored in times of highest production (as with solar on a clear day) and released at times of relatively highest consumption (hot nights?) competitive with other sources of that energy, like burning natural gas or coal. And “competitive” is of course also relative to regulation. Add a big enough tax on carbon to the mix, and some existing storage solutions would become viable (given “excess” peak production of renewable energy, which prices indicate already happens at some times in some areas, and would happen more if there was a market for that energy and therefore for more capacity).

      So the current reality seems to be that:

      1) It is indeed difficult to store energy at a cost per unit that is competitive in an energy market that doesn’t substantially regulate carbon.

      2) Whether it makes sense to store energy now depends in part on the extent to which carbon emissions are a negative externality. And that extent is a matter of much debate.

      Now, since what I’ve said here leans in one direction, I should be clear that it’s easy to create dumb incentives. Do the wrong thing and companies could wind up building energy storage and in the process release more emissions than will ever be prevented by the storage itself. My point is just that the cost/efficiency combination that is so challenging to obtain is determined in part by the fact that instead we can pull natural gas out of the ground and burn it. If we couldn’t do that, either because it was not allowed or because it wasn’t there, existing technologies might already be viable for some purposes.

      Added: the way I wrote this may make it seem as if I’m ignoring part of the OP, which already alluded to all this. What I wanted to clarify is that the narrow issue of battery efficiency is a distraction to the overall question. Battery research is attractive in this space because there is little evidence that a price competitive battery is impossible. With other systems there are often either hard physical limits on efficiency, or current limits that seem very difficult to improve on. But if you change the market requirements you will also change what it makes sense to investigate and implement.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      I would certainly be interested in a survey of the state of gravity-based grid-scale battery tech. Recently prototyped ideas I’m aware of include “build a giant tower of concrete blocks with cranes and drop some of them off the top when you want power” and “drive a very heavy train up a hill, then let it coast back down when you want power,” which have the lovely intuitive appeal of something a kid might come up with.

      Speaking of which, off the top of my head I wonder why nobody has tried to use a funicular going up a mountainside as energy storage. Plausibly more stable and weather-insensitive than a tower and the motor is fixed in place so you don’t have to waste energy moving it up and down like a regular train. Is it just that mountainsides are expensive places to build anything?

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      1. To start there are a lot of good minds thinking about large-scale storage of electricity. The fact is that it is a difficult problem.

      2. These people don’t get much press because its not a problem government can solve, which is a bias problem for most of the environmentalist movement and most of the media. The media, in particular is too goldfish to report on any green effort that will actually succeed, because they are, by the nature of thermodynamics, not going to be quick fixes.

  12. Plumber says:

    So thanks to a link from The New York Times I started to read a combined American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution and something called ” Opportunity America” report called: Work, Skills, Community: Restoring Opportunity for the Working Class” (pdf), and before I read far this statement stopped me:

    “…Still, for all the attention of the past two years, it isn’t clear that anyone, left or right, understands working-class America. Who makes up the working class today? What exactly is it that ails them? Why, unlike in so many other parts of America, do their fortunes seem to be declining rather than improving?…”

    Um, no one “left or right understands”?

    That supposes that no working class Americans are “left” or “right” (so apolitical?) and have no self understanding or that there is some language barrier that keeps that understanding from being communicable, but whether one uses the older definition of “employees rather than employers” or the definition that the press seems to increasingly use of “people without college diplomas” the working-class are the majority of Americans and the idea that over half of the Nation is mute or thoughtless is absurd and a bit insulting.

    They seem to mean well by their report, but that’s a bad start.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Yeah, there’s been a surreal tendency to use “working class” to exclusively mean “blue collar”, then treat blue collar Americans like an exotic subhuman species we might want to care about the welfare of, like gorillas.

    • Presumably “no one” means none of our sort of people–none of the people who read and write reports like this or are in positions of power in the major parties.

      Don’t let it bother you. Quite recently, on this blog, I was similarly declared not to exist.

      • Plumber says:


        “…Quite recently, on this blog, I was similarly declared not to exist”

        You specifically?
        What post was that?

        • A post asserted that all libertarians were minarchists. I’m a libertarian anarchist, hence must not exist.

          There was a later post asserting that nobody used the old second person singular, thee/thou, except as a joke. I commonly address my wife in that form, not as a joke but to express affection.

          Then someone on FB made a different claim about libertarians that also excluded me.

          Three strikes and I’m out.

          • Plumber says:


            I thought it might be something else….

            “No one keeps a sword for household protection, or has trained a squire anymore”

            David Friedman: *ahem*

          • 10240 says:

            A post asserted that all libertarians were minarchists.

            Tbh that was more of a disagreement about definitions. (It seemed to me that people debated for quite a while without realizing that they/you were just debating about a definition.)

          • @Plumber:

            You are correct. Four.

            Although it’s many years since I last trained a squire.

    • Aging Loser says:

      None of my students are “political” (well, there’s a grumpy feministical young lady from time to time, but this is because she’s either a misplaced professional-class (Park Slope / Cobble Hill, etc.) person or aspires to be one. Some of the teachers try to tell them about this or that Progressive thing, but the lessons don’t stick. It’s like trying to get them to care about Athanasian theology. One young woman who works as a “waxer” was telling me that there are now lots of “genders” and that you can get “written up” for holding otherwise; nobody took her seriously.

      (Also, I’ve had a couple of Aspies — I have one this semester — whose thing is Right Wing videos.)

  13. Mark V Anderson says:

    I have noticed a lot of people on SSC using the work “they” in talking about individuals when the gender isn’t known. I really hate this. Every time I read a post using “they” in this manner, I always get confused and wonder what group they are talking about. Usually I figure it out by context after a few seconds, but it makes reading more difficult. I still use the traditional method of using “he” when talking of an individual with unknown gender. This isn’t perfect, but it is almost always more important to know whether the subject is singular or plural than it is to know the gender.

    But I do suggest a compromise. I believe the new fangled word “zhe” is a pronoun to indicate singular but unspecified gender? I will try to use that pronoun for unknown genders, and I request that others do this also.

    • TracingWoodgrains says:

      I use “they” and have for a while. Every invented word to fill the gap sounds forced, and without a consensus new word that gains widespread approval, looks much stranger and becomes more disruptive in context than “they”. The ambiguity is an issue, but as you mentioned, one that typically causes only brief trouble. “He” gives the impression that gender is known, which similarly reduces clarity of the post.

      English caused the problem by not including a sensible gender-neutral third person singular, and all solutions have trade-offs, but “they” is the least jarring option.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        To be fair, singular ‘they’ for a non-specified single person is ancient, but singular ‘they’ for a specific named person, who does not want to be thought of as either male or female, is a much more recent coinage, and, from personal experience, much harder to actually use in real life. I suspect that a lot of the reaction against singular ‘they’ is a reaction against this latter use, rather than the old non-specified person use (though it looks like Mark V Anderson’s objection is to both uses)

        • Eric Rall says:

          I see three cases at work here:

          1. An unspecified or hypothetical member of a mixed-gender set.
          2. A specific individual whose gender is unknown to the speaker.
          3. A specific individual of known gender, whose gender identity is neither male nor female.

          1 and 2 are in common current usage in casual speech, and 1 at least has long-standing precedent in historical usage (2 might as well, but a quick googling of historical usage only turns up examples of 1). 18th and 19th century efforts to systematize English grammar successfully drove the singular they out of formal usage in favor of the Generic He (now on its way out in favor of variations such as the gender of the speaker/writer, alternation, or “he or she”). And as you said, 3 is a neologism coined recently by analogy with 1 and 2.

          In my opinion, 1 makes the most logical sense and likewise feels the most natural to use.

          The problem with 3, apart from grammatical awkwardness (stemming partly from unfamiliarity) is that English already has a perfectly serviceable singular pronoun for referents that are neither male nor female. However, most people who identify as nonbinary are understandably reluctant to use it, since “it” connotes non-personhood: traditional and current usage mostly reserves “it” for inanimate objects, for animals of unknown gender, or occasionally for very young children.

          I’d support an effort to expand “it” to include people of nonbinary gender, but I don’t blame any particular person for being reluctant to go first, and I’m not going to be a jerk and insist on using it for someone who prefers a different pronoun.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            I’d support an effort to expand “it” to include people of nonbinary gender, but I don’t blame any particular person for being reluctant to go first

            It’s at this point that one should hope for a large influx of immigrants from Finland. Not only did they not have gendered pronouns to begin with (‘hän’ covers both ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the singular; ‘he’ covers male and female persons in the plural, while ‘se’ covers inanimate things in the singular – equivalent to English ‘it’, with ‘ne’ covering plural inanimate things)… but they then drop the animate pronouns in casual speech and just use the inanimate ‘se’ or ‘ne’. So that’s one culture where everyone gets called ‘it’ outside of formal contexts.

    • TakatoGuil says:

      Singular they is several centuries older than you are, so I also must decline from budging. Especially since zhe is one of my least favorite of the far-too-many varieties of the neuter third-person singular pronoun.

    • arlie says:

      I think that ship has already sailed. There have been a lot of attempts at introducing an effective gender neutral third person pronoun into English in the past 40 years or so, after using “he” for both unknown/unspecified *and* male became a big enough problem that solutions seemed needed.

      Many involved made-up pronouns, such as zie, zhe, etc. Others involved such tricks as using she to mean both female and unknown/specified, or alternating gendered singular pronouns from sentence to sentence. Some tried to use “one”. Probably some even tried using “it”. Many people writing books 30-40 years ago put something in their introduction to explain what choice they were using, even if it was the previously customary “he”.

      But at this point, the winner is pretty clearly to use “they” as if it were a singular (but with the usual third person plural verb forms). I see it everywhere, with very few people objecting. (In the same vein, “man” now means only “adult male human”, and words like “human”, “person”, and “humanity” are used where “man” might have been used 50 years ago.)

      I’m afraid I’m not about to switch yet again, unless a huge number of other people switch first.

      In the rare cases where it’s important to know the number of people, there are other ways to do that. And if the cultural consensus had cared, we’d be saying “they is” and “they are” already.

      • 10240 says:

        after using “he” for both unknown/unspecified *and* male became a big enough problem that solutions seemed needed.

        As far as I understand, it didn’t become a problem, some people decided that there was a problem.

        • Fitzroy says:

          Well yes, but then singular they didn’t become a problem until 19th century grammarians decided that there was a problem because of number agreement and prescribed generic he as an epicene singular pronoun.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Yes, and those people were silly. Just like the people who decided that genetic “he” was a problem.

    • Fitzroy says:

      Singular they is attested as far back as the English corpus goes – the earliest Wikipedia cites is Wycliffe’s Bible of 1382, in Middle English. (“Eche on in þer craft ys wijs.”)

      The idea of using the male pronoun for all unknown persons seems to be, like so many things that we commonly think have always been that way, a largely Victorian invention.

      I’d almost guarantee that someone professing to disapprove of it will find they use it instinctively anyway.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Note that there’s already a pronoun in English that works that way even in the most formal and conservative language: “you” (nobody uses “thou” anymore except as a joke).

      • Winter Shaker says:

        What are yall talking about? We have a perfectly valid second person plural and respectful-singular pronoun 😛

        • Machine Interface says:

          In a “y’all/you guys” dialect, do people actually consider it ungrammatical to use “you” as plural?

          • Eric Rall says:

            I can’t speak for “y’all” dialects, but for “you guys” I’d answer no. Specifically, the pronoun is still “you” and “guys” is a modifier clarifying or emphasizing that I’m addressing a group rather than an individual. In a formal setting, I’d probably use a comma-separated subordinate clause for the same purpose (e.g. “You, the members of the committee, …”).

          • Lord Nelson says:

            The answer for “y’all” dialects is also no. Everyone knows that plural “you” is grammatically correct, but “y’all” tends to worm its way into your speech after hearing everyone else use it so often.

      • Deiseach says:

        nobody uses “thou” anymore except as a joke

        You may do so, but do all of ye? 😉

        To quote the Irish Times:

        The absence of a specialist pronoun in the second-person plural department has been an embarrassment to English ever since; except maybe in Yorkshire, where they retained “thou” on a part-time basis, easing the workload on “you”. Everywhere else, the change left a gaping hole in the language that still begs to be filled.

        Naturally, we in Ireland have not been founding wanting in the search for replacements. If anything, we have too many: including “youse” and “yiz” in Dublin, “ye” in Munster and the west, and “yousuns” in the North.

        We even devised an unofficial grammar to complement these. A Dubliner resigning his job on a point of principle, for example, may tell his employers: “Yiz can take yizzer (poxy) job and shove it!”. Similarly, “youser” and “yeer” create the plural possessive form, where appropriate. (I think with “yousuns”, you just add an apostrophe after the S.)

        Examples from local dialect, second person singular/second person plural:

        Is that your book?/Are those yeer books? (or more likely, Are them yeer books?)
        Did you bring your wellies?/Did ye bring yeer wellies?
        What do you think you’re doing, at all?/What do ye think ye’re doing, at all? (Note difference between “ye’re” for “ye are” and “yeer” for “plural possessive your“).

      • (nobody uses “thou” anymore except as a joke)

        That’s the second time in a week that a commenter here has told me I don’t exist.

    • fraza077 says:

      I occaisionally read posts like this, and find them bewildering. I grew up with singular they being normal, I used it in my writing, and from my point of view I find it grating when an author uses “he or she” instead. As others have pointed out, its usage is centuries old.

      Apparently it’s less common in American English than British English, and having been raised in NZ, I’ve been more exposed to English literature.

      In any case, yes it’s not optimal, but it works well enough, and you can’t make an argument about lack of precedent, so stop resisting and just embrace it.

      Something different:
      I feel like the frequency of using “their/there” and “your” instead of “they’re” and “you’re” respectively has increased lately, both here and on the subreddit. I’m open to the possibility that the culprit is people posting on their phones more, but maybe not.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        I feel like the frequency of using “their/there” and “your” instead of “they’re” and “you’re” respectively has increased lately, both here and on the subreddit.

        My guess would be that highlighting spellcheckers are the original culprit.

        Even as I type this, the browser is helpfully telling me that it doesn’t recognize the words “blockquote” or “subreddit”. It doesn’t flinch if I write “there”, “their” or “they’re”, because each is a perfectly normal word.

        The “helpfulness” of the spellchecker competes for our attention when proof-reading, potentially desensitizing us to mistakes like there/their/they’re or greengrocer’s apostrophe’s [error intentional]. If we choose to trust the spellchecker and forgo actually proof-reading what we wrote from start to finish (a chore without preview functionality), chances are good some such slips will slip through.

        Of course, that opens the door to stage two: if someone’s experience with the written word does not establish the difference (because everyone is making those mistakes over and over), that person may never be the wiser in they’re [intentional, do not correct] own writing.

        • Slicer says:

          This is exactly why I immediately turn off spellcheck in every application I use.

        • Uribe says:

          There were a few years in the early days of ubiquitous email when the norm for writing emails to friends was to write in all lower case. Does anyone here remember this? I want to say it was around 1996. It felt weird, as in too formal, to use normal capitalization in a friendly email. I suspect part of the reason the norm came about was because most people back then didn’t have much typing experience. (but, to be clear, the norm was as strong for everyone) Eventually, the fashion changed and all-lower-case typing looked affected.

          I think a new norm is occurring, due to what a pain it is to always spell correctly while texting, where spelling isn’t considered important, particularly your /you’re distinctions. Getting it wrong now signals casualness rather than ignorance.

          • John Schilling says:

            There were a few years in the early days of ubiquitous email when the norm for writing emails to friends was to write in all lower case. Does anyone here remember this? I want to say it was around 1996.

            I was around then, and a good while before, and I very much don’t remember that. Might it have been a local custom?

          • Checking my email from the early 90’s I see no such pattern.

          • arlie says:

            I also don’t recall the lower case email norm. But I agree that spellchecker-produced gobbletygook is well on the way to becoming the new normal – even for news articles and resumes, never mind texts and emails.

            I expect the written language to eventually change such that whatever the most popular such programs produce today eventually becomes regarded as correct, and taught to children in school (to the extent that any such teaching continues to occur).

            Current spelling checkers, combined with semi-random input devices (on-screen keyboards) are currently bad enough that they not infrequently obscure meaning. An iPhone recently sent me a text where “cousin” was substituted for “cocaine”; this at least had the advantage that there was obviously something wrong 🙁

            Sometimes they produce something where several diffrent meanings are equally plausible, in what context you have, and it’s easy for a reader to only notice one of them. But perhaps that doesn’t matter, in a post-truth society 🙁

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      I recommend James Anderson’s suggested “ou” which I believe he derived from Scots dialect. A bonus is you get 13 pronouns total across 5 genders (including castrati), with variation for genders that are definite or indefinite, as well as the “matrimonial gender” when you have males and females jointly, but don’t want to distinguish them by the pronoun. He also suggested special pronouns for inferiors, superiors, Kings, and God, among others.

      Note actually, that Anderson suggests that the role of the “universally indefinite pronoun”, which denotes “males, females, or inanimates, either separated or conjoined, where no distinction of gender was meant to be adverted to in any way” was played by English “they”.

    • SamChevre says:

      I can live with singular they: the approach I really loathe is the HBR style, of using “he” and “she” in alternating paragraphs. I always think that it is necessarily talking about two distinct people.

    • skef says:

      As an (occasional) author I don’t like the singular they because it increases the problem of anaphoric reference, which is a problem that does, or should, mostly sit on the author’s side of the bargain. Setting aside this usage “they” can refer to multiple people or multiple things (“None of the boots were in the house; they were all in the barn.”) Adding in individuals just makes it all the more tricky. With “he/her” and “they” you can easily juggle separate referents and the reader will not get confused. “They look good on him”. When that becomes “they look good on them”, that’s going to be at least a little bit more of a puzzle for the reader, if as an author you’re even comfortable writing it.


      1) This is not even a problem worth mentioning for individual cases, such as a person who prefers “they”-derived pronouns. It’s only a problem potentially worth mentioning under proposals that using “he” or “she” pronouns is alienating to people who do not fit under those categories. I already switched to primarily using “she” because a) that was the standard, if ideological, position in my erstwhile field, b) I see the ideological point, even if I am more neutral on it than many, c) it doesn’t introduce any significant anaphoric difficulties. (I mix in “he”s not in alternation but sometimes, although that poses its own problems.) Now all of everyone’s work using “she” this way is problematic by the new standards.

      In terms of ideology, for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, gender is deeply wrapped up with value. Things don’t get much more value-laden than romantic love. Homosexuals fought (using almost entirely nonviolent means) for a space to pursue romantic love as they experience it. Probably some activists here or there proposed “the elimination of heterosexuality”, but they were the fringe of the fringe of the fringe. The ideology that wants to eliminate “he” and “she” except for specific purposes is wrapped up in an ideological push against gender itself. It’s right there in the text. If I take sentiments expressed in this article together with those in their article on the nature of sexual orientation, it sure seems like “Dembroff wants homosexuality to be wiped off the face of The Earth.” I am guessing they would see that conclusion as uncharitable, but it’s hard to see what blocks the inference*.

      In short, the new trend seems to be “Because people fall outside of category/dichotomy/whatever X, the way to be inclusive is to eliminate conventions that assume X.” This is not wrong, but it is Utopian in the way that, for example, the push for “she” as a convention was not. And regardless, those people for whom gender is deeply wrapped up with value are not wrong to ask for a more inclusive ideology before jumping on the bandwagon.

      2) Who cares what I like? Well, OK — I care, but I already have a different hill to die on**. Even a requirement to use “they” in every case a person’s preferred pronoun is not known just creates work, and possibly stilted language. Other scenarios of routine established English can do the same thing. You’re “supposed to” start sentences with “However” and not “But”. After enough smacks on the wrist I decided that I was using “But” too often, and now I think more about which makes the most sense in a given context. But some of the “buts” just read better. Writing involves a lot of these little “battles” between one’s own preference and those of potential readers. If I cared I might try to argue that “he” is right given historical usage, but that stipulation won’t prevent readers bothered by that use of “he” from being distracted. Similarly my use of “she” will distract people who rarely encounter that convention or who object to it. It’s all a permanent disaster beautiful tapestry.

      * Bias note: I applied for that Yale position.

      ** That being so-called “logical punctuation”. (“Semantic punctuation” would be a better term, but I don’t get to choose.)

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      These are terrible responses! It seems that everyone here is in favor of less clarity over more. I often have problems understanding SSC posts because of all the acronyms, and the use of they for individuals makes it even worse. This sucks.

      • albatross11 says:

        The thing about the singular they vs the singular he for someone of unspecified gender is that it just moves the ambiguity around. If I use “he” I’m leaving it ambiguous whether I mean specifically a male or anyone; if I use “they” I’m leaving it ambiguous whether I mean one person of unspecified gender or many people of unspecified gender. I don’t really see why “they” is *worse* than “he,” other than being a little unfamiliar.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I don’t really see why “they” is *worse* than “he,” other than being a little unfamiliar.

          Using “they” for singular is very much worse than using using “he” for both genders. A pronoun is used to replace a noun, but it only works if the reader understands the replacement. People use pronouns in SSC to refer to someone’s post. It matters very much if they are referring to just one person who made the post or a group. It rarely matters what gender that person is, and especially so if the poster didn’t think his gender was important enough to state it. Using “they” for singular to avoid gender mix-ups is most definitely a case of society moving backwards.

      • Machine Interface says:

        In addition to what albatross11 said, there can be such a thing as unnecessary, burdening clarity.

        It’s often popularly boasted that English is “clearer” than other languages because for a given language’s unique word, English typically has two or more covering different nuances of the intended meaning*.

        For instance, the French word “temps” corresponds to three distinct translations in English: “time”, “tense” (as in grammatical tense) and “weather”.

        Yet, in all my life of speaking French, I have never encountered a single instance of confusion about what a person meant when they used the word “temps”, because syntax and context have always provided the information needed to instantly grasp which underlying meaning was implied. Which leads me to conclude that the “clarity” offered by the English lexical distinction is superfluous and only burdens English speakers with having to learn 3 distinct lexical items where just one would do the job.

        *: of course the whole claim that English has multiple words for any given language’s one word is mostly based on unwarranted assumptions (like the idea that only English has a lot of loanwords from other languages — Indonesian would like to have a word with you) and on cherry picking: even if we go no further than French, we can find plenty of instances where a single word in English corresponds to two or more in French. For instance French makes a distinction between a “rivière” (a river that flows into another river) and a “fleuve” (a river that flows into the sea), or between a “vague” (a physical wave made of liquid) and an “onde” (something that behaves in a manner analogous to a physical wave, eg: a sound wave, a radio wave).

        • albatross11 says:

          I doubt that English is an especially precise langauge. I’m a native English speaker who also speaks Spanish–drawing from there:

          There are distinctions made more clearly in Spanish (picante/caliente) and distinctions made more clearly in English (safety/security). If I talk about a group of women doing something in English, I have to explicitly say “a group of women,” in Spanish, it’s just “ellas.” The form of “you” I use in Spanish tells me something about our relative status and situation that isn’t present in English. (Though that differs a lot by culture, too.) Spanish uses the subjunctive a lot, wheras in English it’s used rarely and is no longer a core feature of the language. And so on.

          I’m not sure whether English or Spanish is more precise in that sense; I suspect they’re comparable.

        • It’s often popularly boasted that English is “clearer” than other languages because for a given language’s unique word, English typically has two or more covering different nuances of the intended meaning*.

          “Often” as in “at least ten times a year by someone, somewhere on the globe?

          This reminds me of a comment I saw somewhere by a paleontologist on some fine point of pre-human evolution, that started out with “as everyone knows.”

          • Protagoras says:

            Everybody knows that universal quantification is normally restricted to a domain determined by context.

    • Brad says:

      I can stand singular in the unknown or hypothetical cases. I don’t love it, but I can stand it. It’s the known case–and where non-binary isn’t at issue–that drives me batty. When Facebook says “It’s John Smith’s birthday, wish them a happy birthday!” There’s a specific profile field for gender, no one is forced to pick male but John Smith did. So why the *&#$ is Facebook referring to him as them?

      • quanta413 says:

        Someone didn’t want to write an if statement somewhere maybe.But why?

        Trying to win office code golf?
        Employee who wrote messages had a first language without genders and still forgets English is different sometimes?
        Someone somewhere got angry once, so they figured it was easier to just call everyone them?
        The illuminati?
        Elaborate double-double-reverse false wokeness gambit?

      • Nick says:

        I tolerate singular they in unknown or hypothetical cases too, because it’s very old, and it fills a gap in English, and I slip into it myself sometimes. What I can’t stand is “themself.” If one is going to retain plural agreement elsewhere for ‘singular’ they—and everybody does—then for heaven’s sake, use the actual reflexive.

        • littskad says:

          How is “themself” for a singular antecedent any different from “yourself”? “You” still has plural agreement whether it’s singular or plural.

    • Nornagest says:

      In this context, they > he >>>>>>> any invented pronoun.

  14. onyomi says:

    This may be obvious, but it just occurred to me to explicitly make this connection, and I thought I’d mention it to see if there’s a name for it, or if more extensive writing has been done on it somewhere:

    Is expressing a higher degree of confidence in one’s opinion than one actually feels (or, arguably, potentially, should, but that’s also an issue of self-calibration) a form of “defect” in a debate prisoner’s dilemma game? By extension I guess epistemic humility would be a form of “cooperate.”

    I guess it’s related to “arguments are soldiers…”

    • Aron Wall says:

      In some ways it’s more like bluffing in Poker. The other person might fold even though your hand is actually weaker, but if you do it too often people will just bid you to the top. Of course, that might be what you wanted them to do…

      A major difference of course is that Poker is a zero-sum game, and epistemology shouldn’t be. So maybe that’s where the analogy to PD comes in.

    • James C says:

      As always, real life is messy and judgment is flawed. In cases where you’ve overestimated your skills but there’s no alternative then it’s probably better for the community if you lie and muddle through. Underselling yourself is also liable to cause issues if you are displaced by a less able braggart. Given padding a CV is an accepted and adjusted for tactic some level of deception is expected, though it clearly has limits.

    • Aging Loser says:

      Best to express ten times the confidence that you actually feel because then it will be obvious that you’re having fun bullshitting and everyone else will be inclined to respond in a similar spirit, which result in more Happiness On Average Worldwide.

    • 10240 says:

      The analysis of payoffs is going to depend a lot on our motives to debate. Both of us may have any combination of the following reasons (and perhaps more) to engage in debate:
      — Determining the truth. (In this case I don’t have an interest in being dishonest. Usually we at least pretend that this, or the next one, are our reasons.)
      — Because I’m convinced that my claim is true (with probability p), and I think it’s in your/mine/society’s interest that you know it too. (In this case, under some conditions or rationality and trust, I have no reason to be dishonest. But if have a reason to think that you are biased against my position, and if I say that my claim is true with a certain probability, you will assume that the actual probability is something smaller, I might claim some higher probability than p so that you end up with the right value.)
      — Because I think (rightly or wrongly) that it’s in my interest that you believe my claim, whether or not it’s actually true.
      — Because I think (rightly or wrongly) that it’s in third parties’ or society’s interest that you believe my claim, whether or not it’s true. E.g. it might make you support a certain political position that I think is right regardless of the subject of the debate. (If both of us have this motive, the debate might be futile, as the subject of the debate may not actually affect the political position of either of us.)
      — I may want to convince the audience observe the debate for any of the above reasons, or keep them from getting convinced by you.
      — Because it’s fun to win debates.

      The game theoretic analysis depends on our motives, as well as on whether we are right on various secondary assumptions (such as that convincing you will make you do something that’s in my interest).
      A lot of the above motives look really Machiavellian, but I think most of us do them sometimes, usually not entirely consciously. For example, you may be pretty confident that something is true, but if it also happens to be your interest to convince people that it’s true, you may be less prudent than otherwise in considering counterarguments.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      I’ve recently been involved with a pretty intensive remodel project, and this type of conversation has come up a lot. The project is some family members and their friends who are willing to help, for context. We had to do the work at the last minute over Thanksgiving break, so hiring professionals was not an option.
      There are some people involved that have specific identified knowledge (a professional carpenter), but mostly it’s non-credentialed personal experience in life.

      The two biggest areas of concern are plumbing and electrical. So, we ended up asking everyone potentially involved if they knew about those areas, and how confident they were. Nobody was all that confident in the electrical, so we asked an uncle (who also is not an electrician) to help out. His response was essentially “Yes, I can do that.” It turns out that he is a competent electrician for the things we needed, despite being self-taught.

      For the plumbing, the best we got was “I can figure something out.” So far, that’s resulted in functional plumbing that isn’t the cleanest, but the problems will be behind the flooring and are not going to affect the use.

      Since we had no alternatives for either, it was good for individuals to claim responsibility for those areas, so long as they weren’t misleading. Claiming a higher level of understanding in this case was a form of “cooperate” instead of “defect.” If someone had claimed understanding to the point of supplanting a better informed alternative, then that would have been a “defect.”

  15. toastengineer says:

    I’m on a little bit of a self-improvement kick and I want to learn a language. Rosetta Stone’s marketing makes it sound appealing, but it’s expensive as all hell and I don’t see any cheap way to try it. Has anyone here used it? Is it any good?

    • Erusian says:

      I’ve heard a lot of bad about Rosetta Stone. What language do you want to learn?

      • toastengineer says:

        I was thinking Japanese. I know it’s supposed to be, like, the hardest one but it’s the one I run in to most often, and now I work for a company that does a lot of business in Japan so…

    • TracingWoodgrains says:

      It’s absolute trash that can mostly only be used to get a basic skeleton of a language. It gives a limited vocabulary set without real context and teaches little that can be transferred to genuine understanding and application of a language. Duolingo does much the same thing if you want to try that style, but neither of them are great if you’re serious about actually studying a language. Unequivocally, Rosetta Stone is not worth the money, and I personally would spend my time elsewhere even if it was free.

      My personal recommended route: Start with the book Fluent Forever. It gives great, non-language specific advice accrued by the online communities serious about adult language learning. Download Anki or another spaced repetition system app, and start adding vocabulary cards as you learn things—the most important habit to build if you’re serious about language study is daily adding and review of vocabulary, and spaced repetition is the gold standard.

      If you’re comfortable spending some money and want a structured tool, the first place I’d look is, which has a lot of graded reading and listening, tracks your vocabulary, and has a generally sound structure. Otherwise, I might be able to give more specific advice depending on what language you want to learn.

      • arlie says:

        With regard to Duolingo specifically, beware of extremely uneven quality. Put less formally, I don’t tend to trust things I’ve only found on Duolingo to be correct, and check them with a dictionary, an experienced speaker of the language, or other teaching materials.

        Also, if you are the sort of person who wants to know grammar, or cares about picky kinds of accuracy, beware. Duolingo defines a word as “a unique sequence of characters”. To it, “apple” and “apples” are different words. But “bears” (a kind of animal) and “bears” (synonymn for “carries”) are the same word. Depending on your personality, and past language learning, this can either seem like a harmless quirk, or drive you crazy. It’s particularly unpleasant if you are trying to learn a language with case endings. I don’t know whether Rosetta Stone has the same quirk, but if so, I personally wouldn’t touch it with a barge pool.

      • rlms says:

        I second (the free website version of) Fluent Forever (although I think you’d probably need a different approach for languages like Mandarin and Japanese with difficult writing systems). In my opinion it does overemphasise learning pronunciation though, and I find it’s useful to do a bit of a standard course (like the first few lessons on Duolingo) to get into the swing of things.

      • MasteringTheClassics says:

        +1 on Rosetta Stone being trash – it is a truly awful program for learning a language. You’d get father with a simple 2-language dictionary.

    • AnnaR says:

      Careful – part of what you buy (the online language sessions with a live person) expire if you don’t use it in a certain time period.

    • onyomi says:

      I recommend LingQ to build vocab and listening comprehension and iTalki for 1-on-1 conversation practice.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Seconding (thirding) the recommendation of LingQ – but note that they have very different amounts of material available depending on what language you’re after. A lot of their content is user-generated, so it’s not really a structured course in any sense, just a very handy tool for those who want to learn in a Krashenite style.
      What language are you after, by the way? People will probably be able to make specific recommendations.

      Also note that LingQ is based on the philosophy, most famously expounded by Stephen Krashen, of exposing yourself to large amounts of reading and listening in your target language, and in particular, simultanous reading and listening (which is what all of the content on LingQ is), at a level that is just at the edge of your comfort zone, so you learn without being bewildered, and noticing the points of grammar but not doing much conscious study or memorization, and trusting that massive exposure will make the language seep into your brain subconsciously (a bit more like the way children learn, but remember that children are not better language learners than adults – they just have more free time and, usually, two very intensive tutors), and also not worrying about actually speaking or writing the language yourself until you have done at least a good few weeks’ worth of reading and listening. If you look for Steve Kaufmann (founder of LingQ) on YouTube you will find far more than you could possibly wish for of him explaining the benefits of this style of study.

      Gabriel Wyner of Fluent Forever, on the other hand, advocates a rather different philosophy, based on conscious study of Anki flashcards or some other spaced repetition system (although he is in the late stages of beta-testing an app that is intended to replace Anki for these purposes, streamlining the process of using image search to create picture flashcards, involving as little translation via your native language as possible). His view has actually changed a bit since the book was released; he is now more of the position that learning whole chunks and sentences is more efficient than learning individual words, but the spirit is still about the same. Has the advantage that if you come across a word or phrase you specifically want to memorise, you know where it is in your flashcard deck, rather than it being haphazardly somewhere

      However, my guess is that if you can find stuff you are actually interested in reading and listening too that is calibrated at a level you can make sense of (you should be able to find graded readers with matching audiobooks in most of the big international languages) then you will have less pain, less forcing yourself to sit down to do a boring study session, if you go for a Krashenite approach.

      • TracingWoodgrains says:

        The methods aren’t incompatible by any means. Learning a language is a long, involved process with plenty of time to experiment and work with different tools, and both SRS flashcards and reading/listening at the edge of your ability have important places. When I was focusing on Chinese, I’m not sure it would have been feasible to improve vocabulary without deliberate, consistent flash card study, but the bulk of my time was still spent in that sort of reading and listening.

        Flash cards are a fantastic way of spending time waiting for buses, in lines, or in other small gaps in the day, and you can cover a lot of ground in 15-30 minutes a day while spending the bulk of time on other aspects.

    • LesHapablap says:

      I used the Pimsleur courses for Mandarin (via Audible). Lessons are entirely auditory with no reading. Structured with spaced repetition in which you repeat phrases and words and then are asked to recall them later, eventually having full conversations.

      The advantage to purely listening and speaking instead of reading is that your accent is much better. That’s very important for Mandarin and I still get a lot of compliments on my pronunciation. The disadvantage is that you don’t memorize anywhere near the number of words over time.

      I enjoyed it quite a bit, which is nice motivation to keep going, and the 30 minute lessons per day were quite manageable. I would do one lesson in the evening, then on the commute to work in the morning review the last 15 minutes of it. Be warned that skipping a day makes things much more difficult.

      Recently I’ve started studying Japanese, also with Pimsleur. I’ve also purchased a LingQ subscription and have played around a bit with it but I have read that you need to get away from the english written translations ASAP and learn the hakagane symbols.

      Does anyone have any experience learning Japanese?

      • Lord Nelson says:

        I took two semesters of Japanese in college and studied on my own afterwards using a variety of methods. I’m nowhere near fluent, but I know enough to get around Japan without too many problems.

        Here is a list of things I’ve learned, in no particular order:
        – What you’ve heard about getting away from romaji is correct. It will ruin your pronunciation. Learn hiragana and katakana as soon as possible. I had studied Japanese on my own during high school, using only romaji, and had to un-learn a lot of my bad habits.
        – There are no substitutes for practicing with fluent/native speakers. If you don’t have the time/money to take a class, there are several apps and websites that pair you up with native speakers. (I’ve never tried them myself because social anxiety, but some of my friends swear by them.)
        – Textbooks are really hit and miss. They’re useful for memorizing grammar and common words/phrases. However, most of them are geared towards people who want to study or work in Japan. 90% of the phrases I learned in the textbook were useless when I visited Japan as a tourist.
        – Flashcard sites like Anki are great for memorizing hiragana and katakana… and not much else. I attempted to use Anki to learn kanji. It didn’t go well and I gave up after memorizing about 500 of them. The problem is that Anki only has you memorize the “meaning” of each kanji, which isn’t useful for learning pronunciation or common words that include said kanji.
        – Some of my friends swear by WaniKani, but I didn’t find it very useful. There are better ways to spend your money.
        – I used the “intermediate” Pimsleur audiobooks to cram-study before my last trip to Tokyo. They were very helpful when it came to “fixing” my accent, and far more useful than textbooks when it came to learning common phrases.
        – After you’ve memorized hiragana/katakana, start learning kanji as soon as possible. (This is assuming you want to read Japanese, and you’re not just interested in speaking it.) I made the mistake of letting my kanji knowledge get rusty before I visited Japan, and I regretted it. My speech was good enough that I didn’t have much trouble conversing with people, but not being able to read 90% of the signs was annoying.

      • LesHapablap says:

        Lord Nelson,

        I don’t have any desire to read or write Japanese, but I had heard somewhere that to really build vocabulary you needed to learn to read (and listen simultaneously a la LingQ).

        My ex was Japanese so I absorbed a lot of random Japanese words and phrases over the years, and heard many hours of untranslated conversations that I only had the gist of.

        I’d prefer to just use Pimsleur and once I have enough of a base to watch TV shows or movies to supplement. Is that a decent enough plan? I work with a woman who speaks fluently and she would be happy to help, plus we get the odd Japanese client now and again.

        • Lord Nelson says:

          I’ve found that writing helps increase my retention immensely, but ymmv.

          Watching TV and movies to supplement seems like a decent idea, as long as you include a variety of genres. Anime, for example, is notorious for teaching people bad habits because of the unrealistic dialogue, overuse of honorifics, etc. (I imagine most fictional TV shows and movies have the same issue, to varying degrees.) I’d recommend including documentaries or news if you’re planning to use TV and movies as one of your primary learning sources. There are several Japanese news sites that include videos in basic Japanese… NHK News and News In Slow Japanese being the two that come to mind immediately.

        • Argos says:

          From hanging around language learning forums and my own experience learning Mandarin: you will very likely have to learn how to read Japanese.

          Your plan to continue after Pimsleur with movies and TV shows suffers from the big gap in difficulty between Pimsleur and TV shows. Furthermore and most importantly, the English subtitles of the show would not be very helpful to learn words and grammar concepts, because Japanese and English are wildly different, and the pitfalls of the Japanese grammar are numerous. As a consequence, the subtitles are not word for word translations of the spoken Japanese. You will probably have to learn about the grammar concepts explicitly (i.e. not just by listening to Japanese sentences), and AFAIK all the material about Japanese grammar is not written in romanization.

          However, if you are dead set on not learning how to read, I propose JapanesePod, which has a lot of material, ordered with increasing difficulty.

        • AnarchyDice says:

          I studied it for a few months before spending a year abroad there as an exchange student. So, while I learned via total immersion, I would say that the general advice to get off of romanji is solid. Do it as soon as you can, because nothing will help you remember better than having to look the letters up as you forget them. I used Pimsleur stuff from the library to help prepare, but it really wasn’t very useful to speak conversationally due to its focus on business formality level (at times when you don’t have access to a native speaker, that is certainly better than nothing). If you want to listen to Japanese spoken normally, try following some variety shows, they were fairly easy to grok the context when I first got to Japan, while also giving me a view of wider news/media/pop-culture.

          As for learning the kanji, learning them isn’t strictly required, but knowing the basics can definitely help with context of word-play, etymology of phrasing, and grammar structure for conjugating words. I would suggest trying to find actual kanji school books for young children. They start out with the most common/easy kanji and build up, showing the stroke orders for writing everything and either mnemonics or pictographs to help children learn. Maybe get a 1st year book and see how you like it. By the end of my stay there, I figured I was approximately fluent verbally, could read at a 5th grade level, and write at maybe a 3rd grade level. Starting to actively learn the kanji in the second half of my stay really improved my speaking because I could formulate more complicated sentences, now understanding the actual mechanics rather than just memorizing phrases where I swapped out the words.

    • Argos says:

      What others have said is correct regarding the efficiency of the approaches (i.e Anki, Kraschen). However, the most relevant variable is not the theoretical efficiency of a study method, but rather whether you stick to it. Auto didactic language learning is more tiresome than it is difficult, and consistency is hard when fun activities like watching movies or having meaningful conversations in your target language are years away from your current competence level (as will be the case when you are studying Japanese). I’d estimate that 95% of people studying a language quit before they reached a level they find satisfactory (including me).

      As such I recommend having a small deck of digital flashcards such that you don’t feel annoyed when going through them. As your main method of study I recommend finding interesting parallel texts with your target language and a language you already speak side by side, such that you can actually consume an interesting book in your target language. Also many companies produce at least somewhat interesting podcasts for the most popular languages aimed at beginning and intermediate learners.

  16. Erusian says:

    Hey guys.

    I was having a discussion (debate really) about equity markets with a doctor of humanities. A short way through the conversation I realized that my opponent did not know what equity was. I thought this stuff was fairly fundamental, especially among the well educated, but it seems it’s not. What would be the interest level in going forward in a series on business, economic, and accounting fundamentals? Not a full MBA or anything, just the basics.

    As an incentive to answer, I’ll answer a question for anyone who replies with their interest or disinterest. Want to know about Communist accounting? How people like Donald Trump usually value their brand? How to evaluate whether a market is ripe for disruption? Ask away.

    • cassander says:

      are you saying he didn’t know what the definition of equity was? Or that he fundamentally didn’t know what stocks were and how they functioned?

      • Erusian says:

        She didn’t know the definition of equity and she didn’t know what stocks were beyond they were something traded on Wall Street. She had some vague sense they were something the wealthy possessed. She didn’t know where stocks came from, for example, beyond ‘from companies’. She knew dividends were a way stocks made a person money but not what a dividend actually was. Etc.

        • Chalid says:

          Back when I was regularly interviewing entry-level candidates for a position in an *investment management firm*, one of my basic screening questions was “what are stocks? what are bonds? In plain English, why do they have value?” A small but significant faction of people (10%?) would fail it in about the way you describe. Another small fraction had studied some mathematical finance but never made any connection to economics, and they’d go on about geometric Brownian motions or some such nonsense. These were almost all math/science PhDs.

    • toastengineer says:

      I don’t know what equity is either, but at least I’m brave enough to admit it if it comes up in an argument. 😛

      I wanna know about money, yeah. The communist accounting thing sounds interesting too.

      • Lambert says:

        Shares. When you want to grow a small business, it’s common to get that money by selling a fraction of the company to other people, either privately (Shark Tank/Dragons Den but more boring) or publicly (wall street etc).
        The person who buys the shares is then entitled to their proportion of the profits earned by the company, as well as control of the company, realised by being able to vote on matters affecting the firm in proportion to the amount of the company they own.

        • Erusian says:

          No, equity is liabilities plus assets (the total of everything a company is). Shareholder equity is assets minus liabilities (the net value of the company). Shareholder equity can be created by selling shares but it’s not the only way to create it or the only sort of equity.

          Also, shareholders are not inherently allowed to vote: each company gets to set the terms of its own shares. That’s just what’s considered a normal arrangement. Most of Facebook’s shares don’t have voting rights, for example. And no shares entitle you to a company’s profits. It may entitle you to a portion of the distributions the company makes to shareholders but not to the company’s profits directly.

          • rlms says:

            equity is liabilities plus assets

            Is it? According to who?

          • SamChevre says:


            “Equity is assets plus liabilities” is one of the standard definitions in accounting.

          • skef says:

            SamChevre, Speaking very, very strictly, isn’t it more standard to think and speak of “liabilities” as having the opposite sign?

          • “Equity is assets plus liabilities” is one of the standard definitions in accounting.

            I believe you are mistaken–equity is defined as assets minus liabilities. Your version only works if you define liabilities with a negative sign so that adding them to assets means subtracting their absolute value.

          • SamChevre says:

            skef and David Friedman

            It definitely depends on the sign, and I’m not an accountant so I have endless trouble remembering what the signs which numbers get. In my worksheets. Yes, it’s the assets less the liabilities if the liabilities aren’t signed negative.

          • Erusian says:

            @Davidfriedman and skef

            Total equity is assets plus liabilities. Shareholder’s equity is assets minus liabilities. You are correct that negative equity is a thing. So, for example: if you gain a $100 liability with no associated asset, then you lose $100 in owner’s equity but gain $100 in total equity.

          • @Erusian:

            Do you define liabilities as positive or negative? Equity is assets minus absolute value of liabilities.

            Can you point me at something that supports your version, including the different definitions for two different sorts of equity?

          • rlms says:

            Yes, every definition I can find of equity is some variation of assets minus liabilities (including for total equity).

          • Lambert says:

            So if I start a business with £10 of my own money, sell 7 shares for £1 each and get a loan of £5 from the bank, what’s the equity?

          • LesHapablap says:

            So if I start a business with £10 of my own money, sell 7 shares for £1 each and get a loan of £5 from the bank, what’s the equity?

            Equity starts at 10. Selling 7 shares for 1 each increases assets (cash) and liabilities (shares) both by 7, so no change in equity. 5 loan from bank is the same: increases cash by 5 and liabilities by 5 so again, no change in equity, so a final total of 10 equity.

            Is that right?

            Edit: likely the original 10 also counts as a liability to the owner if you are starting the business with your own cash. So does that mean equity is zero?

          • Salem says:

            Assuming the £10 is capitalisation and not a loan, equity is £17. Shares are not liabilities.

          • actualitems says:

            That’s right, equity is 17.

            Rather than think of it as starting with 10 and selling shares of 7, which could lead to you confusing shares with liabilities, just think of starting it with 17. You put in 10, and others put in 7, for a total of 17. That’s the equity.

            Add in the loan of 5, and you get assets of 22 = liabilities of 5 + equity of 17.

            P.S. people are usually taught the accounting equation as assets = liabilities + equity. But I had one accounting professor that simplified it and said it really starts with saving = investing.

            You save 10 and invest in your business, so 10 = 10. Others save another 7 and invest that to the business, so 17 = 17.

            It’s only with the addition of debt that you need add another part of the equation. In this case you invest another 5 into the business, this time via a loan rather than savings, so 22 = 5 + 17.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            P.S. people are usually taught the accounting equation as assets = liabilities + equity.

            It’s called the Accounting Equation.
            It’s the only equation.
            The idea is that the company has assets, and it is funding those assets either through borrowing money (liability) or raising money (equity).
            Savings=Investment makes some sense at macro-economic level, but it doesn’t make sense at a firm level.

            Also, “negatives” confuses reality, because we don’t necessarily think in terms of “negatives,” and this will cause you to screw up entries.

            For example, if you hold an asset that is valued at $10 million, and discover it is worthless, you might just think “oh, well, I subtract $10 million and now that’s zero.” But that’s not right, you perform a credit entry to your asset, and you need an offsetting debit entry. That offsetting debit entry depends on the nature of the asset. For instance, if you were a bank and this were a mortgage, you would mark this down as a Bad Debt Expense(please disregard reserves for the moment). At the end of the month, you close your books and this Expense would move into your income statement as a negative item, thus closing the account.
            If you were a typical firm marking down an asset, this would probably go into Extraordinary Gains/Losses. If you had enough Extraordinary gains, you could completely mask the $10 million loss (maybe not from auditors or the IRS, but probably from Wall Street analysts).

            For simplicity, a company has assets. It funds those assets through debt or equity, where equity is defined by the money the owners put into the business (or the profit which the owners have not yet extracted). Every transaction has two sides, a debit and a credit, to ensure accurate record-keeping. “Negatives” are bad bad bad things that you should not introduce into your accounting exercises at first, and only should include in your income statements and valuation exercises.

          • You wrote:

            assets = liabilities + equity.

            You also wrote:

            “Negatives” are bad bad bad things that you should not introduce into your accounting exercises at first, and only should include in your income statements and valuation exercises.

            Since you should not introduce negatives in your accounting exercise, all the numbers must be positive.

            Consider a firm that has ten million dollars in assets and owes ten million dollars to bondholders. You appear to be saying that its equity is $20 million. Are you?

            If not, you either have to use Equity=Assets-Liabilities or treat liabilities as negative.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:


            In that case, Equity would be zero. You have $10 million in Assets supported by $10 million in liabilities. The Accounting Equation is balanced, $10 million equals $10 million.

            Liabilities aren’t negative, they are $10 million positive. You can of course use basic algebra to find your equity, and that’s quite useful for a reconciliation sometimes, but think of it is a balancing a scale. If you have 5 pounds of weight on the left side, you have 5 pounds of weight on the right side. You do not have 5 pounds of weight minus 3 pounds of weight on the left side and 2 pounds of the right side. It’s 5 pounds on both sides.

            Keep in mind that our book equity might not reflect actual equity anyways, and finding equity is not really our concern, because assets aren’t really marked to market. They might be sometimes, but you need to have liquid markets of some sort to make that reasonable. Our factory has specialty machines that we’ve maintained since the 1950s, there is literally no way of knowing what their value is. In this case, the assets might actually be worth $10 million and if we sold the company we could get $10 million for them, but the book value of the assets is $0 so the liabilities and equity supporting them are also $0.

            You can indeed have negative numbers on your equity piece for exactly the reason you’d guess. For example, if you bought an asset for $10 million, based on $8 million in loans and $2 million in equity, and the asset was destroyed in a fire(assume no insurance), you’d have to record the $10 million as a loss (most likely),and you’d debit an extraordinary expense account or something, and this would be moved to the income statement and retained earnings after closing entries. You’d end up with $8 million in Retained Earnings = $8 million in debt. RE is reported on the other side of the balance sheet, so it’d be recorded as a negative.

            However, on a t-balance perspective (which is what you’d use to reconcile), you’d end up with $40 million=$40 million or something like that, because you would be recording that $10 million transaction multiple times, because you are recording everything as positive debits and credits, not negatives. Recording everything as a positive or negative on the same line doesn’t give you the same insight into your accounts, and you don’t close your accounts regularly to generate period income statements and balance sheets. It also helps identify accounting errors from other issues. I’m more interested in the $40 million=$40 million part than I am in the specific negative $8 million equity, that’s a valuation problem, not an accounting problem.

          • Liabilities aren’t negative, they are $10 million positive. You can of course use basic algebra to find your equity, and that’s quite useful for a reconciliation sometimes, but think of it is a balancing a scale.

            That isn’t what the symbol “+” means. You wouldn’t write “10 lbs + 10 lbs =0.” or “$10+$10=$0”.

            If you define liabilities as a positive number, roughly speaking the amount you owe, then equity = assets – liabilities.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            You wouldn’t write “10 lbs + 10 lbs =0.” or “$10+$10=$0”.

            Right, you wouldn’t do 10+10=0, you would do 10=10. You can’t just move 10 to the left side without adding 10 to the right side. The whole system just becomes heavier and heavier until the period closes and then you record your income, and then you start again next month.

            If you define liabilities as a positive number, roughly speaking the amount you owe, then equity = assets – liabilities.

            Sure, but that’s a mathematical identity, not an accounting exercise. We don’t record entries this way. They are recorded as double-entries with debits and credits, which requires equity and liabilities to be on the same side of the equation, so it’s assets=liabilities+equity. We record entries so we don’t have to find “X,” because if we record everything correctly, we already know the value of every single account and don’t have to do algebra. If you want to know equity is, just look at equity.

            That’s why I am saying don’t bother thinking about negatives, it’s going to get someone confused because it’s just counting stuff, not any real math. Subtraction can come when you want to find the current balance of an account or your income or something.

          • Lambert says:

            Now I understand even less about the situation (or perhaps more, but written in red?) Are you arguing about what equity actually means or just how the calculations are notated?

          • The question isn’t how a T diagram works, it is, given the numbers on either side of the diagram, how do you calculate equity. The answer is that you subtract the number on the liability side from the number on the asset side.

            Do you disagree?

            Do you agree with Erusian’s distinction between total equity and shareholder’s equity?

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Now I understand even less about the situation (or perhaps more, but written in red?) Are you arguing about what equity actually means or just how the calculations are notated?

            More about how the calculations are notated.

            The question isn’t how a T diagram works, it is, given the numbers on either side of the diagram, how do you calculate equity. The answer is that you subtract the number on the liability side from the number on the asset side.
            Do you disagree?
            Do you agree with Erusian’s distinction between total equity and shareholder’s equity?

            I wouldn’t calculate equity in this fashion. I calculate equity by adding up all the entries within the equity account. To the extent there is subtraction, you would subtract the debit entries. But you don’t have a negative, because you end up with a debit balance, not a negative credit balance. You would most likely do this at your month-end close.
            If you want to know what equity is right now(which is probably what you mean by “calculate equity”) , you just look at the value of the equity account right now. While it’s mathematically true that if you tell me a company has $80 million in assets and $60 million in liabilities that it has $20 million in equity, that doesn’t mean any accountants said “oh we have $80 million in assets and $60 million in liabilities, so we must have $20 million in equity.” There are dozens/hundreds/thousands of transactions that build up to each of those numbers, and those are done via debits/credits, and the debits/credits involve liabilities being a credit on the same side as equity. You just wouldn’t calculate equity in the sense of “I don’t know what my equity is, let’s see what it is.”

            I don’t really know enough about the specific sub-types of equity to know what the OP is talking about WRT shareholders equity vs. other kinds of equity. I also don’t know what OP means by Equity=Assets+Liabilities, because that doesn’t make sense to me, unless this is some other non-accounting version of equity. For example, I’ve heard some people say they need capital when they really mean debt financing.

            This probably comes across as pedantic or unimportant for a firm-level discussion, but it’s not unimportant to teaching young accountants. For instance, one of the things we have to tell young accountants is that expense accounts are always debits. Because they think “credit means negative money,” they record expenses as credits, which is wrong, and screws up their books.

          • skef says:

            While it’s mathematically true that if you tell me a company has $80 million in assets and $60 million in liabilities that it has $20 million in equity, that doesn’t mean any accountants said “oh we have $80 million in assets and $60 million in liabilities, so we must have $20 million in equity.”

            This probably comes across as pedantic or unimportant for a firm-level discussion, but it’s not unimportant to teaching young accountants.

            Looking in, and not having a dog anywhere near:

            Some of the cross-talk and confusion coming out in this thread may just be straightforward misunderstanding. But there’s something else that doesn’t seem to reduce to that, which I suspect traces to this:

            P.S. people are usually taught the accounting equation as assets = liabilities + equity.

            It’s called the Accounting Equation.
            It’s the only equation.

            To use a recent example, in most contexts in which the concept “profit” comes up, it’s natural to think of that concept as being “borrowed” from economics, and that field being where one would go to look if there is any disagreement about what it means. That’s usually right, and it was likely right in that case, whatever else was at issue.

            Similarly, the concept “equation” is generally thought of as belonging to, and sometimes borrowed from, mathematics. And in most senses that’s how the concept is used in “The Accounting Equation”. But in mathematics the presentation of that statement invites calculating equity by subtracting liability from both sides. That’s just the most natural thing to do.

            But from what you’ve described, in accounting there are a number of practical reasons that’s not a good way of thinking. You even wrote “while it’s mathematically true …”. So while accounting is more based on math than any other field (from what I understand) , it’s not just a sub-field. In math one’s obligation is to be consistent about what a symbol represents, and then one can add, subtract, etc. what is represented*. It turns out can make a mess of things in accounting. So even if that’s “the only equation”, it’s not treated in quite the same way a mathematician treats an equation.

            * All of this refers to the least rarefied realms of mathematics, all settled long long ago.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            I would just like to say that this whole discussion is very illuminating when it comes to the differences between concepts of things, measurements of things, and things.

            1 – 3 is well known, 2 – 3 I’ve at least seen recognized, but the disconnect of 1 – 2 rarely appears IME. Seeing it play out probably makes it more avoidable.

          • This probably comes across as pedantic or unimportant for a firm-level discussion, but it’s not unimportant to teaching young accountants.

            Back when I had to learn enough about accounting to spend two weeks explaining it to law students in a course on analytic methods for lawyers, I concluded that the first thing you had to teach people was that the terms “debit” and “credit” are only there to confuse.

      • Erusian says:

        Sure. The most sophisticated socialist accounting system came out of the Soviet Union. In the very early days of the Soviet Union, there was some idea of overthrowing accounting with something more revolutionary. The accountants ultimately won but took a huge blow to prestige. So huge that CPA certifications are still not required to practice accounting in Russia.

        But as to the actual practices, most of accounting is not particularly threatening from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. Basically everything about assets and liabilities is fine. There’s nothing un-Communist about a firm buying wood, turning the wood into furniture, selling the furniture, and then using the income to pay the logger, for example. Likewise, most of equity is fine. The idea that a Russian firm might own a machine that is worth more than the firm owes on it is no real issue, so long as the firm is properly Communist in nature. At least in Soviet ideology.

        The main issue is in shareholder’s equity. Obviously, this is capitalist. The Soviet Union experimented with remitting this to the government, redistribution, and many other things. Ultimately they let the equity rest in the firm but renamed it ‘People’s Equity’ and made it the property of the government. In effect, this put it in the power of central planning bureaucrats and local managers. This was not the only system: Yugoslavia had a sophisticated accounting system based around collective equity ownership, for example.

        But the Soviet system was the dominant one. Chinese accounting, the only other major world economy, was just insufficient. They ignored things like debts entirely. It was so bad they abandoned it in 2006. They reformed the Chinese system to be more like the IFRS (and it is about 95% the same today).

    • arlie says:

      Interesting. I think I know the basics, but at a “popularization” level, and would like to know more. But that would be a bit beyond the level of “what is equity?” (That one I could answer, complete with a bit of the commonly-cited-but-maybe-not-true history of how it came about.)

      Where I get totally lost is any time I try to understand economics, beyond the extreme basics (like supply and demand). It all screams “snake oil” and “lies, damn lies, and statistics” at me. (That is, I’m pretty sure a person who gets to select what they cite can “prove” anything, without any of it actually being true, and most economists’ conclusions strike me as bollocks, and their arguments as “just so stories, illustrated by graphs and tables”.)

      What is your background in this general area?

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        What confuses you about economics? Is there any particular concept, issue, or political debate?

        • arlie says:

          Fundamentally, how it gets from micro principles like supply and demand, to a whole bunch of different (and contradictory) macro-conclusions that seem like they ought to be testable, but never get resolved.

          Also why it can possibly “work” when its model of human behaviour is easily contradicted by observation – people aren’t profit maximizers, particularly not financial profit maximizers.

          Also how its conclusions make sense when the input is often badly flawed – unemployment rates that exclude people who’ve given up looking for work (or sometimes even all people no longer eligible for benefits), GDP as a measure of demand (as if there were no imports or exports), averages as the main measure in spite of changes in distribution, etc. etc.

          It was fascinating simultaneously reading two very different takes on the 2008 meltdown, one from Greenspan and one from a guy still in some Marxist-derived school, and the experiment taught me a lot about how the same economic data can “prove” two completely incompatible viewpoints. But I came away believing that neither author was likely to be even mostly correct.

          I’m still waiting for someone to notice program trading, and its impact on volatilty, as carrying a cost for everyone else. Or to look at the potential impact of a large demographic cohort all drawing down their investments over the same handful of decades – why doesn’t supply-and-demand thereupon affect all potential investments. (Are the Chinese really going to simply happily buy the excess that the boomers are selling over what the Millenials an afford to buy? without a notable overall price drop?)

          Economists remind me a little bit of lawyers and HR reps – often not in the same world as everyone else. (Apologies to any lawyers, economists, or human resources people reading this. But professionally speaking, and on average (etc.) it seems like a good generalization.)

          • Also why it can possibly “work” when its model of human behaviour is easily contradicted by observation – people aren’t profit maximizers, particularly not financial profit maximizers.

            Then it’s a good thing that economists don’t assume that people are financial profit maximizers, only that they are utility maximizers. That implies maximizing financial profit only if that’s the only thing in your utility function affected by the choices you are making, and even then it’s the expected value of the utility of the future income stream, not its present value, that you are maximizing.

            There are problems with utility maximization as well, most notably that people make mistakes.

            I can’t tell where you have gotten your picture of economics from, but it sounds as though it might be from people writing about policy issues. Have you tried reading a basic price theory text (commonly mislabeled “microeconomics”–the world corn market is a price theory problem)?

            I can offer you one that’s webbed for free. The early chapter should at least provide an explanation and defense of the economic approach to understanding behavior.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            What cost do you see in program trading? Increasing or decreasing volatility?

          • arlie says:


            Microeconomics is the part that often makes sense for me. Macroeconomics is where most of the shark-jumping happens. 😉

            From what I can see, many economists (or maybe popularizers of economics) mention differing utilities – and then their examples are all about money. I suspect part of the problem is that money is easy to measure; other utilities are not. At best, they try to estimate some specific utility in terms of money, based on revealed preference – what people trade for that other utility. Interestingly, some of the posters on this site generally avoid falling into that hole.

            It’s conceivable that this particular issue is an artefact of when various material was written. In particular, *before* and after the set of popular books about what I refer to as standard human perceptual distortions. (Not Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow in particular, but I see it as part of that wave.) I’ve been reading about economics, off and on, since some time in the mid 1970s, when I read part of Paul Samuelson’s Economics text book – in whatever edition was then current.

            One thing I’d love to see addressed economically, is what happens when the things people actually want simply aren’t available. The prediction is that someone will start selling whatever it is, as long as there’s a market and a potential profit. My experience is that at least for things that I want, this rarely happens, and what really happens is that existing corporations spend tons of money trying to convince potential customers to want what they already supply, possibly under yet another brand name. Meanwhile if demand is elastic, the potential customers do without – “proving” there’s really no market – and if it’s inelastic, they take the best available substitute, “proving” that the substitute is what they really wanted all along.

          • arlie says:

            @Douglas Knight

            I’m seeing program trading blamed for causing increased volatility. This may just be a case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

            I also see it – and its volatility – being blamed for making it harder than ever for non-specialists to do well.

            I’d love to have a way of simply storing value, without it being taxed or inflated away, and even with favourable capital gains tax treatment, etc. etc. I don’t think that’s even possible, especially with a medium term consumption horizon (i.e. consumption through retirement). Yes, I know what the pundits say , and I do a pretty good job of asset allocation, etc. etc. I still can’t produce a reliable estimate of needed retirement savings to maintain a given life style, even without the issue of unpredictable longevity. Neither can my financial advisors – they solve for e.g. 90th percentile – which still means there’s one chance in ten of things coming unstuck.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            I’m still waiting for someone to notice program trading, and its impact on volatilty, as carrying a cost for everyone else.

            I’m seeing program trading blamed for causing increased volatility.

            These seem like opposite claims. You see people criticizing it, but you’re also waiting for them to criticize it? Maybe they criticize it for a different problem than you do?

            What does your last paragraph have to do with program trading? Is it an elaboration of the non-specialist complaint?


            It seems to me that most criticisms of program trading don’t even rise to the level of post hoc. They say that program trading has caused some bad thing, while that thing is better than it used to be. (And that’s not just program trading, but most secular complaints.)

          • skef says:

            It seems to me that most criticisms of program trading don’t even rise to the level of post hoc. They say that program trading has caused some bad thing, while that thing is better than it used to be. (And that’s not just program trading, but most secular complaints.)

            Do you think that’s true of criticisms of “flash” trading? Aren’t the two most common criticisms:

            1) It just winds up as a mechanism for zero-sum wealth transfer between those to whom the speed is available from those to whom it is not available.

            2) Contrary to the usual defense of arbitrage as yielding more accurate prices, the result is that most investors only have access to a market price that is less accurate than it would be otherwise?

          • Mark V Anderson says:


            Microeconomics is the part that often makes sense for me. Macroeconomics is where most of the shark-jumping happens.

            This is sign of intelligence. I think I read some economist blog in the past year saying that macroeconomics isn’t real, or something to that effect. I think economists in general have a lot of agreement of various issues of micro, but I don’t know if there is a single issue in macro that you’d get universal agreement on by economists. But I am not an economist myself, so take my comments with a grain of salt.

          • Macroeconomics is where most of the shark-jumping happens.

            The way I usually put it is that course in macro is tour of either a cemetery or a construction site.

            But that’s a view from the outside–it isn’t a field I have worked in myself.

            Your later comments, however, seem to be about price theory, not macro.

            My experience is that at least for things that I want, this rarely happens, and what really happens is that existing corporations spend tons of money trying to convince potential customers to want what they already supply, possibly under yet another brand name.

            There appear to be two implicit assumptions in your “My experience is” argument. One is that your desire is widely enough shared to make the good worth producing. The other is that it can be produced–the fact that there is not a pill that reverses aging or a practical flying car on the market isn’t evidence against the predictions of price theory.

            Could you offer an example that clearly deals with both issues–a product that lots of people want, that could be produced at a price lots of people would be willing to pay, and isn’t?

          • arlie says:

            @Douglas Knight

            I’m still waiting for someone to notice program trading, and its impact on volatilty, as carrying a cost for everyone else.

            I’m seeing program trading blamed for causing increased volatility.

            These seem like opposite claims. You see people criticizing it, but you’re also waiting for them to criticize it? Maybe they criticize it for a different problem than you do?

            Two types of critic here. The ones I’m seeing aren’t economists. I suspect they may be on to something, but perhaps not quite the something they think they are on to.

          • arlie says:


            There appear to be two implicit assumptions in your “My experience is” argument. One is that your desire is widely enough shared to make the good worth producing. The other is that it can be produced–the fact that there is not a pill that reverses aging or a practical flying car on the market isn’t evidence against the predictions of price theory.

            Could you offer an example that clearly deals with both issues–a product that lots of people want, that could be produced at a price lots of people would be willing to pay, and isn’t?

            Maybe 😉

            I don’t have either cost-of-production (and distribution) estimates, or solid survey data on what people actually want. Instead, I’m estimating that I’m not so peculiar that my tastes won’t be shared by as much as e.g. 1% of the population, and 1% is actually a lot of people. Even .01% is a lot of people. And I’m probably anywhere from 5-20% depending on the issue. and if something was produced in the recent past, but has been superseded by something I think many people like less, it probably could still be produced at a not too terrrible price point.

            My basic complaint is that most niche markets aren’t served. Instead you have tweedledum and tweedledee, competing to have the largest single market share. No one seems to want a steady income serving a limited market – they want to grow ever more enormous, until they become a household name and/or get acquired.

            One specific niche I care about involves practical people who are concerned about the security and privacy implications of electronic technology, don’t like continually relearning user interfaces, and generally are more interested in tools than toys. They actively prefer that their washing machines have knobs, dials, and no internet connection. Having their automobile control software remotely updateable strikes them as unacceptably risky. They actively want to avoid software updates, except security and some other bug fixes; UI updates seem a high price to pay for bug fixes. They want their tools to go on working the way they always did – and they want to buy another similar one when the old one wears out. They want their data stored on their own devices (peer-to-peer connections), not in someone else’s cloud, where it’s likely to eventually become inaccessible, and quite possibly get leaked, or at least used for marketing. And they never ever want to accept an update that makes something look prettier at the cost of reduced functionality – particularly losing something they actively use.

            IMO, this would be a fair proportion of older people with any kind of ‘high tech’ background. Learning the latest-and-greatest gets harder and less rewarding over time, particularly when it doesn’t give you any new abilities. Some younger and/or less technologically oriented people wind up in the same basic category.

            While I like my Gemini (cell phone/PDA with a real keyboard!) and was able to find a (low end, not yet ‘upgraded’) washer last time I needed to buy one, the former isn’t remotely good enough – yet, anyway – not to mention having been crowdfunded – and the latter clearly won’t be available when the current one becomes unrepairable. The only other good example in this space seems to be – computer games that you can actually buy, without forced updates, and without being forced to connect to an unwanted ‘service’ in order to play them.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            it seem excessively harsh to call economics snake oil for simply failing to address issues that you are interested in.

            I assume you mean high-frequency trading. If you really mean something very specific about flash trading, you’ll have to elaborate.

            I have never heard criticism (2). Could you elaborate or point to an example of it?

            Criticism (1) is exactly what I meant. It seems to be a generic criticism of market makers. The details of the competition between market makers are murky and they look anti-social, but the competition between market makers has brought down their earnings by orders of magnitude in the past 30 years. People only think that HFT is a big deal because it has consolidated faster than the market contracted. So the few HFT firms, even at their peak, made a lot less than the very large number of market makers used to make in aggregate. I see no reason to think that the current situation with HFT is any worse than the old situation with specialists, but even if something about it (eg, flash trading) is much worse, it is a worse fight over a much smaller pie, so probably in aggregate better.

          • skef says:

            Yes, HFT would have been a better choice of term.

            I have never heard criticism (2). Could you elaborate or point to an example of it?

            One of the primary themes in “Flash Boys” is how, after a certain point in time, it became more difficult and rare to buy a stock or other instrument at the listed market price or between the current bid and ask on a given exchange*, and later even in the “dark pools”. The prices would sit there relatively stable for minutes or hours, and then when you “pressed the button” the sale would not happen at that price, and in a direction unfavorable to you.

            * I am using this term inexactly. The actual context of trades described was a bit more complicated, with differing public and private boundaries, and I don’t recall the exact terminology used.

          • Brad says:

            AFAIK there are no billionaires in hft. No one even especially close. I’m supposed to believe that the firms skimming a few million off speculators’ billions are the Big Bad of the story?

            Read Vanguard’s letter on hft for a perspective from the firm that actually represents the ordinary investor, not buy side bankers upset that belonging to the right social scene is no longer the essence of the job.

          • skef says:

            Brad: I was exploring the topic of whether a particular sort of program trading “has caused some bad thing”. It seems that HFT mostly exploited holes in trading infrastructure to make things slightly worse for everyone else. You can say “it eventually identified the holes” but that’s pretty weak tea, like expecting security experts to thank black hat hackers.

            Wikipedia says there are about 2750 billionaires. I’m not sure why one would think only billionaires were affected, or what significance one should place on whether anyone became a billionaire doing it. I would think the minimizing argument of choice would be in the “who cares about Superman 3 fractional penny skimming” style. I think it would have been nice if all those index fund investors weren’t paying a hidden fee on their 401k withholding during the heyday.

            Added: I’ve read the Vanguard letter now and it doesn’t strike me as strong evidence against what other takes I have read, including that of “Flash Boys”, especially given the date. It also seems primarily directed against a specific set of regulation proposals rather than more generally the extent and nature of the problem.

          • While I like my Gemini (cell phone/PDA with a real keyboard!)

            The Gemini seems like a pretty striking counterexample to your argument. There are not all that many Psion fans, that being the market niche it was targeted to. Creating a new cell phone that works as smoothly as the current market leaders is hard, and Planet Computers didn’t, so far as I can tell, quite manage it–for instance the tendency of the Gemini to have a flashing purple LED on the right when there is no information for it to be telling you about, that sometimes goes off after you open and close the lid.

            Nonetheless, Planet did bring out a workable cell phone/PDA with a Psion keyboard, having successfully located, apparently, a human being who still knew the magic spell that made possible a real keyboard in an impossibly small form factor. They sold it at a reasonable price. And they are about to bring out an upgraded version, after seeing what problems customers had with the initial model. Looks like people doing exactly what you want, with the sort of difficulties one would expect.

            I fit your pattern of aging techie. My email is on my own machine, using Thunderbird. My backup is to hard drives. I haven’t played computer games much in recent years, but there seem to be a lot of them out there with a variety of features.

            My wife prefers the old fashioned style of electric stove with burners rather than a glass surface. The only reason she doesn’t have one is that I like high tech gadgets, so we ended up with a stove half of which is induction, which won’t work on her old copper bottomed pots, half new-fangled electric–but if I had shared her tastes there are lots of the old style electrics out there. I think our combination of preferences is a small enough niche that the lack of a stove half induction and half old-fashioned electric is not surprising.

            Our washing machine has no internet connection.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Brad’s outside view argument is good.

            But I think I can make an inside view argument, too, that Michael Lewis has it exactly backwards. I have not read Flash Boys, but I read an excerpt, maybe this one, probably corresponding to the chapter “Brad’s Problem.” The trader interviewed seemed to be upset that he could not take advantage of his previous ability to trade on multiple markets simultaneously. He would push the button one one market and it would execute exactly as promised. Then he would press the button on the second market and the price had already changed. Part of his job was executing this arbitrage and now HFT was competing with him, executing the same arbitrage faster. HFT had merged all markets into one. They all displayed the same price and order depth, which was all accurate. The only thing that was inaccurate was if you interpreted them as adding across markets. It used to be possible for sophisticated traders to do that and now it wasn’t. The gap between naive and sophisticated traders was narrowed. The market is now easier to read, which you could interpret as more accurate. This seems like a wholly good development. I don’t know whether the thickness of the market is now what used to be available to the naive investor or to the sophisticated investor. Probably somewhere in between.

            Maybe Lewis’s other examples would change my mind, but if he didn’t understand the first one, probably not.

          • skef says:

            Why, after these conversations, do I get the sense that I should thank the person shooting me in the back for informing me that I should have been looking in the other direction?

            Added: I don’t know what excerpt you read either. But in the similar passage I remember it was not that individual markets were reliable and the only issue was a cross-market one. The market reliable at that time for that trade was reliable because of the relative latencies in place at that time.

            You describe the phenomenon as if the HFT trading strategies themselves had no distorting effect. That’s not what the book describes, and “I think he made a mistake so he’s likely wrong about everything” is a questionable approach.

            Do you believe there are strong a priori reasons to think that the complex trade types available at the time in question could not, in combination, be exploited to introduce very short term arbitrage opportunities? In my experience with software that kind of shit is entirely expected, and indeed very difficult to avoid.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            The market reliable at that time for that trade was reliable because of the relative latencies in place at that time.

            I can’t figure out what you mean. Placing a single order is an atomic transaction. Latency doesn’t enter into it. Lewis is inconsistent. I have explained what I believe the situation is, based very directly on some things he says, but other things he says contradict them.

            If Lewis has other arguments, I’d be interested to hear them, but the section I read is the section everyone cites. Maybe that’s because it was excerpted, but you read the whole book and you brought it up, too, didn’t you? I think that’s because it’s the simplest example. If Lewis didn’t understand that example, why should I trust him anywhere else?

            No, I don’t believe HFT is creating artificial arbitrage opportunities. There’s no need for black magic to explain how they make money because market makers made orders of magnitude more money in the past by making markets. They’re probably just doing the same thing as before, just more efficiently, with less profit. Even if some HFT money is illicit, an upper bound is the total amount of money that they make, which is surely less than the amount of illicit money that previous generations made, even if it was a smaller percentage (which is the opposite of what I believe).

            Maybe they are distorting the market without much benefiting from it. I can’t rule this out on any simple basis. But where did this hypothesis come from? It seems to be a fantasy from fear of market makers.


            Another hypothesis is that Lewis did not make a mistake, but writes propaganda for his sources, like Woodward.

          • skef says:

            I can’t figure out what you mean. Placing a single order is an atomic transaction. Latency doesn’t enter into it.

            I mean that the market for which the bid and ask corresponded well to the transaction price was the market that, at that moment, had the shortest relative network round-trip time.

            If we’re going to get all domain-knowledge-y, what does atomicity have to do with anything? All that means is that there is that the “transaction” (whichever it may be) is either entirely completed or nothing changes. It doesn’t imply anything about what information about the transaction is available where, and almost nothing about the circumstances under which it succeeds or is cancelled.

            My guess is that thought is something like “one transaction — no opportunity for manipulation”. But individual “atomic transactions” sent to markets with higher relative latency did exhibit the problem — deviation from the supposed bid/ask.

            Suppose I went “Huh — sounds like this guy doesn’t get atomicity. Better ignore everything else he says!” Would that be good practice?

          • Brad says:

            Your 401k withdrawals don’t pay a hidden tax unless you are investing them in actively traded mutual funds—in which case you are paying a tax that is many orders of magnitude higher.

            Look at total cost of execution—HFT has been unambiguously good for dumb money and dumb money includes index funds.

            Smart money is upset they can’t rip the faces off the market makers (who then passed the costs along to us dumb money schmucks in the form of $25 trade fees and $0.25 bid / ask spreads.)

            But because unlike hft shops they control non-trivial fractions of the nation’s wealth, while providing only dubious social value, they have much better PR. In the entire FIRE sector HFT firms are some of the most innocuous from random joe’s point of view—they aren’t trying to sell you on 1% mutual fund or investment wrap fees, push variable annuities or whole life insurance policies, charge $15/mo to manage your checking account, or taking 6% of the largest transaction of your life without even really representing your interests.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Here is another outside view argument, one that I made in 2014. Exchanges subsidize HFT. They believe that the presence of HFT on their exchange is good for their paying customers and will help them win in the competition against other exchanges. Well, what do exchanges know about their customers? I welcomed the creation of IEX to test this theory by not subsidizing HFT and putting in roadblocks for its use. I welcomed choice in the marketplace, so that we could see what traders really want. But now, 4 years and 300 pages of best-selling ad copy later, IEX is a failure. Traders choose to trade against HFT.


            But individual “atomic transactions” sent to markets with higher relative latency did exhibit the problem — deviation from the supposed bid/ask.

            That’s exactly the part I don’t believe. I would be interested to see if there is a passage where he says this explicitly, but I’m unlikely to believe such a passage. I estimate that the material I’ve read is 2/3 about my interpretation, 1/6 ambiguous, and 1/6 flat-out contradicting my interpretation. But I don’t think any of it was a clear match to what you say above. If it were this simple, he should just talk about this. I believe that he talks about complicated situations because those are what are really going on.
            It’s not a matter of carrying over Lewis’s one mistake to his other arguments. I’ve never encountered any other arguments. It’s all just the one mistake.

            Again, the outside view. If people are front-running, why aren’t they in jail? Computers are a lot more transparent and auditable than old systems. Why are traders willing to trade with them? Why don’t they switch to exchanges that don’t do front-running, or, ultimately, to IEX?

            Let me rephrase my original claim that most complaints don’t rise to the level of post hoc. Even if HFT were pure front-runners, complaining that this is a bad change is gerrymandering the problem. You should compare front-runners to front-runners. The amount of money made by front-running is almost certainly smaller today than in the past, simply because HFTs make so little money. People thought that Madoff was front-running because it was plausible in that place and time. HFTs don’t make Madoff money. Of course, Madoff didn’t make Madoff money, either.

          • arlie says:


            I think the real niche for the Gemini was more than Prion fans. I welcomed it as moving closer (not close) to my beloved palm pilot – on screen keyboards basically suck, and so do keyboards with tiny keys.

            My problem with it was that it began routinely crashing every time I was on the phone talking. At that point, it’s no longer functional as a phone. I don’t know whether it self-updated with a fix for that problem – because of my job, I have a free, office supplied conventional smart phone, and I began giving people that phone number.

            So now it’s only a PDA, though with a working cellular connection – working for data, anyway.

            At any rate, you are right, that it’s a basically good example, tthough I’m not sure to what extent it counts because of the crowd funding.

    • Aging Loser says:

      How do They decide how much new money to make (print, coin) each year? Who’s the They? How does it get Out There?

    • SamChevre says:

      I would find this interesting, and have a fair bit of experience and so am likely to comment on the posts.

      I’m curious how to identify a market that is ripe for disruption given some level of regulation: how would you identify that taxis will be disrupted but not medicine, for example.

    • bean says:

      I’d be interested, but I’m interested in almost any effortpost.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      I am interested, and somwhat on-topic, I have a question about stocks.

      I understand the basics of why they have value: Stocks pay dividends in some way proportional to the profitability of the company, the promise of lots of future money is worth some money today, simple stuff. Some stocks also give voting power about the company’s decisions, which I guess must be worth something. But some stocks don’t give dividends or voting power, yet their value seems to behave pretty much the same as dividend stocks: goes up if the company seems likely to be profitable in the future and down if not. Non-dividend stocks seem more like a limited edition piece of paper than a financial instrument promising future returns to the holder, so what mechanism is tying their value to the health of the company?

      • skef says:

        I will set aside the issue of what ultimately makes sense — really, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t — and just give a brief take on the model as it is described and as I understand it.

        There is a terminological distinction that was once (in the 80s and 90s for example) more common than today, although you still find references to it, between “income stocks” and “growth stocks”. Income stocks were, more or less, those of companies that were expected to distribute profits through dividends, and that was the primary way a shareholder expected to benefit from holding the stock. “Growth stocks” were those of companies that expected to devote available revenue, and perhaps money borrowed via bonds, to increasing revenue in one way or another.

        With the latter, the shareholder expected to benefit from the increased value of the stock. The stock would increase in value because the company was increasing in size and — if certain other things go right — the shareholder would then own the same amount of a larger company.

        Now, it’s worth asking of the second model “what’s the point if there are never any dividends?”. And I think the idea under this model was that the company was eventually expected to stop growing and turn into an income stock. So at that point one would have, in effect, bought dividend-yielding shares at a cheap price. And if the company somehow managed to grow forever, the model doesn’t fall down in any obvious way.

        But there’s still a nagging question: What if the company grows and grows and grows and then just goes out of business? What if the managers of a “growth company” feel pressure to keep growing and screw everything up? Many tech companies have had this kind of arc, perhaps occasionally distributing dividends but at nothing like what would “compensate” for the stock price, and often not winding up with much of value to sell at the end. You would expect executives to do that under those circumstances. This seems like the one-level-down version of your question, and I have not yet heard an answer to it that convinces me it isn’t a live issue.

        Anyway, one reason that terminology has faded out is that there is an increasing popular third revenue-management paradigm that doesn’t fit cleanly into either category. A company will often increase the value of its stock by buying its own shares. Conceptually this should correspond to an increase in value because each shareholder now owns a larger percentage of the company. But that’s tricky because companies also sometimes issue shares, and people don’t pay as much attention to that.The primary metric investors do pay some attention to is “price/earnings ratio”, which does sort of crudely correspond to how much of something one owns by owning a share in the company. But it’s hard to tell how much of the effect of buybacks is rational and how much is psychological. (The standard argument for the former is that smart speculators will make money off of rubes, and in the process make the market rational. But arbitrage in the sale of snakeoil isn’t incoherent. If the irrationality is stable enough, all you can do is dump it into the “people have weird values” category and move on.)

      • John Schilling says:

        Roughly speaking, there are three plausible end states for a publicly-traded company undergoing fast growth.

        1. It saturates the accessible markets and its growth rate slows down to baseline, at which point there is no place it can profitably reinvest all its profits. Management now has a fiduciary responsibility to hand out the excess as dividends, so as skef notes you’ve bought a dividend stock on the cheap by buying early.

        2. Its growth attracts the attention of someone who wants to buy it out (possibly including its own managers/majority owners taking it private), in which case you get a big lump-sum cash payment proportional to your holdings. Yay you!

        3. It stops growing in a really bad way, and you’re last in line for a share in the bankruptcy proceedings. Sucks to be you.

        There are some edge cases, but this covers most of it. If the company really does engage in fast (>GDP) growth forever, then you eventually get to find out what it’s like to be a shareholder in the company that owns literally everything. This will probably be better than not being a shareholder in the company that owns literally everything.

      • Uribe says:

        The way I’ve modeled it in my mind is like this:

        A company with expected future earnings has value more or less equal to those discounted expected earnings whether or not it pays out those earnings in dividends because what matters is if the company *could* pay those dividends not if it actually does. It’s similar to a bank account in that sense. If you have a million dollars in a bank account, you don’t have to periodically withdraw money from the account for it to be worth a million dollars. It has value as long as the ability to withdraw the money exists. Now, one might say, but as a single shareholder, you *don’t* have the ability to withdraw the money from the company whenever you want, that is decided by company management. Well, that doesn’t make any difference, because you can always trade in your shares for cash in the marketplace. (Shares of private companies are generally worth much less than shares of public companies, for the same expected earnings stream, due to it being harder to find a buyer for your shares.)

        Now what I just described was the old model which Jeff Bezos has wrecked. Bezos took things a step further. He realized that today’s investors are sophisticated enough that it doesn’t even matter if Amazon makes a profit. What matters is that Amazon *could* make a profit and *could* pay out that profit to investors, but why bother making a profit when you can grow faster without one? Plus, earnings are taxed. (Amazon has had some earnings in the past couple years, but this is probably viewed as a shortcoming from their point of view, as it means they couldn’t figure out how to spend that money well.)

        • skef says:

          Now, one might say, but as a single shareholder, you *don’t* have the ability to withdraw the money from the company whenever you want, that is decided by company management. Well, that doesn’t make any difference, because you can always trade in your shares for cash in the marketplace.

          But these two observations are only loosely related.

          Suppose that a company’s charter (never mind if there is such a thing of any significance) specifically said “We will never distribute dividends, and will always either succeed or fail at making the company grow.” Then you might think “well, at some point there will be a shareholder revolt and the company will be forced to give dividends instead of pursuing growth fruitlessly”. But that’s just the other side of the coin: Shareholder “rights” are extremely weak, and when this is brought up people tend to say “well, you can vote with your feet”, i.e. sell the stock.

          So is it that the company is expected to provide dividend (or buyback) value? Or is it that people generally have this idea of a correspondence between P/E ratio and value, and buy and sell on the basis of that idea?

          • Uribe says:

            As for your hypothetical company that makes it very difficult on itself for it to ever pay dividends: I suspect few people would want to invest in such a company and it would have a very low value because it would be like a savings account that you can never withdraw from unless revolution breaks out. Such an account has little value.

            A company has value because it is expected to provide earnings to its owners. Even as a shareholder with little rights, you still *own* your share of the earnings. Sure, it’s frequently the case that the only way to get much money from your shares is to sell them, but this is like saying the only way to get money from your gold is to sell it.

            Arguably, the value of gold is much more mysterious than the value of a stock share, since a stock has an associated expected earnings stream.

            So is it that the company is expected to provide dividend (or buyback) value? Or is it that people generally have this idea of a correspondence between P/E ratio and value, and buy and sell on the basis of that idea?

            It’s much closer to the latter, but the ability to pay shareholders is still necessary for the stock to have value.

          • skef says:

            As for your hypothetical company that makes it very difficult on itself for it to ever pay dividends: I suspect few people would want to invest in such a company and it would have a very low value because it would be like a savings account that you can never withdraw from unless revolution breaks out. Such an account has little value.

            It’s much closer to the latter, but the ability to pay shareholders is still necessary for the stock to have value.

            I agree with you about how such a company would be priced in the current market. But I don’t agree that the thought experiment has little value, because I think in practice we’re closer to that reality than people admit.

            In particular, I think that current attitudes make it difficult for a company to shift from what would have been called a growth stock into an income stock. Some of the reasons for that are probably irrational, and therefore distort the market to that extent. And some of them reflect market reality: some tech companies would have trouble leveling off because growth is also wrapped up in the value their customers perceive.

            If that’s right, then some companies are implicitly in that position whether they talk about it or not. And the bare theoretical capacity to pay dividends seems like a distinction without a difference.

          • Uribe says:

            Ok. I think I understand your point now. You are saying that because growth companies have become so sexy and fashionable relative to dividend companies, the management of many companies is irresponsibly reinvesting money that would better be put in the pockets of shareholders.

            That very well could be the case.

          • John Schilling says:

            There’s definitely a business model, favored in Silicon Valley, where a company spends a long period losing money but building productive infrastructure and/or market share, saying “when we pull the lever to switch from Growth to Income, there will be Profit Galore, and the more we build before that point, the more profit. Come, join us now, because it will never be this cheap again!”

            The possible outcomes to this business model are roughly:

            0. Company never stops growing its investment in allegedly-productive infrastructure but never shifts the lever to “profit”. Eventually, all the wealth of society is trapped in its productive infrastructure, and everybody starves because nobody is doing that stodgy boring old “agriculture” thing any more.

            1. Company stops growing its productive infrastructure but still doesn’t shift the lever to “profit”. Investors eventually get wise and the bubble bursts. Sucks to be you, unless you’re in the first wave to leave.

            2. Company shifts the lever to “profit”, and profit does not in fact materialize. Oops. Check to see if all the insiders sold their stock last week, and if the SEC can do anything about that.

            3. Company shifts the lever to “profit”, and there actually is profit. You own either a more conventional growth company or an income company, see above.

            Stock is priced based on a combination of wishful thinking and the expected value of the company that might emerge from case 3.

          • Lambert says:

            I suspect this is the kind of distribution where the expected value is driven by one in a million events.
            That what growth stocks are is a bet that the company will be the next Apple.

            Edit: i.e. we can expect the median company to never give out dividends, and that’s ok.

          • LesHapablap says:

            Valuation by Mckinsey has a chapter that covers this. I’m not expert but the gist of it is:

            Many investors look at TRS (total return to shareholders) which is either dividends or stock price increases. There isn’t really too much difference, since if you wanted you could sell off small parts of your stock which would be equivalent to paying yourself dividends.

            There are issues that arise using TRS however. One of them is the “shareholder expectations treadmill.” Example: a company that has had nice growth for several years. The stock price is now priced assuming that that growth will continue, but the best choice for the company would be to slow the growth down. If the growth slows, the CEO will be under fire from shareholders because the stock price will drop. This gives the CEO incentives for short term growth which may be unhealthy long term. In addition, many CEO performance bonuses are related to TRS/stock price, which according to Mckinsey is a poor policy because of this reason.

            So because of this growth being priced into the stock, the company is stuck aiming for growth long past when it is a healthy strategy for the company, hence they are stuck on the shareholder expectations treadmill.

          • johan_larson says:

            Another thing to keep in mind is that different ways of delivering value to shareholders are taxed differently. In particular, the tax rate for capital gains is lower than that for dividends.This means companies generally try to deliver gains by raising the value of their shares rather than by paying dividends. Stock buybacks are one way to do this.

            (I hope I’m getting this right. Biz class in college was a long time ago.)

          • albatross11 says:


            I suspect you’re right when you’re talking about large investors/VCs. They’re looking for the knock-it-out-of-the-park winner where they invest a couple million dollars early on and end up owning 5% of Facebook or something. But I think that calculation works very differently for smaller investors, where you just can’t invest in enough companies to have a substantial crack at happening upon Google or Uber or something.

          • Lambert says:

            The average Joe makes money from buying shares when the company has a 1 in a million chance of becoming the next Google and selling them when it’s a 2 in a million chance.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            In particular, the tax rate for capital gains is lower than that for dividends.

            No this is no longer the case. I think it changed under GW Bush. Dividends and long-term capital gains now have the same tax benefit.

        • arlie says:

          I think it’s important to consider executive compensation, and tax laws. Both the executives and other share holders are incentivized to want to receive company profits in the form of stock price increases, not dividends. So at best you tend to get stock buybacks rather than dividends.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      The most accurate description of accounting are these videos from the Office:

      Basically, the Accountants realize they are missing $3,000. They interview every single person in the Office because they think someone stole it. They suspect Michael Scott, but obviously have to interview everyone first. In the end, they realize Angela just recorded a depreciation expense twice.

      The difference is that in modern accounting we can more quickly find these kinds of errors. For instance, I last month I saw a $10,000 loss in our labor usage, compared to the $100,000+ I was expecting. I ran it down and discovered my co-worker entered a labor usage as 370 hours instead of 3700 hours, so the loss was recorded as a wage difference instead of usage. This took maybe 20 minutes.

      This is way better than our sister plant, where half the factory was down for days, but they still paid everyone to stand around and do nothing. A great way to lose $2 million and blow the budget for the entire year. Thank god we have no union at our plant.

    • Kestrellius says:

      That sounds interesting and useful. Mark me down as in favor.

  17. Aron Wall says:

    So Time Travel:

    1. I was recently in a 30 minute panel discussion with some other phycisists I know, about whether time travel is possible. (I’m linking to my own blog so that the video is cued to the right start point.) This turns out to be a surprisingly nontrivial question in modern physics, although you might not be too surprised by our final answer. I tried to crack a lot of jokes so it should at least be entertaining.

    2. [CW] As if disbelieving in Marbury vs. Madison didn’t make him enough of a crackpot, it turns out that the controversial (and arguably unconstitutionally appointed) Acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker, was previously an advisor to World Patent Marketing, an organization found to be fraudulent by the FTC. One of their schemes was Time Travel X, a cryptocurrency donation scheme to promote time travel! The inventor involved was Dr. Ronald Mallett, a time travel researcher at U Conneticut who played a key role in my decision not to apply for a faculty position there. He seriously is trying to build a time machine to save his father, who died of a heart attack when Ronald was 10. He’s written a book about it too!

    So now we get to my culture war question, which is this: Is Whitaker actually poor William Marbury, who got too near a black hole and now is just trying to find a way back home??? You be the judge!

    • Lambert says:

      Crypto time travel sounds dumb. Not only for the normal reasons, but because the Other Scott (or maybe one of his colleagues. I can’t remember) has proven that time travel lets you solve PSPACE problems in polynomial time.

    • melolontha says:

      I doubt anyone has a problem with you linking to your blog, but FWIW youtube links can include a start time cue: click the ‘share’ button under the video, then tick the ‘start at’ box, set the time, and copy the link.

      (Sorry for the non-substantive comment; I’ve bookmarked the video but not yet watched it.)

  18. actualitems says:

    My wife just got hair cut really short and I’m having a hard time with it. I feel embarrassed typing that I am having hard time with my wife’s short haircut.

    (Obligatory background: we’re almost 40, been married almost 15 years, together 20 years, and have 3 elementary school age kids.)

    I don’t know how to talk to her about this. She knows I prefer long hair. She can tell my reaction to her new short hair isn’t positive. She posts selfies on social media and gets dozens of likes and comments telling her it’s “super cute!” But she admits the one person that she wants to love it doesn’t.

    She says she hates having long hair. Hates taking care of it. Hates how hot it feels on her neck. She says she doesn’t want “mom hair”. Her new haircut screams “mom hair” to me, but maybe I don’t know what “mom hair” is.

    What I feel I can’t tell her is this. Although she had long hair when we met as teenagers, she did cut it short a few times during our relationship, but she was younger and fitter then. A short hair style on her at 21 wasn’t ideal, but it was fine. Now she’s older and put on some weight. That’s OK! So am I and so have I! I still love her! It’s just now, her short hair cut might be “super cute” to other women, but with her body type these days, the cut is just not sexy. It’s borderline un-feminine.

    How do I get over this? I feel embarrassed and ashamed that this even bothers me.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      If you think your relationship with her is salvageable, what I would do is offer to take her on a romantic trip to an interesting location if she grows her hair long. Of course, once you get back her incentive will be to cut her hair again so she can get another trip, but that’s fine because the two of you can laugh about the situation and have a good time together. You are pushing her to grow her hair long but in a way that’s playful and fun.

      • rlms says:

        we’re almost 40, been married almost 15 years, together 20 years, and have 3 elementary school age kids

        If you think your relationship with her is salvageable

        People on the internet giving relationship advice are always entertaining.

        • TakatoGuil says:

          I read that in a joking sort of way, as if this particular issue was as big a deal as the Rape of the Lock when clearly it’s a more minor issue.

        • fortaleza84 says:

          I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that you haven’t been in a monogamous relationship for 20 years.

      • Aging Loser says:

        “Take her on a romantic trip” assumes a world in which the problem wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. In our world, women take themselves on romantic trips in order to augment their ongoing Facebook-autobiographies.

        • DeWitt says:

          (Obligatory background: we’re almost 40, been married almost 15 years, together 20 years, and have 3 elementary school age kids.)

          Truly a prime example of modernity gone wrong. The single one marriage to point out the flaws in all, the archetypical story to tell young men so they’ll stay away from evil harpies set to sap their virility.

    • baconbits9 says:

      How do I get over this? I feel embarrassed and ashamed that this even bothers me.

      Two options seem decent from the description.

      1. Give it a year, if you still feel strongly about it then talk about it or try something different.

      2. Tell you wife directly that you find her more attractive with long hair, and ask her if she would do one of the other things that you find attractive in women sometimes for you. Wearing more accentuating makeup, or sexy underwear or something.

    • gbdub says:

      Well, at the very least, you’re not alone in your aesthetic. To me as well, short hair / pixie cuts / etc look good on certain waify women and make most women with average body shapes look pretty butch, androgynous, or “let me speak to your manager” mom hair. Which is fine if you’re going for that but I doubt your wife is.

      Like a lot of women’s fashion trends, super short hair seems to be one of those things that got popular because people who are famous for their beauty look pretty in anything, even though it makes normal humans look worse.

      It sounds like she already knows that you don’t like it, so it’s probably best to be honest at this point before she thinks there’s something else turning you off. And at best you’re going to have to live with it for a few months anyway.

      What are her thoughts on Katy Perry, Kaley Cuoco, and Jennifer Lawrence? Three really beautiful women who I think look substantially worse with super short cuts. If she thinks they are sooo cute with the short hair, you might be at an impasse. But if not, maybe that’s a kind way of showing where you’re coming from.

      How long has she had the short hair? My girlfriend went with a short cut for awhile and ultimately hated it because it ended up being a lot more work (plus I told her I didn’t like it flat out but we’re pretty open about that stuff). The short hair basically had to be washed, dried, and styled every day or it looked like a mess. Shoulder length hair she could wash the night before and throw it in a ponytail, or let it air dry on the way to work and just comb it out. Maybe you’ll be saved by laziness 😉

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I was in a similar position a few months ago. Now it’s no big deal; she likes it short and I’d rather her be happy about her hair. She has to deal with it more.

      Be honest if asked and shut up if not is my policy. It will probably stop bothering you eventually as you become more familiar with it. If it doesn’t, and it’s so unsexy you’re not attracted to her, that’s going to be a more important and difficult conversation.

      E: the responses talking about this as a subject for negotiation bother me a little, as does that whole paradigm of relationships. The way I (and I think we) see it, the happier we each are, the better. If we made each other unhappy, we’d break up, but as long as we do make each other happy, anything’s fair game. And I love her a lot more than I miss her long hair. My advice really is to let yourself dislike it, but don’t lose sight of how happy it makes her.

    • baconbits9 says:

      One other route occurs to me: Find short hair cuts you do like as a compromise, there might well be a style she would go for that you would find more feminine and attractive.

      My wife had very short hair when we dated, and grew it out partially due to my preference. Now she has medium length hair (not quite shoulder length with a fair amount of natural wave) and I think this is her best look. i would not have predicted this being my preference going into the relationship as I always like very long hair.

    • skef says:

      I’m going to respond on the narrow issue of how bringing this up is playing with fire, and how that might be mitigated.

      Sometimes people change their appearance just for variety’s sake. This isn’t one of those times. She’s been clear about seeing the long hair as an annoying hassle in her life.

      So you both know that if and when you ask her to go back to the long hair, you’re asking her to do something she finds annoying so that she remains (sufficiently?) attractive to you. This dynamic sets up certain questions:

      1) What if aging or some incident makes her (“me”) insufficiently unattractive in some other way? If you’re kinda-sorta indicating that the hair is a big issue, wouldn’t that be one too?

      I don’t have any particular advice about question #1. But see below.

      2) Have you been doing things to keep yourself attractive to her that you dislike having to do? How many and which aspects of your appearance does she get to influence/control?

      Leaving aside the fact that conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, it is conventional wisdom that women generally care less about appearance than men do. That is one way to write off concern about question(s) #2. But that mostly applies to contexts in which no one is making it an issue. When you raise the issue of her hair with you, there’s no reason this can’t and won’t be thrown back in your face. That isn’t just a comment on strategy, I’m saying it would not be wrong or inconsiderate of her to do so even if the conventional wisdom applies to her.

      This is one reason I think fortaleza84’s advice is very risky. “I’ll pay for your long hair in romantic-trip gift certificates” is an arrangement some couples can make fifteen years into their marriage. Other wives might respond “Oh, am I your whore now?”, and wouldn’t be entirely without a point.

      Is this hopeless? Well, if you take the conventional wisdom and back #2 up a level of specificity you get:

      3 Have you been doing things for her that you dislike having to do? How many and which aspects of your life does she get to influence/control?

      Now one very typical reaction to #3 would be “are you seriously me asking this, buddy?”. But remember that for this to be relevant at all, you have to make her side of question just as general. Like, however much you both love your kids, did whatever split you arranged involve her giving up some options? (I have no idea, but it wouldn’t be untypical.)

      (Almost?) every couple comes to certain arrangements, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, about who is giving up how much for whom. There is no contract, but there is a sort of tally. Your wife might be feeling the loss of aspects of her looks (also aware of the conventional wisdom) and have decided that the hair doesn’t matter as much now. In effect, she might think that that aspect of her end of the deal had a natural expiration date. Clearly you don’t think that.

      So if you’re going to approach this at all, I think the least risky way to do so is:

      a) Make it clear you’re generally aware of the minefield aspect of this subject. Possibly drawing on some of the observations above.

      b) Draw a clear circle around the hair issue in particular. Concede that your attitude may be a bit irrational, but that this particular thing bothers you in a way that other changes haven’t and in a way you can’t control. (This is implicitly a response to question #1, and sounds better coming up front than as a response.)

      c) Offer to consistently do something that she wants of you but that you find annoying, without her ever having to hassle you about it again.

      The c) thing works best if it’s already an issue in your relationship. She’s not obligated to come up with a new hangup just so that it can annoy you and balance out her hair maintenance. Offer to take something that has been a problem and make it not a problem, because your brain just works in this certain way. And if she’s willing then be very careful to really do it.

      • Aging Loser says:

        On “This is one reason I think fortaleza84’s advice is very risky. “I’ll pay for your long hair in romantic-trip gift certificates” is an arrangement some couples can make fifteen years into their marriage. Other wives might respond “Oh, am I your whore now?”, and wouldn’t be entirely without a point.” — it might be kind of fun for both husband and wife to play this game, though.

        • skef says:

          I would file that under the “arrangement … can make” category. There are different ways it can work, but one still has to consider the probability of causing offense.

          • fortaleza84 says:

            I’m curious, are you married and if so how long have you been married?

          • skef says:

            I am not married. I’m gay, so if I were married it would be to a man and it would not have been for … all that long. Most of the gay men I know who are married were putting a social cherry on top of what was already a long relationship by the usual standards. I’m not in that situation either.

            If I were in any of those situations, it wouldn’t be relevant to the issue at hand anyway. With rare exceptions, gay couples just openly talk about this stuff. It would most likely be a source of ongoing teasing, probably pro-forma, perhaps with an “edge”. A fundamental, if basic, understanding of one another is, as I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the great benefits of gay relationships. (I understand the mystery-based counter-advantages– I’ve read a few poems here and there. But it does have its downsides.)

            The advice I offer with respect to straight relationships, when that happens, is on an outsider/neutral party basis. It mostly comes from a foundation of how human beings might successfully relate to one another. Being gay in our society means (among other things) that I have had and have many platonic relationships with both straight men and straight women. Both tend to talk about the other, often in unflattering terms.

            In particular I know a number of middle-aged divorced women. This is a group that mostly knows other middle-aged divorced women, not because they don’t want to know other kinds of people, but because other kinds of people often don’t have much of a use for them.

            There are definitely strong statistical (but not inherent, setting aside the definitional) differences in what straight men and women want and how they go about it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply your understanding of those trends to these kinds of situations.

            Anyway, to get to your implication: the longer one’s marriage, the fewer the long marriages. So to those who have been married a long time, congratulations! — through love and effort you’ve (probably?) achieved a deep understanding of the needs and desires of a particular woman. You have not unlocked the secret of womanhood, because there is no such thing, any more than The Marlboro Man and the Soy Boy — those two American icons — want the same thing beyond, you know, probably boobs.

          • fortaleza84 says:

            @skef I think that as someone who has never been in a long-term relationship with a woman, your mental model of the female mind is pretty much off-the-mark. Women love it if their man offers — in a fun playful way — to do something romantic for them in exchange for the woman doing something nice for their man. This is especially true if what the man is offering is something she can show off to her girlfriends.

    • AnnaR says:

      Let it grow out into a more feminine short cut in a few months. See how it looks then before you judge. Once it hits mid neck and the hair gets in the way but can’t be tied up, she will either let it grow out (salutary neglect) or want to cut it again – at that point, ask for not pixie (or whatever the cut you don’t like is).

      Also in your assessment of its attractiveness, be sure to factor in what it looks like styled vs not, clean vs dirty, colored or not. If her go-to long hair is a severe mouse brown ponytail or a sloppy bun, and and roots that look greasy if not washed every 12 hours or whatever, then how often are you really getting that attractive mane of lustrous locks? If she can spend the time she spends today detangling on a quick comb and towel and it looks better…. You might like that more and others might too.

      (Edit – spelling)

    • Plumber says:

      Good lord man don’t bring it up!

      To you she still looks exactly like the young lady you met many years ago except that whatever changes to her appearance that she chooses make her look even “hotter”.

      Repeat that story until one of you is in the grave.

      • pontifex says:

        Finally someone gave the correct advice.

        • albatross11 says:


        • Salem says:

          Would you mind explaining why you think this is such good advice?

          • albatross11 says:

            Well, it’s sort of a joke, and sort of not.

            In general, it’s important to know the areas your spouse is the most insecure about, and give those areas a wide berth in your daily chaffing/complaints/whatever. If your wife is seriously insecure about how she looks, then any suggestions you make need be be really carefully made, or you’re going to leave a lot deeper bruise than you meant to. A middle aged woman is very likely to be pretty sensitive about being told by her husband that her new hairstyle makes her look butch or frumpy. (Everyone is way more vulnerable to hurtful comments, including unintentional ones, from their spouse than from almost anyone else other than maybe their mom.)

            Really, I’d try making comments like “I miss your hair” or something. It’s not that it’s wrong to let her know how you feel, it’s that you need to tread carefully or you’ll make a casual comment that feels to her like a slap in the face.

          • quanta413 says:

            One advantage to this sort of advice is that it’s relatively easy to execute as long as you have sufficient self-control. From a certain point of view it’s a lie I guess, but even if you accept that it is, it’s not the sort of lie that most people are fooled by or wish to question. Your significant other knows that they are aging and you are aging, and you all aren’t looking as good. You’re being relentlessly affirming not lying.

            Whereas any advice that involves a discussion about why someone else should change for your preferences may require all sorts of skills that are even more uncommon than the ability to swallow a change and act affirming.

            Obviously, you can’t just follow this advice for every change no matter how severe but…

    • Aapje says:


      I don’t think there is a reason to be ashamed over having beauty preferences. This is not abnormal at all.

      Given that she cut her hair in the past and then went back to long hair, she might just want a break. So a good option might be to wait it out. However, many older women do stick with short hair, so it is risky to do this.

      You might want to tell her that women tend to applaud change, including bad change. So if she would spend some time with short hair and then go back to long again, she probably will get applause on social media too. So then she should not put too much stock into the applause on social media.

      I wonder, have you ever discussed with her how certain looks stop working at a certain age? For example, ponytails on older men. You could try subtly bringing this up by not talking about her or women, but by pointing it out for a man who is in the news. This might plant a seed in her.

      You could ask her why went back to long hair after having short hair earlier in your relationship. Making her talk about the advantages could make her want it more. Once she starts really doubting her choice again (which she already seems to do with her talk about mom hair), you can propose that she try a compromise: medium-length hair.

      A good option here might be to visit a good hair stylist with her or with a picture of her with long hair and ask for advice. Ask for a hair style + length that:
      – looks good on her
      – is fairly easy to maintain
      – is not too hot in the neck

      PS. I know women with long hair who vary quite a bit, seemingly to match their willingness to expend effort and perhaps also what feels good that day for other reasons. It might be an option for her to grow her hair out again, but to more often wear it in a bun or such.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      How do you get over it? I dunno man, you’ve been married longer than me. This doesn’t seem like a deal-breaker issue. I’d make my opinions known (like you have) and if she’s really committed to it, well, that’s the new reality. For better or worse, and this is one of the worse ones. It isn’t a shame that this bothers you, you’re allowed to have opinions on what you find attractive. But my guess is that you’ll get over it in time.

      Other recommendation is finding a shorter feminine hairstyle that works for both of you, like the other posters said. Maybe something at least mid-neck. Or maybe she can change up her makeup or her attire to make it more appealing to you.

      FWIW, my wife has the exact same issues you mentioned. And FWIW I also did not mention that short hair cuts look acceptable on skinnier, younger women, because I don’t want to get stabbed in the middle of the night. I DID tell her that she looked like a boy and I’m not particularly interested in men, and ESPECIALLY not interested in boys…though phrased somewhat nicer than that.

      It probably helps that my wife is not on social media, though.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Hates how hot it feels on her neck

      Is this a common thing? I have had long hair for as long as I have been permitted to do so (i.e. since leaving school) and not once in the decades since have I ever noticed an overheated neck being a problem. Maybe my hair is abnormally thin, or my body temperature gauge is set to prefer warmer temperatures, but still, is this one of those ‘universal’ human experiences that I don’t share, or is your wife just unlucky in having that idiosyncrasy?

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        Guessing that you’re male from your comment about being permitted; I am a man with long hair and have also never noticed this, though I’ve heard women complain about it. It might be one of those gender temperature things? Or maybe it happens to lots of people, but the people who are men who would be bothered by it never have the chance to be?

      • Rebecca Friedman says:

        I’m a woman, have had long hair all my life, and in my experience, yes, long hair is enough of a protective layer to keep one’s neck a bit warmer than it would otherwise be, kind of like a scarf. Whether that’s a plus or a minus depends on the weather; personally I generally like it, since it’s very useful in cold weather, not much of an issue most of the rest of the time, and on the rare occasions when the weather is hot enough for the extra heat to actually bother me, I just twist my hair into a bun, problem solved. But it’s definitely there. There may be other hairstyles that remove/mitigate the effects – I don’t mind so haven’t really tried.

    • Viliam says:

      I feel embarrassed and ashamed that this even bothers me.

      Congratulations to the society for making you feel ashamed for having sexual preferences! Straight men’s sexual preferences are indeed problematic; and if we cannot cure them (yet), the next best thing is to deny them and feel ashamed for having them. You are a politically correct citizen. No, you still don’t deserve a cookie.

      Before communicating with other people, I would suggest solving your internal communication first. Otherwise, your mouth will go “everything is fine” while your heart is crying sad tears, and your brain will wonder helplessly why you feel bad when everything is supposedly so great.

      I am not saying that you can have all you want, or that it is strategic to talk about things you can’t have (without giving up something you don’t want to give up), but… admitting to yourself that what you want is what you want, should be like a basic human right.

      Long hair is one of the attributes of femininity. It’s like having boobs.

      Short female hair is countersignaling. It shows that the woman is so hot that she can afford to remove one of the things that make women beautiful, and still remain attractive. It’s one of those things you should do when you get the idea and can afford to do it; but people who don’t fully get the idea and can’t afford it will hurt themselves by doing it anyway when they shouldn’t.

      And of course other women are telling her it’s cute; they are happy to see their competitor undermine herself! Seriously, this is how women typically relate to each other. It’s male psychology to see the world as black and white, containing friends and enemies, with clear distinctions. Women have fifty shades of relationships, but all of them are gray. The kind where you keep your friends close and your enemies closer until you forget the difference.

      Be strategic in what you say. I’d suggest to essentially keep it at “I liked your long hair more”. (Do not mention her short hair at 21. Unless she brings it up, in which case just say: “Even back then I wished you would keep long hair instead.”) She may choose to accommodate your preferences, or she may choose to not give a fuck; but if you start lying about your preferences, you will take the choice away from her. Don’t make it sound like a big deal — there is nothing she can do about it in short term anyway — but don’t lie about your preferences.

      About the opinions of her friends, I would probably go with a joke “too bad you are not married to them”. Like, let’s be really charitable and assume that her friends actually believe that she is prettier with the short hair. Okay, that’s a legitimate preference. But it’s someone else’s preference, not yours. You have a legitimate preference too, and it happens to be different. That’s life.

      And yeah, taking care of the hair takes time. So does exercising, shaving, taking care of your clothes and shoes… and whatever else you are doing to be more attractive to her. Is it okay to get rid of that all, if your male friends tell you it’s cool? Is this a start of a mutual neglect spiral? — No, I am not suggesting to say this explicitly. (It would be low-status to negotiate explicitly “I will do this if and only if you will do that”. Both sides are supposed to pretend that they play their roles willingly; that the roles are simply natural to them. It’s just that both sides are supposed to actually play them. You can’t simply stop doing things that make you attractive for the other one, and feel entitled to their continued feelings of attraction.) I am explaining to you why there is absolutely zero need to feel ashamed.

      Getting older and cutting one’s hair short is not in the same category. One cannot be avoided, the other is voluntary.

      • Short female hair is countersignaling.

        I don’t think that’s true. It’s associated more with older women than anyone else.

        • Viliam says:

          But that is exactly how countersignaling works! Consider this:

          No signal: Uneducated people use simple words, because they do not understand the complicated ones.

          Simple signal: Educated people use complicated words even in situations where simple words would convey the idea perfectly, to make it obvious that they are educated.

          Counter-signal: Einstein or Feynman is happy to explain physics using mostly simple words, because he is at no risk of being mistaken for an uneducated person.

          And this is also how countersignaling can fail hard if you overestimate how others see you. For example, you may be known among your friends as an expert on physics, and you sometimes impress them by explaining complex ideas using simple words. However, one day you try to talk the same way to a stranger, and the stranger concludes that you don’t really understand physics, because your speech was too simple and you didn’t use any of those words they associate with university-level education.

        • Randy M says:

          My wife told me she asked some older women about this, and was told by many that they regretted their hair no longer having the strength to grow long without falling out.

          Of course, Viliam is right that affecting the look of an older woman is counter signalling the youth and fertility that men typically find attractive.

      • mdet says:

        Long hair is one of the attributes of femininity…And of course other women are telling her it’s cute; they are happy to see their competitor undermine herself! Seriously, this is how women typically relate to each other.

        As a straight man who prefers pixie- to chin-length hair on women and knows other men who would say similar, your comment is silly.

    • LesHapablap says:

      The wife going through menopause or just losing sexual interest and cutting hair short is, from what I hear, a common cause of mid-life crises. edit: Just read that you two aren’t even 40 yet. It’s way too early for old-lady haircuts

      You can casually link her this Onion article Suburban Mom Wows Family With Most Androgynous Look Yet. Maybe post it as a comment on her facebook photo.

      edit 2: That’s a joke. Do what Viliam said.

    • aristides says:

      I had the opposite problem, like girls with short hair and my wife grew hers long. I told her that I preferred her with short hair, but she looks beautiful no matter what. Ultimately, what her hair looks like is more important to her than to you, and she has to do the upkeep. On my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a woman who thinks she’s beautiful. Ultimately she stays around a medium that works for both of us.

    • andrewflicker says:

      My wife and I were in a very similar position- although only married a single-digit number of years. I told her squarely that I preferred her with long hair and didn’t think the short hair suited her, though of course she was still generally beautiful. I told her that my position was unlikely to change, and that she could expect to get compliments from me on dress, shoes, general attractiveness, etc., but to not expect me to ever compliment her hair cut/style when it was that short. If she wanted to live with that, that’s ok- I’m sure there’s things about me she doesn’t care for and doesn’t lie to compliment!

      Eventually she decided that long hair had enough perks (including me appreciating it) that she went long again, and we have a joking agreement that I’ll remain cleanshaven as long as she keeps her hair long (when we met, I wore a beard, and she would prefer me not go back to it). Realistically, she keeps it long because she gets more appreciation from men, most significantly me, now, and understands that.

  19. Vermillion says:

    Reposted Rumble thread, hurray!

    You: killing time over Thanksgiving holiday, wondering if there’s a suitable diversion on the latest SSC open thread.
    Me: offering a fun, free, low commitment play by email game of rock-em-sock-em superheroes.
    You: curious, desiring to know more.
    Me: explicating the features included such as a)secret bidding, b) player created powers with chaotic interactions, c) ample smack talk.
    You: further intrigued, continuing to read.

    The first edition of this is already over, over the last month contestants picked powers, secretly bid on them and had a royal rumble leaving Subject4056 the undisputed champion. Honestly it was all over quicker than I’d expected but then again in an alternate universe… But rather than retread that path why not have a new match?

    Anyone who’s interested in getting in on this round can sign up here:
    Anyone who’d like to submit a power (non-players included) can do so here:
    Check out previously submitted powers here:
    And read the official rules here:

    Signups will be open for about the next week. I’m assuming the contestants from the previous round are looking for a rematch but if you’re not feel free to admit your cowardice below.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      I am very confused about the bidding process, and why everyone took so few powers in the first competition. It seems like a large number of the powers on the list are worth at least a point, but they were ignored. Best example: regeneration gives you three energy per turn yet no one was willing to bid even one energy to acquire it.

      • Vermillion says:

        Hey Ninety, the total power list is the pool of all the powers that can be up for bidding but the final list of powers is selected by the active players and every player can only choose two. That second list is what gets bid on. Hope that clears it up!

    • dodrian says:

      Funny, but similar to a “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” level of engagement.

  20. S_J says:

    The American holiday of Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November since it was made official by Abraham Lincoln.

    However, it has roots in harvest-time celebrations in New England, often phrased as a time of giving thanks to God for safety and a good harvest.

    Most popularly, it is connected to the very first settlement set up by English-speaking people in New England, in Plymouth Colony. After a very hard year, they were able to celebrate their first harvest–in company with a local tribe, led by Massassoit. [1]

    Of interest to me: Both Edward Winslow and WIlliam Bradford wrote about that first Thanksgiving. Winslow’s personal letter is the better-known version of the story.

    Bradford’s history of the Plantation doesn’t mention the early Thanksgiving celebrations in great detail. It does mention that the first winter was harsh, and the first harvest (in 1621) was bountiful. Bradford also relates that the food supply was thin, and rationed strictly, during the winter of 1621. Apparently, the Colonial Charter had outlined that the Colonists would own the fields in common, and be fed out of the communal-owned and community-tended fields.

    Following the first Thanksgiving and the hard winter, the Colony allowed various members to own their fields, and grow their own food. The next year, the Colony was well-fed during winter…as each person saw personal benefit from the work that they put into their own fields.

    The story of Plymouth Plantation has many lessons about dealing with Natives, setting up local government, and society. One of those lessons is that even a small community can feed itself better when each family works their own fields.

    [1] The tribe was called the Wampanoag tribe. A man from the nearby Patuxet tribe, named Tisquantum/Squanto, had worked as a translator and liaison between Massasoit and the Plymouth settlers. Tisquantum’s history included capture by a different set of Englishmen, a slave-market in Spain, rescue by monks from a Monastery in Spain, a trip to England, then a trip back to North America.
    His story by itself is an interesting one, though it ends badly: Tisquantum was found to be dealing deceitfully between the Plymouth settlers and Massassoit, and was nearly executed by Massasoit for the troubles. Tisquantum died of some sort of ailment within a year.

    • Salem says:

      The American holiday of Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November since it was made official by Abraham Lincoln.

      This is not correct. Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. It was moved to its current date, the fourth Thursday in November, by Franklin Roosevelt, due to pressure from retailers.

    • EchoChaos says:


      From a Virginian, the FIRST thanksgiving was in Virginia.

      However, most of your points are interesting and true.

    • herbert herberson says:

      In that first winter, 45 out of a total of 102 Pilgrims died.

      Private self-interest in growing wealth clearly provides an incentive to do so in a typical economic system (even if I think it is significantly overstated, personally), but suggesting that a small community tightly knit together by an religious faith needed the prospect of private gain to motivate them to farm as hard as they could farm in the immediate wake of a famine that killed almost half of them seems like quite a stretch.

      (especially given the readily available alternative explanations for increased agricultural output: one of the most basic elements of the Thanksgiving story is specifically about said pilgrims being taught how to use a new and better-localized basket of agricultural products, to say nothing of simple trial and error creating incrementally better farmers out of a population that didn’t have many of those skills at the start)

  21. Machine Interface says:

    For once, the semantic stars aligned.

    Thinking about contemporary art music of the 20th century, it occured to me that there existed a number of avant-garde genres or movements that all had in common an emphasis on gesture, texture and timbre, with much less focus on melody, rythm and harmony, designated by various names such as micropolyphony, sonorism, spectral music; and I was wondering if there could be a common term for all these movements.

    “Why not call it texturism”, I thought. But “texturism” looked so much like a real word that I suspected it was probably already taken, so I looked it up, and yeah, it was (with a pretty CW meaning so you’ve been warned).

    The next day, not content with this set back, I thought: “what about texturalism then?”

    So I looked that one up, and it turned out to also already exist… with the exact meaning I wanted. This was a notably satisfying moment.


    Speaking of sonorism; this is a musical style which is notable in that, unlike other contemporary avant-gardes, it originated not in a western, capitalist country, but in the People’s Republic of Poland. I had wondered for a while how that was possible; in the Soviet Union proper, the views on music composition were generally very conservative (not to say reactionary), and official composers had to fall within an increasingly narrow window of neo-classical style with traditional, simple melodies, to be deemed conform to the official socialist-realist style, and even suspicion of “formalism” or “serialism” could have a piece banned and the career of a composer be in jeopardy.

    Russian satellites usually followed the same trend, so the case of Poland was intriguing. Yesterday I finally took the time to look for the greater context behind this, and in doing so discovered about en episode of the cold war that I had never heard of: the Polish October.

    Short version:

    In 1953, Stalin died. In february 1956, Khrushchev denounced stalinism. Poland is notable in that local authorities decided to widely circulate this denunciation. In march 1956, Bolesław Bierut, at the time first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, NKVD agent and hardliner stalinist, died unexpectedly (and in somewhat mysterious circumstances) in Moscow. Amidst protests for reform an the numerous grievances of Polish communists against Russia, reformist Władysław Gomułka came into power in october, with the promise of changes and of a communism more respectful of Poland’s specificity.

    This sounds like the beginning of several other episodes that ended badly for the countries concerned, with one important difference: the negociations between Varsaw and Moscow, while tense, narrowly succeeded. The timing was just right of course: as news of the changes in Poland reached Hungary through illegal radio, it contributed to fuel the much more radical Hungarian revolution — and then the Soviets sound found themselves occupied with supressing that one and forgot about Poland.

    Ultimately the effects of this change on Poland were mitigated: Poland gained some autonomy from the Soviet Union, effectively becoming less of a puppet state and more of a client state. But communism continued to be the norm and the economy wasn’t substantially reformed, so the same problems continued (and in the end Gomułka himself would be forced out of power 14 years later in similar circumstances). However this did result in Polish society becoming a lot more liberal, and in Polish art largely freeing itself from the socialist realist dogma, thus allowing avant-garde composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Henry Górecki or Wojciech Kilar to thrive in Poland.

  22. johan_larson says:

    You have a billion dollars. It’s yours free and clear. What are you going to do with it?

    (Let’s assume right up front that you invest the money in some sane way to turn money into slightly more money, and you set aside funds to secure your own retirement and your children’s futures, if any. That’s all fine. But it’s also not the point. The real question is how you are going to use a vast sum of money to make a difference, change the world, put a dent in the universe.)

    • Winter Shaker says:

      I try to leverage the money somehow to overcome the inertia behind the standard piano keyboard and replace it with this rationalised system. Yeah, I may have some weird preferences.

      If there’s any left over, I try to rationalise the clarinet too, something along these lines but with hopefully enough budget to actually get a generation of children learning.

      • Machine Interface says:

        There’s already a widely used instrument with a rational keyboard: the chromatic button accordion (with a “free bass” system on the left hand).

        • Winter Shaker says:

          True, but it would be a harder to build a proper flesh-and-blood piano in that system (the strings would be too close together, and quite possibly your hands as well), plus, having tried both, the Janko system is so much more intuitive – the only disadvantage it has against either the C or the B chromatic systems is that you can’t stretch two octaves in a handspan (though the stretch is still less than on a traditional piano).

    • johan_larson says:

      I’d set up a research institute to investigate the origin of life. This is one of the deeper questions in life sciences, and it has never had serious money thrown at it because it doesn’t promise to grow corn or kill enemy soldiers. I suspect there are some big discoveries to be made just beyond the lamp-light. $25 million per year times 40 years is a billion dollars, plus whatever excess the investments yield, plus whatever funds can be squeezed out of patentable discoveries, is an awful lot of light in dark places.

      • MasteringTheClassics says:

        If Mr. Money Mustache is to be believed, you can withdraw 4% of an investment forever without depleting it (adjusted for inflation already). that’s $40 million a year right off the bat, and no time cap…

      • AlphaGamma says:

        The Simons Foundation may have got there before you. I don’t know exactly how much Jim Simons put in to start it, but it’s currently worth over $2 billion.

        On the other hand, the origin of life is only one of the research topics it funds. And given that origin of life is a field I’m extremely interested in (though not where I’m working at the moment) I wouldn’t want to discourage you…

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I would pour it into the development of iterated embryo selection. Then I would start transforming humanity into super-kind, super-smart, super-healthy people in whatever country allows me to.

      • EchoChaos says:

        And probably get conquered by the super-mean, super-smart, super-healthy people bred in adversarial country X.

        • toastengineer says:

          Seems to me that super-mean people probably aren’t actually going to be any better at the actual hard parts of doing war. Like, 1000 years ago sure, but nowadays seems like wars are won in design offices and planning meetings and factories and convoys, with the actual shooting of the bad guys being the final step, and super-cooperators are going to be better at every step except maybe the last.

          • EchoChaos says:

            There are lots of psychological barriers that need to be overcome in order to actually win a war.

            It doesn’t matter how technologically advanced you are if you can’t take the hard steps. I’ve heard one of the reasons for Reagan’s bluster on nukes was that he was completely convinced that deep down he couldn’t order a nuclear strike if he had to, even if the nukes were incoming.

            If you have a society of perfect cooperators, to win a war someone still has to make someone else dead. And genetically super-kind people sound like the worst people to actually flip that switch. Even if it’s a disconnected kill-bot doing the killing.

            In many ways, that’s actually worse. PTSD is higher among drone operators than infantrymen for two reasons. The first is the disconnect of kissing your wife goodbye, driving to the office and then killing someone is unnatural, and the second is that humans aren’t wired to do impersonal killing well.

            Now, super-mean is probably too much because of internal friction, but the point stands.

        • Heinlein has a throwaway line on this, I think in Star Ship Troopers. There is a project to breed aggression out of the human race. It’s voluntary, and the holdouts get to live in (I think) Madagascar.

          So the Madagascar federation conquers the world.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            I don’t remember any such bit in Starship Troopers, maybe it was a different Heinlein? I don’t see it anywhere here, and there’s certainly no reference to Madagascar by that name.

            There is some discussion of EchoChaos’s point:

            Nevertheless, let’s assume that the human race manages to balance birth and death, just right to fit its
            own planets, and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens? Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which “ain’ta gonna study war no
            more” and the universe forgets us. Which still may happen. Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or
            they spread and wipe us out — because both races are tough and smart and want the same real estate.

            And you might be thinking of their justification of stability:

            The Major added, “Can anyone define why there has never been revolution against our system? Despite the fact that every government in history has had such? Despite the notorious fact that complaints are loud and unceasing?”

            One of the older cadets took a crack at it. “Sir, revolution is impossible.”

            “Yes. But why?”

            “Because revolution — armed uprising — requires not only dissatisfaction but aggressiveness. A revolutionist has to be willing to fight and die — or he’s just a parlor pink. If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs, the sheep will never give you trouble.”

          • LesHapablap says:

            There was a survey done sometime recently asking parents what personality traits they would choose for their children if they had the option. It was near uniformly extroversion and agreeableness.

            There may be some unseen ecological-style disasters from everyone suddenly choosing a specific type of personality for their kids.

          • I can’t find it either, so I’m probably remembering something in a different book.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            It’s Beyond This Horizon on the same page that mentions Madagascar in an unrelated way.

            The Second Genetic War is against the Empire of the Great Khans.

          • I found it. It’s in Beyond This Horizon, and it’s “The Northwest Union” not the Madagascar federation. There is a reference to “the Madagascar system” on the previous page, and somehow they got mixed in my memory.

    • fion says:

      I’d start reading up on geoengineering and hopefully halt and reverse global warming.

      I like to aim high.

      • Currently, many more people die of cold than of heat–there was an old Lancet article on the subject, with I think more than an order of magnitude difference. For the U.S. you can see the pattern by looking at a graph of mortality by month.

        You won’t feel guilty for all of the unnecessary deaths you are responsible for?

        At least, if you do it by geoengineering instead of holding down CO2 concentration, you won’t need to feel additional guilt for preventing the roughly 30% increase in crop yield produced by doubling CO2 concentration.

        There was a line in The Wizard of Earthsea on this problem, but I don’t remember it well enough to quote it.

        • fion says:

          I’m sure you and I have discussed before my reasons for believing that climate change will cause much more suffering than the small gains from fewer people dying of cold and the small (and hypothetical) gains from CO2 fertilisation.

          But even if I do cause unnecessary human deaths (which I don’t believe I will), I will save far more unnecessary animal, plant and other deaths and even extinctions. I do value humans more highly than other life, but not infinitely so.

          I don’t really want to re-tread our older discussions, but I do want to question if the Lancet article included deaths from hurricanes and other storms caused by warming.

          • I am sure the Lancet article did not include deaths from the (hypothetical) storms caused by warming. It wasn’t about climate change, it was about mortality due to heat and cold. But since one part of claimed costs due to AGW is increased mortality due to hotter summers, decreased mortality due to milder winters counts too.

            CO2 fertilization is about the least hypothetical part of the story since it has been demonstrated repeatedly by experiment, and a 30% increase in crop yields is not a small effect. On the other hand, the data on extreme temperatures from the U.S. Climate Sciences Special Report show that extremely cold and extremely hot days have become less common, not more common (Table 6.2, Figure 6.3), the opposite of the usual claim. The frequency of hurricanes making land in the U.S. has been unusually low, not high, in recent decades. Weather is a complicated system, so predicting the effect of climate change on it is hard.

            But my real point was not that preventing AGW will have net negative effects, since I don’t know it will. It was that it will have some large negative effects, which raises a moral problem analogous to a Trolley problem that people generally don’t think about. If preventing warming means that 200 fewer people die of heat and 100 more people of cold–numbers biased in your favor–how do you feel about killing the hundred?

          • fion says:


            For the record, I agree with you that decreased mortality due to milder winters is a likely positive outcome of global warming.

            This came up briefly last month, the effects of CO2+warming on crop yields is complicated and could be net positive or net negative. Re-reading my comment from yesterday, I realise that I may have implied that I was claiming the effects of CO2 fertilisation were hypothetical. I was not claiming that, but rather: the statement that crop yields will increase as a result of atmospheric and climatic changes is hypothetical.

            I’m very interested by that US Climate Sciences Special Report. (Although, I would say that the “usual claim” is that there will be more extremely hot days and fewer extremely cold days. You seem to be saying that the “usual claim” is that there will be more extremely cold days? I don’t know anybody who believes that.) I note that the temperature of the hottest days is creeping up in recent decades, but accept that it’s nothing compared to the huge bump between 1920 and 1960 (what went on there?). I don’t suppose you know if this pattern is also present globally? I would be much less pessimistic about the future of our planet if it was. (Although rising average temperatures are also very dangerous, just not directly for humans.)

            With regard to hurricanes, the data I can find seems to suggest that they have been unusually frequent and intense in recent decades. Is “the frequency of hurricanes making land in the US” a variable carefully chosen because it goes against the broader picture? (Sorry if that seems rudely blunt; I make no criticisms of your intellectual honesty, I’m just trying to guess where the discrepancy comes from.) Here is an example of some data that supports my side: link.

            But my real point was not that preventing AGW will have net negative effects, since I don’t know it will. It was that it will have some large negative effects, which raises a moral problem analogous to a Trolley problem that people generally don’t think about. If preventing warming means that 200 fewer people die of heat and 100 more people of cold–numbers biased in your favor–how do you feel about killing the hundred?

            Apologies for entirely missing your main point! My answer is that I’m quite relaxed about trade-off decisions that save many lives at the expense of a few. I’m reminded of a Mitchell and Webb sketch in which a spoof news announcement proclaims that nobody in West Chester drowned this year. A man is interviewed who argues that this is a terrible thing, and that “what that must mean in terms of fencing, warning signs, swimming lessons, people coming into school to tell children to be careful, life belts and the maintenance of waterside paths is just staggering.” He begs us think of all the children being run over because there are no traffic lights because all the money has been spent averting drowning. To bring it back to our discussion, I would heartily endorse the “trolley problem”-style response of reducing the anti-drowning funding in West Chester, let two or three people die from drowning, and perhaps save “the 40 people in the West Chester area who died last year falling down cliffs” (“a disgrace for a relatively flat region”).

          • Re-reading my comment from yesterday, I realise that I may have implied that I was claiming the effects of CO2 fertilisation were hypothetical. I was not claiming that, but rather: the statement that crop yields will increase as a result of atmospheric and climatic changes is hypothetical.

            True, but mildly misleading. The positive effects due to CO2 fertilization are unambiguous and large. The results of other consequences of AGW are ambiguous in size and sign, could be negative and large enough to more than counterbalance the effect due to CO2 fertilization.

            What bothers me about most of the discussion of the effects on the food supply is that it ignores the one part we are sure of—increased CO2 concentration is what drives everything else—while taking as given the much more hypothetical effects of the less certain changes.

            You seem to be saying that the “usual claim” is that there will be more extremely cold days? I don’t know anybody who believes that.

            The usual claim is an increase in “extreme weather events.” One should be automatically suspicious of a statement like that, because there is no obvious metric. The claim mostly ignores that problem and is put as if all extreme weather events increase, when we can be reasonably sure that one important category, extreme cold, will decrease. A priori we would expect that to be a larger effect than the increase in extreme heat, since greenhouse warming tends to be greater in cold times and places than in hot, given the interaction with water vapor. In that respect the pattern is biased in our favor.

            I don’t suppose you know if this pattern is also present globally?

            I don’t know, and my guess is that it isn’t. Recent news stories have been about the supposed terrible effects on the U.S., which is what makes the U.S. pattern interesting.

            With regard to hurricanes, the data I can find seems to suggest that they have been unusually frequent and intense in recent decades. Is “the frequency of hurricanes making land in the US” a variable carefully chosen because it goes against the broader picture?

            The problem with using all hurricanes is that, prior to recent decades, there were limited ways of observing hurricanes that didn’t make land, so you get an increase over time in the number recorded even if the number occurring is not increasing.

            The problem with using cost is that, as the IPCC report noted, increased cost mostly reflects the increase in the amount and value of property in coastal areas. That’s pretty clear in the table at the end of the piece you linked to if you select hurricanes of the same strength and compare. Donna is category 4 in 1960, cost $3.24 billion, Harvey is category 4 in 2017, cost $125 billion.

            Beyond that, I was citing landfall in the U.S. because that’s the figure I’ve seen—I don’t know whether it was being offered because it supported one side of the argument.

            One thing that struck me a long time ago was that the popular expectation of more and stronger storms due to warming seemed to be based on an erroneous argument, the idea that because hurricanes draw their energy from ocean heat and warmer oceans have more thermal energy, warming would result in more powerful hurricanes.

            The problem with that is that a hurricane is a heat engine and what determines the amount of thermal energy a heat engine can get from its source is not the temperature of the source but the temperature difference between source and sink (actually difference in 1/T if I remember my thermodynamics correctly). So if both source and sink are warming, there is no reason to expect energy to increase. I discussed this in a long ago blog post.

            There was an IPCC spat some time back when Chris Landsea, who had authored the Atlantic Hurricanes part of one IPCC report, resigned in protest at the IPCC doing nothing about the person in charge of the relevant section of the next report making a public claim that increased hurricanes were due to AGW. According to Landsea there was no peer reviewed support for the claim. For Landsea’s account of the physics involved and his conclusions, see this page.

            From the fifth IPCC report:

            The average global cyclone activity is expected to change little under moderate greenhouse gas forcing

            Globally, there is low confidence in any long term increases in tropical cyclone activity (Section 2.6.3) and low confidence in attributing global changes to any particular cause.


            Apologies for entirely missing your main point!

            No problem—I should have made it clearer.

          • fion says:


            I agree that the confident and positive prediction due to CO2 fertilisation should not be ignored, but I also don’t think that because it’s more predictable than the numerous likely negative effects that it should be considered to the exclusion of all else. (Not saying you do this btw.)

            Sure, the term “extreme weather events” is vague. It includes things like frequency of heat extremes, frequency of heat waves by various definitions, length of droughts, frequency and size of wildfires, heavy downpours with bigger gaps between rain, frequency of tropical cyclones, and power of tropical cyclones. These measures are all less vague and most of them, globally, are getting significantly worse in recent years and decades, and predicted to continue doing so. Further reading since my last comment has made me think that tropical cyclones are one of the weaker pieces of data. Also, I’ll admit that “extreme weather events” should also include extreme cold. It seems slightly dishonest that discussions of the effect of global warming on extreme weather events miss this out.

            As with everything related to global warming, though, it’s important to look at the whole globe.

            Perhaps you’re right that the effect of warming on tropical cyclones is based on an erroneous argument. This would explain why there doesn’t seem to be as significant an increase as in other extreme weather events (or a possible decrease/stagnation depending on what you measure). I’d be a bit cautious, though. First, because I hadn’t actually heard the argument as you stated. I always assumed that climate and weather scientists had climate and weather science explanations for the prediction of more frequent/intense storms, not just a simple (and as you point out, clearly wrong) thermodynamics back-of-the-envelope argument. Second, I am not a climate or weather scientist (you have more free time than I do; perhaps you are a better-educated amateur than I am so this might not apply to you) and so the majority of my exposure to climate and weather science is through sources intended for a general audience. I’ve been a scientist long enough to know that when a scientist explains a mechanism for a general audience, they never (indeed, can’t) do it properly. I guess all this is just questioning whether the argument you mention and soundly refute is really “the argument” for why increased temperatures will lead to an increase in the frequency/intensity of storms.

            Of course, my above point is rather weak because I don’t know enough of the relevant science to strengthen it, but one very brief example, is that I’m pretty sure that increased water vapour in the air is also a factor in the theory of worsening cyclones, which suggests the mechanism is more complicated than the thermodynamic one.

            Anyway, thanks for the quote from the IPCC report. I’ll update towards agnosticism with regards to GW causing hurricanes.

          • First, because I hadn’t actually heard the argument as you stated. I always assumed that climate and weather scientists had climate and weather science explanations for the prediction of more frequent/intense storms, not just a simple (and as you point out, clearly wrong) thermodynamics back-of-the-envelope argument.

            The Landsea piece I linked to goes into the complicated arguments. His conclusion is that, on theoretical grounds, we might expect warming to make hurricanes slightly stronger and slightly less common. I didn’t work through the physics of it carefully enough to have an opinion of my own.

            I don’t know whether any serious climate scientist types made the mistake I described. What I was trying to analyze was the “popular expectation of more and stronger storms due to warming”–why ordinary lay participants in the controversy would take it for granted that warming would result in more hurricanes.

            I don’t know if you followed the link to my blog. The point of that post was that there were two obvious reasons to expect AGW to result in more hurricanes, both wrong, and that I spotted one error because of my background in physics, the other because of my background in economics, which I thought was neat.

            I of course agree that one shouldn’t ignore effects on crop yields other than CO2 fertilization. But i don’t think it is clear what those effects is, or even what the sign is. Sea level rise has a negligible effect on available land area for agriculture–it’s a problem only because a lot of stuff is on the coasts. Warming increases the growing season, which one would expect to be an advantage, not a disadvantage, and it substantially expands the amount of land area usable for agriculture by pushing temperature contours towards the poles. Changes in weather patterns are hard to predict, their consequences for agriculture harder.

            I read one paper which (this is from memory) estimated reduced yield from warming on the basis of yield statistics by year and temperature over recent decades. But that ignores the fact that farmers make a bunch of decisions in advance based on what they expect the weather to be and a warmer than average year is also a warmer than expected year. If you have optimized against a temperature of 75° a temperature of 80° may cause reduced yield and will certainly make yield lower than it would have been if you had optimized against 80°. That’s irrelevant to what will happen if, over a century or so, temperatures are observed to trend up and farmers adjust their policies accordingly.

            Part of what a lot of the popular discussion ignores is that humans currently live, raise food, thrive across a very wide range of climates, much wider than the expected change in any one place.

          • length of droughts,

            The IPCC claimed that AGW was increasing droughts in the 4th report, retracted the claim in the 5th. Oddly enough, the retraction mostly gets ignored in discussions of that issue.

            frequency and size of wildfires,

            A wildfire isn’t an extreme climate event, although climate might be one of the things affecting it. In the case of the recent California big wildfire, the fact that lumbering in federal lands went close to zero for the previous several decades, I believe due to environmentalist pressure, is probably more relevant than an increase of about one degree C over the past century.

          • Nornagest says:

            the fact that lumbering in federal lands went close to zero for the previous several decades, I believe due to environmentalist pressure, is probably more relevant than an increase of about one degree C over the past century.

            That might contribute to some of the recent fires, but for the biggest one, the Camp Fire, it’s unlikely. Parts of the area that burned are heavily wooded, but it started in and initially spread through the sparsely wooded valleys between Pulga and Paradise; that area’s not overgrown, as you can see for yourself on Google Maps. It’s actually one of the less forested parts of the foothills at that elevation.

        • Bamboozle says:

          What about all the deaths that will occur from the resulting wars after a swath of land across the equator becomes uninhabitable? You could argue that ISIS and the current migrant crisis are the result of AGW and we haven’t even warmed up that much yet. If the numbers trying to get to the Global West start to increase rapidly and the only response is to stop those at the borders using force, would you count them as part of the balance against increased food production/less dying of cold?

          • cassander says:

            You could argue that ISIS and the current migrant crisis are the result of AGW and we haven’t even warmed up that much yet.

            You really can’t. the arab spring has, at best, an extremely tenuous connection to any sort of meaningful climate change, and ISIS and the migrants are both a consequence of a civil war whose course is way, way downstream of lots of other policy decisions that have had far more direct effects.

          • Bamboozle says:



            Here is an article with linked reports that highlight that climate changes didn’t cause the arab spring, but that climate change has acted as a force multiplier to conflict in the area. You could argue that the increasing intensity and frequency of storms impacting upon the US is the result of climate change and that those displaced in Texas and Florida are victims here as well.

          • The Nybbler says:

            You could argue that the increasing intensity and frequency of storms impacting upon the US is the result of climate change and that those displaced in Texas and Florida are victims here as well.

            You could argue that, but then you’re left with the inconvenient fact of the 11-year US major hurricane drought. Furthermore, if you’re going to say that “climate isn’t weather” when Trump uses a cold Thanksgiving as evidence against AGW, you can’t consistently use weather events such as hurricanse as evidence for AGW.

          • fion says:

            @The Nybbler

            you can’t consistently use weather events such as hurricanse as evidence for AGW

            Nobody uses hurricanes as evidence for AGW; they point to them as one of the reasons to worry about climate change. The evidence for global warming is that global average temperatures are increasing very rapidly. The evidence that it’s anthropogenic is the almost perfect match between CO2 concentrations and temperature.

            Climate isn’t weather, but it does influence the weather. The fact that it’s possible to have a cold day in a rapidly warming planet does not mean that we must divorce all discussions about climate from those about weather.

          • The Nybbler says:


            Sorry, I should have said CAGW, the C for Catastrophic. Warming isn’t disputed, though the amount of warming is, but the likely effects and their magnitude are. And many adverse weather events are pointed to as evidence for this, while pointing to other weather events (or even the lack of predicted adverse events, as happened with the hurricane drought) as evidence against this is rejected.

    • Another Throw says:

      Sample return from the lunar South Pole Aitken Basin.

      A mission of this type has been short listed but nonselected by NASA as both a Discovery class mission (IIRC $200 million plus launch cost) and as a New Horizons class mission ($600 million plus launch costs).

      This is within the budget threshold that a lone billionaire can pull off as a prestige project, but with only $1 billion to work with it would be preferable to talk other billionaires into fronting some funds. It is impressive enough to be really great PR. In real difficulty terms, it blows the pants off of the Google X Prize, which lapsed with no winner and no team even close to the glide slope. The public perception of the difference in difficultly is more important, and this difference is, I think, beneficial to the PR.

      China’s space agency, meanwhile, is developing a lunar sample return mission from a different region. IIRC, their mission calls for landing at a site were the lunar regolith is thin enough to reach a drill to bedrock. It has also been delayed due to difficulties developing their Long March rockets.

      The reasons for selecting this project are:
      1. FOR SCIENCE! Lunar geology and solar system formation aren’t really my field, but judging by the decades long interest by NASA in a mission of this type, there is something important here.
      2. Personal prestige is always important.
      3. This is a really great way to inaugurate a new century of private space exploration. Personally, I think manned space flight is stupid, and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are going to blow a lot of money for nothing. Sticking it to them by doing something super awesome with a tiny fraction of the cash they are burning is a terminal goal in its own right, but reorienting public opinion of spaceflight away from stupid manned bullshit to unmanned actually practical stuff is more important long term. The PR considerations of a difficult feat are an important ingredient for this goal.
      4. While there is also a certain amount of relish in sticking it to China and NASA (which is to say, Congress), getting public space exploration back on track is also important. China is going in pretty heavy on spaceflight to put themselves on the map as the second largest economy, but these are things lone billionaires can do. NASA, meanwhile, has had its stupid manned spaceflight mandates from Congress crowd everything else out of the budget so that there are having considerable difficulty actually funding the real useful science that they are actually kind of good at. Pulling a mission of this type off (and the resulting public support) would give you a pretty good platform from which to criticize the poor funding decisions that Congress has forced onto them. If, by some miracle, that criticism was actually effective at changing funding priorities (even for a little while) it would be a huge win.
      5. Failing everything else, it still gives you a pretty good leap into running on the lucrative lecture circuit for the rest of your life.
      6. After getting everyone together to work on the project, success or fail, you have a pretty good base to work on other projects. Preferably paid for by somebody else in a cost+ contract.

      I am open to other projects that push in the same direction.

      • Robin says:

        Nice idea!

        I think the argument for human space travel, as enjoyable narrated by Elon Musk fan Waitbutwhy, is: We should send people to Mars so that if Earth becomes inhabitable (by asteroid impact, nuclear war, climate change, etc.), humanity survives.

        Would you say that this is nonsense because A) Earth will not become inhabitable, B) Mars colonization will not work, C) a few thousand Martians will not really help, D) good riddance humanity, or E) something else?

        In a similar direction, I would use the money to solve Fermi’s paradox, by sending many interstellar probes with DNA in all directions, hoping to spread life on other planets.

        • John Schilling says:

          I don’t like or use this argument because:

          1. Short of Unfriendly AI, the odds of the Earth being rendered less habitable than e.g. Mars, any time in the next thousand years or so, is very very small.

          2. Unfriendly AI, or most of the other things that would have any real chance of rendering Earth uninhabitable, will probably also render the rest of the Solar System just as uninhabitable.

          3. Who cares, other than the people already on your side? Most actual humans, place very little real value on the abstract long-term survival of the human race. Anything much beyond their grandchildren is too vague to be worth any real effort. And you’re not proposing to even save their grandchildren, come to that, you’re proposing to save your grandchildren. You are proposing that there is a real chance that the people of Earth will all die horribly sometime in the forseeable future, and rather than doing something to stop that you propose to instead just ensure that a bunch of nerds like yourself get to life in a shining city on Mars while everybody else dies. You are basically saying, “If and when you all die horrily, your children suffocating with you in some dark basement as the killbots turn the air above toxic, you’ll know that we nerds will carry the human race forward without you, and won’t that be a happy thought to die with?”

          This is going to be highly antipersuasive for most people.

        • Another Throw says:

          Basically, a little from all of the columns.

          I think the probability of an human extinction event on Earth in any reasonable time horizon is negligible. Even if it were to happen, the probability that the extinction event would not impact any colonies in the solar system is also negligible. And the probability of success of any colonization event in any foreseeable time horizon is also negligible.

          The value I place on the continued existence of the human species specifically is not negligible, but it is close. Nigh negligible times negligible cubed is… not very big at all. This does not change when considering biological life in general. While I place a slightly higher value on it, it is way, way harder to fully sterilize the Earth than to just Kill All Humans. Life is insanely resilient.

          Human space flight can only really be presently justified by placing a very large value on For The Sake Of It, and it really seems like the colonization vs. human extinction angle is the only intuition pump available to get there. When you really get down to it, the return on investment of human space flight for at least the last couple decades on any other metric is just atrocious. And I don’t think that is going to change in the next couple of decades.

          I think the total program cost for the ISS is around $150 billion (in something approaching present day dollars). And what have we actually learned doing it. That we can do it? Okay…. A couple of high school science projects? Okay…. Effects of long term exposure to micro-gravity on humans? That’s at least something, but you could have gotten 90% of the way there for a few hundred million and a hamster. I am being rhetorically dismissive, but the hard truth is that it is really hard to see any value in human space flight for at least the last couple decades.

          It is a solved problem. And the only thing anyone can think of to use it for is to colonize Mars because… reasons! The value proposition just isn’t there.

          While human spaceflight is a solved problem, colonization is definitely not. I am not going to spend a lot of ink on it, but it is also almost certainly not a tractable problem with current or foreseeable technology. Which is why we have spent the last thirty or forty years backing dump trucks full of hundred dollar bills up to an incinerator so that we can putter around in LEO doing photo ops.

          And the technology leap that is going to be required to do colonization, which is basically the only reason to do human spaceflight at all at this point, like all such innovation is going to come from a completely unexpected sector. We’re going to make advances in other fields, completely unexpected fields, that once it appears will change everything. Part of changing everything is everyone going around and trying to apply it to their hobby horse, such as human space flight, to see if it helps. And it will.

          Which is to say, paying increasingly large sums of money for increasingly small increments of things we already know is a fools errand. There needs to be a point where the diminishing returns just are not worth it. I think we passed that point a couple decades ago, and improvements in other areas are going to take a couple decades to get us back to a place where it is worth it.

          Until then, stop dumping so many damn dump trucks of hundred dollar bills into an incinerator. Explore the solar system if you must (and I think we must) but do it in the way that makes sense. Sure, our robots occasionally break in ways that five seconds with an opposable thumb would be able to fix. But they are possible today.

          And they are insanely cheap. For example, the New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto (and whatever it is aimed at next) was (a) an amazing feat that has given us an enormous wealth of new information about Pluto and the Kupier belt and (b) amazingly cheap. As the eponymous mission of the New Horizons program, which are intended to cost less than a billion dollars (excluding launch cost), it is staggeringly cheap. A single shuttle launch cost more than that.

          I’m just saying. We could fund several New Horizons class missions per year for what we are pouring into the ISS. Jeff and Elon could fund several of them with what they are pouring into their ridiculous Mars rockets.

          I’m not saying we can’t do any work on human space flight; at the very least we need to keep up with developments so we know when a real Mars shot is worth it. I am saying shift the needle away from it for now. I would prefer to do so by a lot, but any increment is an improvement. Start pulling down this damn low hanging fruit! Shooting for the moon only works when you are not dying in the horrible agony of asphyxiation because you didn’t realize your “land among the stars” back up plan was impossible because they are several thousand orders of magnitude farther away than you thought.

          Our space exploration efforts are misdirected. Having charismatic billionaires going around stirring up public support for that misdirection doesn’t help. Having Congress using that public support as an excuse to make sure that the dump trucks full of hundred dollars bills are shipped to incinerators in their districts does not help. Having NASA’s institutional culture being a legacy of the Apollo program doesn’t help, which is on top of the fact that no NASA leadership is ever going to ask Congress to fire their friends. Having developing nations copying that misdirection to assert their membership in the cool countries club because of that public support doesn’t help.

          A big, splashy private mission doing something unquestionably awesome, with a great PR campaign might—might!—have the strength to nudge that needle a little bit towards more productive avenues of exploration. And if not, you still got some awesome science done. And if not again, you’re still rich and famous.

      • it still gives you a pretty good leap into running on the lucrative lecture circuit for the rest of your life.

        Judging by my observations of that market, the revenue is small relative to a billion dollars.

        • Another Throw says:

          I was thinking lucrative relative to what posters here are doing before johan_larson’s windfall. My impression is that appearance fees have a range along the lines of $0-$500,000, with Hollywood actors (e.g.) commanding around $50,000 per appearance. While I don’t have information about what science popularizers command, his recent legal dispute with his children brought to my attention that Buzz Aldrin has a net worth estimated to be around $15 million. Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, after a few seconds of Googling, appear to have net works of a few million. Consequently, I would conclude it probably pays better than what most of us are doing today.

          The reason I was thinking that was as a means of improving your station, relative to before, in the event that you end up blowing the full billion in principle, or thereabouts, on cost over runs and delays.

          You are of course correct that the lecture circuit does not pay nearly as well as still being a billionaire at the end of the project.

          It is worth noting that a five year program paid for out of the income from the billion in principle would pretty closely pay for the low end of the cost estimate. If you could convince Elon to cover the launch costs, there is possible to still be a billionaire at the end.

    • The two changes I would most like to make in the world are to make it much more free, in the sense in which libertarians use the term, and to solve the aging problem, ideally make it possible to reverse the major effects of old age.

      The first probably requires considerably more than a billion dollars plus better ideas than I have of how to spend it. The Koch brothers, after all, already have multiple billions and are spending some of it promoting libertarian ideas; I have no reason to believe I would be better at it than they are. A while back someone I know who is wealthy, although not in the Koch brothers league, asked me for suggestions on spending money. I didn’t have any particularly brilliant ones.

      Aging, on the other hand, seems to be a project on which surprisingly little is being spent, at least that I can see. A million dollars for things along the lines of the Methuselah Mouse prize, multiple millions spent funding research, might make a difference. And while I have no expertise in the relevant science, I know people who do.

      • Aging Loser says:

        Only military dictatorship can restore freedom “in the sense in which libertarians use the term” in the USA, so the most effective thing you can do to achieve your libertarian goals is to have quiet chats with college kids enrolled in — what do you call those officer-training programs they have at lots of colleges? Or maybe just kind of observe in passing in various online comments pages that this is the case.

      • Chalid says:

        Anyone have an opinion on how well Calico, the Alphabet subsidiary, is attacking aging?

    • toastengineer says:

      Start a business, try to get it up to maybe a couple thousand employees, and make it as nice a place as is economically viable for the people who work there. That’s probably the highest (magnitude of impact * probability of success) “lifetime project” kind of good thing I can do with my life.

      Or dump it all in to bednets.

    • MasteringTheClassics says:

      High-caliber professional concert bands. There’s only like five of them in the world, which is just a crying shame given that the music written for them tends to be much better more approachable than orchestral music. Assuming 60 members with an average salary of $225k I could run three in perpetuity, or with fundraising and ticket-pricing we could probably get more. The US already has one (North Texas Wind Ensemble), but has seven high-caliber orchestras (Boston, Philly, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, and LA, I think?) so if I could milk six out of the money that would be ideal…

    • Plumber says:

      Either fund and start a school for kids from low income zip codes in Berkeley and Oakland or build a neighborhood with hexagonal “blocks”, with porous streets of brick (like the one between Berkeley High School and “Provo park”), most of facades of the homes facing the street would be “Tudor-esque” with a garage underneath and a second story with “dormer windows”, so “one and a half stories” above the street level garages, but the backsides facing the neighbors would mostly be in early 20th century “Craftsman”/”Bungalow”, each home will be equipped with “Chicago Faucets” brand American made faucets and shower valves with the German made ceramic stems inside, “American Standard” brand “Champion 4” toilets, and each room with plumbing fixture with hot water shall have a separate small “Marathon” hot water heater which are fed upstream by a house “heat pump” water heater that is linked to the refrigerator, so the heat removed from the refrigerator is supplied to the main “pre-heater” water heater. 

      Each home will have a a small yard that is level with the house’s main story above the garage and has low fences to separate their yards from their neighbors, and a large “common” yard surrounded by the homes which will have a children’s playground (effectively a neighborhood park) in it.

      On each block will be a building with a laundromat (with large machines for washing blankets and sleeping bags) and with a large meeting room to be used for neighborhood potlucks and as an election polling place.

      Nearby “combination power” boilers/generators running on natural gas will supply electricity and central hot water (similar to New York City, Scandinavia, and Soviet steam plants) to supplement rooftop solar panels (both electric and thermal).

      Within a ten minute walk of each home will be a places where one may get a corned beef sandwich (including “Reuben’s”), “Greek salads”, half pints and full pints of beer that tastes more like NewCastle brown ale than Anchor Steam or Coors, glasses of wine, orange juice, coffee, tea, and choclate “malts”, with both an inside “pub”, and outdoor “cafe” seating with a small childrens play area like the one at the “Westbrae Biergarten”, inside darts, boardgames, and a small library will be available, when the doors to the outside are closed the building will be well soundproofed and Jazz, bluegrass, and traditional Irish music will often be played. 

      Within a twenty minute walk public libraries, bookstores, both “Ace” and “True Value” hardware stores, and a house of worship.

      Within a thirty minute walk Red wing shoes, as well as Brooks Brothers, and Carhartt clothiers, small dental, and medical clinics, an optometrist, bicycle shops, and auto repair shops.

      Within a forty five minute walk other houses of worship so that most larger sects churches, temples, etc cetera are relatively nearby, also very well soundproofed will be an “all-ages” rock ‘n roll club, and a 21 and over night club with jukeboxes and live bands, the predominant music shall be rock and “protopunk” similar to that performaned by Detroit and Australian bands of the 1960’s and ’70’s, and at least every week a loud, distorted and sloppy version of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker or Little Richard songs shall be performed, as well as covers of “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5, “TV Eye” by the Stooges, “Rocker” by AC/DC, “No Your Product” by the Saints, and “City Slang” by Sonics Rendezvous Band.

      I think I’m gonna need more than a billion.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I’ve always thought that with a chunk of extra money and time, I’d like to develop a kind of people chow and distribute it widely (for free), so that hunger would not be an issue for anyone in the US (ultimately global I guess, but that is the next step only if the US model worked). My sense is that creating a very cheap but nutritious and shelf stable food is technologically doable, but for someone reason no one has done it. Not that I have any special knowledge in this area. Perhaps distribution would be the hardest part, and probably not possible in every rural area of the country, but should be possible in cities and most towns. Also, removing waste would be an issue, since a certain amount of the food would inevitably go bad before it was eaten.

      • johan_larson says:

        I suspect making Human Chow is actually pretty hard if the resulting product has to be tasty. The most famous example I know of is Soylent, and I haven’t heard anyone praise it as better than inoffensive.

      • pontifex says:

        I’ve always thought that with a chunk of extra money and time, I’d like to develop a kind of people chow and distribute it widely (for free), so that hunger would not be an issue for anyone in the US (ultimately global I guess, but that is the next step only if the US model worked).

        We already do distribute food widely for free in the US in the form of food stamps. This has been going on since the 1940s.

        My sense is that creating a very cheap but nutritious and shelf stable food is technologically doable, but for someone reason no one has done it.

        It seems like Soylent has already done this, right? Perhaps you can argue that they’re not cheap enough, but that seems like an easy problem to solve if you increase production to amortize the fixed costs.

        Perhaps distribution would be the hardest part, and probably not possible in every rural area of the country, but should be possible in cities and most towns. Also, removing waste would be an issue, since a certain amount of the food would inevitably go bad before it was eaten.

        Actually, distribution is the easiest part, since it’s already solved. We have a great network of roads, rails, refrigerated trucks, etc. to deliver food all over the country.

        The reason why homelessness still exists in the US is mostly because of mental illness. Some people just aren’t mentally functional enough to take advantage of welfare programs or have a fixed address. We could put these people in insane asylums like we did in days of yore, but that has its own set of problems.

        • skef says:

          The reason why homelessness still exists in the US is mostly because of mental illness. Some people just aren’t mentally functional enough to take advantage of welfare programs or have a fixed address.

          The first sentence may well be true but, relative to its accuracy, the second is a non sequitur. The U.S. does not have anything close to a system of welfare that provides housing to non-working adults without children. Where it subsidizes on housing at all, the focus is on a) sheltering children with their mothers and b) helping low- (but not no-) income households.

          So the role of the mental problems is not in preventing the homeless person from obtaining available benefits. It is in preventing the person from earning enough income so that the relevant benefits would become available or would not be needed.

          • pontifex says:

            It’s fair to say that US welfare programs for housing are a lot less generous than those for food. My main point is that the problem isn’t really a lack of food or even an unwillingness to give people the food for free.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I suspect making Human Chow is actually pretty hard if the resulting product has to be tasty.

          I don’t see tasty as a requirement. I want to make sure everyone has food available to live.

          We already do distribute food widely for free in the US in the form of food stamps.

          Food stamps aren’t free. But even more important, hunger is still a problem. You can bring up all the different programs in the US to feed the people, and logically say that no one should be hungry. I think a lot of it is that many of the very poor manage their money (and food stamps) very poorly, so they run out of food when they shouldn’t. Regardless of the reason, there are lots of folks who do not get enough food all the time. It is likely that the link is exaggerated, but not so much to eliminate all of the hungry.

          It seems like Soylent has already done this, right? Perhaps you can argue that they’re not cheap enough, but that seems like an easy problem to solve if you increase production to amortize the fixed costs.

          Soylent is not at all cheap. I also am skeptical if it qualifies as nutritious. Coudl someone live off of it? I am also skeptical that costs could be decreased enough even with much higher production. But it is a possibility.

          Actually, distribution is the easiest part, since it’s already solved. We have a great network of roads, rails, refrigerated trucks, etc. to deliver food all over the country.

          What you think logistics is cheap and easy because we have roads? Imagine how much it costs to ship people chow to all cities and towns, and have it available to everyone there, and dispose of the waste.

          It is true that a large portion of the very poor have mental issues and are not very intelligent, which makes it more difficult to solve these problems. But my thinking is if there was always a free source of nutrition available to these very poor, that they wouldn’t need much of any coping skills to eat. This doesn’t solve all the problems of the poor to be sure, but it takes one item out of the equation.

          • albatross11 says:

            Rice and beans are cheap, shelf-stable, and pretty nutritious. You need water and a stove to cook them, but nothing particularly advanced.

            What do aid agencies use for places with a famine going on?

          • pontifex says:

            Soylent is designed to be nutritionally complete.

          • It is likely that the link is exaggerated

            The link gives figures on “food insecurity” but doesn’t define it. The USDA does give its definition, and it is the combination of “low food security” and “very low food security.”

            Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.

            You wrote:

            I don’t see tasty as a requirement.

            The people giving figures on “food security” without defining it apparently do.

          • cassander says:

            Regardless of the reason, there are lots of folks who do not get enough food all the time. It is likely that the link is exaggerated, but not so much to eliminate all of the hungry.

            It’s massively exaggerated, a couple orders of magnitude worth. “Food insecure” households include those who, in a survey, said that at some point in the previous year they thought that they might run out of food before getting enough money to buy more. In the surveys they do, the number of people who report going for as much as a single day without food in the previous year is a tiny fraction of the “food insecure”. Basically no one in america actually goes hungry in a serious way.

          • John Schilling says:

            I don’t see tasty as a requirement. I want to make sure everyone has food available to live.

            If you give people infinite free tasteless food, most of them will take whatever money you give them and use that to add some tasty food to their diet. That’s a fairly primal urge, hard to override.

            When people override it to the point of not buying clean clothes, because tasty is more appealing than clean today, then they are locked out of the job market and will never have more than the inadequate pittance your welfare system allows.

            Then they buy one too many Big Macs and can’t make rent, so they freeze to death on the winter streets rather than starving to death.

            There are very few places left where literal starvation is a real problem, and most of those it’s a problem because men with guns don’t want busybodies like you taking away the power they get out of being able to decide who starves. So maximizing nutrition per dollar probably isn’t the winning strategy here.

            If you can figure out how to make a semi-cheap, nutritious meal that tastes as good as a Big Mac, that’s probably a bigger real-world win than making the cheapest possible Soylent.

          • Deiseach says:

            I don’t see tasty as a requirement. I want to make sure everyone has food available to live.

            “Tasty” doesn’t have to be “this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten” but it does have to be “yeah I could eat nothing but this for a solid week”. Cod liver oil is good for you, but can anyone say they’d willingly eat an entire bowl of something with the flavour of cod liver oil?

            Bland mush that makes the person, after eating a spoonful, go “This is disgusting, I can’t eat this crap, can I possibly dig up a dollar for a cheeseburger instead?” is not doing anyone any good.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Rice and beans are cheap, shelf-stable, and pretty nutritious. You need water and a stove to cook them, but nothing particularly advanced.

            That is true. In my mind I was thinking of a food one could eat with no further preparation, but dry beans and rice are a lot more shelf stable. I think for the poorest of the poor, water, stove, and the skill to use them might be lacking, but it depends on what is available that can be eaten out of hand.

            Basically no one in america actually goes hungry in a serious way.

            I don’t think this is true. I have read lots on folks that do run out of food. Our welfare system is extremely inefficient and spends much more than they should to eliminate privation, but that doesn’t mean they are effective in filling in all the gaps. Welfare is inefficient and ineffective. Somebody’s welfare check is used up before the end of the month, some folks don’t get a welfare check because they didn’t jump through all the hoops, some folks are unskilled enough and unhooked enough with society that they even know how to get a welfare check. It is unfortunate that welfare partisans will exaggerate greatly to make things look as terrible as possible. But awful arguments don’t make them wrong.

            Bland mush that makes the person, after eating a spoonful, go “This is disgusting, I can’t eat this crap, can I possibly dig up a dollar for a cheeseburger instead?” is not doing anyone any good.

            Yes that is true. There is a limit as to how bad it can taste. I was thinking bland is fine. But it won’t work if it makes people nauseous.

      • Nornagest says:

        A while back some friends of mine bought a fifty-pound bag of literal Primate Chow. It looked like dog food and tasted kind of like Puffins, the breakfast cereal, if they were made the size of golf balls and about as dry.

        “Edible” is about the best I can say of it.

    • bean says:

      The boring and mostly true answer is that it goes to mission work. I don’t have more details, because that’s not a field I follow closely.

      The interesting approach is to recapitalize the museum ship fleet. First, save Texas. It’ll make a big dent, but she’s unique, and we need to keep her. Second, look at other ships that need investment. I’m not going to pretend I can save all of them, but see who needs a few million for a dry berth or something. Focus on making sure the ships are sustainable in the long term. Third, start looking at moving ships around. See if we can get Hornet and Salem somewhere better than their current homes. Hornet’s wanted to move from Alameda to San Francisco for years, and I can spend a bunch of money on lobbying. And Salem really needs to not be in a half-abandoned shipyard. If I could move her anywhere, it would probably be Miami, as it’s downright shameful that Oklahoma, Arkansas and Nebraska each have more museum ship tonnage than Florida, and the Miami area should be big enough to support the ship long-term.
      Fourth, buy Iowa a parking lot, and leave whatever’s left as an endowment to them.

    • John Schilling says:

      As mentioned, step one is to invest it sanely and set aside enough that my close friends and family are covered for life. That’s $50 million even if I’m setting myself up for a really good life.

      Step two is setting up a private research and development lab, to do justice to a few projects I have been working on in my spare time and some more on my wish list. Almost certainly in corporate form so that I can monetize anything useful that comes out of it. This starts at $50 million and maybe a couple dozen people divided evenly between research and support staff. Anything bigger than that is more than I would want to build and manage from scratch, though it could grow in the future.

      Step three, right at this moment, would be a PR campaign to position myself as the best person to take over SpaceX when Elon Musk finally loses control. I don’t think a billion dollars will be enough for a straight-up buyout, but it probably would be enough to lead a coalition. I have some contacts in that area already, and I can make the R&D efforts in Step 2 synergize with this.

      If this doesn’t turn out to be necessary, I’ll go back to my own research activities and maybe some Venture Capitalism on the side. But there is real potential in SpaceX that I see as likely to be squandered, and trying to prevent that would be playing to my strengths.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I would buy back the IP my company sold under Chapter 7 and restart the development of ontology-based semantic indexing technology. This time, I’d probably aim it at more visible applications, such as information portals.

    • aristides says:

      $100 million goes to the open philanthropy project. Of EA organizations, they seem to be most aligned with my priorities, and have the expertise to use it well.

      $100 million goes to the Russian Orthodox Church, need to make sure my tithe is thoroughly covered, though I have no idea how they would use that money.

      $100 million to buy a spot on the board of directors of the non-profit hospital system in the region I would move to, and another $100 million to get on the board of trustees of the local university. I would use my money and influence to increase their focus on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness.

      The rest my wife can decide what to spend on, knowing her, most likely starting her own local animal rights non profit, and cafe/bakery.

      All this together might not change the world, but it would definitely change my favorite region. Maybe becoming a piller of my community is a nice bonus.

    • dick says:

      Start a series of “Newman’s Own” style businesses producing simple, durability-optimized versions of various goods and appliances. The problem being solved is that one of the best ways to reduce your consumption and waste and impact on the environment is simply to buy things that last a long time. However, with many consumer goods, this is hard to do, because spending more gets you more features but not necessarily more product life.

      Consider the washing machine. If you buy a cheap-o washing machine, it will look a lot like the ones made in the 70s, but the circuit board will still be a recent design that hasn’t had the kinks worked out yet, the capacitors will have been sourced from some fly-by-night company with rock-bottom prices, and the thing may need maintenance so expensive that it’s cheaper to replace in a few years. If you buy an expensive one instead, it will be somewhat more efficient, have a bunch of fancy options (Sup-R-Quiet Buttons! Nev-R-Snag Hinges! etc) you don’t care about, but still have essentially the same problems as the cheap one. For example, the first washer I saw on Home Depot’s website cost over $1000 but is warranted for one lousy year.

      How would you make money on a washer with a 20+ year warranty? Well, for one you’d need to move the parts that are hard to source for quality in-house. For another, you’d need to pick a design and stick with it, year after year, fixing bugs as you find them but not also adding new features that include new bugs. And third, you’d need to be around for a long time before consumers start to believe that you’ll be around to honor the warranty and the durability you’re advertising is not illusory. This translates in to a lot of up-front capital, a long time before profitability, and meager profits thereafter – hence the need for a non-greedy-billionaire to start things off.

      However, once you’ve got a decent design, whose failure modes are well-understood and accounted for, you could dominate the low end of the market. The goal here is not to drive everyone else out of business, innovation is great and all, it’s just to become the default option – the “tap water” to everyone else’s Evian – that any other company has to improve on to even be in the market. If you capture even 10% of the washer market, and your washers last only twice as long as everyone elses, that’s still five million washers per year not going in to landfills. And of course, there’s no reason to limit this model to washers.

    • arlie says:

      This might be enough to create Tech For Adults, a currently imaginary company I’d be overjoyed to work for, and get it to the point of profitability. This would have elements in comon with dick’s “Newman’s Own” washing machine business, but with a somewhat different emphasis. It would also have elements in common with Lands End, before it became yet another crappy Sears brand.

      The goal would be to produce cell phones, PDAs, tablets, computers etc. that were designed to be really good tools – with a discoverable and stable interface. The target demographic would be nerds, boomers, and their intersection. I’d probably start with a smart phone, because this seems to be the biggest problem currently, and much harder for a random user to work around, however technically sophisticated they may be. And I’d probably start by producing models for the elderly and slightly disabled – that’s a niche that’s practically ignored, except for crappy voice recognition/AI “solutions”.

      Ideally, the result would be segmenting markets in 3:
      – the “sexy toys” market, owned by Apple
      – the price-of-your-cell-service-is-inflated-to-give-a-free-phone-every-year market, for those who want whatever’s currently deemed new and cool, but on a budget
      – the “it’s classic, it’s not affected by fads, but it’s the best damned hammer around” market, to be owned by TfA ;-(

      I don’t know if I could do it, even with a billion dollars, and I’d have to be very careful about hiring people who’d just replicate what everyone else is doing 🙁 And I’d almost certainly have to keep the company private forever, to avoid “responsibility to the shareholders” requiring acting like the rest of the pack 🙁

      But I think it’s just about the biggest useful project that could be done at that price. One billion dollars is far too little for saving-the-world, even if I knew how that could be accomplished.

  23. BBA says:

    My new aesthetic is the Factory Records catalogue numbering system. During its 15-year history, the Manchester-based record label assigned numbers not just to singles and albums, but to all sorts of things associated with the company. The first record they released was numbered “FAC 2” because they had previously designed a poster for a concert series, and that poster was FAC 1. Go down the list, and intermingled among the New Order and Happy Mondays singles you’ll find Factory’s famed nightclub The Haçienda (FAC 51), their corporate logo (FAC 120), a lawsuit (FAC 61), and a cat (FAC 191). Other quirks are that albums were given “FACT” numbers from the same sequence as the “FAC” series (and eventually compact disc releases were “FACD”) and that the numbers weren’t sequential – most of the numbers ending in 3 went to New Order.

    Continuing the oddity, for years after the label went bust founder Tony Wilson kept assigning FAC numbers, including to his 2002 biopic 24 Hour Party People and a Happy Mondays album released by another label. Wilson died in 2007 and his coffin is FAC 501, the final entry in the catalogue.

    I’ve never heard of anything else like this. Other labels have plenty of weird stuff in their back catalogues, I know Columbia Records goes all the way back to wax cylinders, but I don’t think they were giving numbers to things that weren’t actual records. In terms of continuous numbering, I know the RFC series started out as informal memos circulated around the early Internet and grew into their current status as the official standards on which the Internet runs, but you don’t see random administrivia as RFCs anymore and there are certainly no nightclubs or cats in there. Anyone else got anything?

  24. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    So there have been some troubling developments vis a vis gun rights lately.

    I’m increasingly of the opinion that it makes sense to get myself trained in the safe use and maintenance of firearms and purchase whatever I might need now rather than waiting and risking the law changing under my feet. The problem is that I wasn’t raised in American gun culture and it’s all unmapped territory for me. I literally don’t know where to start.

    Since there are at least a few gun enthusiasts here I was hoping that someone could link to or lay out what someone in my position should do to get started. I’m a graduate student currently living in New York City, have never fired a gun before in my life, and am mostly interested in having one for self defense in the near future when I’m no longer living in the city or working in academic science.

    If people want to discuss the politics of gun control I’d appreciate it if that discussion takes place in a separate thread. I’m looking for practical advice here.

    • Aapje says:

      @Nabil ad Dajjal

      It’s hard to give very specific advice when you do not know for sure where you will be living when you actually get a gun. If you stay in New York City, you will have to deal with extremely restrictive laws that will severely limit your options and incur certain costs & obligations.

      My general advice is to go for a rifle. People who are unfamiliar with firearms often think that handguns are easier to use than rifles, but the opposite is true. Lighter caliber rifles, like AR-15 variants have very little recoil and thus are easy to control. Because of their longer barrel, rifles are both more accurate and have more stopping power (self-defense use requires a certain amount of penetration so you can reliably hit the major organs) than handguns. In New York City, handguns also require a far more expensive license.

      Of course, if you want to carry the weapon around with you, you will pretty much have to go for a handgun. However, for home self-defense a rifle is best. Even if you might want to carry a handgun in the future, I suggest starting off with a rifle and learning with that first.

      As for the specific rifle, it is highly beneficial to pick a locally popular platform. Firstly, rifles are quite hard to truly get right. It seems that it generally takes at least a decade of development for manufacturers to work out all the issues with a design. So picking very popular platforms means that you generally get good guns, while less popular platforms often have issues. Furthermore, having a platform that is popular in your country means easy access to accessories, gunsmiths that know about it, help, etc. For the US, the most popular are AR-15 variants.

      Traditionally, weapons have iron sights, where you have a rear sight and a front sight. You have to line these up, focusing on the front sight, while then lining these up with your target & then pull the trigger. If it sounds difficult, it is. I would strongly advise to mount an optical sight on your rifle (or handgun). For self defense, red dot sight are great. They have no magnification (which has its own issues and complications), but merely shows a single dot. You place the dot over the target and pull the trigger.

      Keep in mind that all sighting systems need ‘sighting in’ or ‘zeroing.’ This refers to setting the sights up so the bullet actually goes where the sights suggest it should. Note that sighting in has to be done for a certain distance. Because the offset between the barrel and the sights, as well as bullet drop (bullets don’t go straight like a laser, but go in an arc, at least over greater distances), the bullet will go to a different place. For self-defense, distances will usually be small, so sighting in should be done for short distances (25 yards for handguns and 50-100 for rifles).

      A major problem for many shooters is flinching and/or jerking the trigger. What that means is that when they pull the trigger, they also move the gun out of alignment with the target. The bullet then usually goes low.

      You need to train regularly! Don’t buy a gun unless you also commit to regularly shoot it on a shooting range. It is also advisable to visit a training course to learn how to shoot from an expert, rather than just do it with trial and error, picking up bad habits.

      Check the requirements of the range before going there. Some require certain ammunition or have other requirements.

      After shooting your gun, clean it. Shooting guns fouls them up. Especially for self-defense guns that you shoot at the range now and then & that then spend most of the time in storage, the copper residue will eat away the barrel while the gun is in storage.

      Wear ear protection while shooting!

      And of course, learn and obey the safety rules.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Thanks for the advice.

        While I can’t predict exactly where I’ll be in a few years, even if I end up working in the city I don’t plan on living here. I would rather commute from upstate if it came down to it.

    • S_J says:

      On the practical front: gun safety is serious business. I’ve run into several variations of Four Rules of Gun Safety. The set that I like best is this:
      1. Assume the gun is loaded, until you’ve verified it’s loaded-or-unloaded state yourself.
      2. Always point the gun in a safe direction.
      3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire
      4. Be aware of your target and what is behind it.

      Some of these (especially the mechanical details of part1) are easier with training.

      Which leads to the social front: it’s much easier to become familiar with guns if you can connect with a good trainer, it a coin that is friendly to newcomers.

      I wish I had the ability to help in this category. Sadly, I don’t know anyone in NYC who might be able to help.

      On the legal front: the State of New York long ago decided that anyone who wishes to legally own a firearm needs to get permission from the chief of local Law Enforcement.

      This varies from place to place inside the State. There is a webpage from NY City Gov and NYPD that gives some details.

      Other places inside the US have different State and Local rules relating to firearms ownership and use.

      • S_J says:

        After the edit window closed, I noticed this sentence:

        Which leads to the social front: it’s much easier to become familiar with guns if you can connect with a good trainer, it a coin that is friendly to newcomers.

        Which should be:

        Which leads to the social front: it’s much easier to become familiar with guns if you can connect with a good trainer, or a club that is friendly to newcomers.

    • Brad says:

      If you are a renter, I don’t think this is practical to do in NYC. The type of pistol license that’s easier (not easy) to get is a premises license. But your lease almost certainly says you can’t have a firearm in the unit. So that’s a catch 22. And AFIAK the NY state law on pistol permits requires you to apply in the county of your residence.

      Your best bet is probably to join a club in CT then buy and store a pistol there.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Thanks, that’s really helpful.

        Would that involve getting a pistol license in Connecticut? I didn’t realize that you could do that as a non-resident.

        • Brad says:

          I believe CT has a non-resident license. AFAIK NJ does not and ex-NYC NYS (i.e. getting a Rockland County permit as an NYC resident) is tricky and uncertain at best because of the apply in the county of residence rule.

          • Chipsa says:

            You can only buy a handgun in your state of residence, however. So you still have to buy it in NY.

          • Brad says:

            Is that a federal law? I’m not aware of such a rule.

          • John Schilling says:

            The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits interstate sales of handguns except between two licensed firearms dealers, and purchasing a handgun in a state you do not reside in counts as an interstate sale.

          • Brad says:

            Well I don’t see how he can do what he wants to do then. He can get the training, but the owning a gun for potential grandfathering purposes part it sounds like is going to have to wait until he moves out of NYC.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Unfortunately the way to start is to move to Pennsylvania, where you can buy firearms, and there are ranges and clubs. The ranges and clubs will all have information about classes you can take. In New York and the surrounding areas, the restrictions are already so great that if you’re not already hooked into the gun culture, obtaining firearms and finding places to use them will be nearly impossible.

    • SamChevre says:

      I will give my perspective. Note that I can’t say anything about NYC and environs, so I will leave that to others.

      Carrying a gun and having one for home self-defense are very different. For carry, there is really no substitute for a handgun. Handguns are idiosyncratic; there is really no substitute for shooting many of them until you find one that feels right for you. Handguns take a lot of practice to shoot usefully. For home defense or vehicle carry, I recommend a shotgun. (There’s a reason that the traditional guard’s position, in a car, is “shotgun”.) They have two huge advantages; they don’t have to be precisely aimed, and they are unlikely to shoot farther than you can see. They are effective with much less training than a handgun.

      Don’t forget, also, that something like 90% of defensive uses of guns do not involve shooting the gun.

      For shooting for fun, I love rifles. One huge advantage is that a .22 is cheap to shoot, and you can get something that is close to almost any rifle platform in .22 and use that to practice. Rifles are long-range weapons; the old bumper sticker “Run, and you’ll die tired” is true.

      The best thing I’ve seen on carrying a gun is “On Living Armed”, from Ta-Nehisi Coates: his reasons for not carrying a gun are very close to mine.

      It is not enough to have a gun, anymore than it’s enough to have a baby. It’s a responsibility. I would have to orient myself to that fact.

      My advice is to find a gun shop, or a range that allows guests, and meet some gun people and go from there. I’d also recommend reading Jeff Cooper’s Principles of Personal Defense; he was a hugely influential shooting teacher and writer, but that book is applicable to self-defense even un-armed. Anything you can find by him is worth reading.

      • gbdub says:

        They have two huge advantages; they don’t have to be precisely aimed, and they are unlikely to shoot farther than you can see

        These are both very very dangerously wrong statements that are unfortunately very common myths.

        Shotguns don’t work like they do in video games. The spread is quite small over the ranges you’d be realistically be shooting things. In a defense situation, it’s maybe a fist sized spread at most. (Even bird shot at bird-shooting ranges, i.e. at least 3 times farther than you’d want to be shooting a shotgun at a person, has an effective radius of only a couple feet). You still must aim.

        And while the effective range of a shotgun is much less than a rifle, it certainly doesn’t absolve you of the safety rule “always be aware of your target and what’s beyond it”. Nothing in the average home is all that good at stopping bullets, shotgun projectiles are still likely to penetrate through things like interior walls.

      • For shooting for fun, I love rifles. One huge advantage is that a .22 is cheap to shoot …

        All true. But an air rifle is even cheaper to shoot, less dangerous, much quieter, and just as accurate at reasonable ranges. So if you just want the fun of knocking tin cans off a fence or seeing how tight a group you can manage in a paper target, there is much to be said for an air rifle.

      • Aapje says:


        Rifles are long-range weapons

        Military units that engage in short range combat typically use carbines, in other words, light, short-barreled rifles. They are not stupid.

        The right kind of rifle is an excellent weapon for very short ranges.

        For home defense or vehicle carry, I recommend a shotgun. (There’s a reason that the traditional guard’s position, in a car, is “shotgun”.) They have two huge advantages; they don’t have to be precisely aimed, and they are unlikely to shoot farther than you can see. They are effective with much less training than a handgun.

        gbdub already told you that these claims are false. Shotguns are slightly less forgiving than rifles when it comes to aiming, but the benefit is minimal (inches). FBI testing has found that shotguns are worse at hurting people behind cover than AR-15s (like someone in another room or in a house next to yours). This is one reason why law enforcement moved to rifles.

        Shotguns have large disadvantages. They have lots of recoil, 2-3 times as much as an AR-15 variant. This means that they are harder to shoot and that it is harder to shoot multiple times accurately. They also have a small ammo supply, so more risk to run out. Manually operated shotguns are subject to ‘short-stroking,’ a form of misuse that stops them from working.

    • John Schilling says:

      This is a hard subject to do justice to in a few paragraphs, but it is important enough to get it right. So I’m going to give an effortpost-level response, and I’m going to extend it to cover a somewhat broader audience than NYC-resident grad students. Will come in four sections, starting with a basic introduction. Which commences now:

      The canonical first rule of gunfighting, according to every authority on the subject, is simply “Bring a gun”. Says nothing about what kind of gun, because it almost never matters. Nine times out of ten, your gun is just your entry fee for a contest of will. Your enemy didn’t sign up for a gunfight; he’s not ultimately willing to kill or die for whatever it is he was about to start a fight over, and if you are, he’s going home. Maybe one time in ten, there will be shots fired – and the matter will be settled by superior training, or luck, or some great tactical advantage, but almost never by what kind of gun someone has.

      So, the gun you want to bring to a gunfight is the one you are so comfortable with you have been taking it to the shooting range every month. Everything else is secondary. The AR-15 that you keep in your closet because you can’t be seen with it in public, won’t save your life if you are attacked at work. Neither will the Kahr PM40 you’ve only fired the one time because the recoil was too painful. Your grandfather’s worn-out old police .38, the one with the warm fuzzy childhood memories of the days grandpa took you out target shooting that your mother didn’t know about, the one that every self-respecting gun expert laughs off as hopelessly obsolete, that’s the one that will save your life (but do take it to a gunsmith for servicing, and get some modern ammunition).

      OK, you wouldn’t be asking me for advice if your grandfather actually taught you how to shoot and then gave you his revolver. Still, the principle applies. You probably want to learn to shoot before you decide what sort of gun to buy. People who live in Red State America almost certainly friends and family who can help with that. If you’re a Blue Stater, that may still be true but they probably don’t talk about it much. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to go with a professional training course instead. And it doesn’t end there. I wasn’t kidding about going to the shooting range every month; if you can’t manage that much, you need to at least commit to once a year.

      Tell whoever is teaching you to shoot that you’d like to get a feel for a number of different guns. If they are certain that they know the One True Gun For You, consider finding a different teacher. If necessary, supplement your formal training by going to a shooting range that offers guns for rental and trying a few likely candidates. Only when you have fired a gun (or a very similar model), can you know that it is right for you.

      Then consider all the other factors that go into using a firearm for self-defense. How are you going to store it, particularly if there are ever children in your home? How are you going to carry it, if you ever need it outside your home? How much ammunition might you need, and what type? When and where are you going to get in that regular target practice? What are the laws governing the use of lethal force in your area? What are your personal rules of engagement – under what circumstances will you actually shoot someone? What are the tactics you will use in the most likely defensive scenarios, e.g. if armed criminals break into your home, where will they likely enter, where can you best stand against them, and where are the fallback positions if that doesn’t work? Do you understand how to perform first aid for a gunshot wound, on yourself or someone else?

      Ideally, you’ll go through most of those when you are learning to shoot. If not, if your teacher just wants to cover the mechanicsof shooting holes in a paper target, consider finding a different teacher. And if you can’t come up with satisfactory answers at all, reconsider buying a gun in the first place.

      I still haven’t told you what sort of a gun to buy, and that’s deliberate. Instead, two generalizations: First, long guns trump handguns. One of the few exceptions to the rule I gave above, that it doesn’t matter what sort of gun you bring to a gunfight, is if you bring a pistol to a fight where everyone else has a rifle or a shotgun, you are at a grave disadvantage. On the other hand, the most important thing is still to bring a gun to the gunfight, and some gunfights happen in places where it is legally or socially unacceptable to carry a shotgun. Legal is negotiable – even in someplace like New York City, where carry permits are only for the rich and powerful, you can almost certainly get away with carrying a pistol on the one day you’re moving your new girlfriend’s stuff out of the apartment her violently abusive stalker ex knows about, and that one day is most of your risk for the year. But a shotgun will be right out.

      So a long gun each household and a handgun for each adult would be a reasonable goal, but you’re maybe not ready to sign up for that right now. Two questions: How likely are you to want or need a gun in a place where it is socially unacceptable to be carrying a long gun, and, how likely are you to be attacked by people with long guns?

      Also, on the “bring a gun” front, make sure at least one of your guns is reasonably far down on the list of things gun-control advocates want to bant, because the AR-15 that you have to keep disassembled and locked in a safe (or buried in the back yard) might serve you well come the day you rise up with La Resistance against the Fascists, but it will be no good at all in a simple home-invasion robbery before that day. Look for something that will likely be grandfathered in without too many restrictions.

      Finally, the number that really matters is not the caliber of your gun, but the number of friends who will join in your fight. You don’t have eyes on the back of your head. You can be struck down by one lucky shot. You can only engage one target at a time, and you will become fixated on that one target. The same goes for your enemy. All else being equal, the strength of a group is proportional to the square of their number. So do not walk alone in the dark and dangerous places. Cultivate the sort of friends you can count on in a fight, and let them know they can count on you to back them up when they need it. When you learn to shoot, learn with your friends if possible, or maybe seek to make some new ones. And if you have friends who are stalwart and true and totally not the type to own guns, maybe keep a spare or two around.

      • John Schilling says:

        Part II: Training. Where to learn to use a firearm in mortal combat. Because it matters very little what sort of weapon you have, but it can matter a great deal that you know how to use it. And as mentioned in part I, one of the most important factors in deciding what firearm to buy is it being a weapon you are comfortable practicing with

        The first step is to learn to not score an own goal and kill yourself with a firearm, or someone else on your team. That’s really quite easy, and I’m not going to go into it here. Anywhere you learn to shoot, you’ll learn the basics of gun safety along the way, and the basics are enough. But if you do somehow stumble across an instructor who doesn’t start with the four rules, or some close equivalent, find another teacher.

        Beyond that, you’ll need to learn both the mechanics of making the bullet hit the target you want, and the tactics and techniques of winning a gunfight – and these aren’t the same thing. The good news is, as we covered in part I, you win 90% of gunfights just by showing up with a gun and not shooting yourself by mistake. The bad news is, in the other 10% it usually isn’t precision marksmanship that you need. It’s the ability to do really crappy marksmanship under extreme stress, the ability to use cover and concealment to avoid getting shot, and more details than I’m going to go into here. There’s also learning when not to shoot, because shooting someone in real life can get you thrown in prison for twenty years under the exact same circumstances that Hollywood swore would get you an attaboy from everyone around you.

        For one-stop shopping, there’s always police and military service. The National Guard will set you up reasonably well, they usually won’t demand more than a month and a dozen weekends a year, and I’m told it can be fun and rewarding. Some communities have police reserves that will offer training. If you’re willing to make that commitment and halfway there, that’s your answer. But it’s a bit of a commitment.

        People with ties to Red Tribe may be able to find a friend or family member to teach them. This can work quite well, but what you are looking for is not just a friend or relative with a gun. You’ll want a police or military veteran, or the sort of person who is sufficiently embedded in “gun culture” that they e.g. learned to shoot and hunt when they were ten and are now passing that skill on to their own children. And you’ll need to judge both their skill and their character with a critical eye.

        There are formal training courses to teach newbies, or amateur target shooters, a good set of gunfighting skills. They’re usually going to take a week or two of full-time training if you’re coming in as a blank slate, but some of them are highly recommended. And in the internet era, it’s not hard to get a broad range of recommendations (or disrecommendations).

        Most likely, though, you’re going to learn shooting and gunfighting separately. Most shooting ranges will have a staff instructor and offer weekend classes, and a couple of afternoons is enough to learn firearm safety, firearm operations, and basic marksmanship to the point where you can pick up the rest on your own time. Joining a gun club and shooting with them once a month is preferable but not required. Of course, if you live in New York City, finding a shooting range at an affordable price may mean driving a good distance upstate, or I think there are a few on Long Island.

        The NRA also offers courses, most of which are fairly abbreviated but good enough to get you started without spending too much time or money. And unlike some of their political efforts, training is something the NRA is uncontroversially reasonably good at.

        Once you’ve learned the basics of bullseye target shooting, how to pick up specific combat-shooting techniques?

        Again, consider a formal training course. Either the week-long academies, or a weekend course at your local range and/or by your local NRA instructor. The latter are a bit short on detailed technique because of time and liability constraints, but still worth doing.

        Hunting, if practical in wherever you wind up living, gives you an opportunity to practice many of the relevant skills in a real-world environment, and it gives you a supply of ethically-sourced free-range meat if you’re into that sort of thing. Plus one more excuse for a nice walk in the countryside.

        Some gun clubs will hold practical shooting courses and competitions, which are a somewhat gamified but still relevant way to practice the right techniques. The International Practical Shooting Confederation is your friend here.

        If and only if you’ve learned to shoot real guns properly, taking up paintball or airsoft combat as a hobby is not an unreasonable way to round out your skills.

        And somewhere along the way, you really ought to take an advanced first aid or basic EMT course, because one of the winningest abilities you can bring to a gunfight is the ability to get shot and not die. If you’ve brought friends to the fight, they may particularly appreciate this.

        For the autodidacts out there, yes, you probably can learn all this entirely on your own. Start with a few good books and a religiously self-conscious adherence to the rules of gun safety, and find a target range that isn’t too crowded. For books, I’ll recommend the assorted works of Massad Ayoob as a good place to start on general armed self-defense without too much Red Tribe politics. There’s also some decent stuff on the internet, but as always buried in an awful lot of crap. Our host includes Eric S. Raymond on his blogroll, and the man sometimes even hangs out here; he’s one of the good ones and may point to others.

        The tricky bits for autodidacts will be, A: finding people who can tell you when you’ve done it unambiguously wrong (perhaps with a paintball to the face mask), and finding a place where you can practice the fire-and-cover-and-movement techniques that don’t fit on the usual target shooting range.

        Finally, you’ll need to keep in practice. A few hours at the target range every six months should be considered the bare minimum in this regard. Every two weeks would be better. And, again, there’s the problem of all the things you can’t practice on the usual shooting range. Two recommendations on that front. First, once you know what is realistically possible for you to do with a gun and how, mentally visualizing tactical exercises has some value even if you can’t physically do them on the spot. And second, my own trick is to keep an airsoft pistol that matches my usual handgun and set up six paper cups around my house (taking care with the surroundings and backstop). When I am sufficiently bored or frustrated with everything else, I make a point of finding and shooting all six cups as quickly and efficiently as possible while not needlessly exposing myself to “enemy fire”. Then set them up in different locations, and hope to have mostly forgotten where I put them by the next time I do that exercise. That, plus actual shooting once a month or so, keeps me adequately in practice. Find what works for you.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          But if you do somehow stumble across an instructor who doesn’t start with the four rules, or some close equivalent, find another teacher.

          Many years ago, I took a pistol shooting class near Seattle. They taught the four rules…and a month or two later, I got an unexpected phone call. “Hi, is this Andrew? This is $NAME from Wade’s Eastside Guns. We’re testing our teaching methods, can you tell me what the four rules of gun safety are?”

          I rattled them off, and being that memorization is one of my strong skills I’m pretty sure any class would have let me do so, but I was and am pretty damn impressed with their commitment to effective pedagogy. I don’t know what if anything they A/B tested to change how they taught the rules, but that was dramatically more interest than any academic institution I attended showed in whether or not they were actually teaching.

          (I would recommend the range and their classes, though shooting there ain’t cheap.)

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I just wish it had been a rifle shooting class, so I could call Nominative Determinism.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            … or this was a marketing call disguised as commitment to effective pedagogy.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Once I’d already paid them money and taken all I really wanted? I mean, in theory, sure, but that’s too cynical even for me.

        • Dack says:

          you win 90% of gunfights just by showing up with a gun and not shooting yourself by mistake.

          If you win 90% of gunfights just by showing up with a gun and not shooting yourself by mistake, does this imply that carrying a convincing-looking replica pistol is ~90% as effective as carrying a pistol?

          • The Nybbler says:

            If you win 90% of gunfights just by showing up with a gun and not shooting yourself by mistake, does this imply that carrying a convincing-looking replica pistol is ~90% as effective as carrying a pistol?

            I would expect not, because while the other guy might not know you don’t have a gun, you do, and that’s going to make a difference.

          • albatross11 says:

            I don’t think it’s all that uncommon for someone to chase away a would-be attacker with an unloaded firearm.

            The problem is that the failure mode in that other 10% of cases is pretty brutal….

          • John Schilling says:

            Yeah, if you’re the sort of actor who can know that you have a toy gun but convincingly project having a real gun under real stress, that will usually work. Most people aren’t – even most people who are employed by Hollywood as actors, from what I’ve seen – and as Albatross11 notes, the failure modes are brutal.

            Same goes for carrying a real gun that you aren’t willing to shoot at a real person. A criminal (or policeman if that’s the way you roll) can’t tell if the gun is real or fake, loaded or not, but they’ve got a fair degree of professional experience reading “this guy means to cause me harm” vs “this guy is bluffing”, and they’d be laughed out of the trade if they always erred on the side of “bluffing”.

          • Dack says:

            @ John Schilling

            It seems like I pretty regularly hear about cops retiring without ever having fired their weapon at a person. Are these just stories? Or is that actually pretty common?

          • John Schilling says:

            That is still the norm, and long may it remain so. Almost all criminals know that a trial offers them better odds than a shootout with the police, and almost all cops are not thugs looking for a legal way to kill someone.

            Armed policemen do have the advantage of a great deal of social engineering (on both sides of the equation) to make it almost strictly common knowledge that they aren’t bluffing when they threaten to shoot someone.

      • John Schilling says:

        Part III: Long Guns.

        Modern repeating shotguns are arguably the most devastatingly effective antipersonnel weapons around at ranges of less than twenty-five meters, and the only other contenders for that title are almost completely illegal for civilians anywhere whereas a shotgun in the bedroom closet is acceptable most everywhere. However, shotguns lose effectiveness rapidly at increasing ranges, and are next to useless beyond a hundred meters.

        Rifles are the default weapon of every army everywhere, for good reason. Armies don’t know what sort of gunfight they are going to be invited to, whether the range will be ten meters or a thousand, they don’t have to answer to anyone about what is or is not legal or socially acceptable, and they use rifles. But the type of rifles they use, may not be legal or socially acceptable where you live. Hunting and target rifles, on the other hand, are rather long and cumbersome to use at close quarters and are designed to fire one shot with great precision. You’ll be too amped on adrenaline to count on one shot ending the fight. So if a military-style rifle is out, think shotgun.

        For shotguns, the default is twelve-gauge. That’s an archaic term that means the barrel has an 18.5mm inside diameter. Pump action or semiautomatic is a matter of personal taste more than anything else. You’ll want a barrel no more than 21″ long, rather than the usual 26-28″ hunting or trapshooting barrel, and you may want an extended magazine tube to hold 7-8 cartridges rather than the usual 4-5. Most manufacturers will sell shotguns already in this configuration, and any reputable manufacturer will be as good as any other.

        Shotguns are known for their punishing recoil, though this isn’t usually a real problem for people who have been properly taught. If it is an issue, semiautomatic shotguns usually have a bit less recoil than pump guns, as part of the recoil energy is diverted to run the machinery. For small-statured shooters, a semiautomatic 20-gauge (15.6mm bore diameter) may be the best choice, and there are now defense-configured 20-gauge automatics available

        Contrary to popular belief, shotguns do have to be aimed – the shot spread is usually only 2-3 centimeters per meter distance. So buying a shotgun does not eliminate the need for training and practice. You may also want to invest in better sights than the norm; options include rifle-style sights, “ghost ring” aperture sights, or a bright flashlight (not a laser) mounted to the barrel with a tight, coaxial beam. If you have a chance, try them all when you are learning to shoot and see what works best.

        Load it with buckshot cartridges (heavy pellets originally meant for deer hunting). Birdshot is literally for the birds; if the idea is that you will hurt people and make them go away without killing them, please please please understand that guns don’t work that way. Slugs are a way of making a good shotgun into a poor rifle; keep a few in reserve if a shotgun is the only long gun you have. Beyond that, people will advertise lots of stuff you can attach to your shotgun to make it look all fancy and military-like, but most of them are of little real value. If your shotgun doesn’t look pretty much like this, you haven’t gained much material advantage for the cost of making yourself look like a gun nut in search of an excuse to kill people.

        Self-defense rifles tend to be vaguely military in heritage and appearance. Which is to say, what all of Blue Tribe calls an “assault weapon”, and that might be a problem. The name is misleading. Really, these are versatile, utilitarian weapons that are mostly used for defensive purposes even by armies. Public perception is different.

        The AR-15 is pretty much the standard for this sort of thing in the United States for good reason; it’s the ancestor of the Army’s M-16, originally designed as a light utility rifle for people who weren’t primarily infantry soldiers(*). Sound like what you need? You’re not alone. There is a huge base of supply for ammunition (5.56mm NATO standard), spare parts, experienced teachers, etc. The patents have long since expired and you can get versions from more manufacturers than I can count – your local enthusiast can tell you why his version is so much better than all the rest. There is reason to be skeptical about its stopping power; it fires a cartridge derived from a small-game hunting round and actually illegal to use for hunting deer in many jurisdictions. But at close range it has proven adequate, and the light recoil allows for quick follow-up shots. Have someone explain to you the tradeoff between barrel length, rifling twist, and bullet weight before you buy one.

        Most modern military rifles will have semi-automatic (one shot for each trigger pull) derivatives suitable for civilian sale; all of them are roughly equivalent for any purpose here. Use whatever feels best for you. If it worried you when I said “adequate at close range” about the 5.56mm round, you can look for something that fires the 7.62mm NATO cartridge – but it will be heavier, more cumbersome at close range, and the recoil will be substantial. Possible problem with all of these is that they may be illegal in your jurisdiction. Or legal but limited to 5- or 10-round magazines, which limits their utility. Or legal but socially unacceptable, which can be a real constraint in some cases. Or you just may not feel comfortable with them. So, some alternatives.

        The Ruger Mini-14 is basically an AR-15 equivalent built into a wooden stock that makes it look like a good old-fashioned hunting rifle. There actually are jurisdictions where that makes a legal difference (go figure), and it can also be a good choice if you are more limited by what the neighbors will say than by what the police will say. Ruger also builds the Mini-30 for people who want a polite AK-47.

        The M-1 carbine is a unique American weapon of WWII vintage, completely unrelated to the more famous M-1 rifle. The carbine was designed specifically for rear-area personnel, truck drivers and supply clerks and everyone else who wasn’t supposed to be a combat soldier – most nations just gave these guys pistols, but we’ve already discussed being the guy with a pistol when everyone else has a rifle. The carbine is light, handy, easy to use, and fires an overgrown pistol cartridge from a detachable fifteen-round magazine. Acquired an undeserved bad reputation when soldiers started using it as a front-line combat weapon, for which it really wasn’t suited, but as a short range (<200m) personal defense weapon it works quite well. Lots of surplus weapons available, and still in production by several manufacturers. Legal in most jurisdictions that allow rifles, and likely to remain so.

        If semiautomatic rifles are out of the question, lever-action rifles like the classic Winchester can be a reasonable alternative. These come right below the pump-action 12-gauge shotguns on the list of weapons least likely to be banned, and should be socially acceptable almost everywhere if you claim they are a family heirloom. Versions firing .357 or .44 magnum revolver cartridges are effective out to maybe 200 meters,and will fire a dozen shots in as many seconds. With full-length rifle cartridges, you get half the ammunition but in power levels from roughly equal to an AK-47 all the way to grizzly-stopping. The slow reload cycle, one round at a time, is the major disadvantage, so you'll want to spend more time aiming each of those shots and you'll want to train to a higher standard of marksmanship.

        All of these rifles are basically fifty-year-old technology, and some more than a hundred. The one change in the past half-century that is worth paying attention to is the sights. Buy any of these off the shelf and you get century-old "iron sights", which my grandfather could use to shoot a ten-inch target at a thousand yards but which require lining up three points to define a line, focusing on a blade of metal less than a meter away when you're really, really interested in the guy trying to kill you from a hundred times that distance, and other such unnatural things.

        So plan to spend almost as much money on proper sights as you did on the rifle. Misses don’t count, but even one hit by an antique Winchester will do the job. And the days when “optical sight” meant something too fragile and cumbersome for general use are long gone. OK, most optical sights are still like that, but you can now buy ones that are built for policemen and soldiers and work quite well. The gold standard for that is the US Army’s ACOG, which is available for civilian sale if a bit on the expensive side. There are others, some cheaper.

        There are also reflex and holographic sights that work more or less like a fighter plane’s head-up display. Look at the target; if the optics are in the line of sight, you’ll see a red dot or arrow where the weapon is aimed. At close range, the ghost rings and coaxial flashlights mentioned for shotguns are also reasonable options. Try as many as you can, and see what works best for you. The US Army I believe uses the Aimpoint CompM2.

        * The first US customer was the Air Force, as a weapon for airbase security personnel. Turning it into a front-line rifle was a comedy of errors that somehow worked out decently in the end, and we’re stuck with it.

        • Nicholas Weininger says:

          Random observation: as a non-gun-culture person, the one time I got to go to a range and try out a bunch of different weapons,.I found the pump action shotgun to have a visceral mechanical satisfaction to it similar to shifting a manual transmission car. Maybe this makes the difference for some people in terms of being willing to go to the range regularly for fun.

        • Aapje says:

          @John Schilling

          Some comments:

          Pump-action shotguns are prone to short-stroking, especially under stress. This makes it fairly risky to rely on them for self-defense.

          For self-defense, I would advise against magnifying sights. They are inferior for short range shooting to red dot sights.

          Mini-14‘s are notorious for being shitty guns. There is an AR-15 variant that is legal in even the most restrictive states, the Ares SCR. It seems a much superior option.

          As for the M-16 taking a long time to get right, the same was true for the AK-47. It similarly took about 10 years. The main difference was that the M-16 was used in a fairly big war during this time, so it’s failures were very visible. The teething problems of the AK-47 have mostly been forgotten.

          • John Schilling says:

            The Mini-14 isn’t a match for a good AR-15, but your source describes a weapon that would be perfectly adequate for normal civilian self-defense use. And really for most police use, though it’s not surprising that the police firearms instructor is looking at the two-sigma tail. 5-6 MOA guns at best? Why, that would make the shot dispersal right about the size of the aiming dot on my carbine’s sight, and not far from the standard for military rifle accuracy in the field for most of this century. 200,000 rounds fired and he’s annoyed by the breakages, and there aren’t enough aftermarket accessories for him to customize it like he would an AR-15? World’s smallest violin, and a diagnosis of chronic gun-nut-itis.

            It’s not a gun nut’s weapon, or an SF operator’s. But for most everyone else, a Mini-14 you can be seen in public with beats an AR-15 that never sees the light of day, and sometimes that is the trade.

            Agreed that you probably want a sight that can at least be dialed to 1X, though some people can learn to shoot 2-3X scopes in eyes-open mode.

            Short-stroking pump shotguns is a thing that gets talked about a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an incident report from actual combat. This may be a case where adrenaline works in the user’s favor.

        • sfoil says:

          Autoloading shotguns and, to a lesser extent, autoloading ~7.62 NATO rifles tend to be rather finicky about ammunition, the details of which can be rather arcane. I wouldn’t recommend them to a new gun owner.

          • John Schilling says:

            Any autoloading 12-gauge shotgun configured for police or civilian self-defense use should be reliable out of the box with any generic non-magnum 00 buckshot cartridge, which should cover a newbie’s needs adequately. If you’re going to use the same gun for self-defense, quail, and skeet, there can be issues, and if you have reason to use specialized beanbag rounds or the like, those have to go through a pump gun.

            With a 20-gauge autoloader, you will have to be a bit more careful on that front. And in any event, if you find the gun jams more than once in practice shooting, try switching brands of ammunition and see if that fixes it – then only ever use that brand in the future.

            This can also be an issue when firing hollow-point ammunition through older pistols or any military rifles; sometimes the feed ramps won’t accommodate every bullet profile, so do at least some of your target practice with whatever you plan to load for defense, and if you see jams, switch brands.

            ETA: Also on this subject, if your firearm, your legal jurisdiction, or your spouse has an irreconcilable problem with hollow-point bullets, Federal makes an “expanding full metal jacket” line that does almost the same thing but has the mechanics tucked politely behind an all-enclosing copper jacket. Might make a difference in some cases.

      • John Schilling says:

        Part IV: Pistols

        The biggest distinction is between so-called “service” pistols and the smaller “pocket” pistols. Service pistols are designed to be carried in a holster on a soldier or policeman’s belt. They can be concealed if circumstances require and if you are willing to dress for the occasion, but most people find them impractical to carry concealed on a regular basis. Pocket pistols, well, it’s actually a bad idea to carry a pistol in your pocket, but these are the guns that go in concealed holsters under normal street clothes, or maybe a hidden compartment in a woman’s handbag. Both service and pocket pistols are now mostly modern semiautomatic designs.

        Service pistols are obviously the more potent weapons, to the extent that any pistol can be called “potent”. Expect to miss at least half the time at any distance beyond two or three meters, and don’t expect to hit at all beyond twenty-five meters (experts can do better; you aren’t one). And you will likely as not need more than one solid hit to stop a determined attacker. You will probably have at least fifteen rounds to work with, so there’s that.

        Pocket pistols, can be almost as powerful as service pistols, but poor ergonomics will substantially reduce the accuracy and there may be as few as half a dozen cartridges in the magazine. If you do use a full-power cartridge in a pocket pistol the recoil and muzzle blast will be fearsome, so you may want to step down to a smaller caliber even if it does mean very marginal stopping power. In the rare cases where someone actually does lose a gunfight for having the wrong gun, pocket pistols are often the culprit. And small pocket pistols sometimes lack the intimidation factor that can stop a gunfight before it begins. But they maximize the “will I have a gun when I need it” factor.

        The caliber for a service pistol will be 9mm Parabellum, aka 9mm Luger,9x19mm, and 9mm NATO. This isn’t the place for the story of how a pistol cartridge developed for the Imperial German Army in 1908 outlasted two Reichs and took over the world, but 9x19mm is now the standard military pistol caliber of the United States, all of NATO, Russia, and just about everyone other serious army, the standard for most North American and Western European police forces as well. To use anything else is to use Betamax in a VHS world.

        The first place to look is with the Glock 17 and its variants and imitators. Pretty much every armed force in the western world now uses either a Glock, a locally-made Glock knockoff, or whatever they were using in the 1980s and haven’t quite got around to replacing with a Glockoid. Lightweight, simple to operate, very reliable, reasonably accurate, and with a large magazine capacity, Glocks are pretty much the Honda Accords of the pistol world. There’s nothing revolutionary about them, nothing that makes you proud to own one, but they just plain work. The Glock 19 is a good choice for civilian users; slightly smaller for occasional concealed carry, and gives up very little in exchange.

        Not everyone is comfortable with the Glock pattern; some people find a gun with a plastic frame to be Just Plain Wrong, others don’t like the somewhat mushy trigger or even just the blocky appearance. Don’t fight it – if this is you, look somewhere else. Most manufacturers still produce their 1980s-vintage semiautomatic pistols with steel frames and the like, and some of them are very fine weapons. Shop around, see what looks promising, and give it a try.

        And since some gun nut, er, enthusiast, will surely object if I don’t bring this up: Yes, the Colt M1911 .45 caliber automatic pistol, designed in ages past by God’s own armorer John Moses Browning, is still a perfectly fine handgun. No, it won’t win you any gunfights you couldn’t have won just as well with a Glock 9mm, except insofar as your instinctive revulsion at that wretched piece of Combat Tupperware kept you from using the Glock to full effect. It has some complexities that will require extra training and practice for a novice, and it uses a less conventional cartridge, but if you should happen to find one and fall in love at first shot, you will be in good company and you will be adequately armed.

        On the subject of old school firearms, revolvers still have some merit, particularly for traditionalists or the mechanically challenged. The disadvantage of revolvers is not so much the six-shot limit, but the poor ergonomics imposed by the basic design. Long, hard trigger pulls, poor grip angle, and high bore axis all result in degraded accuracy, especially in rapid fire under stress. Degraded accuracy plus only six shots and a long reload cycle means you’re going to need to practice more, not less, to be able to use a simple revolver effectively. If being relatively more comfortable with the revolver means you will put in more practice time, go for it. Any .38 Special, .44 Special, or .357 Magnum model by any reputable maker should be fine.

        If there’s an actual vintage handgun in your family’s history, most 20th-century police and military service weapons should still be adequate for self-defense if they have been properly cared for, pocket pistols less so. Even among service weapons, a few specific designs (I’m looking at you, Mr. Luger) have known safety or reliability defects that ought to be considered disqualifying, and all of them will be picky about what sort of modern commercial ammunition you can use. Should this path appeal, find a gunsmith and have him take a look first.

        Some pocket pistols also fire the standard 9mm Parabellum cartridge. Many of these are subcompact models of standard service pistols, with much shorter barrels, grips, and magazines but otherwise the same basic design and functionality. The Glock 26, for example, looks very like a sawed-off Glock 17. The two-finger grip, short sight radius, stiff recoil and strong muzzle blast will all hinder accurate shooting, and the thick frame may compromise concealment, but it is nearly as powerful as its full-sized ancestor.

        There are also dedicated 9mm pocket pistol designs, with the Kahr K9 setting the standard. Generally slimmer than the subcompact service pistols, with smaller magazines (6-8 rounds vs ~10); some people find the ergonomics to be a bit better with these, some find them easier to conceal, and some have exactly the opposite experience.

        And some people just don’t want to fire a full-power 9mm cartridge from a pocket pistol, or can’t carry anything big enough to handle it. There are smaller-caliber pocket pistols that are still at least marginally adequate for close-range defensive use. James Bond’s iconic Walther PPK is perhaps the archetype of this class, though it is scarcely smaller than some 9mm designs. Modern designs are a bit smaller without sacrificing performance; anything from a reputable manufacturer firing the .380 ACP cartridge isworth considering, so shop around.

        If even these are too large, your choices really narrow to the Seecamp LWS-32 and its near-clones from Kel-Tec and NAA, all firing the very marginal .32 ACP cartridge. You will see similary tiny pistols in .22 and .25 calibers; these are almost uniformly junk, and the few exceptions are no smaller or cheaper than the more potent .32 caliber models I listed.

        Short-barreled revolvers, often with five- rather than six-shot cylinders, are still effective if firing at least the .38 special cartridge. But they combine the poor ergonomics of revolvers and of pocket pistols, making them very difficult to shoot accurately beyond a few meters’ distance.

        Unlike rifles, the options for adding better sights to pistols are limited. Highly recommended are “night sights”, tritium-based radioluminescent inserts that don’t do anything to illuminate your target but at least let you see your own sights in the dark. The only other option is a laser sight; these are now often available as compact units integrated with the grip or trigger guard. These are not nearly as effective as Hollywood makes them out to be, but some people find them useful.

        The ammunition for a pistol will be expanding bullets of some sort, usually high-velocity jacketed hollow points or “JHP”. Yes, these are the very type of bullets banned for use in warfare by the Hague (not Geneva) convention. You aren’t fighting a war, and you aren’t using a military rifle.

        Conventional round-nosed pistol bullets inflict wounds like those of a rapier – even if the victim is mortally wounded (and he probably isn’t), it may take a few minutes for him to pass out from blood loss. But unlike the sword, the pistol gives you nothing to stop his attacks in the meantime, except more bullets. Most of which will miss. And even the ones that hit, will likely go clear through the target’s body with enough energy left over to maybe kill an innocent bystander. The misses will go through walls, ricochet off hard surfaces, and generally implement Murphy’s Law with extreme prejudice.

        Expanding bullets add a sort of bludgeoning effect, from the inside out. Still potentially lethal, obviously, but more likely to be immediately incapactitating and less likely to overpenetrate. Using the proper ammunition means ending the fight with fewer shots fired, and fewer dead bodies among all parties to the conflict – particularly the important “innocent bystander” demographic. Just about every police force in the United States uses hollow-point bullets of some sort for these reasons; if you do not do likewise, you need to ask whether you are still thinking in terms of shooting people just a little bit to hurt them and make them go away. Which, again, is absolutely not what firearms are for.

        Beyond this, you will want a holster and one or two spare magazines to hold extra ammunition. The holster is not optional. If you weren’t ever going to carry the weapon outside your home, you’d have bought a more effective rifle or shotgun. And if you find yourself carrying a pistol without a holster, you are asking for an accidental discharge. The holster is what keeps all the other junk you are carrying, or even just folds of your clothing, from getting inside the trigger guard and bearing down on the trigger. Even if the plan is to carry the pistol in a purse or shoulderbag or whatnot, it goes in a holster first.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          Thanks for the great effort posts, John.

          I find myself a bit conflicted on this topic. I actually hold a WA concealed carry license (not that it does me any good here in NYC, but if I move again it’s good in a bunch of states…) but I don’t own any weapons and I don’t plan to any time soon. One reason is that living in NYC I…can’t, as generally acknowledged in this thread, another being that I wouldn’t carry outside the house even if I had a permit because anywhere I go would *privately* forbid it (I will bet it’s somewhere in my employment agreement, for instance) but the other is that I’m demographically a huge suicide risk and it seems prudent to not have easy access to guns in my house. (I could buy one In Case Of Revolution and hide it in a locked case in my parents’ attic, I guess, but I’m not so worried about that case.)

          (For the record, no, I don’t want to kill myself, and no, I have never desired to go out on a spree and I never will, please don’t call the cops because of this post, okay?)

          I’m not sure if this is an unreasonably paranoid policy or not, but since I couldn’t carry anyway it’s not a high priority for change. IDK. Thoughts?

          (On the other hand, @Nabil ad Dajjal , nothing about that policy says anything about going shooting/training with rented weapons at ranges, so if you want a buddy when you figure out where in CT or upstate you’ll go do it, let me know.)

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m not sure if this is an unreasonably paranoid policy or not, but since I couldn’t carry anyway it’s not a high priority for change. IDK. Thoughts?

            That sounds generally reasonable given your circumstances. My one caveat would be that risk isn’t uniformly distributed in time or space, and life can go from “very safe” to “I should have a handgun Real Soon, even if it isn’t strictly legal”, quite quickly. So, insofar as you are already trained to to use a handgun effectively, having one stashed in a safety-deposit box would seem a reasonable hedge.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            The CPL was my hedge against that scenario; as I understand (possibly incorrectly) the WA purchase laws, with a license I can walk into a store and walk out with a 9mm (and hell to pay if that license is invalid or has been revoked, but) so the local gun stores were my safe deposit box (for free!) This doesn’t cover some of the civil-breakdown or Obama-takes-our-guns risk space, but, I mean, not bad.

            Of course that’s no good anymore, so maybe I should think about getting an actual pistol in a lockbox somewhere. (Once I set up a regular way to train with it.)

        • AliceToBob says:

          Thanks for the info, John.

          I read these posts over several sessions, so I may have missed it and, if so, my apologies. Otherwise (to anyone), I’m curious if there is any particular shooting stance that a new gun owner should adopt, or if stance matters all that much. There certainly seem to be many YouTube videos advocating for different stances (Weaver, triangle, CAR?…)

          • John Schilling says:

            For pistol shooting, the isosceles stance is usually the easiest to learn at the level where you will perform it instinctively under stress. But this is very definitely a matter where individual experience will trump predictive expert opinion.

          • AliceToBob says:

            Ah, isosceles, not “triangle” stance… 🙂 Thanks, John.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        I really appreciate the effort post, this is way more and more detailed information than I had hoped to get.

        I’m going to have to re-read and absorb this more but it sounds like the most actionable first step is to find a place (Gun range? Gun club?) where I can get basic training and fire a variety of different types of guns. Then I can work out which gun(s) to buy and get expert advice in how to legally buy / store them. Then after that continue training to get myself comfortable and reasonably proficient with the specific gun(s) that I bought.

        My needs aren’t too crazy. I expect to live in a suburban house and own a car in the near future, both of which I’d like to defend, but at the moment I don’t have either. I’m also not keen on carrying regularly in the city because the NYPD are jumpy enough that I’m not sure that the net change in safety from violence would be positive. So mostly I want to own and know how to use them now so that when I do need them in the future I’ll have them grandfathered in and I won’t have to start learning from scratch.

        • Chipsa says:

          You probably want a commercial gun range. You’re going to want to look for one that does rentals. There’s ranges which don’t have rentals (strictly for people who bring their own). You can frequently shoot other people’s guns at those ranges, just by asking. However, the range master probably won’t just let you stick around if you don’t have one of your own to shoot.

          Clubs may or may not have guns to lend out. Frequently they’re “private”. You need a membership to shoot, but it’s relatively easy to purchase one. Sometimes it’s truly private, and membership is difficult to get.

          Usually for rentals, you don’t need any specific residency requirements, so if you have a car, you can go to any random commercial range and rent. I think there’s only literally one public range in NYC, and it kinda sucks (guns literally chained to point down range). Call before going though, because some ranges have started to require people to own a gun first, or bring a friend. Some people get into their heads it’s not a bad place to shoot themselves.

        • John Schilling says:

          You can frequently shoot other people’s guns at those ranges, just by asking. However, the range master probably won’t just let you stick around if you don’t have one of your own to shoot.

          +1 on both of these. And for a newbie, it may well be worth buying an inexpensive .22 target rifle (or maybe pistol) as a first gun, to learn safe firearms handling and basic marksmanship while giving you an excuse to hang out at shooting ranges where there will be many people willing to show off their own favorite weapons.

      • bean says:

        Thanks for doing this. I knew most of this already, but there were a few nuggets I didn’t.

    • Plumber says:

      While I’ve fired a variety of other guns, I’ve only owned a Ruger 10/22 rifle, and a Ruger SR22 pistol both of which use 22 LR ammunition which I recommend.

      The “22” bullets are much cheaper to buy than most ammunition, have less recoil, and are less deafening to fire, and Ruger’s are reliable.

      You’ll probably want a bigger caliber firearm as well (or jusr rent them at some ranges which is what I’ve done, typically you need a friend with you and you rent it together, I’m told to prevent suicides at the range), but the price of ammunition really jumps, as does the toll on your ears and hands if you shoot a lot, so I suggest that you do most of your target practice with “22’s”.

      In terms of a weapon for self protection my wife has a “38 special” revolver (which tend to be more reliable than pistols), and unless you’re hunting a bear or elk I don’t think you need anymore “stopping power”

      • I own several firearms but am reluctant to have any of them downstairs where I could rapidly grab it, given the low probability of needing it and the risk of accidents. For that there’s a sword.

        • Plumber says:

          I think that would scare a burglar more! 

          Speaking of swords, while in some versions of the story he tells it was an axe, in most it was a “samurai sword”, from the guy I’ve worked alongside the most this last decade:

          “‘fore I was sent to the Treasure Island crew, when I was on the steamer truck, I was spraying down U.N. Plaza, backing up as I went, when something told me to look behind me, I turned around and huddled in a dark corner was a women with a baby and in front of them was a man with a freakin’ samurai sword raised to chop on me!

          I turned the hose on him full and hit him hard with the steam, scalded him up good! 

          Felt a little bad afterwards, ’cause he was ‘fraid for the baby, but I didn’t want to be cut!”

          I think I’ve heard that story six times, and why sometimes it’s an axe and sometimes it’s a sword I don’t know, but if it was a sword, where did a homeless man get it?

          • Nornagest says:

            Genuine samurai swords are very expensive, and non-genuine but serviceable ones are still expensive, but you can get crappy wall-hanger ones for about twenty bucks in Chinatown. Some of the parts will be made out of plastic, they won’t balance or cut well, and the blade might snap if you’re unwise enough to try, but they’ll look the part. Mostly.

      • Nornagest says:

        The 10/22 is a great rifle (can’t comment on the SR22), but I’ve got a bone to pick with reliability. It isn’t the gun’s fault; the 10/22 is about as reliable as rimfire weapons come, although I’ve heard bad things about the 25-round banana mags that you can feed it with (the standard is 10-round rotary, which are fine). It’s the ammunition’s.

        Rimfire rounds, which if you’re not deeply embedded in the gun culture mostly just means .22LR, are almost never as reliable as centerfire. Partly for physical reasons (the design and manufacturing process are more failure-prone) and partly for economic (they’re cheaper and QC is therefore worse). And the difference isn’t subtle. I’ve fed more than a thousand inexpensive 9mm rounds through a Glock — a rented one, ridden hard and put up wet — without a malfunction, and had similar experiences with other pistols and centerfire rifles. The 10/22 I’m familiar with stovepipes or gives me a dud about one in a hundred rounds even when recently cleaned, and the Ruger Mark 2 I’ve used before did it about every twenty.

        On the plus side, this does tend to familiarize you with clearing malfunctions, which is a skill you might never get a chance to build organically if you’re firing modern centerfire ammo. Note that if you get a dud (click but no bang, with a round in the chamber), you ought to keep the barrel pointed downrange for a minute or so, just in case — it could be a hang fire instead, and you don’t want that going off out of battery.

        • Aapje says:

          For those who are interested:

          A primer is a shock-sensitive chemical*. When it gets hit by the firing pin, it goes boom and sets off the gun powder in the cartridge.

          Rimfire cartridges have liquid primer poured into the case. This is easy to do in mass quantities, since you can just have a machine grab many cases, point the open end upward, pour in the primer, pour in the gun powder and then place the bullet. Very cheap to mass produce.

          The downside is that if the case is held a little bit at an angle while doing this, the primer will pool on one side and there will be very little or nothing on the other side. So if the firing pin hits the side with no or insufficient primer, it doesn’t go off.

          Note that there is at least one gun where the firing pin(s) hit both sides of the cartridge at the same time, which should make this much less of an issue.

          Centerfire munition has the primer in a little metal cup. These are produced separately and then placed in the cartridge. This is more expensive to do, but is not as sensitive to manufacturing errors.

          You can see the difference between the two in this picture. To the right you see the little cup at the bottom of a centerfire cartridge, while the rimfire cartridge to the left doesn’t have that.

          * For almost all small ammunition. Primers in munitions for cannons and such is typically different.

        • Chipsa says:

          I haven’t had any issue with primer reliability in the past thousand rounds of .22 I’ve shot. But that might be because I’ve bought slightly higher end ammo (Federal Auto-match and CCI stinger for pistol and rifle respectively).

          22plinkster has a video of a visit to the CCI factory:

          • Nornagest says:

            I’ve used CCI Stinger. It’s more reliable than the cheap stuff I use for range days, but IME still not in the centerfire range — more like a malfunction every three hundred rounds, as best I recall. Haven’t used Federal for rimfire, although it’s my usual 9mm brand.

            The Ruger Mark 2 I mentioned probably needed some work on its ejector. It was pretty old.

    • Garrett says:

      John did a great job with info. Prescriptively, I’d go with this list:

      1) Take one of the NRA starter courses (I’m not affiliated, and started my hands-on experience this way). I recommend the NRA Basics Of Pistol Shooting course to get started. Having a piece of paper that says “I took a safety course” can be helpful at times.

      2) Figure out the intersection of what you want to do and what is legal for you to do in your jurisdiction(s) of interest. Eg. if you want to be able to shoot machine guns at derelict cars off your front porch, that may not be compatible with NYC living.

      3) Find a place you can go and practice doing what you want to do from (2) above. This will likely be some form of range where you can rent guns and determine which one(s) you want to acquire.

      4) Acquire the guns/paperwork that you want.

      5) Practice a bunch.

      6) Go from there.

      I live in SW Pennsylvania and have friends in NE Pennsylvania who would be easy enough to visit. If you think you can make it to either part of the State I’d be happy to come and play show-and-tell and help with any information you may be interested in.

  25. Hoopyfreud says:

    I’ve come to the surprising realization that non-misanthropic utilitarians cannot, as far as I can tell, agree with me that death is, in and of itself, fine. I don’t want to maximize death; I’m certainly not hurrying towards mine. But I’m also aware of the fact that I’m… perfectly fine with the prospect of everything and everyone I love dying some day, and I think this is probably for the best.

    The reasons for this make sense to me, but I strongly suspect that many of you think I’m insane, and it’s late, and I have a pie to bake, so I’m going to leave it at that for now.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I’m not a utilitarian, nor do I think your preferences are in any way less sane than mine, but hard boo! to my death and those of the people and things I care about. Fuck death.

    • Robin says:

      I assume you know this story?
      What do you think of its moral?

      • Slicer says:

        I’m going to pile on by linking to the animated version of this fable as well as reminding everyone that rejuvenation biotechnology is an actual branch of developing science.

        “Some day” is an utterly meaningless concept, because “some day” eventually becomes “right now”. Hoopyfreud, do you foresee the day when you go “Yeah, I’m cool with everyone I love dying right now”?

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Honestly? I wouldn’t think it’s my place to judge for them, but I can definitely believe that it’ll be true one day for me.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          My opinions of Bostrom and CGPGrey fell dramatically after watching that. What a ridiculous strawman.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        The only reply it offers to my view is, “clearly this is sophistry!” “The dragon is bad; it destroys people.” I agree with every other part of the moral; that’s my only sticking point. I don’t think that “destroys people” = “bad.”

        Edit to preempt Godwin:

        I think that DESTROYING people is very bad, trolley problems notwithstanding. I think that the dragon is bad because it eats people, and the nazis were bad because they murdered millions. I can also accept that everything and everyone dying is going to involve people doing bad things. I don’t think that means that DEATH is bad.

        I have no objection to anti-senesance, but I do believe that one day, maybe far in the future, maybe not, I’ll be ready to die. At that point I think it’d be best if I did. I can very, very easily imagine this being true for everyone; if you don’t agree, know that I have no problem with you living an indefinite life, but that I don’t in any way dread the creeping entropic processes that will constantly threaten your existence.

        • albertborrow says:

          I guess I have to dig out Eliezer’s old arguments?

          Most people want to live tomorrow. You infer that, because you want to live tomorrow, when tomorrow becomes today you will want to live tomorrow then to. We call people who don’t want to live tomorrow suicidal and get them help. Sure, there’s a point where suicide crosses into euthanasia, but our best estimates of this point are confounded by two things: humans live the last years of their lives in enormous pain, and there’s no hope of anyone living past that point yet. Given that anti-senescence technology will solve both of those problems, basing any conclusions about euthanasia on those points is stupid. Even if there is a finite number of possible worthwhile human experiences, I’d put my bets on that list being much much much longer than anyone alive right now can imagine.

          • Creutzer says:

            We call people who don’t want to live tomorrow suicidal and get them help.

            You, and maybe Eliezer himself, fell into a trap of the English language here: that “not want” means “want not”. There is no room for indifference. It’s quite possible to be in a state where you’re okay with dying without actively wanting to die. Some old people, people who have recently taken high doses of psychedelics, and experienced meditators are supposedly in that state.

          • albertborrow says:

            I don’t really believe that you can be indifferent about this. I understand that people can work themselves into a state where they think they don’t care about whether or not they die, but I don’t think that these people actually don’t care – I just think that they’ve either given up doing what they prefer or ceded pursuing it optimally to different priorities. If you gave each of these people a coin flip and told them their life rested on the outcome, I think you’d see a lot more people claiming to be on one side of the fence or another. Because dying in future is a much easier thing to contemplate than dying right now.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            The proof-by-induction of desire for eternal life is one of the most bizzare pieces of thought I’ve seen come out of The Yud, and it falls apart for… everything else, as far as I can see.

            Do you want to work today? Will you want to work tomorrow? I’m sure you’ll never want to retire. Do you want to drink today? Will you want to drink tomorrow? No use trying to cure your alcoholism, you’ll always be an addict and it’ll never get easier.

            I just don’t find the idea that I’ll never be tired of living particularly convincing.

          • Slicer says:

            Maybe the day will come when you’ll be tired of all your friends and all the games you could ever play and all the activities you could ever do and all the challenges you could ever face and you’ll be so tired of all of them that you’ll completely give up on having any more friends, games, activities, and challenges, ever again.

            If that future comes, someone, somewhere, seriously screwed the pooch.

          • Robin says:

            @Slicer: If somebody lives so long and is so fed up that he just wants to spend eternity insulting everybody, it’s okay for him to commit suicide. But that’s no reason to kill him before he is quite there yet.

          • Slicer says:

            Such a person would also have to contend with all the people trying to keep him alive, as he’d be eternity’s George Carlin.

          • Hoopyfreud says:


            And when you’ve had enough friendships and raised enough children and climbed enough mountains that the shape of the next one is already clear, and the accomplishments ahead pale in comparison to the long nights and bad food and difficult arguments, what then? Selective memory editing? Turning yourself into someone with more faith and less weariness? That sounds like death to me, but slower and more pleasant. How long do you think it would take you to get there? I’d give myself no more than 100 years.

          • How long do you think it would take you to get there? I’d give myself no more than 100 years.

            Do you mean that, starting now, you think you would run out of interesting things to do in a century? That strikes me as much too short, given all the things out there that I haven’t done that would be fun to do.

            If I had an unlimited length of time ahead of me and no pressing constraints, I would probably try some of the video games people here have talked about, might even watch a few of the much praised television series, could easily occupy several years with that plus the ordinary mildly pleasant business of life. There are lots of languages I don’t know and would enjoy knowing, potentially interesting fields of science or mathematics, periods of history–my son has been telling us fascinating bits 19th c. Japanese history. There are two sequels to my first novel that I have ideas for, have even written a little bit of, and one prequel. And over a century I am sure I could come up with other such ideas.

            And people I don’t know and would find interesting, places ditto, things it would be fun to research. Just trying all the interesting recipes in the three Arabic language cookbooks that have been translated and published in the past fifteen years and working out successful versions could occupy the leisure time of several years.

            That’s without consider all the interesting new things that would come up over the next century.

            A millenium, maybe, would be long enough to get bored. But the only plausible reason I can see for not wanting to live isn’t running out of things to do, it’s my mind and body deteriorating too badly to be able to do them.

            And all of that is assuming my present physical and mental condition. If I got back to the body I had at thirty there would be lots more possibilities. I could not only go back to SCA combat, I could try to learn everything developed in that sport since I last updated what I was doing about forty years ago. A few years before I quit one of the local top fighters tried to teach me a move. It clearly worked, but I couldn’t teach my body to intuit how and eventually gave up. With a thirty year old body and unlimited time … .

          • Slicer says:

            If you sincerely believe that you will run out of meaningful, new, and interesting experiences within this universe in only a hundred years, given ample ability to enjoy and appreciate these experiences, then I really, really have no idea what to tell you other than that you really ought to look into broadening your horizons in general (David’s suggestions are good starting points).

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            It’s not so much that I’ll run out of things to do as inclinations.

            Maybe this has to do with temperament, but here’s a trivial example: when I was younger, I mastered Mario Kart DS o the fullest extent of my capability. I never held a speed record for the game – I wasn’t that good – but I could easily beat any computer player and win any online race. I’m confident that with 10 minutes of practice I could pick it back up and only barely lose a beat.

            I never got that good at a game again. I never felt the need. I had exercised that part of my mental capacity to such an extent that I felt fulfilled. I still play games, but they’re… not as important. More trivial. Pick it up and drop it. I lost the drive.

            That’s what I see myself doing eventually with… everything, really. I’m a damned fine engineer, but by the same token I’m not particularly inclined to go back and study physics or literature in an institute of higher learning, despite how much they interest me. The prospect of starting a career as a physicist from zero fills me with horror. The prospect of starting ANY sort of career over does, really. And while David is right that there’s a millenium of stuff that I’d like to see and do, I very much doubt that I have a millenium of drive in me – enough for a millenium of endured sacrifices and struggles, a millenium of fierce love and pride, a millenium of weariness and pain and the feeling that it’s worthwhile. And without that, I don’t feel I’d have much reason to be alive at all.

          • janrandom says:

            I want to take the side of Hoopyfreud. I think his arguments have merit and should not be dismissed out of hand.

            There are more arguments for death (different aspects of death actually), some of which I wrote up some years ago on LW (and got mightly downvoted).


          • LesHapablap says:

            I identify with Hoopyfreud.

            For example, when I see older couples that have decided not to have children, with lots of toys like jetskis, annual trips to exotics locations, I just think how absolutely bored I would be with that at that age. I wonder how they could possibly enjoy it and not be falling off the back of the hedonic treadmill.

            I know myself well enough to know that, eventually, everything in life will succumb to the hedonic treadmill, no matter how wholesome and ‘fulfilling’. Just as I have no interest in collecting toys, eventually I’ll have no interest in having more kids, or doing challenging things, or whatever other limited things there are to do in the world.

            The only way I would last forever without extreme boredom is if I change my psychology with chemicals or technology. I realize that maybe not everyone is wired that way, but I also submit that most people have no idea what will make them happy*.

            *I think this is why TV shows that are brought back on the air after years of hiatus due to fan pressure, and some sequels of popular movies are so uniformly terrible. The fans demand “fan-service,” or the creators cater to what was popular in the original, and either way the new work becomes pandering and trite.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        Okay, that was… pretty terrible, actually.

        I’m gonna completely skip the narrative, because I can’t even make an attempt at being nice here. Instead, I’ll focus just on the moral, because I can engage with the argument dispassionately.

        Many distinguished technologists and scientists tell us that it will become possible to retard, and eventually to halt and reverse, human senescence.[2] At present, there is little agreement about the time-scale or the specific means, nor is there a consensus that the goal is even achievable in principle.

        (emphasis mine)

        Given that Bostrom himself concedes that currently it isn’t even obvious that anything can be done – let alone “what” or “how” – the correct response appears to be: “carry on as before and get back to the question when we know more”.

        The example of flight, brought up in the main text, is illustrative here: people have been trying – and spectacularly failing, with typically fatal results – to achieve human flight for millennia. What made powered, heavier-than-air flight possible eventually was a combination of developing a theory of aerodynamics (requiring a bunch of underlying physics understanding) – that bit, at least, wasn’t completely not obvious – and the internal combustion engine. The result is flying machines that don’t greatly resemble flying creatures we’re familiar with and operate on rather different principles.

        In contrast, the vast majority of recorded experiments with heavier-than-air flight over the ages were a complete waste of time, resources and – depressingly often – human life.

        The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.

        The ethical argument that the fable presents is, frankly, twee (“I want my granny back!”). We could offer much better – practical – arguments for getting rid of human senescence without this rather tedious tale. The underlying insinuation that there exist people who think senescence is a good thing feels like a straw man.

        The argument is in favor of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. By slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human life span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.

        Again, I’m not sure there’s anyone who would seriously argue in favour of people becoming weak, sick and all the other bad things we associate with old age. It’s not clear whom Bostrom is arguing against (other than straw men).

        Instead of a massive publicly-funded research program to halt aging, we spend almost our entire health budget on health-care and on researching individual diseases.

        Here Bostrom, either doesn’t realize – or pretends he doesn’t realize – that science doesn’t happen by throwing money at the problem until it gets solved. To go back to the flight example: even a huge multinational body-building effort at training people to flap their arms really frickin’ hard isn’t going to advance the cause of human flight one bit. The argument here is essentially in the same class as “if we actually spent enough money we could get FTL drives/anti-gravity/time travel/perpetual motion machines”.

        Science doesn’t work like that.

        Broadly speaking we might propose two stages of research that would allow us to progress with anti-senescence any research:
        1. Exploratory – throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks,

        2. Directed – investigating the stuff that stuck to the wall in stage 1.

        With regards to anti-senescence, we are mostly at stage 1. In exploratory investigations, the vast majority of resources expended will be wasted, because we’re groping around in the dark and – almost by definition – there are innumerably more ways to go down paths that don’t lead where you’re going, than down the paths that do.

        Researching individual diseases – and healthcare in general – is either at stage 2, or a lot closer to it. Here we generally have at least some idea of where we’re going and a lot of the work involves attempting to filter out approaches that don’t work. Resources devoted to directed research give tangible effects right now (if only by saving us from spending more on a pursuit that cannot work).

        The funniest part of this is that the current approach – derided by Bostrom – is actually measurably contributing to achieving his goal: affording people to maintain a reasonable level of activity and quality of life for longer. Each disease we can reduce from “fatal”, through “debilitating”, to “mild inconvenience” is contributing to achieving his supposed terminal value.

        The king’s morality advisor spoke eloquently about human dignity and our species-specified nature, in phrases lifted, mostly verbatim, from the advisor’s contemporary equivalents.[3] Yet the rhetoric was a smoke screen that hid rather than revealed moral reality. The boy’s inarticulate but honest testimony, by contrast, points to the central fact of the case: the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also the basic truth about human senescence.

        The boy’s “inarticulate but honest testimony” is the worst part of a bad essay and not an argument at all. It makes me want to print this out and beat Bostrom over the head with it for insulting my intelligence.

        Let’s generalize:
        1. “I want my granny back”
        2. “I want X”
        3. “I want a pony”

        Unless Bostrom is seriously proposing that boys wanting ponies imposes a moral obligation on us to give boys ponies, he cannot use the same to argue for giving them their grannies back – unless he assumes that “I want my granny back” has some special sauce in it that makes it qualitatively different from “I want a pony”, and this special sauce is what makes the first a morally compelling issue, while the second one isn’t.

        The term we typically use for this line of argument is “begging the question”.

        Until very late in the story, nobody fully realized what was at stake. Only as the king was staring into the bloodied face of the young pleading man does the extent of the tragedy sink in. Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming moral imperative. The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years: a population greater than that of Canada would die as a result. In this matter, time equals life, at a rate of approximately 70 lives per minute. With the meter ticking at such a furious rate, we should stop faffing about.

        Again, Bostrom makes the mistake of confusing “we should do something about it” with “we can do something about it”.

        (Aside: This quite common misunderstanding is an interesting appearance of the “is-ought” distinction in another guise.)

        This is the moment where I take the kid gloves off and say that this entire article seems entirely self-serving (given Bostrom’s affiliation with FHI). The moral urgency to spend money right now on the kind of stuff that’s right up Bostrom’s alley (and if not him specifically, then his circle – broadly speaking) matches my pattern recognizer for “if you wait to spend money on the stuff I’m peddling until such a time where we have a good idea of how to go about actually achieving what you want, I might already be dead, and I need to pay my rent today”.

        To be clear, I’m not accusing Bostrom of cynically writing this to line his pocket. For all I know, he sincerely believes what he wrote and feels it deep in his heart.

        However, I don’t consider other people’s sincerely held beliefs and feelings to be enough reason to donate to churches, say, and I fail to understand why an ostensibly intelligent man like Bostrom might imagine that this level of argumentation is sufficient to compel me to contribute to his cause.

        For all I know, the money would be better spent on having the right priest intercede with the One True God (whichever that is). The thin veneer of science Bostrom puts on what is essentially a religious argument is, as far as I’m concerned, a strike against him.