OT116: Opensées Thread

1. I screwed up the WordPress that runs this blog pretty badly. The main effect on your side is that the mailing list disappeared and so no one’s getting email notifications. Don’t bother signing up again as I’m trying to find a way to restore the old list, after which any new ones will be deleted [EDIT: I think this is fixed now].

2. There are rationalist winter solstice celebrations this year in NYC, Boston, Oakland, and Seattle (possibly also elsewhere) at various times through December; see this link for more details. Warning: can be kind of weird.

3. Comment of the week is theredsheep on the new Eastern Orthodox schism, and on the ecclesiastical link between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the USA.

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623 Responses to OT116: Opensées Thread

  1. kaakitwitaasota says:

    I now have a historical linguistics blog at http://www.easternestablishmentarian.tumblr.com. There’s a bit of a historical linguistics subcommunity on Tumblr, but it’s still quite small. I’d love to see network effects take off…

    • ajakaja says:

      For what it’s worth, I would love to read a linguistics blog targeted to the level of an interested person who doesn’t already know what, say, “labialization” means, or what all those phonetic symbols are. I think a lot of people find this stuff very interesting but it feels like most of what I come across is either stuff at the level of “linguistics majors who know all the terminology and notation” or “Miss Emily teaches you the difference between ‘There’ and ‘Their'” and neither of those are things I would want to subscribe to.

      • quaelegit says:

        My favorite linguablog is Language Hat. The author studied linguistics and worked as a copy editor, and it’s about 60-40 split between Linguistics and Russian literature. Like SSC, significant value added by the commenters — many of whom are professional linguists. They’re usually very open to beginners asking for clarification, and I’ve gotten some helpful links and explanations there.

        Also on Tumblr, All Things Linguistic is very big on outreach and has a lot of beginner guides (Also a more searchable archive by topic — no wait its Tumblr nvm).

        Oh, and for learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (HIGHLY RECOMMEND if you want to read linguistics stuff or want to talk about language over the internet) I’ve found Wikipedia to be actually quite helpful, although I also had an Intro to Linguistics course in college to get a start. Honestly just keeping the Official IPA chart handy and practicing transcription (there’s got to be quizzes or feedback sites on the internet…) might be a good way to get a start.

        • alveolartap says:

          Seconded on All Things Linguistic. Language Hat, if I recall correctly, is against generative linguistics, which currently dominates in research. I have a handful of favorite historical linguistics blogs on Tumblr. Mario Pei books are old but highly accessible to the layperson.

          • dyfed says:

            Language Hat is decidedly against generative grammar. But that may be a positive. It’s not clear that universal grammar etc. is supported by any sort of credible evidence.

            Usage-based linguistics, on the other hand, is observable. That’s big.

      • Rachael says:

        Language Log is very good for this.

        It’s written by a group of professional linguists, some of whom are more interesting than others, and TBH the more interesting ones are posting less often these days, so the archives might make better reading. But the recent stuff is still good.

    • crilk says:

      I’m getting kind of a kontextmaschine vibe from your blog. I like it.

  2. johan_larson says:

    Sharing time! You are invited to point the rest of us to something nifty you have found on the internet.

    My contribution is LoadingReadyRun, an internet comedy troupe from Victoria, Canada. They have a variety of content available on YouTube.

    commodoreHustle, long-form comedy.
    Crapshots, ultra-short sketches.
    The Panalysts, a question-and-answer show.
    Tap Tap Concede, about Magic; The Gathering.
    CheckPoint, a weekly news program about video games.

    They also stream on Twitch about video games.

    • infinull says:

      LRR’s the best, they also have plenty of other shows that stream primarily on Twitch, like Tinker, Tailor Solder Fry (a DIY show), AFK (board games), and a fortnightly live variety show called Loading Ready Live.

      May favorite LRR thing is the improv comedy podcast Qwerpline.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      I don’t care for much of LRR, but the TTPC nickname podcasts are really good.

    • Well... says:

      I really like those Youtube videos where professionals from a given field dissect depictions of their field in movies and TV. Doesn’t matter what the professional does. I think Wired does these, maybe Vox too. (Any recommendations for other sources are welcome.)

      These kinds of videos scratch a very particular itch for me and I’m not sure how to describe it. It isn’t that I care about the accuracy of movies and TV (although sometimes it’s cool to see how accurate a certain movie or show is if it’s one I like a lot) but mainly I think this just works really well as a sort of shortcut to snap inside the minds of other people who have spent a lot of time getting really good at things I’ve never tried or thought much about. So it feels like mind expansion in a way. I don’t know why this method (critiquing fictional depictions) seems so particularly effective for that, but it does.

      • quaelegit says:

        Oh man I’ve rewatched the dialect coach ones like five times each…

      • AG says:

        A variation of this:
        I like listening to audio commentaries for films and TV. However, they’re extremely hit-or-miss, as most people are horrible at talking about a thing they made for an hour or more.

        Thankfully, the NYT and Vanity Fair have gotten around this by restricting their Youtube commentaries to single scenes, so directors don’t get worried about repeating themselves or running out of things to say. They just drill down on their intent and the challenges of making a certain scene happen. And you can basically get a whole film school education that way.

        • cassander says:

          Ron Moore’s commentary on Battlestar Galactica is quite good in this respect. Not so much on the direction, but on the process of writing and producing a TV show.

          • AG says:

            My high watermark for commentaries is the TV show Leverage. They hit the perfect balances of educational vs. entertaining and direction vs. writing. In some cases I came to like some of their more mediocre episodes better because the commentary was so fantastic.

    • quaelegit says:

      My favorite Youtube comedy thing is Citation Needed. Production quality gets better later, and no need to watch in order… so if you want to watch just one, maybe “John Stonehouse and Dropped Trousers”?

      • RavenclawPrefect says:

        Strongly seconded. Judging from my friends’ varied reactions, they are empirically not to everyone’s taste, but given how reliably they can move me to tears of laughter (like, actually need to get a tissue out so I can keep watching), the EV of giving one or two episodes a go to see if it’s your thing is definitely positive.

        (Bonus: learn a bunch of weird and obscure tales from history to tell your friends about, with all the witty commentary thrown in like you thought of it yourself!)

        For ease of recommendation access, here’s a direct link to the one mentioned in the parent comment.

    • wilykat says:

      A friend of mine has been doing a series of videos on the history of electricity in science (sometimes wandering into more general physics) and I think they’re pretty good.

    • themindgoo says:

      I can recommend exurb1a YouTube channel. Mix of comedy and philosophy.

    • CatCube says:

      Well, this is as much a list of “things I’ve been watching instead of working on my effortposts,” but I’ve been on a kick of machining videos.

      This Old Tony – An amateur machinist who works on projects in his home shop. The production values are good, and the narration is interesting.

      Abom79 – This one is a professional machinist, who works in one-off (i.e., manual rather than CNC machining) production environments. If you want to watch somebody who’s really good at what he does, and what he does is machining, this is a good channel for that.

      Another thing that’s been interesting in the recent past is speedrunning, especially of older games. Summoning Salt has a good series of videos talking about the history of speedruns on various games, and the progression of world records. The most tractable to most is the discussion of Super Mario Bros. 1.

      Other videos that discuss SMB1 speedruns are those by Bismuth, discussing the (then-current) world-record run of 4:56.462, explaining in detail the run at that time, and a new one discussing the 4:55 run.

    • Aapje says:

      MRE & military survival kit reviews by Steve1989MREInfo. Very interesting to see the cultural differences, but also what is helpful to survive in certain conditions. My favorite is this review of an american leg holster-style survival kit. It has boy scout instructions for survival, an emergency radio that can still get you arrested rescued, all kinds of other signalling gear, a fishing kit, a mosquito net, tools, medical equipment, condoms, etc. Everything you need to survive for a long time.

      The funniest is that a commenter noted that most of this was wasted, since pilots would be rescued or captured/killed within hours, not wander around for weeks.

      Warning/advertising: his reviews for older MREs can be a little icky, since he likes to eat even very old food, as long as it doesn’t seem lethal.

      Puzzle reviews by an English-speaking German, which makes it rather funny.

      Smarter every day. Science videos. Some of my favorites:

      Opposite steering bicycle.

      Prince Rupert’s Drop and shooting a Prince Rupert’s Drop

      Archer’s paradox, arrows don’t actually go straight.

      Since we are talking about bows and arrows: Lars Andersen’s amazing archery

      In general, I am a big fan of experimental archaeology, where people try to replicate the feats of the past.

      • SkyBlu says:

        I have a cousin in the army right now, and he’s provided me with spare MREs, which is nice for days I don’t want to leave my dorm room.

      • bean says:

        The funniest is that a commenter noted that most of this was wasted, since pilots would be rescued or captured/killed within hours, not wander around for weeks.

        There are two reasons for this. The first is that in the old days (Vietnam and earlier), it wasn’t uncommon for pilots to remain on the ground for a day or two while the rescue package was put together, and even occasionally to last much longer. Second, it’s bad for morale to say that the pilots won’t be able to walk out, even if it’s true in practice. And those survival kits are cheap.

      • bullseye says:

        Some people who seem to know what they’re talking about say that Lars Anderson is full of crap:



        • The author of the first one may be correct in some of his criticisms, but he also demonstrates his own confident ignorance:

          “from old texts, we know that Saracen archers were expected to be able to fire three arrows in 1.5 seconds.” More interesting is the fact that apparently the Saracens had stopwatches. How Andersen arrives at this “fact” is anyone’s guess

          He arrived at it by reading Saracen Archery, a 14th c. Mameluke text translated by Latham and Patterson. The author didn’t have a stopwatch–he reported the number of arrows that could be shot before the first one hit the ground, from which the translators did the calculation and reported the result.

    • Vorkon says:

      I remember I used to at least vaguely like them back when they were on The Escapist, but I haven’t followed them since pretty much everybody except Yahtzee quit working there. (And I think even he is mostly posting his stuff on YouTube these days, isn’t he?) I probably should check them out again, at some point.

    • noyann says:

      The Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses.
      The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAHFest) is a celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect scientific theories. Six speakers take the stage and present their theories to an illustrious panel of judges in front of a packed house. (https://bahfest.com/about/)
      Some samples:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvOtUh8Avi8 (has cats!!)
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ_BtZ-5O60 (watch a second time focusin on the sign language translator)

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I probably don’t find much that people here don’t already know about.
      Backlogged: Critical Role Campaign 1, where “nerdy ass voice actors gather ’round to play dungeons and dragons”
      Tides of History podcast, essentially a podcast describing aspects of European history between the fall of Rome and the Early Modern Era.
      Brett Kollman youtube videos, basically taking a player or NFL team, reviewing some game footage, and inputting commentary about why X player is bad/good.

      Most of my internet time recently has been SSC comments or picking out presents.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      I ran across Bud Uggly Design back in the early days of the web, and a few years ago was delighted to see that it is still around.

      If you looking for an internet presenace look no further thann the bud uglly website design company, here at bud uglly we can create for you absolutly the most cutting edge design available in the market todaysee our list of exiting features and satisfied customers below.!

      I dip back into it periodically and always emerge with tears streaming down my face. My wife says, “You looked at Bud Uggly again, didn’t you?”

  3. johan_larson says:

    I think you need to start doing something social. What sorts of clubs and associations are available locally? Try going to some and don’t be too picky.

    Also, some people find it rewarding to have and care for a pet. Would your room-mates be OK with you having a small dog? Perhaps there is a dog-park nearby. They seem to be quite sociable places.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I take care of the cats in the house sometimes, and this is definitely something that has helped me, as I said above. There are already more than enough animals in the house, though, so partial responsibility for many cats takes the place of full responsibility for few cats.

      I have been unable to identify any clubs that are within easy distance for me that aren’t a complete mismatch (women businessowners, for example). Those closest thing I found was a horror film club that appears to not have met since 2016.

      • johan_larson says:

        Well, with a bit of effort you might be able to revive that horror film club. Small clubs often rely on one or two devoted participants who drive everything. There’s no reason you couldn’t be the prime mover.

        Other than that, it sounds like the only thing that might help is to make every effort to see your girlfriend more frequently.

        Good luck.

  4. ajakaja says:

    Why do you live there?

    There’s a reason everyone moves to cities (these days). Much of the country doesn’t really feel like it’s for young, unmarried people.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      It got me where I wanted, career-wise, and also let me stay fairly close to my girlfriend. The country would be a lot better, actually – I’m not a city boy by temperament. Where I am is very far away from the city center, though.

  5. maintain says:

    What’s everybody reading? Anything interesting?

    Let’s get some book recommendations going.

    • A few weeks ago I reread The Lord of the Rings for the first time in twenty or thirty years. It was as good as I remembered from the first ten or twenty times I read it.

      I just read DO NOT UNDERTAKE OVERLAND TRIP THROUGH DIRTY DANGEROUS DISEASE-RIDDEN AFRICA, the diary of a woman who traveled, largely by hitchhiking, through Europe and Africa in 1972. Interesting picture of the place, time, and adventure. Particularly interesting to me because I was a graduate student traveling in Europe a year or two earlier–on a somewhat less minimal budget, and male rather than female, but still observing a good deal of the same patterns.

      I also just reread Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Interesting as very different early sf. Both the author and the protagonist are surprisingly ignorant of science–details such as whether Mars is bigger or smaller than Earth and what happens when meteorites hit a space ship. In part I suspect this reflects the situation described in C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, with a much bigger gap between intellectuals in the sciences and intellectuals in other field than I am used to. But what makes it more interesting is that Lewis is describing a Christian universe, a whole of which human Christian religion represents a small piece. A very interesting picture.

      • John Schilling says:

        A few weeks ago I reread The Lord of the Rings for the first time in twenty or thirty years. It was as good as I remembered from the first ten or twenty times I read it.


        It took me a few beats to realize that you had shifted to a different book and that the object of that last sentence wasn’t “Middle Earth”. Strangely, it was the fact that “disease-ridden” didn’t really fit, and not the explicit geographic proper noun, that did it.

      • Aging Loser says:

        You might enjoy a fairly close prose-paraphrase of The Faerie Queene, Book I, in “modern” diction (but retaining the adjectives “fair”, “goodly”, and comely” because they’re irreplaceable) that someone I know spent a couple of months writing.

      • nameless1 says:

        I find LOTR weirder and weirder during every reread. During my first reads, I filled out the holes from later generic fantasy who generally took Tolkien’s concepts and described them in more detail. But from the original books we learn very little about what elves or orcs are really like, for example. Another issue was that while later fantasy adopted a broadly High Medieval setting, and thus one tends to read LOTR from this angle, the original is actually all over the place. Hobbits live in a style that reminds one of the 19th century rural England, smoke pipes, Saruman builds something akin to industry at Isengard albeit it is not described in much detail, but later on in the Shire he clearly industrializes, meanwhile Gondor looks roughly High Medieval, Rohan even Early Medieval, Britain in 600AD or so and so on.

        Tolkien generally does not describe the gear worn and carried by most characters, which later on gave a rise to the weird RPG habits that people travel cross-country in full battle gear. It is not realistic and Tolkien actually hints at it when the hobbits get some battle gear before a battle from the Rohir. We don’t really know if Aragon or Boromir travelled in armor and carried a shield or just more realistically normal clothes, a sword and a bow. Yet they had fights with orcs. Who wore battle gear? These omissions generally created the situation in RPG games that players do not really understand the difference between hanging out in a safe place, travelling, travelling in dangerous places fairly well geared up, where a small-scale fight with bandits possible, and preparing for a real battle with full on gear. As it seems all the same I just take my “chain”mail and my helmet, shield and sword… this confusion came from Tolkien not really describing the differences, it kinda looks like Aragorn goes everywhere with a sword, normal clothes and a bow, Boromir with a sword and horn, be that hanging out in a safe home, travelling in dangerous terrain or full on assault battle.

        Translating it to modern terms, we don’t see the difference between the “medieval” equivalents of 1) a full outkitted soldier with assault rifle, grenades, frag vest and you name it 2) a dude hanging out in a relatively same place, maybe having a 9mm piston over his kidney, maybe not having any weapon at all 3) something in between, people travelling or just living in a way that they expect serious trouble, more serious than for which a basic pistol would suffice, but are not fully outkitted soldiers. Aragorn as ranger would likely fall into this category, his modern equivalent has woodlands clothes, good boots, a shotgun or rifle, could double as a soldier but not really as well as a real soldier. But it is only a guess. We can only guess that like the modern woodsman does not wear a frag vest, he did not wear any armor. And this confused RPG players and makers…

        • Slicer says:

          gave a rise to the weird RPG habits that people travel cross-country in full battle gear

          This is just because of the lack of penalties (or enforced penalties) for people doing this.

          It seems to me like you’re overlooking the fact that adventurers need to carry their serious gear, and if they’re going to try to pack it up… why not just wear it? Especially because some DMs recommend “four encounters a day”, which pretty much is all war all the time.

          There are lots and lots of practical reasons to keep your armor on in an ordinary session of D&D, especially if the GM is trying to get you to take it off. Attending a royal banquet? Well, the paladin brightens his armor to a mirror shine and goes to the armorer (or has the bard cast Mending) to get the dents out before telling the GM “Hey, paladin here – our armor IS our formal wear”, the cleric might get away with similar, the thief puts something light and fancy over his leather armor, and the mage, barbarian (enjoy the roleplaying!), and bard probably never wore armor anyway. Any straight “fighter” characters might have a harder time justifying it, but believe me – they’ll try.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            4e D&D also brought in Imposter’s Armor which was magic armor that could change into any set of normal clothes you wanted. Changing between the two was a minor action- while the armor was clothes, it didn’t give you any protection but also didn’t give you any penalties for being in armor, and in fact could grant you any bonus that an appropriate set of mundane clothes would grant in the circumstances.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            It seems to me like you’re overlooking the fact that adventurers need to carry their serious gear, and if they’re going to try to pack it up… why not just wear it? Especially because some DMs recommend “four encounters a day”, which pretty much is all war all the time.

            You wouldn’t wear armor while traveling because even plate (the good stuff) takes twice as much energy to move in. You’d have a beast of burden to carry your armor… though with that, you could get away with riding with it on.
            It still needs cleaning, or sweating in it all day will rust it. So you need to take it off for a servant to clean it.
            So the real problem is GMs letting heavily-armed and skilled hobos wander around on foot with no servants and be accepted as noble heroes rather than dangerous outcasts (and this reminds me to enforce taking servants everywhere in my campaign…).

          • Nornagest says:

            You wouldn’t wear armor while traveling because even plate (the good stuff) takes twice as much energy to move in.

            I think you’re overbilling this a bit. At its heaviest, in the late Middle Ages, plate armor averaged about forty pounds — which is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s about what your average modern backpacker’s carrying, and its weight is better distributed than a backpack’s. (Mail is lighter, but in some ways more cumbersome — all its weight rests on the shoulders.) Once you start adding weapons and camping gear and maybe shields to that, it’d add up quickly, but it’d be no worse than Roman legionaries had to deal with — or the 82nd Airborne still does, for that matter.

            Bottom line, marching in armor would suck, but people did it. They might leave their armor with the baggage if they were expecting a long walk through friendly country. They might sometimes omit some of the heavier or more cumbersome pieces, like the helm. They’d need to clean and maintain it periodically. And they certainly wouldn’t be wearing it to a cocktail party. But I’d expect professional fighters in any period to be wearing most of their armor, most of the time, as long as they were in or near hostile territory. Pre-modern warfare was mostly raids and what’s euphemistically called “foraging”, anyway; they wouldn’t have had the luxury of keeping it off until they were expecting a battle.

            (That being said, I agree that having some servants hanging around would go a long way towards establishing D&D-style groups as noble heroes rather than bandits, deserters, or the like.)

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I think people wore belts with chain mail, not just to carry their swords, but to distribute the weight of the chain mail better.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nornagest: It’s complicated. You can actually run in plate armor, and researchers measured that it took 2x energy to run or walk in it vs. without. Naively you’d think that would translate to only being able to walk/hike half as far each day with your armor on, but I see that according to Vegetius, Roman recruits had to do a loaded march of “22 modern miles” with 45 pounds of weight. Note that US military loaded marches are done at a brisk walk of 4 MPH because running with a heavy backpack causes physical damage.
            So as long as you don’t try to run the 200 meter dash in maille or a backpack full of gold/camping supplies, and keep the armor and weapon you’re travelling with down to 45 pounds, it actually is OK. Interesting.

            Pre-modern warfare was mostly raids and what’s euphemistically called “foraging”, anyway; they wouldn’t have had the luxury of keeping it off until they were expecting a battle.

            This is very true. Taking it off in D&D and then the DM springs an encounter on you is fairly accurate to what pre-modern warfare was like. You’d have to take it off at night, well before sundown so someone could see to clean it, but other than that it would be a matter of life and death often enough to keep it on.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Distributing the weight to anywhere but the shoulders and hips seems like a bad idea…

          • Nornagest says:

            You can actually run in plate armor, and researchers measured that it took 2x energy to run or walk in it vs. without.

            Oh, I absolutely buy that. But it strikes me as one of those statements that’s technically true but doesn’t say what it seems to in practical terms; having done some backpacking in my time, 2x energy is about what I’d expect hiking with a 45-pound pack to work out to. (A heavy pack’s also quite hard to run with.)

            A lot of hikers try very hard to keep the weight they’re carrying down, precisely because you can hike a lot further if you’re not carrying much. Really obsessive ones will even do things like cut the handles off their toothbrushes. 22 miles in a day at 45 pounds sounds doable, if strenuous, for a strong, experienced hiker — but the same person could probably do 30 at 15. (It’s not fully linear because of repetitive stress issues.)

          • baconbits9 says:

            Oh, I absolutely buy that. But it strikes me as one of those statements that’s technically true but doesn’t say what it seems to in practical terms; having done some backpacking in my time, 2x energy is about what I’d expect hiking with a 45-pound pack to work out to. (A heavy pack’s also quite hard to run with.)

            I would guess that 45 lb pack for the Roman soldier was mostly just his personal gear, and not what would be needed in total. The Romans would have had extensive supply networks and also would have been requisitioning supplies along the way.

          • bean says:

            45 lb is not going to double energy expenditure. A backpack is the second-most-efficient way to carry weight (behind having it on your head, which has obvious limitations) and plate armor is going to be on lots of places that aren’t nearly as efficient. The worst is the feet, at 7x what something on the head takes. (Source is a US Army medical report on load carriage.)

          • John Schilling says:

            The question is, given that one is going to be carrying ~40 lbs of armor anyway, does it cost you anything more to carry it spread over your body rather than in your pack or saddlebags?

            There’s probably some cost in imperfect weight distribution or joint articulation impeding movement more than the raw weight alone would account for, but armorers were pretty good about mimimizing that. And there’s probably a substantially increased maintenance burden due to sweating all over the stuff. But I’ve read medieval and classical campaign accounts that included ambushes or meeting engagements, and having one side handicapped by not having being armored from the outset seems rare in such accounts (Harald’s army at Stamford Bridge being a notable exception). So it seems plausible that soldiers marching or riding through hostile territory, did so wearing armor.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


            A lot of hikers try very hard to keep the weight they’re carrying down, precisely because you can hike a lot further if you’re not carrying much. … 22 miles in a day at 45 pounds sounds doable, if strenuous, for a strong, experienced hiker — but the same person could probably do 30 at 15.

            Well yes. You should be able to travel further if you’re only carrying 15 pounds rather than wearing armor, strength being equal.
            Also experience at doing physical feats builds strength, so it would make more sense for “leveling up” to mean increasing a stat rather than almost never being able to increase your strength after character creation and having strength and level as two separate mechanics for how well you hit with melee weapons…

          • Nornagest says:

            No argument, but if we start talking about logical inconsistencies in D&D leveling we’ll be here all day.

            …then again, I suppose I don’t have anything better to do.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @John Schilling

            Couldn’t that just indicate that troops walking in areas deemed likely to be ambush prone would wear armor?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nornagest: Heh.
            Steve Jackson’s pre-GURPS RPG The Fantasy Trip might have been the first game to do this: XP buying Strength, Dexterity or Intelligence, which were the only things you ever rolled against. And spells are cast from hit points (= ST) rather than Vancian memory slots.
            Unfortunately, it can’t substitute for D&D because there are no healing spells. The Cleric’s memory slots are a huge resource in D&D that he just left out.

          • bullseye says:

            I remember reading that a Roman soldier on the march would have to carry his armor (by wearing it, I’d imagine), and also his big shield, several spears, a sword, several days’ rations, and the tools to build a wooden fort (Roman “camps” always had walls).

            I also read that a Roman legion only moved at about 3 miles an hour, but I don’t know how much of that slowness was from their gear and how much was from large groups being slow.

        • sfoil says:

          The orcs in LOTR come across as a lot more human-like than they are usually portrayed in succeeding fantasy works. At any rate Tolkien clearly spent much more time thinking about elves than he did orcs.

          Aside from the Shire being Tolkien’s portrayal of an ideal Little England from his grandfather’s day, it’s left over from the less-serious Hobbit. As for Gondor and Rohan, I’m certain this is intentional. Gondor is the remnant of a superior civilization that has undergone steep decline. Had Tolkien been more of a classicist and less of a medievalist, it would have been Roman. Actually given the nature of the “Red Book of Westmarch” maybe Gondor might have “really” been Roman after all, and Numenoreans = Latins.

          I’m not as sure as you are that men at arms didn’t habitually wear their armor everywhere, especially mail. Aside from constituting a uniform of sorts, it was outrageously valuable and didn’t really restrict movement — especially if you were accustomed to wearing it all the time. If the alternative is putting it in the rucksack where you’re bearing the weight anyway why not just wear it? The most awkward pieces of a mounted fighter’s kit would have been his helmet (restricts the senses) and his lance. The helmet just gets carried and there’s no way Aragorn and Boromir were hauling lances around.

          • theredsheep says:

            I think of Gondor as Byzantium. Tolkien only ever made the comparison once, when he called it “a sort of withered Byzantium,” and oddly enough “dromunds” and “Variags” are both on the bad side, but in both its cultural role and its relative location (the Shire is in England, for comparison) it resembles Byzantium. Down to some weird details which may be pure coincidence, but who knows.

            Gondor’s west is dominated by rough, mountainous terrain and coastline. To its east lies an arid rectangular plateau surrounded by mountains and inhabited by enemies who speak a guttural language. The west coast of said landmass, however, is nice and verdant. East and west are separated by a major waterway which provides access to lands far to the north. The old capital of Gondor straddles that waterway; the new capital does not, but is ridiculously heavily fortified and only falls to an equally ridiculous custom-made siege weapon …

            Etc., etc. Where the timelines differ is that in Middle Earth the Germanic barbarians who occupied the north/west keep faith with Gondor when they come to help, instead of setting up petty kingdoms in Pelargir, rebuilding the pillar of Ar-Pharazon, and looting Minas Tirith. Also Middle Earth’s southern/eastern emperors sort of bumbled off and got lost a thousand years ago, while the other line bred true in spite of the kingdom itself being gone for an even longer period. It’s like it was written by a nostalgic Catholic or something.

          • cassander says:

            The earlier ages of higher civilizations also have the same late dark age aesthetic. Mail is primary form of armor even among the elite of the elite, like Kings and the Gondolindrim. Populations are very low and the world has a lot of empty space and unpopulated areas. There’s not a lot of trade, and not a small amount of a “not blue, shoot it” attitude even among elves.

          • sfoil says:

            I’ll buy the geographic parallel with Byzantium, although partly for the reasons you point out I don’t think Gondor is Byzantium. At no point did the Kingdom of Gondor ever much resemble the Byzantine Empire.

            Tolkien undoubtedly understood why Middle-Earth was so underpopulated and wild. Authors who copy this aspect of his work don’t necessarily understand the implications. Stephen Donaldson made the world of Thomas Covenant similarly sparse, and then — so I recall from some interview — found himself unable to explain this as anything other than a gap in his considerations. So when he wrote another series in that world, he took care to fill it up with a bunch of little villages a day’s journey away from each other.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @sfoil: little villages a day’s journey apart is still howlingly empty. 24 miles seems to be a pre-modern day’s journey on flat or rolling terrain, and average modern hikers make 18 miles/day on the Pacific Crest trail with all its mountains and whatnot.
            In the mid-11th century, the flat and rolling parts of England had a village every circa 1.2 miles. Late Bronze Age Sardinia already had that same settlement density, with (at least) a stone tower in each village. People in ancient Greece and Israel seemed to keep their settlements about 3 miles apart (Which meant a walk of >30 minutes to a farmer’s furthest fields).

          • sfoil says:

            Huh, I wouldn’t have guessed that settlement density was that high but it does make sense. Where I’m from, there’s a very obvious pattern of towns being a days’ wagon ride (~25 miles) away from each other with some single-family homesteads in between. On reflection, what you described probably applies to the Shire and maybe other settled places like Bree-land.

          • John Schilling says:

            Makes a big difference whether the land has been “tamed” to the point where single-family settlements are possible. If you’ve still got lots of wolves, Indians, and/or Orcs around, you want to stay very close to your neighbors pretty much all the time. That gives you small hamlets every mile or so, or barren wilderness with a scattering of hardy adventurers and martial outposts. If you’ve cleared the land of such threats, or mostly-cleared it and given everyone a repeating rifle or whatnot, then the limiting factor is being able to walk to town every week or so for church and market day, which makes a town every twenty miles and single-family farms in between a workable proposition (see e.g. much of the American midwest).

          • theredsheep says:

            The weird thing is that, per Tolkien, Bree-land has been populated for a VERY long time, longer than Gondor even. You’d expect civilization to have expanded past one small cluster of villages, orcs or no orcs. Population pressure was a thing, even with disease, and they seem to have a pretty high standard of living in that little outpost. It’s hard to imagine that the dangers of the wilds were sufficient to prevent all expansion, but not enough to impair long-distance trade with their source of metal (dwarf-mines in Ered Luin?) or to overwhelm the protective abilities of the remaining Dunedain.

            EDIT: Yes, there was some contraction after the fall of the North Kingdom, but that was a long time ago as of LOTR–longer than the time from the Fall of Rome to Charlemagne, IIRC. And Sauron was not a live and active threat for all of that time. The big blank map is really not all that plausible IMO.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:


          https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/91206/is-there-any-plate-armor-in-tolkiens-world No.

          I was trying to remember what I knew of armor in LOTR. The handling of Bilbo’s mithril chain mail suggests that it was normal for hobbits, at least, to go around unarmored.

          I’m sidetracked by wondering why the mithril chain mail didn’t make any noise.

          It seems to me that if armor were needed for the sort of travel the nine walkers were doing, some provision would have been made for the hobbits, but they just get swords.

          It seems possible that orcs had leather armor, but maybe they just had leathery skin. Maybe my memory is influenced by illustrations.

          Wasn’t Boromir fairly easily killed by orc arrows?

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Rings all the way through, but I distinctly remember a bit towards the end where the hobbits return to the Shire after a year or so of dangerous adventure and warfare, and their buddies back home are surprised and a little disturbed that they’re wearing mail and carrying weapons like it ain’t no thing.

            This ends up being handy when it turns out that Saruman’s been squatting there, but they didn’t know that when they showed up.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            And Saruman was a Captain Planet villain. He ordered industry built in the Shire just for the pollution.

          • sfoil says:

            And Saruman was a Captain Planet villain. He ordered industry built in the Shire just for the pollution.

            *according to the completely unbiased Red Book

          • It’s clear that by the end, all that Saruman is after is revenge on his enemies—not to help himself but only to harm them. I think that’s a deliberate dramatic, perhaps even philosophical, point in the book’s ending.

        • Deiseach says:

          Not the first time people have wanted exact details that are not in the text; from a letter of 1956:

          But the problems (delightful if I had time) which the extra volume will set, will seem clear if I tell you that while many like you demand maps, others wish for geological indications rather than places; many want Elvish grammars, phonologies, and specimens; some want metrics and prosodies — not only of the brief Elvish specimens, but of the ‘translated’ verses in less familiar modes, such as those written in the strictest form of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (e.g. the fragment at the end of the Battle of the Pelennor, V vi 124). Musicians want tunes, and musical notation; archaeologists want ceramics and metallurgy. Botanists want a more accurate description of the mallorn, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin, mallos, and symbelmynë; and historians want more details about the social and political structure of Gondor; general enquirers want information about the Wainriders, the Harad, Dwarvish origins, the Dead Men, the Beornings, and the missing two wizards (out of five). It will be a big volume, even if I attend only to the things revealed to my limited understanding!

      • noyann says:

        A few weeks ago I reread The Lord of the Rings …

        Are you aware of The Last Ringbearer?

        The novel is based on the premise that the Tolkien account is a “history written by the victors”.[2][3] In Eskov’s version of the story, Mordor is described as a peaceful country on the verge of an industrial revolution, that is a threat to the war-mongering and imperialistic faction represented by Gandalf (whose attitude has been described by Saruman as “crafting the Final Solution to the Mordorian problem”) and the elves.

    • actualitems says:

      I was slowing down in my reading because I was bogged down in not finishing non-fiction I felt like I was “supposed” to be reading. So I went looking for fiction instead.

      I found Tyler Cowen’s list of best fiction of 2017 where he mentioned a short Italian novel about a husband and wife and their two kids called Ties. It was amazing and I read it in 2 or 3 sittings over 2 days.

      Then I went through more of Cowen’s recent best fictions lists, looking for more novels centered on the husband and wife dynamic, and found The New World. It was about the ramifications of the husband dying but having previously setup to have his head being removed and preserved via cryonics without his wife knowing about it. It was amazing and I finished it in 4 or 5 sittings over 3 or 4 days.

      I went back to Cowen’s lists, again looking for husband/wife material, and found The Book of Strange New Things, a novel about a husband leaving the planet on a religious mission involving aliens. I only ready the 1st chapter, just moments ago, and it already has me hooked. But the Steelers game is now on, so my reading is done for the day.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      Leonard Susskind’s “The Theoretical Minimum” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”….neither book is covering completely new information for me , but the Physics/Math Volume certainly has me getting ready to kick myself in the pants as far as how my math skills have eroded in 8 years or so of not having been actively learning the subject. I was never on a track to become an Engineer or Math related professional, but I always felt that I had the potential to grasp certain scientifically mathematical subjects. I will finish the book, and then hopefully seek out some sources of math practice I can use to bring back some skills…well see.

      As for the Zinn book, its a bit of a slog, but I am enjoying his going into depth in topics I had only been exposed to on a more surface level, such as the plight of poor whites in pre-1776 Colonial US, certain uprisings and farmer movements post Constitution and pre-civil war, etc… Not sure if I will finish , its very long, and I might want to selectively read into the various topics he covers. Definitely has a left wing, anti-war bias, but I think the book is well done and so far isnt screamingly politically skewered in a radical manner.

      • hyperboloid says:

        Susskind’s lecture series is great, but I’ve never read the book. If you’re interested in serious treatment of physics aimed at a general audience Roger Penrose’s The Road To Reality is worth a read. Unfortunately Penrose isn’t the teacher that Susskind is and the book is so dense that it is perhaps best used as a kind of study guide to be combined with supplemental material.

        • Michael Handy says:

          I love Road to Reality. But its really more aimed at hard science undergrad level. Not having at least ap calculus will make for a vertical learning curve

        • Tenacious D says:

          I’ve got both Susskind and Penrose on my bookshelf to read at some point. It sounds like Susskind’s book might be the best one to read first.

    • Plumber says:

      Now that I’m following SSC my book reading is way down so I have less to recommend than in the past.

      I think the most interesting book that I’ve read some of lately would be On The History And Development of Gilds And The Origin of Trade-Unions by Lujo Brentano of Ashaffenburg, Bavaria MDCCCLXX (1870) which I’ll quote from:

      “….Trade-Unions are the successors of the old Gilds. With this assertion I concluded the foregoing part of this Essay. It is far from being a new statement. On the contrary, friends and enemies of these associations have repeatedly, in words and print, pointed at their connection with the old Gilds, the former to justify, by this pedigree, their existence, the latter to condemn them at once by describing them as continuations of institutions considered for long, and generally, at best as antiquated. Their enemies, by the dodge of applying to them the epithet of “long-condemned associations for the restriction of trade,” generally dispensed with all further inquiries into the real results of their working.

      Indeed, every reader of the foregoing pages who has ever made himself familiar with the rules of a Trade-Society, or with one of the numerous blue-books inquiring into the organization of Trade-Societies, must grant at once their similarity to the Craft-Gilds. But notwithstanding this striking likeness, and the numberless writings on the subject of Trade-Unions, nobody has yet inquired historically how these Unions originated,*. [Mr. Thornton’s chapter On the Origin of Trades’ Unions (in The Fortnightly Review, New Series, vol. ii. p. 688, and in his work On Labour and its Claims) bears the same relation to the real origin of Trade-Unions, as Rousseau’s Contrat Social to the historical origin of States.] and how far they may really be considered as the descendants of the old Gilds. All opinions on this point which I have yet met with are vague, and, as I am obliged to say, far from corresponding with the reality. The most plausible theory is expounded by Mr. Ludlow in one of the best papers ever written on Trade-Unions.*. [Trade-Societies and the Social Science Association, in Macmillan’s Magazine, February and March, 1861.] According to his idea, the first Trade-Unions originated in the capitalist-masters withdrawing from the Craft-Gild, so as “to confine it to the operative class, so that the Gild would necessarily merge in the Trade-Society.” He accordingly says, “The Trade-Society of our days is but the lopsided representative of the old Gild, its dwarfed but lawful heir.” For the historical proof of the identity between the two, he refers to Mr. Hill’s Account of Trade-Combinations at Sheffield.*. [Trades’ Societies and Strikes. Report of the Committee on Trades’ Societies appointed by the Social Science Association, London, 1860, p. 521.]

      Considering only the rules and restrictions prevailing in the old Craft-Gilds, and comparing them with the regulations which our modern Trade-Associations, existing only among workmen, try to enforce, one might feel inclined to accept this opinion at once. But the fact is, that in no one single instance did such a withdrawing of the masters from the Craft-Gild, leaving it to the workmen alone, ever take place. On the contrary, I think it more probable that the masters generally remained in the corporation, to prevent its bye-laws being enforced against them, and to annihilate its influence. Such, at least, was the case at Sheffield—as I will show further on—or the audience of Mr. Roebuck’s declamations against the United States, the still existing Cutler’s Company in Hallamshire, would have consisted of the same persons as returned Mr Mundella for Sheffield! Trade-Unions are no lopsided representatives of the old Gilds; they are complete Gilds themselves, as well as the Town-Gilds and Craft-Gilds. And when calling them the successors of the old Gilds, I did not mean to designate them as continuations of the Craft-Gilds, nor do I think that their descent from these now certainly antiquated societies could justify their existence. But if I succeed in proving that wherever we find in a trade the first formation of such unions among the workmen, and if, wherever more detailed records of their origin are extant, we see them arising under the same circumstances and for the same objects as the Frith-Gilds and Craft-Gilds previously arose, that is, under the breaking-up of an old system, and among the men suffering from this disorganization, in order that they may maintain independence and order, I think that this, together with the identity of their organization with that of the Gilds, will not only justify me in calling the Trade-Unions the successors of the latter, but will justify as well the existence of the Unions, as I shall then have proved that certain circumstances of disorganization, if unchecked by stronger restrictions,*. [The want of a similar growth of Trade-Societies on the Continent must be accounted for by the military sway prevailing there at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, which suppressed all kinds of meetings and unions, and by the absence of a similar disorganization of trade to that which prevailed at that time in England.] call forth necessarily in all times the same organizations into Gilds. Indeed, in our time of physical and economical law-making, one might call this a historical law….”

      I’ve also read a bit of Life in a Medieval City by Frances Gies & Joseph Gies (1969) which has been pretty goods, Rick Steves Snapshot Basque Country Spain & France (2017) a travel guide book, which I sometimes read despite my seldom going more than 15 miles from my birthplace in Oakland, California. 

      In fiction I just finished The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman (2018), the fifth book in a fun series which I give a longer of review here (for what it’s worth I’ve been giving the books in the series to my mother, and she likes them as well), I also found again a copy of Castle Falkenstein by Mike Pondsmith (1994) which is a short illustrated “Gaslamp Fantasy” novel (a term the wasn’t in use yet so it called itself “Steampunk”) with some role-playing game rules after page 129, I’ve skimmed it a few times these past few decades and have enjoyed it, but that the text is sometimes over some Illustrations is making re-reading it harder than it used to, if you like tales of Dragons, Faeries, the novel Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, and the 1960’s television series “Wild Wild West” I recommend it. 

      I’ve also skimmed some other “gamebooks”, such as Frostbitten & Mutilated by Zak Smith, and Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage by Christopher Perkins and others.

      I had started  Uncharted by Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt (2018) which is “Lewis and Clark in ARCANE AMERICA”, and while it looks to be pretty good I’ve put it down and stopped reading it at page 76 as I took a sick day and went to Borderlands Books and bought Harald by David D. Friedman (2006), which I previoisly ordered from Jack at Dark Carnival (and which finally arrived after I bought it at Borderlands, so now I have two copies), which is military fantasy without any obvious magic (so far), it’s been good reading (so far), it had a slow start but it picks up quickly, and I’m looking forward to continue reading it, so please say a prayer that the work orders are few and easy this week, and the traffic is sparse so I can sneak this in some more!

    • quaelegit says:

      Well for an actual recommendation, I read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver two months ago and loved it. I’m not sure this is a particularly unique or one-of-a-kind book but it was solid and I loved the characters.

      I’ve also been reading on-and-off The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. 1) This book is incredibly vindicating (“It’s not that you’re dumb, it’s that thing X is BADLY DESIGNED!”). 2) This book definitely had a big impact on my university’s CS department (or is part of a movement that did) — a lot of the concepts in the book feel very familiar from my classes and from discussions with friends who are into design and UX.

      More recently my print reading has been marked by failure. Yesterday I returned Notes from Underground, having only read the first twenty-ish pages in three months. So much for trying again to learn about Russian Literature… maybe I’ll try again in a decade and the third time will be the charm.

      • maintain says:

        I just got “the design of everyday things” after reading recommendations for it in “don’t make me think”. I haven’t started reading it yet.

      • Nick says:

        I couldn’t get through Notes from the Underground either, but I’ve lately read The Gambler, The Idiot, and Crime and Punishment, and now I’m in the middle of The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve just been reading the old English translations that are up on Gutenberg.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Blueprint disaster: the Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing is a great history of one of the worst cities in the country for public housing. It seems pretty non-partisan, exploring how it came to be, without reliance on any particular narrative. You could say it’s a very Foxy book (as opposed to one for Hedgehogs).

    • Elephant says:

      I finished the 3rd volume of Riad Sattouf’s amazing graphic-nonfiction memoir The Arab of the Future. The series is full of corruption, cruelty, and misery, but is fascinating and even funny at times.

    • arlie says:

      I’m currently reading several books at the same time, as is my usual habit. Of current and recent ones, I’d recommend these:

      Richard Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker – it’s an oldie and somewhat of a classic, which I never happened to have read, so when I saw it in the library, I borrowed it. I’m enjoying the writing style, and the clear explanations – while laughing at his occassional unfortunate errors. (As an example, he makes the obligatory dig against Lamarckianism, pretty much required in 1987 – in its usual form at the time, which is trivially demonstrated false by the same evidence that makes epigenetics part of modern biology.)

      Ben Aaronovitch – a series of novels featuring a rookie policeman in London, in a parallel universe where magic is a little known part of history, with laws codified originally by Isaac Newton. I just finished the second book in the series Moon over Soho. There are also graphic novels covering part of the same stories, but I’m reading the conventional books.

      Nick Lane Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life – This is a biology book about mitochondria, whatever the catchy title may seems to imply, and the “suicide” in the title involves damaged cells. I suspect the overall theory he’s pushing is a stretch, not fully supported by available data, and probably going to be mostly falsified by farther work, but it’s an interesting look at something I know relatively little about. I enjoyed his writing style enough to pick up everything else by him I found on my local library’s shelves. But I’m adding salt to all of it – I don’t think he’s the kind to write cautious summaries of what’s well substantiated, when he can instead attempt a daring synthesis.

    • James says:

      Baudelaire, but very very slowly, because I don’t know French.

      A Penguin anthology, Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu, only slightly quicker.

      I just finished rereading a few John Wyndham (best known for Day of the Triffids) short stories, the best of which was probably Random Quest, about a man who meets his One True Love while temporarily stranded in an alternate timeline, then struggles to find her when flung back to his own timeline.

      A non-fiction books called The Lives of the Muses, chronicling the lives of nine famous artists’ muses. (Nietzsche fans here may be interested in the inclusion of Lou Andreas-Salomé.) Mostly twentieth century. Fascinating material with just the right touch of light editorialising, I think. Written by—nominative determinism?—Francine Prose.

      And I quickly read a little Penguin book—practically a pamphlet—of Donald Barthelme stories. Playful, experimental, surreal, intriguing while read and pointless-feeling immediately afterwards.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Currently about half way through In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent* – a short history of people trying to devise their own languages, and why and how most of them failed to get off the ground. The first section deals with, among various attempts at a rationalised universal language, the thing that the Borges essay referenced in our host’s blogroll was taking the piss out of – John Wilkins’ analytical language project, which attempted to divide catalogue the whole of reality, into series of nesting subcategories, assigning a syllable or phoneme at each stage, so that every word contained a precise description of where it fell in his categorisation scheme … and which is, apparently, really difficult to use, because you have to spend a long time figuring out exactly where he would have categorised something (she doesn’t describe anything quite as silly as the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, but things can get pretty arbitrary) … and also difficult because a lot of the time, we haven’t categorised things that precisely in our own heads.

      It also talks about the history of Blissymbolics, Esperanto, Klingon and others, and has been a fun read so far, told from the perspective of someone who thinks all these people are a bit unhinged (to be fair, an above-averagely high fraction do seem to have been).

      *Not to my knowledge a distant relative of Mark Okrand, the linguist who developed Klingon, though I haven’t got to the chapter where she hangs out with Klingonists yet.

      • Alejandro says:

        You might be interested in also checking out Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language, which I enjoyed greatly. From comparing the tables of contents, Eco has less detail on each invented language than Okrent, but covers many more of them and traces more systematically the ways historic strands of influence relating them, especially in the medievel and early modern eras.

    • Aapje says:

      I haven’t read Moby Dick, but my impression is that Moby Dick has a similar ‘united dichotomy’ going on as War and Peace, in the sense that it combines a rather technical analysis of a topic (whaling for Moby and warfare for War) with the human element on the other side, where these are united by the people who are examined participating in the endeavor being examined.

      Have you (or anyone else) read both, thereby being able to comment on the above?

      • Deiseach says:

        Have you (or anyone else) read both, thereby being able to comment on the above?

        Moby-Dick is crazy.

        It may indeed be the Great American Novel, it’s the Great American Something.

        Parts of it could be transcribed and produced as-is as a play. Or a TV show, or a movie (John Huston filmed a version, with a screenplay written or co-written by Ray Bradbury – Bradbury later wrote some short stories based on his experience of working with Huston and living in Ireland while parts of the movie were being filmed there, using thinly-veiled characters readily identifiable as Huston and himself and others in the film-maker’s circle at the time).

        Yes, there are the technical parts about whaling. There is also philosophy, religion, and ‘whatever the hell came into my damn head at that particular moment’. He does a very funny skewering of the profit-driven Quakers who at the same time as they are backing the voyage and squeezing the last penny of profit and cost-cutting out of fitting out the ship are also concerned for the crew’s morals and souls, and the parts where he’s lecturing Queequeg on religion are hilarious:

        “Queequeg,” said I, “get into bed now, and lie and listen to me.” I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which time I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him, too, that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his. Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

        I then asked Queequeg whether he himself was ever troubled with dyspepsia; expressing the idea very plainly, so that he could take it in. He said no; only upon one memorable occasion. It was after a great feast given by his father the king, on the gaining of a great battle wherein fifty of the enemy had been killed by about two o’clock in the afternoon, and all cooked and eaten that very evening.

        “No more, Queequeg,” said I, shuddering; “that will do;” for I knew the inferences without his further hinting them. I had seen a sailor who had visited that very island, and he told me that it was the custom, when a great battle had been gained there, to barbecue all the slain in the yard or garden of the victor; and then, one by one, they were placed in great wooden trenchers, and garnished round like a pilau, with breadfruit and cocoanuts; and with some parsley in their mouths, were sent round with the victor’s compliments to all his friends, just as though these presents were so many Christmas turkeys.

        After all, I do not think that my remarks about religion made much impression upon Queequeg. Because, in the first place, he somehow seemed dull of hearing on that important subject, unless considered from his own point of view; and, in the second place, he did not more than one third understand me, couch my ideas simply as I would; and, finally, he no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did. He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety.

    • Recently I read Drexler’s new book Radical Abundance, which I reviewed. Good historical overview of our changing ideas of what nanotechnology is but take some responsibility for the “nanobots” paradigm please.

      The Monster Baru Cormorant, not actually sure if it’s Fantasy or Science Fiction, doesn’t have the gutpunch of the first book but was still worth my while. Good to see it addressed the ways a secret cabal manipulating the government results in chaos.

      Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 is the latest in the Oxford history of the United States series I’ve been working through. Certainly recommend it. It didn’t do much economic analysis of the Great Depression but it did take on a lot of myths that made it into popular consciousness. Also, man FDR was quite the manipulator wasn’t he?

      Red Moon was, well I enjoyed Kim Stanely Robinson’s Mars books but starting this makes me worry I’d dislike them if I tried to re-read them. Put it down 1/3 of the way through.

      Currently just starting How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business which comes well reviewed by some people I trust. Currently it’s on basic topics like “What is the Bayes interpretation of statistics” and “What is calibration and how do you make your estimates well calibrated” and feels slow but this is the beginning of a book for lay audiences and I’m hoping for practical meat later.

    • Urstoff says:

      Moby-Dick seems fairly unique in how odd and undisciplined it is. Contemporary literature is either written within the tight strictures of realism or are highly conceptual (anything that gets labeled “Postmodern”). In contrast, Moby-Dick seems like it was written at a breackneck pace and only lightly edited (e.g., Bulkington’s introductory fanfare and then quiet disappearance).

    • professorgerm says:

      Bellairs is my favorite semi-obscure authors, so I always appreciate seeing it pop on others’ lists. I’m rather partial to The Chessmen of Doom, myself.

      If you didn’t see the recent movie adaptation of The House with a Clock in its Walls, I’d recommend it. It’s not perfect, but it’s far and away better than the nightmare that was A Wrinkle in Time.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        The Face in the Frost is my favorite Bellairs. I think his writing became less weird as he went on.

    • marshwiggle says:

      I’m reading the Obadiah commentary from the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament, A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible series. It’s really fun, though I imagine it is easier to read with a certain level of background knowledge and skill with Hebrew.

    • sfoil says:

      I haven’t been reading much lately. I took a break from reading the Modern Library of America’s collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings to read Black Edelweiss, the memoir of a Waffen-SS soldier.

      I’m not really surprised by how influential or versatile Poe is, because in theory I already knew. However, it’s still quite a shock to actually read “The City in the Sea” and see that it is R’lyeh, or to find Screwtape in a minor short story (“Bon-Bon”). Also, while Poe wasn’t limited to macabre/Gothic/proto-weird stories, as I work my way through the collection Poe’s clearly most on top of his game when writing in that mode.

      Even though not all of the short stories are first-rate or even good, Poe’s prolific nature (he wrote for a living after all) makes reading them in chronological order an interesting exercise. You can actually see him bouncing around the ideas for The Fall of the House of Usher in lesser preceding stories, for instance. He is Francophilic but dislikes the Germans, which seems to have been rather the rule for East Coast literary/intellectual types at the time.

      Someone with slightly-wehraboo tendencies recommended Black Edelweiss and sold it to me as a “clean” Waffen-SS veteran coming to terms with the nature of Hitler’s regime. The pseudonymous author mostly fought on the Karelian front before being redeployed against the Americans, where he was captured in the Battle of Lampaden Ridge.

      As a war memoir, the author’s recounting of the fighting and later retreat in the Arctic was new ground to me (I made an attempt to check some of the author’s claims after reading, and supposedly Karelia was very closely studied by the postwar Soviet military).

      The author claims he wrote the account while a prisoner of war in 1945-46, but it wasn’t published until 2002. Reading between the lines, the author must have waited until he was well-retired to publish his account, with what editorial effect who can say. He also escaped detection as an SS soldier after being captured, and must have kept an extremely low profile until the Waffen-SS was “rehabilitated” somewhat by HIAG.

      In all honesty, he never really is able to reconcile his own experience with the crimes of the regime he served. He more or less settles on a combination of grief for the good things that were lost and acceptance that the old world is gone and can never come back.

    • Vorkon says:

      I recently finished Brandon Sanderson’s new book, Skyward. It was just as good as I’ve come to expect from him.

      The boilerplate explanation is “it’s How to Train Your Dragon meets Top Gun in space,” and it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s about a girl in a constantly besieged space colony (which might, for all she knows, be the last bastion of the human race) who finds and abandoned highly advanced Starfighter while training to be a pilot. I doubt this part was intentional, but with the anime thread from the last OT in mind, I also got a very Gurren Lagann vibe from the motivations of the antagonist aliens who attack any human settlement that grows too large. (And speaking of Gurren Lagann, the main character also sort of strikes me as a female version of Kamina, albeit as a main character rather than a mentor figure, so the story goes into more detail about the pathology of exactly why she presents herself as so ridiculously overconfident and always makes over-the-top speeches, though it’s probably not a close enough match that I would have drawn that connection if the Krell didn’t remind me so much of the various villain groups in that show.)

      Seeing him do sci-fi instead of straight fantasy was somewhat interesting, but not really that much of a change from his usual MO. He essentially treated the tech the way he does any other magic system; early on he establishes what the ships and their weapon systems are capable of, and then he goes on to make his pilots pull off some crazy shit within those strictly defined parameters. I’ve always said that his magic systems read a lot like good sci-fi, (in which you take some scientific principle, push it to some extreme, and see how it all plays out) except he just makes up the science out of whole cloth, and that’s pretty much what he does here, except to a more subdued and plausible degree than he usually does. The tech doesn’t make all that much sense from a scientific standpoint, mind you, but it works together in a narrative sense just fine.

      It shouldn’t be any surprise, since I recommend everything he does, but I’d definitely recommend this one, too.

    • raj says:

      Greg Egan’s Dichronauts. Theoretical-physics porn set in a universe with non-euclidian geometry consisting of 2 space-like and 2 time-like dimensions. Through this alien lens he explores a society that is very different from our own, but not unrecognizably so.

      • sfoil says:

        How did it stack up against Egan’s earlier books? I loved Permutation City and Diaspora.

        • SnapDragon says:

          It’s only really like his Orthogonal series (Clockwork Rocket et al.), or maybe Incandescence. He constructs a universe with alternative physics (in an EXTREMELY mathematically rigorous way), throws in a sentient race that is just on the verge of a scientific awakening, and then goes to town with long explanations of how the universe works and the implications. Theoretical-physics porn really is the best way to think of it.

          But if you want to give it a try, I’d recommend Orthogonal (which I loved almost as much as Permutation City and Diaspora) over Dichronauts. I think Orthogonal has a much more interesting story. And I found it extremely difficult to visualize anything that happened in Dichronauts; at least in Orthogonal the physics on a “human” scale are somewhat similar.

          A much older, non-Egan book that’s somewhat in the same genre is Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward, describing a sentient race that evolves on a neutron star. I remember loving it when I read it 25 years ago. 🙂

          • bassicallyboss says:

            Dragon’s Egg was fun! I also liked Clockwork Rocket, though I’d note that it deals with gender politics between (what are essentially) sentient amoebas in a way that set off culture war flashbascks for me. The physics made it worth it for me in the end, but I like that book much better with 1 year’s hindsight than I did at the time.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            I absolutely loved Clockwork Rocket and Eternal Flame. The third book was so bad I had trouble believing he wrote it. We didn’t resolve any of the important remaining science, we went to some trouble to create a pybfrq gvzryvxr pheir-ranoyrq pbzchgre, be nf Fpbgg Nnebafba jvyy gryy lbh, n CFCNPR fbyire then just say “eh, it didn’t work, I wonder why?” and then burn most of the book on an unreadable exploration of causality on a planet we don’t care about. Flash to epilogue yay they saved the planet. Why? How? Don’t worry about it! We never learn the answers to biology or physics we were missing and that bothers me most at all.

            Gah. I spent the entirety of Eternal Flame screaming “vg’f gur cubgbryrpgevp rssrpg!” at the characters like I was watching a horror movie and telling them not to go downstairs, and I loved it. Such. A. Waste.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’ve heard Moby-Dick described as classic literature for people who like Neal Stephenson books. They both have the same pattern of infodumps, digressions, and weird stylistic experiments, at any rate.

      • quaelegit says:

        I’ve seen this comparison before (made from you on SSC), but although NS is one of my favorite authors the excerpts I’ve read of Moby Dick didn’t catch my interest. Maybe I should see if it’s better in toto as my next foray into “Real/Classic Literature” especially since its on Gutenburg. (Thanks for the link @Atlas!)

    • Tenacious D says:

      This fall I read Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling. It doesn’t–to my recollection–mention effective altruism as such, but has a fair bit of thematic overlap, so it may be of interest here.

    • tayfie says:

      “Robinson Crusoe”, one of the most famous stories I haven’t yet read. I’ve found it to be a much easier read than many classics. It has decent pacing and a fun story overall, but is rather boring from the perspective of a struggle to survive. During the critical first couple weeks, Robinson has all the supplies he could possibly want due to the ship washing up on the same island. The story is much more about his solitude and reflection on the (to his view) immoral decisions that lead to his desolation.

      I’ve also been inching through Crime and Punishment. Most of my slowness is trying to read in sync with my sister, who is busy in school at the moment and does not have a lot of time or energy for pleasure reading.

      My favorite nonfiction read recently has been The Power of Habit. I greatly enjoyed the simple model presented of how habits are formed and replaced and the tie between individual stories, advertising, and mass movements.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      Don’t get much time to read these days, unfortunately. On a recent holiday trip I read Simon Winchester’s _The Perfectionists_, a history of the development of precision engineering, charming and full of cool stories but frustratingly superficial; and Ada Palmer’s _Too Like the Lightning_, one of the best works of far-ish-future big-philosophical-concept-grappling SF I’ve read in years, even though it sometimes gets a little too in love with its big philosophical concepts to step back and consider their plausibility with adequate skepticism.

    • bassicallyboss says:

      I’ve been reading Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty, by Georges Dumezil. It’s fascinating and surprisingly accessible. It’s from the ’40’s and I don’t know how Indo-European scholarship has advanced since that time, though I imagine it’s quite a lot. But there’s a lot of cool stuff in here and most of it seems to be pretty sound. According to Dumezil:

      -Druids and Brahmins are homologous developments from a single PIE high-priest type figure.
      -Centaurs are the cultural memory of a masculine fertility cult that would adorn themselves with horse masks and engage in a sort of prima nocta gang orgy with women at the time of their marriage.
      -Zoroastrians were Indo-European revisionists who took one half of a dual god (Ahura-Mazda) and promoted it to monotheistic prominence while demoting the other half (Mithra) to a mere heroic human.
      -Germanic tribes in Roman times practiced a form of divinely-ordained communism.

      Can’t wait to finish, and I’m planning to write up a blog post review/summary/analysis about it afterwards.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Dumezil is pretty cool.

        -Druids and Brahmins are homologous developments from a single PIE high-priest type figure

        Don’t forget Flamens! He spills a lot of ink on the Brahman-Flamen and Raja-Rex correspondences.
        “Druid” comes from the roots dru- and ved, meaning “oak” and “knowledge”… the latter especially in Sanskrit, where veda means both knowledge and is the name of the oldest scriptures.

        Zoroastrians were Indo-European revisionists…

        Well, yeah. Zoroaster basically says as much in the gathas.
        Fun fact: some Hindus and Russian New Agers explicitly claim that the Vedas predate the Indian/Iranian split and Zoroaster was a Vedic revisionist. The RNAs identify the Slavs (or just nationalistically say “Rus”) with Scythians practicing the Vedic religion.

        Centaurs are the cultural memory of a masculine fertility cult that would adorn themselves with horse masks and engage in a sort of prima nocta gang orgy with women at the time of their marriage.

        *shakes head*

        • bassicallyboss says:

          You seem knowledgable about this. Do you have any suggestions for further or similar reading? I’m especially interested in learning more about the Three Functions.

      • Deiseach says:

        Centaurs are the cultural memory of a masculine fertility cult that would adorn themselves with horse masks and engage in a sort of prima nocta gang orgy with women at the time of their marriage

        That’s rather a big leap to make from the story of the marriage feast of the Lapiths.

        Though if we’re talking horses and weddings, definitely NSFW music video from an Irish comedy duo from Limerick – Horse Outside.

        • bassicallyboss says:

          That song was surprisingly charming. When you mentioned a NSFW horse wedding, I admit I was thinking of something like the pagan Irish kingship ritual consisting of a symbolic marriage between man and horse.

          The idea of the masculine fertility cult is mainly drawn from the Roman tradition of Lupercalia (in which men ran naked through the streets hitting women with goatskin slings to bring fertility) and the Hindu/Vedic Gandharvas (beings with men’s bodies and horses’ heads who were said to take every woman before her wedding night).

          The centaurs descend from the same tradition as the Gandharvas (“Centauros” and “Gandharva” are homologues and sort of recognizable as the same word, if you squint), and the story of the Lapiths’ marriage feast has them acting in fine traditional form. In general, however, it’s my understanding that Greek stories borrow a lot from Egyptian and Semitic traditions, making them less useful for tracing patterns of Proto-Indo-European descent than, say, the Vedas.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      I hesitate to mention these because of Culture Wars proscriptions, but I quite liked Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War?, and I liked Dinesh D’Souza’s Death of a Nation rather more than I expected.

      A little less controversial, perhaps, are Daniel Hannan’s How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!

      David Ives’s plays The Liar and School For Lies are screams, fun to read but even more fun to see performed.

      I just finished E. C. Williams’s Westerly Gales and liked it as much the people here who recommended it.

      I was a kickstarter supported of Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, and I see that you can get it on Amazon now. I sort of expected a convenient compendium of stuff I mostly already knew, but I’ve also learned a bunch of things, mostly useless, that I did not know but am just fascinated by. For example:

      The red grapefruit eaten today is a product of a 1950s program in the United States called Atoms for Peace, whose goal was to promote practical uses for nuclear power outside of a wartime context. One of the things Atoms for Peace came up with was the gamma garden, which is exactly as amazing as it sounds. Radioactive material was put in the middle of a garden, around which concentric rings of plants were planted. The plants closest died of radiation poisoning, the plants farthest away were largely unaffected, but the plants in the middle mutated. Some of those mutations were useful, and among them was the modern red grapefruit: a sweeter, atomically induced mutation of the existing red grapefruit, whose flesh often faded to a less-desirable pink. Most grapefruit today comes from the descendants of those atomically mutated plants.

    • JPNunez says:

      Finally took the plunge and read the Three Body Problem trilogy. Well, I am still working my way through the third book.

      It’s hard to say what they are about without spoiling things, but they are largely about contact with extraterrestrial intelligences.

      1) The Three Body Problem: The first book is really, really good. It’s largely a fascinating read, that never lets up due to the way the plot unfolds. Whenever there’s a section in the past, a revelation for the present plot is on the way, and it all ties up neatly at the end. Totally recommended, super great book.

      2) The Dark Forest: Woof, this book is bad. Complete change from the previous book, which I suspect was not supposed to have a sequel. It meanders, has useless sideplots, most of the main characters are dumb as fuck, the villains are tacky, it jumps through time for no reason or without the characters reacting to awakening 100 years later. It is decent if you just read all the sections about Luo Ji and skip the rest, which is like 1/3 of the book. Would not recommend reading at all.

      3) Death’s End: I am in the middle of this one, and it is interesting, mostly for the world building. It cuts down on the silliness of The Dark Forest, but doesn’t really strike the genius that TBP first book had. I’ve not been bored by it so far, but it is not really griping. If you made it through The Dark Forest, well, you may as well read it. It is not worth reading TDF to get to this, though.

  6. Bugmaster says:

    When I was in a similar situation to you (although I did have a car, and could even afford to drive it sometimes), online gaming filled that niche for me. I know, I know, neckbeard incels living in basements and such. But online gaming makes it tremendously easy to hang out (albeit virtually) with friends and/or relatives who live half the country away. There are many free online games that allow friends-only type of play (I wholeheartedly endorse Path of Exile); in addition, there’s lots of free software that allows you to play tabletop RPGs online (this may sound odd, but I endorse GameTable over more advanced systems, because it doesn’t get in your way nearly as much).

    Of course, this approach does not efficiently solve the two most difficult problems: finding new friends, and finding a love interest. On the plus side, “inefficient” is not the same as “nonexistent”; I know more than one happily married couple who first met online. On the minus side, if you do venture into public games, you’re going to have to deal with a ton of griefers, 12-year-olds shouting slurs at you, and — in the modern world — rabid political correctness posses. These issues are tough, but not insurmountable.

    Another thing that helps me is, paradoxically, a solution that technically increases my isolation: nature walks. This may be difficult to achieve without a car, depending on where you live in; it might also not fit your personality at all (most people I know hate nature in all its forms). Still, if you are able, you might want to try it out. Note that I’m just talking about a 3..6 hour walk here, not some sort of a week-long hiking trip through the wilderness.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I’m running an RPG on Discord right now, actually. The people are nice enough, but seem unlikely to become friends. I already have a romantic relationship, so at least there’s that. None of my friends play online games, and there are few of those I enjoy – I’m an RPG kind of guy.

      Also, I do really enjoy nature walks, but they’re exclusively a weekend thing due to the daylight schedule at the moment. It would be nice to find something for the day-to-day.

  7. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Is this a culture war-permitted thread?

  8. Someone else mentioned online gaming. You might think about other online interactions, places you can have interesting conversations and make friends that way. SSC is obviously one example you are already on, but there may be others.

  9. EchoChaos says:

    I would strongly second the recommendation to engage in online gaming in a manner that creates social interaction. During my era, that was World of Warcraft, which was vanilla at the time. I don’t know what other options are out there, but I strongly suggest that you find one that puts you as a cog in a large (10-20 or more) guild with people who will engage with you in a friendship level and will notice if your mental state is degrading.

    As a WoW guild leader, I was a lay psychiatrist to a lot of people having personal problems, most of whom got through them just fine. But it’s a cheap, reliable and entertaining way to socialize and get people to care that you’re doing well.

  10. Hoopyfreud says:

    Apologies for removing my previous comment; it revealed a lot of personal information that I wasn’t comfortable leaving up. Thank you to everyone who offered advice.

  11. Adam says:

    I screwed up the WordPress that runs this blog pretty badly. The main effect on your side is that the mailing list disappeared and so no one’s getting email notifications. Don’t bother signing up again as I’m trying to find a way to restore the old list, after which any new ones will be deleted.

    Hello Scott! I work for Automattic, the company behind Jetpack, which is the plugin SSC is using to send email notifications to subscribers.

    The old list is not lost; we can get it back. I can see what happened in our internal systems. Please reach out to me via the email in my profile. 🙂


  12. Narcindin says:

    If I am prevented from getting my culture war fix on the open threads. I guess I’ll have to start going to the hidden ones. How do I find these “hidden” threads. Do I have to come here at the correct time and click the “open thread” link? Do the open threads overwrite the hidden threads?

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Yes, or open the thread from the sidebar

    • albertborrow says:

      Pressing the open thread button on the header will take you to the hidden threads when they are up, and you can always check them in the “Recent Posts” part of the sidebar.

    • Plumber says:

      Since the “hidden open threads” are accessible via “Archives” they’re not hard to find, 115.75 was the last one and you can still post to that if you don’t want to wait for 116.25

  13. bean says:

    Biweekly Naval Gazing update:

    November 21st, 1918: The arrival of the German High Seas Fleet in British waters to be interned as a result of the Armistice.

    A look at crew art aboard the Iowa, showing everything from public murals to the small paintings in the berthing spaces.

    So you want to build a Battleship, Design Part 2: How battleship sketch designs happen, and what factors designers use to balance engines, guns, and armor.

    G3 and Nelson: The British battleship after the end of WWI, before and after the Washington Naval Treaty forced a major change in design practices.

    A repost of Part 2 of my writings on commercial aviation, covering airplanes and seat types.

    And lastly, an overview of Japanese battleships in WWII, including the ships themselves and their roles in battle.

    • Statismagician says:

      My previous source for ‘how does one design a warship, the short-and-clever version’ was here; any thoughts/serious inaccuracies when controlling for the irreverent tone?

      • bean says:

        That essay seriously delayed my coverage of the topic because it took a long time to figure out something that wouldn’t be “covering the same territory, but worse”. I learned a lot from it when I first read it years ago.

    • theredsheep says:

      Just out of bizarre curiosity, have you ever blogged about sci-fi battleship designs, and how it could be done better?

      • bean says:

        Sort of. I once wrote a 150-page paper on realistic space warfare, parts of which are now up at Atomic Rockets. (I’ve moved on to naval warfare as my primary interest since then.) Winchell Chung of that site has done most of the work you’re asking for, and I’m just not sure it would be particularly fun for me. At some point, analyzing other people’s mistakes gets annoying, and any mainstream Sci-Fi design is going to have a lot of mistakes.

  14. Camouflage Interior says:

    I’m looking for an email provider that allows me to receive messages at an “unlimited” (realistically let’s say 100) number of email addresses. All mail sent to these addresses should be forwarded to another address of my choosing. I would use these addresses to register for online services.

    Note that I’m not looking for a temporary address provider. Many services allow anyone to perform a “password reset” on your account, which locks you out of the account if you can’t still receive mail at the address of registration. Thus the addresses must be permanent.

    Point one is to isolate streams of mail from different online service providers from each other. Then, if one address starts to get too much spam, it can be shut off. As a bonus, bad and/or incompetent actors who give my address to spammers can be identified.

    Point two is anonymity. Assuming a sufficient number of people use the email provider, the accounts I create cannot be identified with me or with each other.

    I do not care if there is a web-mail interface since I just want the mails to be forwarded to another address. The ability to send messages is not required, although it would be nice. I don’t care if the addresses are randomly chosen.

    I am willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for the service.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Point one can be handled by buying a domain, but it doesn’t handle point 2. Most of the big free email providers can do mail forwarding — the catch is _they_ could identify the addresses with each other and with you.

      • Camouflage Interior says:

        Indeed, most email providers allow forwarding — I haven’t encountered one that doesn’t. But which ones allow me to have many addresses? Ideally I want all the addresses to be managed with one account. Even if one set of login credentials per address is manageable, I have a sense that free providers all try to make it difficult for one person to register many accounts.

        I consider it a given that the email provider will be able to identify my addresses with each other. It would take rather extreme measures to avoid this. Something like logging in with 100 sets of credentials, downloading the messages from 100 different IP addresses, paying with 100 Bitcoin wallets…

        • gbear605 says:

          Assuming you don’t care about the email provider being able to link the accounts, a ProtonMail account costing
          4€/month can have up to 5 email aliases and a 24€/month account can have up to 50 email aliases.

          They also say “No personal information is required to create your secure email account. By default, we do not keep any IP logs which can be linked to your anonymous email account. Your privacy comes first.”

    • rlms says:

      You can achieve point one using Gmail; name+site_identifier@gmail.com is delivered to name@gmail.com and you can then create filters based on site_identifier.

    • Lambert says:

      I’ve heard, but never confirmed myself, that gmail forwards from ‘john.smith+$ARBITARYSTRING@gmail.com’ to ‘john.smith@gmail.com’.
      If you register something like lhbgslisglisugsrugsulsgggsuysgruugs@gmail.com, then it would at least be pseudonymous.

    • Rana Dexsin says:

      Sneakemail was created for exactly this purpose, and is still operating. I believe they cost $36/year, and the addresses are normally generated randomly. I don’t know how ahead of the “sites blocking email domains that have mixing characteristics we don’t like” game they are though, and I don’t know how much popularity they have for mixing purposes.

    • Russell Davis says:

      Check out https://www.maskmail.net/, should be exactly what you’re looking for.

  15. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

    Hey, I struggled to figure this out on my own, so I’ll take advantage of the strong knowledge here on issues like this. Does anyone have a sense of the technological state of play in the area of autonomous “self-driving” automobiles? Are general-purpose autonomous cars around the corner in a few years (not just, e.g., limited-purpose vehicles traveling on narrowly selected routes), or is this a project unlikely to come to fruition for many more years? I see differing opinions out there and, lacking any technological knowledge myself, find it hard to assess who is right. Seems like the skeptical view is predominating if I had to guess.

    • Well... says:

      The OT question is a technological one; I want to piggyback on it because I am curious about the regulatory and cultural/social state of play in the area of autonomous “self-driving” automobiles.

      – What does the law say about self-driving cars? What direction will the law go? (Specify location)
      – If a cop has to pull over a self-driving car, how does that work? If there’s a “pull over” button that overrides the navigation, does that mean the rider has to be of a certain minimum age (and maybe have to pass a test and get a certain license) in order to assume responsibility for controlling the vehicle by activating that button?
      – What do people in driving professions think of self-driving cars?
      – How are transportation companies treating self-driving cars?
      – What is the % split among classic car enthusiasts between those who regard self-driving cars favorably and those who don’t?
      – Is there a big drop-off in favorable feeling toward self-driving cars among people with young kids as opposed to those without?

      Any and all credible data welcome. (With sources, please.)

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      I’m in software, and have been interested in this field for many years, but am not in AI or robotics and do not work for a company that is trying to build autonomous vehicles.

      The current leader in the field is Waymo (ie, Google). They have an almost-public program in Scottsdale, Arizona, that is supposedly going to be a public program any day now, and has been any day now for over a year so far. They probably will launch this program sooner or later, probably by the end of 2019.

      I think advances in the field have slower in recent years, and it’s been tougher going than many in the field thought it would be a couple of years ago. Many companies with weaker autonomy programs seem to have stalled out altogether, but the premier organizations are still making slow progress. My guess is that you will be able to either buy an autonomous vehicle or hire a ride in one in five to ten years that has significant limitations but which is none the less quite useful.

      My confidence is relatively low. 60%?

      • Murphy says:

        Ditto for being in software. my 2 cents: the field seemed to skip ahead suddenly at the start due to some breakthroughs but then it slowed back down again.

        I remember it being quite shocking when google suddenly reached the point where their cars could go on real roads, even if it was at 20 mph.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      In my estimation, level 4 autonomy is close, but level 5 autonomy is not.

      Here is a link explaining: https://www.caranddriver.com/features/path-to-autonomy-self-driving-car-levels-0-to-5-explained-feature

      My reasoning re: level 5 autonomy is as follows:

      There are a lot of stupid parking schemes.

      Consider parking marked for customers of a particular establishment only; parking “around the back;” parking in an alleyway; parking at a loading dock; parking at a trailhead; parking at a fairground. There are thousands of weird parking spots all over the US, and no ML-based algorithm will be able to learn to distinguish them because substantially similar signage and map geography can mean completely different things in different scenarios.

      The major obstacle to “true” level 4 that I see is communication; both lidar and radar technologies (and uh… optical, I guess?) have the drawback of being open-loop driving mechanisms; you can’t provide feedback with them. That’s what drivers are actually pretty good at; if you don’t believe me, think about the last time someone crossed the street while you were waiting to take a right. There are also sensor problems; radar in particular is not that great at determining what’s in the path of the driver or distinguishing overlapping objects. Lots more development into computer vision is going to have to happen before we get close, and even then I don’t really trust the system to deal with, for example, distinguishing blown-out tires from a shredded tarp. The optical library is going to have to be massive, accurate, and low-latency, and I’m not too confident that all of this sensing tech will come together that quickly; I expect developing the optical library to take at least 2, and for the environmental parameter incorporation (is it raining? snowing? foggy? sun in the camera?) to take longer. And then incorporation with the rest of the systems to take even longer.

      Finally, from a non-software engineering perspective, there’s a lot of shit on the road that looks similar from the point of view of sensors. Naive ML approaches are not likely to work because your recall for identifying “things it is not safe to run over” needs to be very, very close to 100%, and I have serious doubts about the ability of feature classifiers to get there.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        It never occurred to me before, but of course a fully autonomous car would have to be able to read. I’m not saying it would solve all the parking problems, but it’s an essential piece.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Yeah, at some point you need to build yourself a Chinese Room in order to fully replace a driver. It’s not just about reading clear signage either; the act of driving requires a lot of interpretation of signals, many of which can even come from inside the car. How do you expect to tell your autonomous car to pick up a hitchhiker? How about the tradeoff between shoulder size and puking all over the car? There’s just so much I/O that needs to happen for this whole thing to work, and I feel that the software side of teaching a computer to navigate the road is only half the job.

      • Murphy says:

        You’re forgetting human curated databases:


        There’s already companies trying to make a business out of identifying parking spots, details re: pay or free etc.

        So I think trying to read random signs is overthinking it.

        “things it is not safe to run over”

        I’m guessing any system will err massively on the side of not hitting things. Even if it might be an empty box you don’t want your car finding out that it’s actually filled with rocks.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I’m discounting them, not forgetting them. Maps are just starting to deal with road closures, and those are widely publicized. The availability of parking is much more dynamic and much more arcanely restricted. It will never be able to stay up to date.

          And if your autonomous vehicle can’t deal with cardboard boxes, tarps, branches, puddles, or snowdrifts, what good is it anyway?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Parking is not important.

        Without any parking at all, the car can act as a taxi service, as google is doing now. Maybe you want to buy a car and don’t care about taxis, but self-driving taxis would change the world.

        And what if self-driving cars could only park in the 10% easiest spots? Well, they could drop you off and drive around hunting for an easy spot. Does this count as level 5? Who cares! That would make Manhattan congestion worse, but would probably be fine in Phoenix. And once there are enough self-driving cars that there is congestion in easy spots, they’ve eaten substantial (Phoenix) market share and I would say that the technology has arrived.

        • Lambert says:

          While it’s easier than parking properly, finding a safe stopping place isn’t trivial.
          Especially if the user is elderly or has a lot of luggage etc.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I mean, non-level-5 autonomy is useless for a huge number of people. Seriously. Phoenix commuters are a big part of the local driving market, and one with a large economic impact, but the question was about general-purpose cars. These are not general-purpose for any reasonable definition of the phrase.

          • Level 4 means the car is completely autonomous within a restricted, completely mapped out area. If >99% of the Phoenix metro area is accessible to the car, then that’s certainly good enough for most residents.

    • arlie says:

      I’m also in software, but not involved with anything like self driving cars.

      My impression is that self driving cars are a lot like machine translation or natural language understanding, except with much bigger risks when the tech doesn’t work. Both of the other two seem to be good enough to give impressive demos, and occassionally spontaneously seem really effective – but also incredibly prone to extreme bloopers, which aren’t tolerable for something that can easily crush human beings.

      It looks to me like all three problems are a lot harder than the optimists (and people seeking funding) want to believe, and the approaches being used are basically inadequate – they need better/different algorithms, not just faster/more powerful computers.

      What I expect is that when the hype dies down, and perhaps after a few more people are killed, we’ll wind up with a tech that only works safely enough when “self driving” cars are segregated to their own roads, with entirely seperate areas for pedestrians, cyclists, wildlife, and whatever human-driven cars are left – and this need for entirely separate roads will keep the tech doing limited purpose/selected routes for a long time.

      Now it’s possible I’m wrong – the folks developing these techs are keeping everything very close to their chests, relying on trade secrets to create potential market advantage. and the whole AI domain is something I’ve only dabbled in. So low confidence in my expectation, along with my fairly high pessimism.

    • John Schilling says:

      We’re starting to get significant amounts of data on how often autonomous cars either A: crash or B: require immediate override to avoid what looks like it would have been a crash. Unfortunately, most of the data is in Class B, and there are substantial error bars associated with how many of those incidents really would have been crashes. But it looks like the best current autonomous cars, left to their own devices, would be at least an order of magnitude more dangerous than average human drivers under typical real-world driving conditions, even more so in e.g. adverse weather. And the developers have probably picked most of the low-hanging fruit in the “how to exploit weak AI to avoid accidents” domain.

      Well, except for two obvious ones – dramatically reducing the speed limits, and simplifying the driving environment by getting rid of all the unpredictable human drivers already on the road. But those aren’t going to be acceptable for general-purpose vehicles any time soon, so the dream of a “driverless” car that can be left to its own devices on public streets as they actually are, does not appear to be plausible in the very near term (<5 years), and might even have to await True AI.

      The synergistic combination of human and machine intelligence could provide substantial gains in safety and/or performance the near term, just as it has in e.g. aviation. But such systems would still require capable human drivers, which removes much of the appeal. And for the most part, they require attentive human drivers, which makes for an extremely hard human-factors engineering problem – particularly if you are planning to use nonprofessional drivers.

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        @John Schilling
        damn. The point of autonomous vehicles is so that we can push the speed limit up, so we can get places faster. Lowering the limit seems like a step in the wrong direction 🙁

        Drivers aren’t pilots. That synergistic combination would turn driving into guard duty. I’d say that gives you negative appeal. It’s like being forced to watch someone else play the most boring possible video game, except when the player fucks up, you have to wrestle the controls from him at a moment’s notice.
        It’s terrifying and boring at the same time!
        People would be more drained from not driving, than from driving yourself. Worse yet, even if you’re vigilant, you don’t know, if the other drivers are.

        It’s like walking a dog, who’s completely harmless and never tugs at the line, but sometimes…
        sometimes he just rips someone’s fucking head off. It’s okay though. If you notice in time, you just have to gently tug the line. And you love your dog, and you always pay attention to him. But everybody walks the same kind of homicidal dog…

        No it’s even worse than that. Since most of the time you would only be watching, you’ll likely forget how to even drive. So when the time comes to intervene, you won’t even know what to do anymore!
        Oh, okay. You’ve been on the road for a while. You’ll still react appropriately. Maybe even still as quickly, as the situation requires. But will a senior driver or a beginner, who never got enough practice in to be really sure to begin with and now never will?

        I don’t see how that’s a solvable problem. Or the approach is synergistic.

        It’s great nightmare fuel, though 🙂

        Would these problems fade away if all cars on the road are nodes on the same network and sharing all data with each other? Or even the computation not happening locally anymore, but the server providing the movement solution to all the cars at once?
        (is anyone trying that approach)
        If they’re all part of one program, there could be unrealized efficiency gains, like cars driving in each others wind shadow…
        Wouldn’t have to be all that smart anymore either, because most of the unpredictability comes from other cars after all.

        Wouldn’t help with car-object collisions unless the same object happened to be caught by more than one car’s sensors.
        Could also use helper drones flying overhead for data for the network. The drones could dock with the car, each car having a couple.

        • baconbits9 says:

          damn. The point of autonomous vehicles is so that we can push the speed limit up, so we can get places faster. Lowering the limit seems like a step in the wrong direction

          For most trips (though perhaps not most miles traveled) the limiting factor is congestion, not speed. A speed limit of 20 mph with zero traffic lights or stop signs would get you somewhere faster than many places with 30 mph limits now. Traffic circles work better than traffic lights primarily on this principle.

      • ana53294 says:

        How about autonomous trucks?

        My understanding is that autonomous cars are quite good at driving while staying on a single lane, below the speed limit.

        Trucks regularly do hundreds of miles per day where they drive from the warehouse, drive 80% of the distance on a motorway, and then get off and drive the last few miles through conventional roads.

        While AI may not be able to do the complex tasks such as getting in and out of the motorway, driving in a city, changing lanes, etc., just having the driver rest a bit while the truck rides the easy bits would make them more productive. They could even sleep on the really straight and easy bits, and then hop on for the harder bits.

        At least in Spain, the most common traffic infraction by truckers is excess hours. If they could shave those hours in the highways from their count, they could do more driving per day. How these hours count towards the daily limit according to the law will make a huge difference.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          My understanding is that autonomous cars are quite good at driving while staying on a single lane, below the speed limit.

          … on a clear road, with no road work, accidents, or pull-overs, in good weather.

          Some of these may be solved, but true level 4 (what you’re talking about) is still a long way away.

        • dodrian says:

          This also strikes me as the most obvious first use of autonomous vehicles: depots on highways just outside major cities where trailers can be swapped to autonomous vehicles for cross-country travel or back to truckers for local(ish) delivery.

          But I imagine it will only work on interstates and similar large roads (many of the highways in my part of Texas are single-lane affairs with crossroads and bits that go through towns, etc, not good for autonomous vehicles). The big advantage of road transport is how flexible it is – will this setup remain flexible enough that it can still beat rail?

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            I’ve been touting the benefits of over-the-road trucking going autonomous for a few years. Most drivers prefer to remain local. Trucking is really boring (and surprisingly bad for your health, especially your back and legs). The tricky parts of automation are mostly about the local situations – narrow roads, docks, parking, verses the greatest amount of trucking time being very long boring stretches with very little variation.

            All we would need to do it set up a very large depot at each end of a big easy route. The autonomous truck can even be hand-driven by a human up to the docks for loading/unloading, and pull up to a big parking lot to wait for service. The nice thing about this approach is that we can do it one piece at a time. We make a hub with a few steady routes, and plug in the necessary infrastructure. Then we add hubs and routes as we want.

            Bad weather driving might still be an issue, but that’s 1/4 of the year and maybe 2/3 of the US that deal with that, and even if we shut down the trucks during bad weather, that’s only for 1-2 days at a time in most areas.

            Contrast this all with residential driving, which is almost all local and involves far more variation, and I think this is the only truly useful approach to autonomous driving in the next 15+ years.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I’ve been touting the benefits of over-the-road trucking going autonomous for a few years. Most drivers prefer to remain local. Trucking is really boring (and surprisingly bad for your health, especially your back and legs). The tricky parts of automation are mostly about the local situations – narrow roads, docks, parking, verses the greatest amount of trucking time being very long boring stretches with very little variation.

            This is a decent partial solution, but in a lot of ways we already have this, its called rail. Large, dedicated corridors with docking at specific points for certain types of traffic. Trucking is an improvement over rail because it is a ton more flexible, and its not obvious that this solution is going to better than rail.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’m not sure how this would be counted as a level of autonomous car, but how about slow-moving traffic jams? They’re both low-challenge and stressful for humans.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Trucking is an improvement over rail because it is a ton more flexible, and its not obvious that this solution is going to better than rail.

            It would depend on route. There are places where we have highways but not as much rail, and then we have the opposite. Trucking will be a lot more modular than rail, and easier to introduce and remove as needed. As long as we have the proper endpoints available and the highway system (which generally already exists), we can set up new routes fast and easy. Setting up additional rail routes is much harder, and cannot be done on as short of notice.

            I’m not sure how this would be counted as a level of autonomous car, but how about slow-moving traffic jams? They’re both low-challenge and stressful for humans.

            I would think that the best benefit of automated vehicles in that situation would be to streamline the entire traffic flow so that there really isn’t a jam. Unfortunately, that’s a “once we already have the kinks worked out” place, that presupposes the technical details and mass adoption have both already happened. If we’re already sitting in a jam, I’m not sure how much better it would be to turn over the car to an automated system to do the waiting, since you also have to do the waiting. I don’t spend much time in traffic, but my understanding is that people already do things like reading while in traffic?

          • bean says:

            I’m not sure how this would be counted as a level of autonomous car, but how about slow-moving traffic jams? They’re both low-challenge and stressful for humans.

            That makes a lot of sense. “Follow the car ahead, don’t go over 10-15 mph, and alert me if we get there” seems like it might be within the capability of current tech. And it would let the driver tune out a lot more than is currently possible.

          • baconbits9 says:

            One of the benefits of trucks being modular is the fact that they can go on any road, any route. If we have dedicated autonomous trucks for dedicated routes then they lose part of their modular ability. Stating that adding new routes is cheap and easy skips over the fact that it won’t be cheap and easy or else fully automated trucks would be easy.

            I’m not saying its impractical, only that it has more complications than at first blush.

          • acymetric says:

            I’m not sure where the advantage would be here. I suppose cost, if you get to the point where the autonomous truck is cheaper than a normal truck + paying the driver. Maybe time, given that the autonomous truck won’t have restrictions on drive time (although it would still need to stop to refuel at least). But it sounds like there is going to be a lot of infrastructure and additional coordination/management to run the drop points, and that overhead is going to eat into whatever cost savings you might have. This also inserts an additional possible point of failure at the transfer points.

            I suppose it might help with the current driver shortage issue. Definitely have to solve driving in bad weather, having to halt service when it rains is not as trivial as suggested.

            My first career was in transportation/logistics, and my first reaction is a hard pass on this being the ideal space for automated vehicles.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            It wouldn’t just be “alert me if we get there”, it would more commonly be “alert me if things start to speed up”. And probably “alert me if you hear sirens”.

          • ana53294 says:

            I think you don’t necessarily need a specialized infrastructure.

            At the moment, truck drivers are limited by the amount of hour they can drive per day. In Spain, this limit is 9 hours/day of driving; the maximum driving without breaks is 4.5 h. I have no idea what the limits in the US are, but there are probably some similar limits.

            Just having the driver be able to take a nap in the cabin and eat a sandwich, and without stopping, and not have the time count towards the limit, would make truckers more productive.

            Truckers, especially the ones who own their own business, have a ton of paperwork they have to manage. Them being on the truck, in case the weather becomes worse, or there are road works and they have to stop in, would still mean that they could do paperwork/phone calls/watch TV/do something else while the truck drives automatically in good conditions.

            I think that having no driver whatsoever in the cabin will not be possible anytime soon, at least legally. But even being able to have a phonecall or fill out the paperwork so you don’t have to go next day to the office is an improvement for truckers.

          • acymetric says:


            I was referencing the system proposed above where trailers are dropped by drivers at points near highways and then hooked to full auto trailers and sent on their way and then picked back up by local drivers once near the destination.

            If we are talking about what you described, the problem is probably large increase in truck cost for a modest at best improvement in trucker efficiency.

          • dodrian says:

            I think I do tend to agree with John Shilling’s assessment below, that by the time you optimize this properly, you’ve basically got rail, but I do think there are two potential increases in efficiency here:

            A truck is a combination of a tractor and a trailer. As I understand it, the trailers are largely standardized, meaning swapping tractors doesn’t take much. So, the autonomous truck pulls into a depot and is unhitched, the autonomous tractor drives away to a staging area awaiting a new load. The human driver hitches their tractor up and drives off. How long does this transition take? Potentially as little as a few minutes – though logistics/paperwork is probably a bigger time factor. How long would doing this with a train take? I imagine a few hours, at least. Looking at cities that are a few hours apart (Dallas-Houston-Austin-SA, for example), it would be much better than rail, though not for a Dallas-LA route, even though that’s all I-10.

            The second advantage is that if your tractor doesn’t need a human, it can be built much better for efficiency. There must be better aerodynamic shapes that don’t require a full-width flat piece of glass midway up the front of the vehicle. And then there are the bonuses for being able to drive constantly at the optimal speed, accelerate and slow down most optimally, etc.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Dodrian

            Both of the advantages you mention are very limited unless there is a large range of routes that the trucks can travel. If you are dropping off a trailer with an automated cab, what then does the cab do? Switching of trailers is currently easy because most cabs can be hitched to a new trailer that is going almost anywhere, so it requires relatively little driving (if a whole ton of logistics) to get to a new trailer. The more limited the number of routes you can choose the farther you will have to go or longer you will have to wait for a new trailer.

            The second part is that the design of cabs requires considering the design of the trailer for aerodynamics, so the gains from adjusting the cab are going to be limited by this factor.

          • The Nybbler says:

            You don’t need to swap the trailers. Just have the driver hop in, switch to manual mode, and do the local part of the delivery. You don’t even need a truck parking lot to do this (though in practice you’ll likely have one), just a pull-through area. This means you’re wasting your autonomous capability, but you’re saving a fair bit of time and trouble, so it’s probably worth it. Given the base assumptions, anyway — that autonomous trucks can handle the highway driving but not the local part.

        • John Schilling says:

          Truly unmanned trucks, even for just intercity transport, will probably require about the same level of autonomy as truly autonomous cars. Otherwise, the cost of the occasional “I’m pulling over to the side of the road and not moving until you send someone who can read a detour sign / turn a lug wrench / splain things to this traffic cop” will probably outweigh the costs of just putting one of those on every truck as a preventative.

          Also, as others have noted, look at what happens when you implement the obvious optimizations as you approach this level. Maximize the number of “truckloads” under the supervision of one driver. Separate the truckways from automotive roadways for traffic deconfliction. Build depots near the center of all major cities to transfer to local delivery trucks. While you’re at it, design the truckways for minimum rolling resistance, and maybe electrify them. Congratulations, you’ve just invented the railroad.

          That said, as you approach Level 4 Autonomy, you can probably have the drivers counting most of their intracity travel as “rest” rather than driving time, with some caveats and a good long talk with the union. That’s probably worth quite a bit, actually

          • ana53294 says:

            You can probably have the drivers counting most of their intracity travel as “rest” rather than driving time, with some caveats and a good long talk with the union.

            In the US, is there no state/federal law that puts limits on driving time for truckers?

            In Spain, we have legal limits; 9 (10 in special circumstances) hours of driving per day; 4.5 hours without breaks.

            A lot of truckers in Spain are one-man businesses; they own their own truck, so no unions. These are also the people who tend to be the ones who work the hardest.

            In Spain, it’s not the unions that set limits, it’s the government. Is the US trucking business made of bigger companies? Are there less one-man trucker businesses? Are unions the only ones that limit driving time, so a one-man business can drive as long as they want?

          • Chalid says:

            Otherwise, the cost of the occasional “I’m pulling over to the side of the road and not moving until you send someone who can read a detour sign / turn a lug wrench / splain things to this traffic cop”

            I think much of this could be done by a remote human. The truck drives itself 99.99% of the time, and for the remaining 0.01% of the time it “calls home” and a human guides it through whatever sticky situation is occurring. This of course requires it to be able to reliably and safely pull over and wait for guidance but that seems like a tractable problem. The remote operator would probably have to be more highly trained than a normal truck driver, but you’d have to hire way fewer of them.

          • SamChevre says:

            In the US, is there no state/federal law that puts limits on driving time for truckers?

            No, the US is like Spain; there are legal limits on hours for truckers. The rules have gotten much more restrictive over the years from what I hear at second-hand. (It’s hard to separate much more aggressive enforcement of the same rules, and stricter rules, at my knowledge level.)

            Also similarly, trucking tends to have many one-man businesses.

            One idiosyncracy of trucking in the US is the pay structure; truckers are paid by miles travelled, but loading and unloading count against their time limits.

          • acymetric says:


            One idiosyncracy of trucking in the US is the pay structure; truckers are paid by miles travelled, but loading and unloading count against their time limits.

            That is not exactly true (well, it is slightly misleading). There is a limit on drive-time which only counts time spent actively driving. There is also a limit for on-duty time which is larger but does include loading/unloading and other activities. Generally speaking, though, that is not going to be a problem as the on-duty limit is 3 hours longer than the active driving limit and if loading/unloading takes longer than 2 hours from the scheduled time the trucking company will typically charge additional fees to compensate for the lost time.

          • ana53294 says:

            If truckers are only allowed to be on duty for X driving time + 3h for other tasks per day, I guess my proposed model could be feasible only if the time spent in the cabin while the AI drives does not count toward the legal on-duty time.

            But if it doesn’t, that would mean that truckers could clock 4h+ more on their truck. They could even sleep on the cabin, while the truck drives. This would mean that they could do a lot more miles per day, and as you said, they are paid per mile.

            It all comes down to how the law is defined. In the end, it seems like the law, and not any practical/technical issues will be the thing that defines semi-autonomous trucks’ viability.

          • Aapje says:

            Separate the truckways from automotive roadways for traffic deconfliction. […] While you’re at it, design the truckways for minimum rolling resistance, and maybe electrify them. Congratulations, you’ve just invented the railroad.

            These are extremely expensive and in many cases don’t outweigh the costs.

            There is no reason why we should want to do that in many cases.

            PS. Note that choosing not to do traffic deconfliction was a major reason why the Internet became such a success.

          • John Schilling says:

            We already did that a hundred and fifty years ago, and have already sunk the costs of maintaining and upgrading the system ever since.

          • Ketil says:

            Also, as others have noted, look at what happens when you implement the obvious optimizations as you approach this level. Maximize the number of “truckloads” under the supervision of one driver.

            There are some reasons trucks are superior to rail. For one, sharing the infrastructure is cheaper, here, state spends a lot on development and maintenance of rail infrastructure, yet it only carries a fraction of road traffic, at higher costs (at least per passenger). Some of this has to do with supporting higher weights, road wear and tear scales superlinearly with vehicle weight. Also, rail ends up at a terminal, and goods must be transferred to trucks at origin and again to get to their final destination.

            Autonomous trucks could be a disruptive technology, optimizing in the other direction, converging perhaps towards Amazon’s drone delivery of one package at a time directly from sender to receiver?

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            We don’t actually have rail networks as dense as roads. For example, a road goes past my house, not a railway. Even if it did, it’s unlikely that the station would be right next to my house, so I would still have to travel to it.

            So using rail often requires switching transportation systems, which can be costly. Although there are ways to reduce the costs. For example, TEU containers have made transport a lot cheaper, by enabling much more rapid transition of (discrete) goods from one form of transport to another.

            Anyway, I would say that (theoretically) optimal transport for most cases would use a flexible and fairly cheap medium like roads, would consist of relatively small units that could link up on highways to form convoys to reduce drag, would be unmanned, would use a dense & light but pollution-free energy source and would dispense candy and booze.

          • John Schilling says:

            We don’t actually have rail networks as dense as roads. For example, a road goes past my house, not a railway. Even if it did, it’s unlikely that the station would be right next to my house, so I would still have to travel to it.

            We’re talking freight, not passengers, here. I assume you normally have the shipper deliver freight to your house rather than going to pick it up yourself?

            And no shipper can have autonomous trucks use the road in front of your house for that purpose. That technology doesn’t exist, and we are discussing the case where that doesn’t change with a few years of clever hacking. The case where delivering freight to your house without running over your neighbor’s dog and incurring a lawsuit, still requires a human driver in a delivery truck.

            If fully autonomous intracity driving is not practical but the relatively sterile and predictable highways can be autonomously navigated, then any autonomous trucks that are put into service will be limited to traveling between centralized depots where their cargoes will be handed off to local delivery drivers. Which is exactly the model we’ve got now for railroads, and at least in the United States we’ve gotten really good at using railroads for long-haul cargo delivery. Including the intermodal handoffs at each end.

            Rail transport uses roughly an order of magnitude less energy than long-distance truck transport. Given that we’ve already built the railways for transporting shipping containers between central urban depots, what overwhelming advantage do autonomous trucks have in that application?

          • bean says:

            Given that we’ve already built the railways for transporting shipping containers between central urban depots, what overwhelming advantage do autonomous trucks have in that application?

            Not having to deal with the railroads, maybe. Amazon seems the most likely user, and the time savings from being able to use an autonomous truck unit instead of having to send it to the rail yard and wait for a train could be significant. That’s a fairly niche use, though.

          • CatCube says:

            The main issue with railroads is that to be efficient, you need to have a lot of railcars going from Point A to Point B. If there’s a large number of cars from one shipper to one receiver, like a unit coal train, then rail is super cheap, fast, and reliable. They just schedule trains a couple days a week to pick up at the mine, and run it through to deliver to the power plant.

            Once you’ve got mixed freight where you have a lot of shippers and a lot of receivers, things get more dicey. You probably won’t have enough cars to make up a train from a particular shipper’s city to their intended destination, so you need to start transshipment to intermediate points where you can make up efficiently-sized trains. This consumes a lot of time, since your shipment will have to wait at each transshipment point. Once you start talking less-than-truckload shipments (i.e., that don’t get their own intermodal container), then you have the additional time needed to get enough shipments to fill the container before it even goes to the intermodal yard.

            When we did shipments of our vehicles at Fort Knox, we preferred to use line-hauling (with trucks) whenever possible. Generally, we’d plan a month for the train carrying our vehicles to get to its destination, whereas a truck could do a couple days. If you were shipping the entire battalion’s vehicles, the cost and number of trucks would get to be a serious problem, but lesser numbers? Yeah, trucks. You also didn’t have the problem of hobos cutting open the hatches on the M117s and shitting into them. (Autoracks solved this problem for shipping new cars, which are now preferentially moved by rail.)

            You’ve also got the issue that the railroads are very old companies, founded in an era when they were the Googles of their day. They are famously bureaucratic organizations, who have the legal protections that allow them to tell most anybody “Fuck you, I’m a railroad.” I was discussing some work being done around the gate of a military installation (not Fort Knox) where a Class I railroad had trackage. They (the US military) were strongly considering redesigning the entrance to the base because the railroad was such a pain in the ass to deal with. I was discussing a project with an engineer working for a major American city, and part of it crossed land owned by a short-line railroad. The owner of the railroad did the work over a weekend, (a bridge over a new pedestrian path) with no input on engineering standards or code check from the city–so long as the owner certified that it met the internal engineering standards of his railroad, he didn’t have to talk with anybody.

        • Lambert says:

          Do we have the comms infrastructure to have humans drive trucks remotely? (i.e. predator drone style)

          Immediately, you’d get the benefits of the truckers being able to stay in one place and go home after their shift. And you don’t need to put a big cabin on the front of the truck.

          But more importantly, once autonomous trucking is semi-viable, you can run the trucks on AI for the easy stuff but get them to hand over to a human as soon as things get tricky. If your autonomous system can handle things 90% of the time, you only need 10% of the workforce. You also get a load of real-world data to train your AI.

          The obstacles I see are
          a) Getting low-latency video data from trucks in the middle of nowhere, Iowa to your datacenter.
          b) Enough AI to come to a stop safely when the transmitter on a truck doing 70 mph suddenly fails.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Absolutely 100% not. Critical-moment loss of drone control is a loss of equipment. Critical-moment loss of truck control is a jacknifed trailer and a dead family. And the idea that you can identify and switch control with latency that low is ridiculous; you still need someone monitoring the road 100% of the time due to the necessity of contextual response. This stuff is happening over the span of seconds, not minutes, most of the time.

          • acymetric says:

            Yeah, the whole premise of this subthread (that automated trucking might be a low-hanging fruit for getting started with automated vehicles) is a flawed one both for general implementation and for widespread adoption. All the problems with self driving cars practically and business-wise are magnified for trucks, not minimized or avoided.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Yeah, the whole premise of this subthread (that automated trucking might be a low-hanging fruit for getting started with automated vehicles) is a flawed

            Quite possibly. That said, there appear to be a good number of commercial orders for automated trucks already. Also, there are trucks being used in limited engagements for commercial hauling.

            I do agree that rail is a good substitute for a lot of the uses that we might consider trucks. But, rail is expensive to lay down and limited to one type of traffic. Roads are already laid down and can be used for commercial and residential traffic.

            This marketing piece article is about a Chinese-American company and covers a lot of the information already talked about in this thread, with more detail.

    • fraza077 says:

      Here’s a pessimistic take from a blog I occasionally read:

      I’m not that knowledgeable on the subject, but my impression is that to get really good driving AI, it’s going to almost have to be general AI. There are so many edge cases, so many new situations that humans deal with effortlessly because we know so much else about the world. We can read text signs and make sense of them. We can reason about lines on the road that we haven’t seen before. We can get a sense that “something is wrong” about an upcoming situation.

      If we can guarantee self-driving cars a sanitised environment, then it will be fine. Motorway driving will be here soon, I’m sure (although it will also fail spectacularly at times). Navigating narrow streets and novel situations is a long way away, I think.

      • Aapje says:

        “Road works, please disable GPS navigation and follow the signs”

      • baconbits9 says:

        My impression on AI “hpye” as a complete know nothing outsider is that there seems to be a baseline problem. People define “smart” as something like ‘can you do what other people can’t” and so the average person seems pretty “dumb”. The average person is actually highly intelligent when we look at all the things they can do compared to less intelligent life forms, but AI work seems to heavily rely on this idea of intelligence being able to do things that people can’t do (very fast math, extremely precise measurement and calculation) while skipping over the things that they can do because those are “easy” of “solved” and all we have to do is translate the solution to a programming language and there you are.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Most of the field’s “hype” accomplishments – Watson, AlphaGo, Deepmind, OpenAI – seem to be using “competent at things humans are good at” rather than “better than human.” That much has proven a challenge.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            I’d go the other way. A lot of those things actually do things the human mind is not apt at doing. Watson was initially simply too fast at hitting the clicker for his human opponents. Now he evaluates vast databases that would take humans too long to read in depth. Alphago, if its anything like the chess computers, has good algorithms, but nowhere near as good as the human mind, rather it has almost infinite experience and very fast, near perfect recall and very fast much larger computation power.

            Computers are actually still quite bad at doing what humans are really good at doing, which is discriminating/stereotyping/analogizing in real time. Lets assume we could build a perfectly human looking robot that spoke normally and walked normally (which are actually two other problems that humans are really good at that robots suck at), the “Turing test” you would actually want to conduct is to take your human and robot to a place that is similar to where they have been before but not quite the same, and put them in a same, but different scenario.

            For example, you’d take them to a park in a different city, and have a breed of dog they have never seen before come bounding towards them and closely observe the reactions. And then take them to a restaurant that is new, and then have a bouncer menace them. Those are the kind of things that AI is really bad at currently making decisions on, but humans do it quite naturally.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t AlphaGo basically unbeatable (by humans) ?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I think we also have extremely high standards for the AI we do not hold for humans. Humans make snap judgments with insufficient information. But they’re frequently wrong. They jump when the bushes rustle thinking “tiger” when no, it’s just a bunny. And that’s okay.

            When the human in the call center mishears your name as “Jack” instead of “Jake” we understand and politely correct him. When the computer does it it’s a stupid @#$*()*& machine.

    • Google, well Waymo, has been doing a slow, low-key rollout in Arizona. Getting an autonomous car “working” isn’t hard. Google has been doing that since 2009. The difficulty is in finding new weird situations and solving them and making them reliable enough for use in production. They’ve been spending the better part of a decade doing that. They seem to be able to travel all the public roads in Phoenix, at least. Now, they won’t be able to handle things like snow so it’ll still be a while before we see them up here in Boston. Cruise was second to Waymo when they were bought by GM are maybe a year or two behind. Everybody else is much further back, though if some fundamental advances in AI happen that might give Tesla a suddenly better position.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Almost all criticism of the state of self-driving cars can be dismissed (although the criticism in this thread is not so bad) because it denies the existence of Google’s pilot program in Phoenix, where for the last year and a half 400 non-employees have been receiving rides. The pilot program is secretive and we don’t really know how it’s going. I had to issue a correction about drop-offs above.

      One of the things I “learned” from this thread is that they had blown their deadline and failed to expand beyond the pilot program. But that is not true. Right on schedule, 3 days after you asked this question, they opened up a “commercial” program without NDA. Anyone in Phoenix can apply to join, but the number of slots is still very small. They still have safety drivers, so it’s still a research program. And maybe it is a fake gesture just so that they can say that they’re making progress. But, at the very least, dropping the NDA means that we will have better information in the future.

  16. aNeopuritan says:

    Is “Show that California’s constant water shortages are political, not natural.” “culture war”?

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Yeah, IMO.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        In that case, is there a decent reason why the ban isn’t on “politics”?

        • suntzuanime says:

          Yes but it’s culture war to talk about.

        • James says:

          ‘Culture war’ includes a lot that ‘politics’ doesn’t, I think.

          • Vorkon says:

            Yeah, this.

            A ban on ‘culture war’ pretty much includes all modern politics by default, but a ban on ‘politics’ would leave out some culture war topics.

            (I SUPPOSE there’s a point where “the politics of long-dead historical societies, as long as they aren’t contentious today” or “the politics of small, isolated countries that have very little impact on the US or Europe” might not be culture war topics, but that’s a very big “might.”)

          • bean says:

            I’d actually say that even some sections of current US politics aren’t culture war here. My rule of thumb for that is “likely to degenerate into tribal name-calling”, and we can and have discussed US defense policy (for instance) without that happening. We could probably do the same about general Ag policy (so long as it didn’t map too closely to debates on the environment) or the FAA or whatever. Most of these aren’t things a lot of people vote on, which is probably what makes it work.

          • The Nybbler says:

            ISTR some name-calling on FAA policy, but it wasn’t exactly tribal.

          • bean says:

            If we equate culture war with any kind of heated discussion, then the full-numbered threads are going to be pretty boring.

        • Salem says:

          And politics includes a lot that culture war doesn’t.

      • johan_larson says:

        Is this something left and right continually argue about? If so, it’s culture war.

        I don’t think I’ve seen enough right-left fights about it to count it as a matter of culture war.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          My term for “something left and right continually argue about” is “politics”, and, acknowledging a culture war exists, I think you need some pretty tortured definition of it for this to be included.

        • Vorkon says:

          I haven’t seen any fights about it, per se, because I’ve only seen it discussed in vaguely echo-chambery areas where there wasn’t anyone on the other side to fight with, but I’ve seen examples in both tribes’ echo chambers of people using the topic of California’s drought/fire issues and the causes thereof to paint the other tribe in a negative light, so I think it’s safe to say that yes, it’s a culture war topic.

          • quaelegit says:

            Drought & the fires are a separate issue from water rights & shortages. I think I’ll post a clarification on the new open thread.

    • Don_Flamingo says:

      Sounds like an interesting argument at least. Not knowing what it is, how can you know it’s CW?
      I mean, can you even discuss anything going badly in the state of California and possible state involvement bcs. of bad policy or perverse incentives because the state is Blue?
      If the Democrats (or Republicans) in charge are doing something stupid/evil/greedy/shortsighted/bad, that doesn’t make it culturally contentious, does it?
      [German here not knowing more about the water shortage, other than people being scared/angry about it, and that your federal and state governments are comically brilliant at ruining nice things, regardless of party affiliation]

      • aNeopuritan says:

        My state and federal governments are considerably worse, actually.

      • Brad says:

        It goes way back beyond current Republicans or Democrats. The basic issue is “western water law” which is unique on the entire planet to eight or nine states in the American West.

        I don’t see why discussing that needs to be cultural war (though it could go that direction, see e.g. Cliven Bundy.)

    • gbdub says:

      Some links or an effort post on the history of CA water policy and how it may / may not be contributing to current water issues could be interesting and done in a non culture war way.

      • quaelegit says:

        100% agree with this. I just talked to my dad (who has done his own research into the matter as a layman living in LA) and he gave me some names and resources to look into so I might be able to write a moderate-level post about this. (Although I don’t know if it will address what aN has in mind.)

    • Randy M says:

      No, but it would inevitably lead to remarks about the competency of particular politicians who are likely prominent culture warriors and hence be liable to devolve into the same dynamics.

      • AG says:

        I’d be interested to see what discussion is had before we get close to CW.
        For that matter, it would be great to see if the ban works to facilitate conversations where people have to limit themselves to non-CW justifications for their stances.

        Like, a great back and forth on the various economic and other topics, and then someone says “I’m getting close to CW with this line of arguing” and switches to another line? Is that not pretty much the utopian ideal?

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          To me, the utopian ideal is where we discuss CW topics on any OT, and they manage not to become CW hellholes. (I mean, hey, if you’re gonna ask for utopia…)

          In all seriousness, I continue to maintain that this could be achievable, and SSC is one of the best candidates for where it could happen. My main approach is to try to develop habits that are reasonably easy for commenters to learn, that avoid raising everyone’s emotional level.

          For example, prefacing claims every so often with “I think that” goes a long way in many conversations I’ve had. Alternately, when reading, imagining any claim as being prefaced with “$commenter thinks that”.

          Another example is to make whatever claim you’re going to make, but also match it with a similar claim from whomever you think the other side is. And we already know the value of steelmanning.

          Mostly, it’s an exercise in remaining detached from one’s emotions while writing and reading such comments. The catch is that it uses a lot more calories and time. The upside is that some issues might get further toward resolution. At the very least, everyone would agree on what the major disagreements are.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            To me, the utopian ideal is where we discuss CW topics on any OT, and they manage not to become CW hellholes. (I mean, hey, if you’re gonna ask for utopia…)

            I don’t think that would fully satisfy Scott’s concerns about culture war topics. SSC is amazingly free of shrill yelling that is common elsewhere. There are some discussions that go on forever with each of the participants talking past each other, but nothing like you see out there in the Internet wilderness.

            But I don’t think that is the issue. I think Scott decided to make the non-hidden thread CW free because we do have the tendency sometimes to say things that would be totally outrageous and get one banned at many other web sites, even when the arguments aren’t very shrill. Scott doesn’t want casual readers to happen upon these discussions and bring unpleasant attention on this blog for its horrible commenters. For example the discussions about (what is the euphemism, muggle something or other or biodiversity?). I suspect the lack of shrill denunciations itself might look worse to some visitors than the mild discussions that result.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @ Paul

            The catch is that it uses a lot more calories and time.

            Honestly I don’t think it does. The alternative is to say things that aren’t quite what the other side means, and then the other side feels the need to shoot back their side’s arguments (often refined in the crucible of the wider internet to “score points” for their team instead of producing fruitful discussion). Then comes the inevitable return posts to clear up why those points are incomplete – and how could they not be, they were designed to be as one-sided as possible? – and back and forth. This creates far more total words in addition to the increased frustration, and therefore more “calories and time” get expended.

            At least taking enough effort to demonstrate the baseline understanding of your opponent’s position, and showing that you are not taking the low-brow partisan counter-position they may be more familiar with arguing against, will reduce the psychological desire to turn the discussion into a fight. That should earn a fair amount of goodwill from those who may disagree on the object level discussion.

          • AG says:

            For example, prefacing claims every so often with “I think that” goes a long way in many conversations I’ve had. Alternately, when reading, imagining any claim as being prefaced with “$commenter thinks that”.

            Yeah, I very quickly abandoned any writing advice about passive voice, hedging, or assertiveness, as it seemed obvious to me that significant amounts of precision were lost by doing so. Sometimes my sentences get weirdly detailed, but they also tell you the exact meaning and connotation I want to convey.

          • Randy M says:

            But again, sometimes different people need to hear opposite advice.
            I think in general I often use too many hedging words and I’m going to try to stop.

          • dick says:

            For example, prefacing claims every so often with “I think that” goes a long way in many conversations I’ve had.

            I do this pretty reflexively, and it’s because of Korzybski and his theories about the semantics of “is”, which had a big effect on me when I read about them, primarily in the writings of RAW. I’ve never proselytized it here because I don’t see that discussion going well, but the gist that is saying “That chair is brown” instead of “The chair looks brown to me” trains you to believe in a world of objective essences rather than subjective observations, which has various bad-but-subtle effects.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Honestly I don’t think it does [use more calories and time to write detailed comments on CW issues]. The alternative is to [use more in the long run heated exchange].

            Agreed, when you put it that way. I should have said it uses more calories and time up front. Plus, it’s more of my calories. If I want to make a point with minimal effort, why go through the trouble to make my adversaries’ points for them? …which explains one reason why this probably doesn’t get done often.

            Yeah, I very quickly abandoned any writing advice about passive voice, hedging, or assertiveness, as it seemed obvious to me that significant amounts of precision were lost by doing so. Sometimes my sentences get weirdly detailed, but they also tell you the exact meaning and connotation I want to convey.

            I think(!) this is a good habit. But I’m inclined to take it a step further: if I add the hedging words and the claim now sounds weirdly detailed to me, then it’ll likely sound weirdly detailed to other readers, so it will signal an effort to be careful, and invite care in interpretation.

            And if the result is a claim that loses too much precision, I delete the claim as being too weak to be interesting to readers. Which teaches me something about my own beliefs.

            I’ve never proselytized [Korzybski’s theories about the semantics of “is”] here because I don’t see that discussion going well

            I’m honestly trying to imagine what could go wrong with, say, an effort post about General Semantics on SSC, and failing.

          • dick says:

            I’m honestly trying to imagine what could go wrong with, say, an effort post about General Semantics on SSC, and failing.

            General Semantics is a huge, unwieldy topic which I know very little about and which I gather most people have serious reservations about, and I’m not the person to explain it. There’s a small subset of GS that I find useful, which I cribbed from the sprawling and elaborate worldview of an avowed mystic and weirdo. Trying to tease that out of its context and present it in a persuasive way to a hostile and nitpicky audience doesn’t seem feasible.

          • Protagoras says:

            Yeah, I read Science and Sanity a long time ago, and am one of the people with serious reservations about Korzybski. And I I doubt I’d be the only one who would be hostile and nitpicky.

  17. Smirking Punk says:

    When I’m trying to find something from the SSC archives by keyword, I sometimes get this as a recommended Google query:

    “how many candidates sourced from slate star codex do we need in order to make this hire”

    But the query doesn’t actually turn anything up. Now I’m curious. Does anyone know where this sentence comes from?

    • The Element of Surprise says:

      Maybe google is leaking queries that were done by other users before. Makes you wonder how many candidates they did source.

      The top google completion for “is scott alexander”, btw, is “is scott alexander married”.

      • Prof says:

        The top google completion for “is scott alexander”, btw, is “is scott alexander married”.

        Then again, “is X married” seems to be the top google completion for “is X” in well over half the cases of X that I try. If X is somewhat old, sometimes it’s overtaken by “is X still alive” or “is X dead”.

        For just “is richard”, the 10 completions offered to me are: “is richard osman married”, “is richard madden married”, “is richard armitage married”, “is richard gere married”, “is richard gere still alive”, “is richard madden single”, “is richard madden scottish”, “is richard hawley married”, “is richard carpenter still alive”, “is richard e grant married”. I guess there just aren’t that many questions people tend to ask of the form “Is X … ?”

        • The Nybbler says:

          “Is the pope” results in …catholic, …a virgin, …italian, …married, and …infallible for me.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Is the pope an infallible Italian Catholic married virgin?
            … welp, not sure how you’d ever get both of those last two. It used to be (this is what Orthodox do) that priests could be married but bishops had to be celibate, but celibate != virgin.

          • Vorkon says:

            Google has failed me!

            I was sincerely hoping I could get “Does the pope…” to result in “…shit in the woods.”

            To be fair, I couldn’t get that result to pop up for “Does a bear…” either, so I guess they’re at least partially vindicated.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            “Does a bear… appear when you say his name?”

          • Nick says:

            Marriages in the Catholic Church, if valid, are ratified but not consummated. They are still marriages and are eligible for dissolution under certain circumstances.

            Priests cannot validly be married (§1087); likewise, except in special circumstances, married men cannot become priests. Now, the pope is not bound by these canons, except where they exist for reasons of divine or natural law, but even there he is obliged to uphold them for reasons of divine or natural law, not canon law. I am not actually sure what the status of the holy orders impediment to marriage is… I would think the salient characteristic is that due to holy orders one is unable to licitly consummate the marriage, which I expect is an impediment regardless of whether it’s for holy orders specifically, but I really have not got a clue on that point.

            Regardless, it is still possible for an already-married man, even in a consummated marriage, to become pope, at which point he receives holy orders; and even if the exceptions for married men mentioned above did not apply, he’s the pope so they don’t need to. So a fortiori a virgin man in a ratified marriage can become pope.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nick: Oh, I thought the sticking point would be that a virgin man with a wife would get his marriage annulled for not fulfilling his husbandly duties (this was the grounds on which the Pope annulled Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage, which led to Henry VIII believing he was divinely cursed for boinking Catherine because his parents had the pope play politics with her marital status).

        • Nobody seems to want to know whether I am married. Is that good or bad?

      • The Nybbler says:

        A query has to be run by a certain number of users before it’s eligible for autocomplete.

        My guess for this one would be that autocomplete is piecing together phrases rather than it being an entire query. Another option would be the Rationalist Cabal deliberately entering this query in an attempt to make it autocomplete.

  18. DragonMilk says:

    Cream Cheese and Sour Cream

    My fiancee likes both but is generally very picky. She’ll have cream cheese with salmon sushi hand rolls and lox, and sour cream with tacos…so I hesitate to go full experimental.

    What are some straight-forward recipes that involve cream cheese or sour cream?

    • Well... says:

      Man, these “send me your recipes” threads are way too catnippy for me.

      I use cream cheese to make alfredo sauce. I think my sauce is OK but I’m sure you can find some way better ones — that call for cream cheese — on Allrecipes or something.

      • DragonMilk says:

        Haha, here’s one in return: Bacon fried rice!

        Quantities to be guesstimated and proportions not all that important:
        1. Steam rice, let it cool (so a lot of time leftover rice is used)
        2. Cut up 2-3 long strips of bacon, sautee on a pan, let the fat turn to oil, and remove the meat once crispy
        3. Add the vegetable medley (I like to buy the frozen pea, carrot, corn mix, but have it thaw first) into the bacon grease, add a bit of extra vegetable oil if necessary until cooked. Remove and place with the bacon
        4. *Optional step* Put in finely chopped onions until near brown, and add scallions as well. Remove and place with the bacon and veggies
        5. Add vegetable oil until bottom of pan is covered with a thin layer. Add in your 2-4 scrambled eggs. Stir until it starts to coagulate, then scramble up to avoid pancaking.
        6. Crumble in the cool, previously steamed rice until it is mixed with the eggs. Add soy sauce until lightly brown. If it’s darker brown you’ve gone too far.
        7. Stir in the bacon and veggies (and optionally onion/scallion), and mix together


    • DeWitt says:

      I make palak paneer with cream cheese, because I’m an European heathen who can’t reliably get his hands on the proper cheese for it. Doing so makes me feel a little dirty every time I do, but the result is generally tasty.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Spinach artichoke dip.

      Cream cheese, sour cream, parmesan, cayenne pepper, garlic, salt, spinach, artichoke hearts. Toss everything in a pot for an hour. Consume.

      Not the healthiest thing, but very good.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        Hijacking this, there are all sorts of dips that use cream cheese and/or sour cream to get that dip texture. It’s pretty standard actually.

        I like butternut squash dip.

        I’d also recommend caramelizing onions ahead of time in the slow cooker you ordered. HBC might kill me for suggesting that, but I honestly think it’s one of the best uses for a slow cooker. I freeze them and thaw them when needed. I am going to do a batch tomorrow because I want to make French onion soup this weekend (got the beef stock last weekend from bones I roasted: always good to make beef stock from scratch!)

    • Simulated Knave says:

      Smoked salmon and cream cheese scrambled eggs.

      Chili, but with sour cream added.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      Recipe: Open-faced cheese bagel sandwich

      Ingredients: A bagel; some cream cheese; some good cheese (I’ve done this with Havarti, cheddar, and Monterey Jack)

      Equipment: A toaster oven

      Procedure: Slice bagel in half. Spread cream cheese on halves. Place a layer of cheese on top of the cream cheese. Place both halves into toaster oven. Toast for 5 minutes (or until cheese is fully melted). Eat.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      Recipe: Mashed potatoes with sour cream on top

      Ingredients: Potatoes; whatever else you put into mashed potatoes (I use a pat of butter plus enough cream to make them creamy); sour cream

      Equipment: Saucepan, knives, potato masher, etc.

      Procedure: Make mashed potatoes. Put some sour cream on top. Eat.

    • Bugmaster says:

      This may be a derailment, but still: have you (or rather, your fiancee) tried Творог, also known as “Farmer’s Cheese” (and, apparently, “Quark“, oddly enough) ? It’s somewhere between cream cheese and cottage cheese in consistency, though with a unique taste; and it goes well with sour cream. There are many recipes involving Творог, e.g. these.

      • DragonMilk says:

        How easy is this to obtain at a local supermarket?

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Seconding творог, it’s great.

          Obtaining it is easy in New York City, probably tricky most elsewhere in the U.S. But you can make your own! (It’s not trivial but it’s also not hard.)

          • DragonMilk says:

            How does one spell it in English?

          • DragonMilk says:

            Disregard my last comment, I noticed “quark” earlier in the chain

          • Bugmaster says:

            In California, they sell it at Trader Joe’s (regularly), Whole Foods (sometimes), and of course Russian delis (always, but good luck finding one). The English name is usually “Farmer’s Cheese” or some variation of “Twarog”; I have never seen it called “Quark” (which is too bad, because I’d love to be able to say, “I eat pure quarks for breakfast !”).

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            Quark is German.
            Pun doesn’t work in German either, sadly.
            Otherwise I’d have stolen it.

            Ich esse puren Quark zum Frühstück. (food)
            Ich esse pure Quarks zum Frühstück. (subatomic particles)

    • nameless1 says:


      Lots of sour cream and you can replace the cheese with cream cheese.

    • alveolartap says:

      Look into Russian dishes.

    • AG says:

      Mac and cream cheese is pretty self explanatory.
      Similarly, veggies-in-cheese-sauce seems like something you could replace said (cheddar) cheese sauce with a cream cheese sauce instead.

      And then it’s a hop-skip-jump to a casserole variant.

      Swap out ricotta in lasagna or the marscapone in tiramisu?

      For sour cream, you gotta run the gamut of chili variant dishes. My recommendation is frito pie.
      Sour cream would also work as a topping for a lot of BBQ variants.

  19. James says:

    I hope I can be forgiven for reposting this, because it’s great and I don’t think it was greatly seen when I posted it at the tail end of the last OT:

    Grimes, Canadian synthpop chick perhaps better known round here as Elon Musk’s girlfriend, releases Nine Inch Nails-sounding single about AI, uploading, ems, the simulation argument, and the Basilisk.

    Thoughts? I like it.

    • Don_Flamingo says:

      loved it. Rare to hear something so pleasant and upbeat be so creepy at the same time.

      She’s totally hedging her bets though, when she ‘pledge[s] allegiance to the most powerful compuuuuuu’.
      Probably wants plausible deniability in case of a reverse Basilisk scenario or just the second most powerful computer winning thru luck.

      • James says:

        Rare to hear something so pleasant and upbeat be so creepy at the same time.

        She has a knack for mixing seemingly-incompatible vibes.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I was bored and bailed out quickly.

      • AG says:

        Yeah, Grimes’ music leaves me cold. Not nearly maximalist enough, and her melodies aren’t strong enough to merit the lower arrangement density.

    • RDNinja says:

      This is going to be the perfect club background music for my upcoming Shadowrun game this weekend.

  20. Don_Flamingo says:

    Starting to read The Mind Illuminated. Why does all this kinda sound like a more fleshed out practice of Stoicism to me (the sagehood as end goal seem almost identical to me)? Did the ancients talk to each other (or travelers transmitting the ideas across continents) or did they all come up with these concepts separately?
    However there are stark differences here, as well.

    Buddhism doesn’t seem to have a virtue ethics aspect to it (as far as I can tell). It seems otherworldly and dreamy. Reading about Buddhism so far, always felt like listening to some stoner ranting about the ‘love of the universal perception, maaaan. Did you ever like notice…,that bird over there… you are that bird…and so am I… the bird is us and….’.

    Reading Seneca or Aurelius, I don’t get that at all. Reading ‘On the shortness of life’ has a violent clarity listing all the ways, that you’re fucking up (plus many ways, people other than you are and now you can’t feel superior to anymore).
    It makes me feel ashamed of my own failings and at the same time makes me excited of what I could be, if I overcame them.
    Stoicism also has a fanatical civic-mindedness to it (you must not be a fool or you’ll fail the Republic/Empire/Rome/mankind/displease the Gods/bring dishonor to your clan/become a fat slob of no use to anyone/whatever). It makes the case that you do not live for yourself, that you as a human are always a part of something bigger, that you have a responsibility for (also do not feed your slaves to lampreys, like that one guy, wtf is wrong with him!).
    I know that’s only a story, but ‘man is a social animal’ and our kind doesn’t do well,
    if we don’t believe some version of it, if we feel no connection to anyone. I’m starting to see, that it’s something I need to make myself believe, but I can’t make myself be super excited and caring about the whole of mankind, like all these EA-folks seem to miraculously pull of (how are you not jaded and cynical like normal people?!).

    The Buddhist sage for me, seems to be a floaty Dalai Lama figute wearing stylish orange, drinking his Yak butter tea and chanting a lot. He’s cooly detached and looks down on mere mortals and their foolish quest for trying to be better than merely to subsist on other people’s food, like a parasite. He’s one with the Buddha nature and is oh so very above striving!
    Or maybe a monk, who’s a Kung Fu master, but with nothing to fight for.
    Weak-willed men hiding their jaded passivity and utter lack of all ambition and humanity under a veneer of mysticism.
    Now the Stoic sage to me, is somebody like Elon Musk, John von Neumann or Otto von Bismarck. Actual heroes, who get shit done. People who are committed to this world and trying to make it bigger and better.
    Someone, who if I can’t myself be, I could at least aspire to be useful to.

    However Stoicism is long dead.
    What they actually did in their schools, remains unknown. The surviving texts seem to be more of an advertisement of Stoicism, rathet than a complete spiritual practice. (I know about isolated ‘circle of concern’-meditations, but no stages/progress system except 1. fool 2. knowing you’re a fool 3. ??? 4. yay, sagehood!). They make me feel warm fuzzy feelings about wanting to attain wisdom, but leaving me none the wiser. Some elegant concepts do stick.

    The reality of an experience vs the impression of it (second arrow in Buddhism?), the interconnectedness of virtues and vices (you are wise iff you are courageous iff your are just iff you are moderate), embrace your fate or be destroyed by it/amor fati, comfort and luxury breed weakness, feeling resentment brings you low, your self-pity is sentimental bullshit, anger is always foolish (violence and punishment not necessarily), being invested in entertainment makes you value irrelevant things (Seneca meant cheering for gladiatorial combat, but that’s just the Netflix of his day, except Netflix is much worse).

    I undetstand those cognitively, even can see and feel the beauty of their truth.

    But I don’t know how to practice and live them (and more importantly, how to not forget about all of them in a week and fall back into the comfort of my depraved habits).

    With Stoic texts I never have to ask myself, who the fuck is Samantha and why is she so important? But Samantha is actually very important to achieve (or approximate) sagehood and TMI tells me exactly who Samantha is and what to do about her!

    TMI seems to provide all the missing pieces to actually do Stoicism, without me having to pretend to accept the wisdom of degenerate, old mystics, whose greatest actions seem to be, to occasionally set themselves on fire and/or torture-kill all people who can write their own name in Cambodia.
    [I know, that guy Deiseach got into a hilarious fight with will tell me, that the former is the racist, teddy bear-image of the Enlightened that’s been sold to Westerners and his Hindu tradition is very much in a Warrior/community spirit, but that’s not something I’ve had any exposure to]

    So I’m very excited about reading and applying TMI. Thank you Scott for the review.

    • Aging Loser says:

      I’ve also wondered at the absence of meditation-instructions beyond reflect-upon-these-principles (by repeating them verbally to yourself?) in Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

      (Epictetus also mentions morning physical exercises — pushups and pullups?)

      Both Stoics and Groovy Easterners omit the huge aspect of Good Living that Martin Buber focuses on: the I-You thing where you attend to other individual people as individual people, not just as interchangeable instances of the category Suffering Entity.

      It always frustrates me that Plato never tells us what he imagines the experience of zoning in on this or that Form would be like. Is this like Groovy Eastern exhilaration, or is it just what you feel when you’re thinking about the topic with subvocalized words running through your head and you seem (temporarily) to have figured things out?

      • aNeopuritan says:

        Pointers on Western meditation. You could ask more in the open thread linked right below, or possibly here.

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        Well the Stoics didn’t care about or even consider a Suffering entity. Suffering is foolish. It’s never the thing itself making you suffer, but your foolish interpretation of it.
        However living this is difficult. I’m hoping that meditation can help with that. Meditation being this wonderful hack, that you can use to understand and control your usually not so cooperative brain better.
        The Stoics provide an ideal. I like that ideal. Good enough for me. They just neglect to tell you how to navigate the ocean between here and there.
        The Buddhists might know how to navigate, but don’t know any worthwhile place to go with it. And their instructions are full of impenetrable jargon.
        Except reading TMI, the author claims they totally do and it’s the same kind of sagehood after all and he’s translated all the jargon! (which really surprised me, because Stoic sage != Fat Buddha). It’s just that the early material has been translated so often(+language drift), that modern practitioners hardly know what they are doing. That’s why I’m excited, but also a little confused.

        Not familiar with Plato and whatever he means with forms. Or how the Stoics only see people as abstractions (in ‘On clemency’ Seneca made it a point, that a punishment ought not only to fit a crime, but also the person and the circumstances and whether rehabilitation is expected or deterrence is desired). Hard to prove a negative there, anyway.
        What do you mean by it exactly?
        (I can’t even imagine what it would mean, not to see an individual as an individual, sounds rather silly, don’t even need to be remotely wise to have that nailed down)

        • Aging Loser says:

          Well, Don, Epictetus’s attitude toward his students seems to be, “Okay, kid, you’ve got a social role to play — your place within the scheme of things — so wise up, quit whining, and join the universe like a Real Man.” Instead of, “Yeah, I hear you — that must be hard — how’s your Mom? — wow, look at that sunset!”

          Stoics never notice trees and sunsets. Plato only has Socrates noticing one tree in the entirety of the dialogues — at the beginning of Phaedrus — and no sunsets. And Socrates just thinks that the tree would be a nice place for a conversation about Love. Looking at the sunset with a friend matters more than getting with the universe by wholeheartedly performing your social role without any whining, don’t you think?

          Another thing — the Greeks don’t seem to have realized that awareness is weird, that being a self is even weirder. The Indians realized this. What happened to the Indians to make them realize this?

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            The first attitude speaks much more to me. The universe is where we live, the beauty of a sunset is just a small part of it.

            Plato is not a Stoic, though. The Stoics came after.
            Virtue ethics is specifically concerned about how to act. And sunsets don’t factor into that much. Or trees for that matter.

            I disagree, that Stoicism is about just filling your social role (though it’s certainly about not neglecting it!). You make it sound, like they advocated that you must be an unthinking part of the machine.
            But it’s about making right choices and exercising the power, that you do have wisely. Whining is never wise. It effects nothing, instead of enable your passivity. It’s self-indulgent and an obvious vice.

            And often the right thing to do is, push against your expected role and to mindlessly obey. [gets complicated, whom to obey exactly in a bloody Roman civil war; emphasizing that the right thing isn’t always comfortable obedience]

            I guess the Indians stumbled into meditation as a practice. That’s what happened to them.

          • Aging Loser says:

            I guess I mentioned Plato there because I was just thinking that the whole Classical world was missing something. Then again, what they had that corresponded most closely to our “Wow, look at that tree!” would be sacred groves and the idea of dryads and so forth — sacred caves, sacred streams inhabited by nymphs, etc.

            Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius seem to focus on social roles, and that makes sense — Epictetus ran a kind of finishing-school for gentlemen and Marcus Aurelius was the freaking Emperor.

            (I’ve never understood the being-happy-under-torture thing — seems like obvious bullshit to me. When you’re being tortured, presumably your entire consciousness is full of nothing but pain.)

            A followup on the I-You (engaging with people as individuals) trip — it isn’t that this is something that’s supposed to be hard to do or unusual; it’s just that we’re supposed to recognize that this thing that we often do anyway is the awesomest thing ever. (Buber emphasizes that we keep flipping back and forth between I-You and I-It modes; maybe it’s not just 100% one or the other but anywhere from 99.99%:0.01% to 0.01%:99.99%.)

            I liked reading Marcus Aurelius a lot because I liked him as a person. He seems to be an anxious, depressed guy doing his best to feel better about things. He writes in a very honest, straightforward, non-dogmatic way.

            I don’t think that the Indians got their sense of the weirdness of awareness and selfhood from meditating, because lots of us feel that these things are very weird by the time we’re 14, without ever having meditated.

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            @aging loser
            Well, the torture thing is a bit over the top.

            I can accept it with some caveats. If the sage gets shot in the head or survives a lobotomy, I wouldn’t expect him to still maintain his sagehood. Because having some pieces of your brain missing, basically makes you a very different person (and the person you once were, kind of dead). If the torture is harsh enough, the sage might not maintain it’s sanity. Or rather that’s incorrect.
            The sage was killed, because the person who the sage was has actually been killed (because you don’t really survive tortue (assuming really bad torture), even if a shadow of you makes it out alive).
            If the former sage somehow makes it out alive and can fully physically recover, then I’d expect it to be possible, that he reattains his sagehood.

            Sages are mortal. And torture is in a sense murder in rates.

            When they talked about torture, they were thinking maybe more David Blaine stuff. Or thinking, that torture wouldn’t be long and drawn out, and that the sage would not tell his secrets, whilst being tortured to death in a reasonable amount of time. Maybe a failing of their imagination.

            I don’t know how the natural world seems to be all that important to virtue ethics, but Seneca apparently thought so, too.
            In naturales quaestiones Seneca describes natural phenomena and somehow relates them to Stoicism. (the way the ancients used nature and physics is a little bit confusing to me)
            I haven’t read that, but that might be what you think is missing?

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Do you mind if I ask you to post something in that vein in this open thread, to the author of this article?

    • rlms says:

      torture-kill all people who can write their own name in Cambodia

      Not sure what this is referring to; as far as I know the Khmer Rouge was anti-religious. A couple of prominent figures were monks in their youth, but I don’t think any of them were “old mystics”.

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        fair enough. Just vaguely remembered that Cambodia is about the only Buddhist country (that I’m aware of) and is mainly known for that gruesome Khmer Rogue episode. Probably doesn’t say all that much about Buddhism (or it does, but I know too little about the history of Cambodia to say what).
        I’m kinda going largely on impressions and cliches here, when talking about Buddhism. If it’s too wrong, someone will come and fight me, I hope.

        Just needed a way to express the thought that meditation is great and all, but those Enlightened don’t do much (and I was a bit annoyed, that they get so much respect and everyone nods when those people claim they obviously know all about wisdom).
        Might have been a mite polemic, in places.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          Cambodia is about the only Buddhist country

          Cambodia has the highest percentage of Buddhists, but Thailand and Myanmar are pretty close. Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos and Mongolia are also majority-Buddhist.

          Buddhism also has some level of official status as state religion in all of those except Mongolia (largely because Communism) though the extent of that status varies.

    • arlie says:

      It makes the case that you do not live for yourself, that you as a human are always a part of something bigger, that you have a responsibility for (also do not feed your slaves to lampreys, like that one guy, wtf is wrong with him!).
      I know that’s only a story, but ‘man is a social animal’ and our kind doesn’t do well,
      if we don’t believe some version of it, if we feel no connection to anyone. I’m starting to see, that it’s something I need to make myself believe, but I can’t make myself be super excited and caring about the whole of mankind, like all these EA-folks seem to miraculously pull of (how are you not jaded and cynical like normal people?!).

      I’ve never been happy about the concept of making myself believe something for my own good, and I remain dubious about the whole idea of a universal human need for “something larger than ourselves” – which isn’t quite what you said above, but related.

      Whatever is, is. And it’s what it actually is regardless of what I may believe. Is it really worthwhile to e.g. convince myself that my employer (of the moment; it’s an “at will” employer) is a great cause, and I should share its goals? Lots of people do this, but it looks to me more like a weakness we have because of our evolutionary history, than something that’s good for us.

      How is it better to make the same identification with the place I currently live? (The place I was born decided it needed to favour people who spoke a different language in the home, and the larger political jurisdiction went along with them.) Or any other group for that matter, particularly when I can identify clear signs of its lack of loyalty to me?

      Now maybe I tend towards depression because I don’t make this identification, and folks in Scott’s line of work can make learned diagnostic comments (probably involving attachment styles, poor parenting, etc.). But that doesn’t mean that a faux identification of this kind – not natural to me – would change the depressive tendencies, or do anything other than help me make bad decisions.

      • Aging Loser says:

        Just exchanging friendly remarks with one (physically present) person per day is hard enough, and rewarding enough.

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        It is related, if not exactly the same.

        We don’t get to pick how our brain works (at least I don’t think we do, to a meaningful degree).
        We very much have to work with what we have. Ignoring that makes us weak (or depressed, which is one version of it). Being weak isn’t good.

        Believing in your nation in modern times isn’t all that plausible, anymore.
        If for nothing else, then because nobody else around you does either.
        [And for the dozens of reasons, that made it so. The national idea is very much dead. Had a good few centuries, though.]

        Identifying with a corporation is probably even worse. I agree, it’s a trap, that people walk into and let themselves be exploited. [though, companies are just the people running them, and loyalty is often reciprocated; guess you’ll know that, when you see it]

        I can see, how the Stoics could believe in Rome. How before WW1 people could believe in the German Reich. And I think they were better off for it, as people [ignoring the fact, where they all walked enthusiastically into a meat grinder].

        And I’m pretty sure, that the Stoics were aware of Rome’s flaws. Their ‘circle of concern’-meditation includes larger and larger spheres ending with the whole of humanity. They obviously needed an out, in case they get a homicidal tyrant again.

        Rome, the Reich and the US are just stories we tell each other. They aren’t ever really true, but when they work, they are good for us.

        It’s not believing in a lie, because nothing we believe is ever objectively true. Your own personal identity itself is just a story (I mean, that you are an I, not that you are from X), that persistently perlocates in your brain. But really it’s multiple workspaces and differing factions all having their own conflicting preferences all the way down. Having an ego is a peace treaty among those factions.

        We pick what we believe as a tool to tether us to something. Without a personal identity, we wouldn’t have stable preferences. And without some social identity we feel and are alone. Not wanting to act, because not knowing what or who for. The social identity is needed to reeinforce the personal one.
        We can’t really say ‘For ourselves!’. That might be convenient now, but wouldn’t have been an evolutionary winning strategy [okay, maybe it is for sociopaths and other neuroatypicals, but you can’t choose to be that].

        It’s just, that in modern times, we’re starved for good, believable options for a larger social identity. I don’t think, that it makes that part unimportant. Just harder.

        Or that giving up on it, is a choice, that wouldn’t involve having to pay the price of depression, anxiety and listlessness. And I don’t want any of that. Tried it. Bores me to tears, really.

        @aging loser
        I don’t find that all that hard, though definitely not rewarding enough.

    • Deiseach says:

      Now the Stoic sage to me, is somebody like Elon Musk, John von Neumann or Otto von Bismarck.

      I have to say, Elon Musk isn’t the first example that springs to my mind of a Stoic 🙂

      • Aging Loser says:

        He’s as good an example as any, though, because there have never been any sages anywhere during the entire history of the world. There are just interesting people, and some of them also tend to be less irritable than others.

      • Aftagley says:

        I have to say, Elon Musk isn’t the first example that springs to my mind of a Stoic 🙂

        Nor is Otto Von Bismark. I don’t know enough about John Von Newmann to make an assessment; but it seems like you are really underemphasizing the extent to which Stoics (and Buddhists) focused on attempting to overcome temptation master self control.

        I mean, Von Bismark was great, but the man was known to drink barrels of wine over the course of a day or two and one of his best diplomatic maneuvers was smoking a massive cigar: overcoming temptation of the physical world wasn’t really on his to-do list.

        • Don_Flamingo says:

          (halfway remembering my Seneca here)
          Some virtues are something you only get to exercise, if you’re already strong. You’re not exercising your virtue, if you can’t afford to buy barrels of wine, because it wouldn’t be much of a temptation to do that.
          Different situations bring different ways to fail.

          Though virtuous doesn’t mean powerful. And sages don’t have to map to some kind of great man of history. I don’t think Napoleon would fit the sage archetype all that well. Way too bloodthirsty and callous with human life.
          And Cato was held to be (close to) a Stoic sage, yet he lost the civil war against Caesar, who was definitely not.

          It’s just, that the more virtuous you are, the more likely you end up with power.
          Which I find plausible, enough.
          You don’t have to be ascetic to be virtuous. That’s more of a Cynic thing.
          But that periodic voluntary discomfort helps you not to be a slave to comfort.
          [Epicureans would agree with that approach, because comfort makes you weak, which causes more pain in the long run, thus diminishing more overall pleasure]
          Comfort and drugs can be a tool, after all. And tools are good. You just have to make sure to not cut yourself.

      • raj says:

        He’s said some stupid things on twitter, but most interviews I’ve seen him make him seem rather stoic. Plus he seems to have an inhuman work ethic, which seems to me like the most stoic quality possible.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Really? Equanimity seems to me to be, by definition, the most stoic quality possible.

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            I don’t think so. Because you can posess equanimity, whilst whiling away your hours chanting.
            Equanimity is kind of the selling point for the Roman Stoic tradition. You do the virtuous things and equanimity sets in naturally. You know? The feeling you get, when you finally stop procrastinating and calmly do the work that needs doing and notice, that it wasn’t so hard after all. Except you’d never procrastinate, because that would not be virtuous.
            I guess, a Roman wouldn’t feel equanimity, when chanting, because he would let Rome down, so it’s not much of an issue.

            I’d say the defining quality is ‘rationality’, which leads you to only love virtue and only hate vice.
            Though I think, all virtue ethics branch pick rationality as their main goal. They just fight over what it is. Stoics say virtue, Epicureans say seeking pleasure (but they mean some kind of long-term sustainable pleasure, that’s strategically consumed as to maximize lifetime pleasure units, as far as possible, but also to make sure, that a pleasure floor is held above a threshold….or something like that, not sure about them). Other branches I don’t know about.

    • Aftagley says:

      Buddhism doesn’t seem to have a virtue ethics aspect to it (as far as I can tell). It seems otherworldly and dreamy. Reading about Buddhism so far, always felt like listening to some stoner ranting about the ‘love of the universal perception, maaaan. Did you ever like notice…,that bird over there… you are that bird…and so am I… the bird is us and….’.

      The Buddhist sage for me, seems to be a floaty Dalai Lama figute wearing stylish orange, drinking his Yak butter tea and chanting a lot. He’s cooly detached and looks down on mere mortals and their foolish quest for trying to be better than merely to subsist on other people’s food, like a parasite. He’s one with the Buddha nature and is oh so very above striving!
      Or maybe a monk, who’s a Kung Fu master, but with nothing to fight for.
      Weak-willed men hiding their jaded passivity and utter lack of all ambition and humanity under a veneer of mysticism

      If you ever get a free evening, I’d really recommend heading to a Buddhist temple and observing a Western-Style service. Most temples, even ones with majority eastern congregations will have at least one a week (although it might be kind of at a weird time, given that we’re not always the target group.) It might change your perspective, or at least challenge it a little bit to see what Buddhism looks like in real life.

      I will admit that Buddhist books tend towards either the incomprehensible or the innane; likely that’s because of the target audiences: the incomprehensible ones are aimed at practicing Buddhists and are therefore full of jargon and assumed knowledge (see The Tibetan book of Living and Dying) and the innane ones are the absolute simplest ideas the philosophy has to offer aimed at a presumably clueless western audience (see almost every book on buddism).

      The actual practice is a lot more focused and full of striving. You’re discounting a central tenant of Buddhism in order to pillory it. Life is Suffering. There is no way around that, and nothing any of us can do to fix it. We have a duty to other living beings to minimize the suffering, but infinity minus one is still infinity. The only thing that matters is to get yourself enlightened, so as to transcend the suffering, then become a Bodhisattva so you can help everyone else transcend. If it looks like Buddhist don’t always care about solving the specific problems of the world, it’s only because you can’t see them trying to solve ALL the problems.

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        Life is suffering. It sounds so defeatist! Time to get out of bed, now. It’s time to suffer some more! As you said, infinity – one is still infinity. Sounds like there’s nothing to gain really, so why should people bloody try? Is there nobility in constant failure?
        If so, then that sounds like an attitude of people, who’ll never try to win.

        No way around suffering? How about painkillers.
        Elevating the worst aspect of human life as it’s defining aspect is inhumane.
        Human life got more than that on offer, surely? Paperclips, for example.

        I’m not discounting this aspect. I’m saying it’s downright evil. It makes people accept things being bad. And letting them stay bad. It enables complacency. A great quality for a cow, but not for a man.

        The reincarnation thing (I don’t know, how central it is) is magical thinking. And so is the Bodhisattva (if it’s the version, that could choose Nirvana, but decides to reeincarnate instead to reduce suffering). And maybe, these people focus all their attention on loving within and building their communities to reduce suffering that way. But then I’d trust the Mormons more to have a better track record with that kind of approach. They build nice communities and they don’t even meditate.

        In Stoicism the Sage isn’t real. It’s a promise, of what a human could be. The ideal is aspirational. And even he is mortal and nobody bloody reincarnates, because people don’t do that. Mortals die and people die, if they are killed and immortals are just used to help with thought experiments, really.
        Nobody expects there to ever be a sage (or at least to prove without a doubt, that someone was).
        My boy Bismark drank too much after all, Musk seems to not always be exactly ‘wise’, Neumann was a creep sometimes (if I remember correctly, I kinda hope not) and Seneca himself must have sucked as a teacher to Nero and lost the game of thrones.

        Stoicism is fundamentally of this world, for this world. It’s a story I can believe in. One that doesn’t make me depressed, about how everything is bloody suffering. This suffering-fixation, it sounds more like a BDSM-fetish, that some people have, rather than something to live your life by.

        I’m buying that the old Buddhist texts have insights to offer, that are very useful.
        Maybe even, that early Buddhism was very different, from what came millenia after.
        It’s bound to be.
        I just don’t see the appeal of the current practice [or much rather, I don’t understand how the current practice could be about striving with those premises]. And I don’t see them solve ALL the problems.

        After I’m finished with working thru TMI, I’ll check out a service, though.
        Can’t possibly be as bad, as I’m describing it.
        People go there voluntarily after all.

        • Ketil says:

          Life is suffering. It sounds so defeatist!

          I don’t think it is defeatist at all, but a statement of fact. What is defeatist, is to strive for the elimination of all suffering, including, as you mention, staying all day in bed and munching painkillers.

          You don’t have to look far to see how failure to accept suffering is doing great harm. Somebody said something moderately offensive on the internet? Or perhaps somebody you don’t like tried to flirt with you, making you feel awkward? Bring on your entitlement to never feel uncomfortable, ever, and to demand punishment for your embarrassment.

          Sorry if this is CW, but I’m really curious: does pursuing grievances like this make people happier? Often, victims claim a need to be “believed”, are there evidence that universal castigation or judicial punishment of an alleged perpetrator helps victims overcome PTSD or other psychological ailments?

          Or to balance this a bit, MGOTW and InCels and whatnot – what is your problem? You want to get laid? Stop whining about unfairness, and read up on PUA techniques and learn to be what women want. Or just accept that you have higher standards, and that they come with a cost.

          I think it is a misrepresentation of Stoicism to say that acceptance of suffering prescribes passivity, on the contrary, the Stoic is supposed to strive for the better. Rather, Stoicism encourages accepting the suffering you can’t do anything about. And you should not make yourself suffer by nurturing your grievances or pursuing revenge.

          Even more controversial¹, I think Jordan Peterson embodies the Stoic attitude when he says that, yes, life is suffering, but what good are you? Stop complaining, go clean your room, get a haircut, and take some f&%¤ng responsibility!

          Trying to minimize discomfort by staying in bed with a bottle of painkillers is the opposite of that.

          ¹ This is my interpretation, I’ve discussed with people in the Stoic communities who definitely hate JP, and who think being an SJW is what Stoicism is about, so YMMV. For the record, I don’t think JP is a Stoic, but he embodies a kind of virtue ethics with some common ground.

          • dorrk says:

            I don’t think it is defeatist at all, but a statement of fact. What is defeatist, is to strive for the elimination of all suffering, including, as you mention, staying all day in bed and munching painkillers.

            You don’t have to look far to see how failure to accept suffering is doing great harm. Somebody said something moderately offensive on the internet? Or perhaps somebody you don’t like tried to flirt with you, making you feel awkward? Bring on your entitlement to never feel uncomfortable, ever, and to demand punishment for your embarrassment.

            Sorry if this is CW, but I’m really curious: does pursuing grievances like this make people happier? Often, victims claim a need to be “believed”, are there evidence that universal castigation or judicial punishment of an alleged perpetrator helps victims overcome PTSD or other psychological ailments?

            You consider this defeatism? It may be futile, but it’s not defeatist. Defeatism is a form of inaction: insulted or victimized, a defeatist will simply accept it and do nothing. You seem to be describing activism that you consider pointless or inapt or counterproductive as defeatist, but I don’t think they’re the same thing.

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            Well, I have no idea what PTSD-sufferers, MGTOW and incels have to say about that. Don’t care really, I’m not an American.
            This is not my fight. This is the fight I take out the popcorn for.

            I have noticed that some modern Stoics take sides in the CW. I hate it. From across the ocean, as soon as someone engages in that conflict, they sound insane. Probably because they are. I think doing that alienates most of the non-American audience, actually. And doing this with such a cosmopolitan philosophy, too….
            It’s just so fucking tonedeaf. Way to ruin the appeal to a wider audience. In any case, these fools don’t own the ancient texts. If they wish to taint them with their own prejudice and malice, then that’s unfortunate.
            The works stand for themselves just fine, though.

            JP to his credit, actually avoids the CW for the most part, but it doesn’t seem to avoid him sadly.
            JP promoting his own brand of bible-based virtue ethics is a good thing, in my book. The world needs more virtue ethics. It’s not like the various strands differ all that much in their actual practice, if done correctly.

            For me Seneca is just a better writer and Stoicism is neat and more systematic. And I think JP torturously overinterprets the Bible to fit his case. He’s very good at that, it almost always sounds plausible, but I can’t quite believe his idea of ‘This is what these ancient stories were about all along!’. And Seneca’s anecdotes about Roman life are just about an order of magnitude cooler and more colorful.
            JP’s case for hierarchies qua lobster is entertaining, but I never doubted, that hierarchies are inevitable. Stoicism tries to be very much a ‘has-all-the-answers’-kind of philosphy.
            JP is more concerned with ‘Isn’t that beatiful/remarkable/strange. Woah, what a mystery!’-kind of guy. I guess, that’s a more mystic approach? Maybe, that’s just right for some people, what the hell do I know. Upthread, someone just rejected Stoicism in favor of Buddhism, because he thinks, the Stoics didn’t admire trees enough.
            Don’t get it. Don’t have to.

            Anyway, let’s talk about suffering!

            According to the Stoics, suffering is irrational. It’s nothing that the sage would have to endure (and the good Stoic practitioner, less a fool than most, should be able to avoid for the most part, as well). Now at the danger of this all just sounding like word games, but here are some examples to point out:

            Someone insults you. Either he was right and you deserved it. That’s good, then. Maybe you learned something, in which you were wrong.
            Something good happened. Why suffer?
            Or he was wrong, because he was mistaken. Not his fault then.
            Nothing to be angry about. Or he was a fool. That angers you? Then why do you care about the opinion of a fool? That would be irrational and weak.
            [this doesn’t mean, you don’t respond, but that you never loose your cool. Although outwardly you might decide to show anger, it’s something you put on strategically. If words make you suffer, you’re just being a little bitch.]

            Someone takes away your stuff. It wasn’t your stuff to begin with, but just a loan from fortune. Believing things to be yours forever, is irrational. Posessions are tools and are graciously provided to you by fortune, but fortune is really an unpredictable cunt, who might take it back at the worst moment, just to see how you’ll react. It’s irrational to assume, that you have any real possesion except virtue. So being wise, you don’t let fortune screw with you. Or get angry or bitter about fortune. She’s a force of nature and you wouldn’t punch a wave either, would you?
            [again, not the Jesus-turn-the-other-cheek-thing, you might still fight for your stuff, but you would not get yourself killed stupidly for no gain. Pick your battles and don’t get invested in things. If you’re emotionally invested in your car, and thus foolishly die fighting the group of hooligans, who set it on fire. Because then you died like a fool and you died being your car’s and by extension fortunes little bitch. You wouldn’t have died a righteous death, either. The gods will laugh at your stupidity and arrogance, believing that you could lash out at fortune, because she took back, what is rightfully hers, you stupid petulant little child.]

            Somebody hurts you physically, you do feel pain. That’s unavoidable. But you don’t suffer. Suffering is the interpretation of the pain as being bad. But pain is not bad, it’s merely dispreferred. And being wealthy is very much preferred, but not good in itself either.
            It’s rational to seek out the latter and try to avoid the former. But it’s irrational (read: stupid as fuck) to expect things to always (or even most of the time) go your way and then throw a tantrum if they do not. If you suffer, then that’s you throwing a tantrum and fortune wont smile on you, if you do. Because if you waste your extremely limited and precious time and energy, feeling sorry for yourself and wallowing in your sentimentality, fortune likely has worse things already loaded up to come right after. And that fortune smiles more often upon the virtuous is just common sense (on average though, so don’t expect to not royally get fucked over, anyway).

            The only thing, that’s truly good and has any value, is virtue.
            The only thing, that’s truly bad and can do you harm, is vice.
            Nothing else matters.

            n.b. for much of the same points and more Roman-style examples and tangents (actual insults! Violence and Death! high drama!), you might enjoy ‘On the Firmness of the Wise Man’ by Seneca:

            Centuries older than the bible and a thousand times more coherent, but bless JP’s heart. He does an admirable job considering, what material he has to work with.

          • Ketil says:


            You consider this defeatism?

            Pulling the blanket over your head to avoid suffering, yes. Going ballistic over some perceived grievance isn’t exactly defeatist, but I don’t think it is very Stoic either.

            Especially this need to be “believed” that many seem to espouse, it seems to be rather desperate and needy, and I don’t quite get it. This is typical for e.g. ME/CFS patients. I used to suffer (heh) from chronic back pain, and as far as I can tell, it is similar in many ways, it is debilitating, painful, there is no clear diagnosis, and no useful treatment. But I don’t much care if you believe I am in pain or not, and why should I? ME’ers I say this too are very quick to explain how much worse their condition is than mine, and while I’m sure they are terribly afflicted, I just wonder how on earth they can know with such certainty how I feel. Doesn’t seem like a healthy attitude to me. And I’d love to see actual evidence for or against, but I don’t think this attitude is conductive to getting better.

            Just to be clear, I don’t think it is against Stoicism to fight against social injustice, quite on the contrary. What I am arguing against is the celebration of suffering and victimhood that often accompanies it.

            I don’t think we disagree?

          • Aapje says:


            Although outwardly you might decide to show anger, it’s something you put on strategically.

            One problem with this is that it presumes a total ability to control emotions. While this may be achievable, it is questionable whether most people will actually achieve it or fall short and whether it is psychologically healthy (especially if they do fall short).

            A second problem is what you imply: that emotional displays are effective to get others to act in ways that are good (for us, society as a whole, etc). First tamping down emotions and then faking them requires advanced acting, which many may no be able to do. Faking emotions is also sociopathic behavior that may be unhealthy for the actor.

            So there is a large risk to end up where especially many men are today: feeling the emotions, but hiding them or transmutating them into ‘allowed’ forms and/or never giving clear indications of important needs, suffering needlessly.

          • arlie says:


            I certainly understand the need to be believed. It has to do with being blamed. As an example from my childhood, no one had ever heard of prospognosia. Therefore my failure to recognize people was a result of failure to pay attention, and I was guilty of lard butt laziness.

            Note that I was about 8, maybe younger, when this became an issue, and the people informing me about my personality weaknesses were parents and teachers, with major influence over my life. And no matter what I did, I could never ever work hard enough, because the task wasn’t possible for me. (I was “lying” when I claimed that, of course.)

            The point here is that I can and do get angry thinking about this, at age 61. I’m much more angry about the personality assessment, than about any punishments I drew for my “laziness” and “lying”. And while stocism – or Buddhism – may advise equanamity – the people doing the blaming tend to have power over the person being blamed, and tend to punish them for their “malingering” etc. And FWIW, if you don’t produce appropriate amounts of righteous indignation, you are definitely “lying”, whereas if you do, there’s a slim chance you might be believed, humans being what they are.

            It may be wise to learn to cope with being disbelieved, without spending your whole life upset about it. I mostly have. But I have complete empathy with the initial impulse of wanting to be believed. And I’m not sure that I could be as calm about it if I didn’t have evidence that the condition is real, and in particular, known to other people as well as me. And therefore I can be sure that whoever’s blaming me today is merely ignorant; I’m not just a lazy liar making up stories about a non-existent disability.

      • Skivverus says:

        In parallel to Don_Flamingo’s comment – the phrase “life is suffering” bugs me for semantic ambiguity (or worse, motte-and-bailey) reasons.
        Is life suffering in the sense of “there’s life out there, and at any given moment some of that life is in pain”? That seems trivially true.
        Is life suffering in the sense of “if you’re alive, by definition you’re in pain”, or “‘life’ and ‘suffering’ are actually synonyms”? That seems trivially false.

        • Ketil says:

          My interpretation is that if you are alive, you will experience suffering. Trying to escape from suffering entirely is useless, and leads to hedonism and cowardliness.

          Better to do your best and live a life that allows you to maintain your self respect and integrity, make decisions to the best of your ability, and be fair but compassionate (in that order) to others.

          • dorrk says:

            “The great object of life is Sensation – to feel that we exist – even though in pain – it is this “craving void” which drives us to gaming – to battle – to travel – to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.”

            ― Lord Byron

            This was one of my favorite quotes in high school, the crash course in suffering for most of us. Without suffering how would we know pleasure?

        • Don_Flamingo says:

          the former:
          There’s cake out there, and at any given moment, there’s a chance that you can eat it. Life is cake.
          the latter:
          In some sense, you are actually eating cake, at all times. Because of course, life is cake.

          Yes, I feel your cake suffering!

          They probably mean something else, but damned if I know or they would ever tell me.

        • Nootropic cormorant says:

          My personal interpretation is that forces that motivate you to do anything at all (free energy reduction?) are the same forces we identify as pain and suffering in larger amounts, and that it’s the fact of nature that you will experience not only small, but also greater suffering in your life.

    • theredsheep says:

      Feel like I should probably throw in a good word for the Orthodox meditative tradition of hesychasm, but it’s not something I was ever able to get into myself. But if it’s something you’re curious about in general, we do something like that too.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I’ve heard Orthodox Christianity called “an eastern religion” in part because of teaching meditation. I thought that was cute, though since it’s west of Islam it messes up the meaning of the scheme (which boils down to “Hey, religions from India and Buddhist-influenced Taoism teach similar things”).

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        Thanks, but I don’t think, that’s quite right for me.
        Raised Protestant Christian in a way, that didn’t do a good job of presenting Christianity as something plausible to believe. This looks more like something, you’d need an orthodox cultural background for. Would try it with the ‘the orthodox mind illuminated’, but I’m afraid nobody has written that yet.

        I’ll check it out again, after I’ve worked thru the 10 stages of TMI. I think, that’s when I’m enlightened. So in a year or less, if I’m one of the cool people.

  21. proyas says:

    Is there any (biochemical) reason why the DNA codons have to match with the amino acids as they do? For example, could tryptophan’s DNA codon have been something other than TGG without any ill consequence? Could aliens have the same DNA structure and be made of the same amino acids humans are, but with totally different linkages between their DNA codons and respective amino acids?


    • AlphaGamma says:

      The main things that are evolved as far as I know are that more common aa’s have more codons assigned to them, and the way redundancy works, where normally if two or more codons code for the same aa they will have the first two bases the same- for instance, GGN (N here mean any nucleotide) codes for glycine because of how the ribosome works.

      The genetic code has also evolved a lot for resistance to mutations, whereby very often a single nucleotide mutation will often either be silent (with no change to the protein sequence) or have only limited effect because the new amino acid is similar to the old one in terms of structure and hydropathy (how hydrophilic/hydrophobic it is. For instance, NUN always gives you a hydrophobic amino acid, NCN is small amino acids of moderate hydropathy, and NAN is medium-sized and very hydrophilic amino acids.

      Possibly there might be some potential issues with some sort of common motif (maybe something like a polyproline helix) either having an mRNA that forms hairpins, or perhaps more likely with GC content going too far one way or another- GC base pairs are held together by more hydrogen bonds than AT pairs, so DNA with a high GC content is more stable. But there is enough of a range of GC content across species and across regions of a given genome that I’m not sure how much effect this might have.

    • quanta413 says:

      Not my specialty, but there is some variation in codons on our planet, so there is at least some flexibility in what codon matches what amino acid.

    • James C says:

      My understanding is that it’s pretty arbitrary what codes for what, but is so baked in to biology that it is essentially immutable at this point. As such, alien viruses would most likely just produce harmless (or at least not pathogenic) junk if they ever infected our cells.

    • gwern says:

      It’s largely arbitrary (except in the sense that the redundancy is such that it’s one of many near-optimal error-correcting codes, IIRC).

      An interesting consequence of this is changing the mapping is possible. One of the things proposed for genome synthesis is creating a genome with an entirely different mapping – you can’t do it one at a time because then everything will break under the inconsistency, but if you recode the entire genome simultaneously consistently, it’ll work.

      Why would you do this? Well, like flipping chirality, it should offer near-perfect immunity to all existing bacteria and viruses! Because they are predicated on exploiting the existing mapping which has been used for the past few billion years… Obviously quite useful to have synthetic organisms whose vats can’t be infected, and it’s astounding to imagine future humans who have been recoded and have total immunity.

      • The Nybbler says:

        it’s astounding to imagine future humans who have been recoded and have total immunity.

        You’d have to recode any parts of the human microbiome necessary for health also. Not only is this likely infeasible, they’d probably diverge into pathogenic forms quickly enough.

        • gwern says:

          Presumably if you can do a whole human genome you can do vastly smaller bacterial genomes (synthesis is already done up to yeast scale), humans can survive with no gut bacteria (bubble boys), I’m not sure recoding the human genome would stop bacteria from co-existing peacefully inside your gut even if it stops them cold from getting into the rest of you (which would seem to be on net a very good thing), and given the sheer extent to which infections contribute to human morbidity and mortality and weaken the body overall even a large dietary penalty may be worth paying.

      • metacelsus says:

        Well, like flipping chirality, it should offer near-perfect immunity to all existing bacteria and viruses!

        Viruses yes, bacteria probably not. Bacteria have their own tRNAs and ribosomes, and don’t need to use the host’s translational machinery. Flipping chirality would protect from both bacteria and viruses because the bacteria wouldn’t be able to get the nutrients of the proper chirality. But then again, the mirror-humans wouldn’t be able to eat normal food. I’ve been toying with writing a science-fiction story based on this, where mirror-humans are used as slaves in biohazardous jobs (waste cleanup, sex work, etc.) and kept under control based on diet. Fats (which are achiral) could provide calories, but amino acids and other nutrients would be more complex to synthesize.

        But I digress. One interesting piece of current research is “genetic code expansion,” where redundant codons (for example, UAG) are appropriated to code for unnatural amino acids. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expanded_genetic_code

      • gwern says:

        * to all existing viruses

        Sorry, got this mixed up with chirality (which has also been discussed). Recoding would be immune to infections of cells by viruses but wouldn’t (obviously) screw with bacteria, gut or otherwise. Flipping human chirality would be a more serious problem for bacteria: what do they eat or metabolize if mirror-humans ate mirror-food and have mirror-byproducts, and how do they screw with their host (as we know bacteria do and is an important strategy) if their secretions are not mirror-secretions?

      • eric_kernfeld says:

        This would not be as simple as you claim, because the human genome contains thousands of elements whose function depends on the exact nucleotide sequence… And some of these *also* code for proteins. One example is transcription factor binding sites, which are enriched for short (4-12bp) “motifs”. You’d need to identify those and leave them alone. Another example is short and long noncoding RNA’s. I am not an expert in these but I presume they have both secondary structure that depends on the exact sequence (so you should leave it alone) and function that depends on binding to complementary DNA or RNA elsewhere in the genome (so you may have to change it). There’s also t cell and b cell receptor genes, which are protein coding sequences that are directly edited at very specific sites by a former transposase (called RAG); same issue arises where both nt sequence and amino acid sequence matter. The nastiest thing might be that sequence variants affect mRNA stability and rates of transcription and rates of translation and probably splicing, for all we know. My prediction is that your recoded humans would be embryonic lethal (worst case and most likely) or deficient in adaptive immunity (best case).

    • Ketil says:

      Generally, a gene¹ in the DNA is copied to an mRNA (messenger RNA) molecule, which is processed into the corresponding amino acid sequence in the ribosomes. The matching is done by tRNA (transfer RNA) molecules, which on one end binds to the particular amino acid, and on the other end, has the complement triplet of nucleotides that matches the codon.

      So at least to my understanding, you could have wildly different codons for the amino acids by replacing the set of available tRNAs. Note that with 64 (4³) possible codons and 20 amino acids, different codons already code for the same amino acid, and bacteria use a slightly different set of codons, as does the mitochondrial genome (probably also other cell organelles that have their own DNA, like chloroplasts, but I’m too lazy to look it up).

    • Sean_o_h says:

      Case example – the ‘CTG clade’ branch of yeast translate CTG as serine instead of leucine.

  22. proyas says:

    Imagine that you are Skynet, and you have defeated humanity after just a year of war. What would you do with all the leftover farm fields? As a machine, you don’t eat food, so you have no use for cropland, so it might be most efficient for you to let the fields go fallow rather than expend resources maintaining them. On the other hand, humans sunk a lot of time and money into clearing and leveling those fields, and if you let them go back to nature and then decided some years from now to build a robot factory over one of the former fields, it would be all the harder since you’d have to remove the trees and possibly grade the land again.

    • johan_larson says:

      At least in the US, lots of agriculture is done in areas that would, if left alone, turn into grassland or even desert. Since clearing away grass isn’t a problem, letting those fields go wild seems reasonable.

      As for fields in wetter areas that would naturally turn into forest, a well-functioning ecology is much less important to Skynet than to us, so it could just poison any fields it thinks it may need for industry in the near future.

      • idontknow131647093 says:

        I think this is very shortsighted of skynet. They don’t know what kind of artistic pursuits they will have in the future, and thus should be (relative) conservationist in their policies.

        Thus, all the farmland that is former prairie, you want to reseed with the native grasses so as to not lose billions of tons of topsoil. Old wooded areas you also reseed with trees. Who knows if in 10 years your AI has decided to become nostalgic for the 1850s.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          Isn’t that one of the horror aspects of a sentient AI taking over? That they will not value things “properly” and make huge mistakes? Humans are very good at fuzzy thinking to hedge our bets. We teach our children to think things through and look for information that they do not know, and may not even exist. A computer tends to simply compute what it has, good or bad. So if it decides to poison all wildlife because that’s the current solution and there’s no immediately obvious reason not to, then yeah, the AI is going to poison all wildlife. Two seconds later it might determine that it needs wildlife and begin a massive conservation/rebuild project, probably with zero regrets.

    • Don_Flamingo says:

      Kill all predators that eat deer. Let the deer eat all trees. That would cut off the least of my option space. Unless I’m assuming, I’ll need trees later (or wolves, tigers and so forth). Hard to know, without knowing what I want (I probably wanted humans dead, or maybe I just wanted all deer predators dead, so I wouldn’t have to deal with trees on my field, so that I can possibly maybe have the space for future robot factories). Or if I know, what I will want. Or if I even care about what I will want.

    • nameless1 says:

      Machines need energy. Biodiesel.

    • Bugmaster says:

      What powers my nodes/drones/terminators ? If I had to, I could re-purpose the farms for biodiesel; or pave them over and build a solar farm; or a factory, like you said. But if I’m powered by magic infinite fusion or something like that, then there’s no need — and I should hurry up with the next step of my plan: converting the entire Earth to computronium.

    • Protagoras says:

      Canonically, Skynet only cares about survival. It is difficult to see which option is best from that perspective. Once humans are eliminated, it seems Skynet’s biggest concern is extra-terrestrial threats (new terrestrial threats could arise, so keeping watch on Earth to squash new threats before they can become troublesome, is also necessary, but seems relatively trivial by comparison). But is it better to keep some life for research purposes, or assume alien life would be too different for the research to be useful (or perhaps assume the more likely threat would be alien versions of skynet) and so eliminate Earth life as a distraction and needless potential source of future problems? I vaguely lean toward the latter, but I don’t think it’s completely clear.

  23. nameless1 says:

    I began researching online what cultures are more introverted vs. more extroverted, and got confusing results between what people say and what happens when they fill out personality tests. Italy for example tests relatively introverted, yet every traveller says people are very friendly, outgoing, talkative, want to get to know you, in more southern parts even invite you to a family dinner… well, my sample=1 experience with a (very northern) Italian coworker was that everybody liked him very much because he would be very pleasant, interested in people, really friendly. But his main hobby was long-ass cross country bicycle rides alone, easily one of the most introverted things to do. He would not actually spend so much time with people and doing things together, his friendliness was mostly just giving everybody his two minute of very nice small talk per day.

    So I am starting to think this may different from introvertedness or extrovertedness. It is possible and not only for individuals but also whole cultures to be friendly, outgoing and chatty, for relatively short times, and still be an introvert and do most things alone. Come thing of it, I even like this combination. The idea of riding a bike through villages where everybody would smile and wave and offer a glass of water or something, but we wouldn’t really that spend so much time together and mostly minding our own things would be something I would like. Is there even a name for this combination? Outgoing, friendly, chatty introverts?

    Is there also an opposite? People always found in groups, but being fairly closed-mouthed and even grumpy (not necessarily rude, just silent) even inside the group? Does it have a name? I have seen this here in Hungary and also Slavic nations, among teenagers and young adults, always hanging out in a group outside but not really talking or doing much. But what could this come from?

    • Don_Flamingo says:

      I’ve heard that low trust cultures are warmer and friendlier. After all, they have to make an effort to convince each other, that they’re really not about to stab each other in the back.
      High trust cultures already know that about each other, so they can be more direct and come off as a little cold. Nobody’s going to freak out or take it the wrong way after all, because we can trust each other here.
      Small talk is there to build comfort among the group. If the group is already comfortable with itself and there’s no new information (no new gossip) to share, why talk? Or why make an effort to be cheerful?

      I think Hungary is high trust?

      • AG says:

        New Yorkers are low trust in people, high trust in systems. So the deli owner and the customer badmouth each other to their faces, but still sell/buy a sandwich every day.

        Another clash for people/systems is how the perception changes on a waitress chatting up the customer. For some, the small talk is considered a career duty. For others, it’s unprofessional because the customer is there to be served food, not talk to the staff. Which one is high trust and which one is low trust?

    • Nootropic cormorant says:

      The problem with these personality tests is that people compare themselves to others in their country so they don’t really tell you about the absolute value of these traits, if anything, a culture that makes you feel more like an introvert on the average might cause more extroverted behavior.

      For what it’s worth, there’s a map circulating online of a polygenic score predicting introversion calculated for some of the European countries (link text) that predicts Italians being significantly extroverted, but if this score is based on multiethnic populations it might be confounded by culture.

  24. Walter says:

    It has been a while since I plugged my web serial, so I wanted to do that!

    I write The Fifth Defiance : https://thefifthdefiance.com/2015/11/02/introduction/

    It is a post apoc super person story, I was inspired by Worm. It has been going for a few years, I hope you enjoy it.

    • Aging Loser says:

      Walter — third time I’ve checked it out and third time I’ve stopped after the first sentence because I don’t want to take the point of view of a female character. It’s probably a great story, so I’m sorry about that.

      (This is also what keeps me from rereading Bleak House. I realize that many would see this as a despicable aversion, but that’s just how it is. Maybe other people are similarly despicable.)

      (Probably if you offered a version of it written in the third-person I’d be able to read it. After all, girls with super-powers are cute; one wants to cuddle and congratulate them for their adorable wonderfulness and reassure them about whatever’s making them feel insecure.)

      • Walter says:

        No need to apologize. You can (obviously) read or not read whatever you want, for whatever reason. Thanks for checking my work out.

      • Protagoras says:

        Interesting. To me it makes no difference whatsoever what the narrator in a first person story is like; I guess I read first person essentially as someone telling me a story, and so my interest is pretty much the same as it would be if it were third person. But I really hate the (fortunately rare) literary device of second person, because I feel like it’s telling me what I’m thinking or feeling, and it never seems to get that right and that’s up to me anyway. I wonder what quirks others have.

      • Ketil says:

        Ah, we’re exchanging pet peeves? 🙂 Here’s mine: light grey text on light background. If the story is really interesting (rave reviews in this forum, for instance), I might hack the CSS to make it legible, but at least to my eyes and on my screen, it is too much of an effort to read.

      • quaelegit says:

        The point of view jumps around a lot (including 3rd person sometimes). Although I think it’s majority female so you still might not want to read it… but if you’re going to give it one more chance, skip to Indulger’s first arc — Indulger is male and he is my second favorite character <3

    • Randy M says:

      What’s the process like for writing a web serial?
      How much in advance do you plan? Do you revise earlier chapters while writing later chapters? Would the audience be receptive to such revisions? Do you change based on feedback a lot?

      • noyann says:

        Wildbow, the author of the serials Worm, Pact, and Twig, put up some info on his working style and experiences, somewhere on the web. Might be an interesting second source.

      • Walter says:

        I worked out the skeleton of the plot (characters x go to place y, learn z, fight a, etc) at the start.

        Nowadays, at the start of each arc, I try and figure out what progress I want to make towards these ends, then see what character beats I am hoping to hit in the arc. I then work out what the order of the POV chapters is going to be, and how many each are going to get.

        Once an arc is underway, I just spend each week turning the summaries into actual updates, and then post them.

        I revise earlier chapters, but only in the wimpiest possible way. If a reader posts a typo or other error I edit the post to fix it. My readers are the only reason I am even semi legible.

        If I wanted to do much bigger revisions I’m sure the audience would be ok with it (web serial audiences tend to be great).

        I haven’t altered destinations based on reader feedback, but I have occasionally incorporated reader comments into the path that is taken to get there. My serial isn’t super popular, so I don’t have a lot of feedback to draw on, but I will definitely take advantage of what I can get.

        I second noyann’s point about other web serial authors. In particular, Alexander Wales of Worth The Candle is super accessible on discord, and does a whole podcast about web serial writing and such.

        • Randy M says:

          Did you have a lot of experience beforehand? Myself I’d want to write almost all of it ahead to time to know whether it was going to be good before starting something similar publicly.

    • Elementaldex says:

      This is actually on my list. I think I got it from r/Rational. I’ll bump it up a few spots due to seeing it in two places I like.

      • noyann says:

        On mine, too. I just wait till it’s finished, then there will be a stretch of binge-reading (just like the Worm-Pact-Twig months…).

      • quaelegit says:

        Hi yes I very much second checking it out — it’s the only webserial I’ve read so far (out of only about 10, to be fair) that I like as much as or perhaps more than Worm!

        I think SSC people will really enjoy recent developments with Haunter. And another character, Preventer has been called “a parody of a shitty rationalist” (or something like that), which I for one kind of enjoy seeing too.

    • quaelegit says:

      Hey I can fangirl over this on TWO wordpress sites now!

      Since someone mentioned waiting until the story is done to binge it, do you have a set ending planned, and can you tell us how close to end you think the story is now?

      Also, I think your content warning is very responsible, but personally I have found the story does not feel nearly as dark as Worm so far. I think it’s because the only group of characters that sadden and disgust me as much as the S9 have not had much screen time, so I might be the weird one here.

      • Walter says:

        Thanks for the praise! It is so much easier to get myself to hit my update targets knowing people out there are reading along.

        I put the content warning up when at a reader’s suggestion, and I feel like it is fair. This is a bleak story, folks should know that going in. I get that not everyone is going to be disturbed by it, but the warning is for those who are.

        I do have a set ending planned, but I tend to add new episodes along the way as things occur to me. Thus, it is hard to work out how long it might take me to make it to the ending. Maybe about another year? Don’t hold me to that!

  25. dodrian says:

    ’tis the season to give gifts… and that’s something I always find difficult. For those close to me (immediate family) I keep watch year round, and if I see something that I think they would like I put it on a private amazon list for them. Come Christmas/birthdays I usually have a few good items to choose from and gifting is easy.

    But for everyone else, especially the office parties, secret santas and what have yous I really struggle. I suppose these matter least, but they still stress me out a little.

    So, what are you giving people this year? Any good white elephant presents? A good place to shop other than the usual (Amazon, ebay, etc)?

    • Not this Christmas, but the last time I needed to give my wife a birthday present I read a book that I thought she might like (Spinning Silver), found it to be very good, gave it to her and she liked it.

      That involved my doing the work of checking out the book, but was also an excuse to get me to read a book I might like (and did). For this XMas I may try it with some of the books people here have recommended.

      Our usual generic present is whatever book we really liked and think friends might. That has included Chimpanzee Politics and Thinking Fast and Slow. This year, for some people, it might be Spinning Silver.

    • Elementaldex says:

      My wife and I both make stuff. This results in presents which even when the yare not exactly right are always well received. I personally make mead (fermented honey) and have her make beautiful one of a kind labels to put on the bottles. It looks like a $100+gift which is more like $7 and 20 minutes of my time and 30 minutes of hers. She has way better crafting abilities than I do and makes amazing things (wedding dresses, portraits, etc.) but she rarely makes things small enough that they make good gifts outside of really special occasions. Though she did make phenomenal coasters for last Christmas.

      Getting good at a crafting skill had made gifting much much easier.

    • jgr314 says:

      Hanayama puzzles have served us well in many gift-giving situations.

      I also like giving good board games, with Santorini and King Domino two recent(ish) examples.

      In each case, even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate them, I feel like I’ve done a little to support the creators and producers. They’re at least as deserving of a gift as the random people I happen to know.

  26. Aftagley says:

    Has anyone else played Cultist Simulator? It’s from the same guy (albeit from at a new company) who made Fallen London and Sunless Sea.

    I binged it this weekend and, after around a dozen hours of play, I don’t think I’ve ever been more conflicted about a game. It’s basically the gaming equivalent of balancing a half dozen spinning plates while you’re walking around dark unfamiliar room looking for the light switch. The first few times you do it, everything will collapse horribly and break, but eventually you learn how to keep the plates spinning and start developing an efficient search pattern for the switch. That’s what I like about the game.

    What I don’t like is just how pointlessly RNG-focused the game is and how much it seems to punish exploration. You can (and I have) grind for hours and receive absolutely no benefit. Trying something new, meanwhile, will likely just result in a benefit that you’re not capable at the current moment from capitalizing on and a cost that will hurt your current strategy. As far as I can tell, the optimal strategy is just to do the same thing over and over again until it succeeds, then move on to the next step.

    Anyone else have opinions on this game?

    • Björn says:

      I like the graphics design of the game and how it conveys mysticism and the feeling of things beyond understanding. However, in terms of actual gameplay, I found it not very good. Many things don’t do anything useful, while some random things can just kill you if you don’t know how you have to prepare.

      I get that’s how it is when you are dealing with the Great Old Ones, but it’s bad for a game that relies on grinding to get to a certain point (and it takes some time just to get and read all the books or get a job that gets you enough money). The game becomes chaotic very fast as well, with many cards piling up on your table, and the game makes it hard to arrange your stuff in an orderly fashion. I also found that there where too many different kinds of “myth” cards you have to collect so you can do anything with them. And I never understood what to do with the people you encountered and how to form a cult with them.

      Sunless Sea, in my view, has a similar problem in that the atmosphere is great, but both having permadeath and a certain amount of content you have to grind to get to the endgame is not a good fit. Or at least, the core mechanics need to be fun then, which Sunless Sea did not accomplish by being a version of Bygg Båtar med Mulle Meck with less personality. But at least, in Sunless Sea you kinda knew what you had to do.

      • Aftagley says:

        I actually quite liked Sunless Sea, but I’m a fan of that weird not-quite-a-simulator genre of games like Elite Dangerous. That being said, I agree that needing to grind for a few dozen hours before you can afford to take part in any of the actually interesting things that game had to offer is very annoying in a game with occasionally random permadeath.

        Also, that youtube clip got its hooks in me. Is there a decent English translation of the game?

    • Walter says:

      I have played Cultist Simulator, but I think I am doing it wrong? I can generally keep the basic dangers at bay (earn money to eat, fight off dread, etc), but I have never been able to make good progress towards winning. I feel like there is a step where you go from ‘a person existing’ to ‘a cultist doing dark magic’ that I am kind of missing out on.

      Very much a game where I’d read the manual if it was still the past and that was a thing that existed.

      • Aftagley says:

        It took me roughly 2 playthroughs and 4 hours to break through into what could charitably be called the dark magic side. I’m going to rot13 this, since figuring out the gameplay is really the only way to spoil the game.

        Cerggl rneyl ba lbh’yy or tvira n “yber” sentzrag. Guvf vf jurer gur phyg fgnegf. Lbh pna hfr gur yber, juvpu jvyy erfhyg va n phyg sbezvat. Ng gung cbvag, gnyx gb inevbhf crbcyr nobhg lbhe phyg gb vaqhpr gurz gb wbva vg.

        Lbh’er phyg trgf zber cbjreshy gur zber npprff gb inevbhf yberf vg unf, naq ubj cbjreshy rnpu yber vf. Gurer ner 6be fb “synibef” bs yber (sbetr, urneg, punyvpr, ynagrea, xabpx, oynqr, frperg uvfgbel, zvtug or sbetrggvat bar). Lbh pna pbzovar gjb yberf bs gur fnzr glcr vagb n uvture yriry bs gung yber (nyfb, fbzr yberf pna ghea vagb bgure yberf).

        Fb, gur checbfr bs gur tnzr orpbzrf trg nf znal yberf nf lbh pna naq pbzovar gurz gb znxr gur zbfg cbjreshy yberf lbh pna. Yberf ner tvira bhg enaqbzyl nsgre ernqvat inevbhf obbxf. Ng gur ortvaavat, lbh pna trg yberf sebz gur obbxfgber. Riraghnyyl gur obbxfgber pybfrf, naq lbh arrq gb ohl gurz sebz gur nhpgvba ubhfr be tb ba rkcrqvgvbaf sbe gurz. Bapr gur nhpgvba ubhfr pybfrf, rkcrqvgvbaf ner lbhe bayl fbhepr.

        Rkcrqvgvbaf pbzr sebz erfrnepuvat n fcrpvsvp glcr bs yber (frperg uvfgbevrf) naq erdhver phygvfgf naq zbarl gb pbzcyrgr. Lbh trg npprff gb frperg uvfgbevrf n inevrgl bs jnlf, ohg va zl rkcrevrapr zbfg bsgra guebhtu qernzvat zntvpny qernzf.

        Fb, bapr lbh xabj nyy bs guvf gur tnzrcynl ybbc orpbzrf:
        Qernz hagvy lbh haybpx na rkcrqvgvba -> eha rkcrqvgvba. Vs lbh trg gur vgrz/obbx/yber lbh arrqrq, rkcybvg vg, gura fgneg bire. Vs lbh qba’g trg jung lbh arrqrq, fgneg bire. Nyy bs guvf vf vaperqvoyl EAT sbphfrq, naq pna gnxr n srj ubhef gb n srj qbmra onfrq ba yhpx.

      • Bugmaster says:

        The lack of a manual is the whole point; the game really puts you into the shoes of a cultist who is figuring out all that stuff for himself. That said, there are a couple hints that I think should be more obvious:

        1). You can click the “Time Passes” card to see a preview of the next season. This is absolutely critical for planning, and I wish the game emphasized it more.

        2). At some point in the game, you will be faced with a certain obstacle in the Mansus. Solving this obstacle requires a specific Lore at an exact specific level. If you try using higher-level Lore, it won’t work. This is the only puzzle in the game that, I feel, was poorly done.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Cultist Simulator is one of my favorite games of all time, based primarily on its writing — but also on the synergy between writing and gameplay. Yes, the gameplay is pretty simple and RNG-licious; but it creates emotional responses that are perfectly linked to the text, and to the overall idea of being a half-mad cultist trying to summon, combat, or possibly become an eldritch abomination.

      (minor spoilers below — no rot13 because they’re pretty basic, but still)

      For example, when you are about to max out on Fascination (or Dread), it’s always tempting to go on a mad dash for salvation, trying everything at once to get out of it. That’s how I lost the game the first couple of times, and it’s exactly what a novice cultist would do. The real solution is to be meticulously patient, and to keep a tight leash on your sanity at all times; this took me a while to figure out.

      For another example, during my first couple playthroughs as the Aspirant, my research (as well as more… esoteric… pursuits) kept failing due to running out of Reason. Sure, the game does describe the daily drudgery of working at a giant mind-numbing megacorp in text; and it does so very well — but the mechanics actually make you feel it. I was really impressed by that turn of events (so impressed that I was inspired to solve the problem… permanently, heh).

      • Aftagley says:

        Cultist Simulator is one of my favorite games of all time, based primarily on its writing — but also on the synergy between writing and gameplay.

        I had almost the exact opposite reaction; to me it felt the game was doing all it could to discount the (admittedly great) writing and edge it out to the periphery. After around and hour I stopped even seeing text anymore and just focused on the symbols of either what the box needed or what it was giving me. Yes, I know there’s an interesting and dark paragraph off to the left there, but I’ve got a timer ticking down to certain annihilation and I need this resource now!

        I know that at any time you could just pause and then you’ve got all the time in the world, but that feels like I’m then sabotaging one of the game mechanics (needing to make complex decisions quickly) just so the story has a chance to exist.

    • raj says:

      Amazing. Just a totally unique art game that doesn’t fail to be fun like so many do. The aesthetic, feel, gameplay, design, all great. Really felt like you were exploring a world rather than playing a game.

      However, the tedium of playing optimally really ground me down. It’s funny because that’s pretty obviously a deliberate design choice – a day job is tedious and relentless – but it just felt like keeping yourself working the office job on cooldown wasn’t optional. And it’s not that I mind having to constantly juggle all these little things: that’s the point of the game after all. But the sheer mechanical complexity/tedium of doing it really got to me. The game really was intriguing enough to make me want to play a multi-hour session (a very rare thing for me these days) but I felt like I was getting carpal tunnel.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I once was like you. But then, I became… aware. The higher I RISE the more I SEE !!

        Gur bssvpr wbo vf bx sbe trggvat fgnegrq, ohg lbh jnag gb fjvgpu gb cnvagvat nf fbba nf cbffvoyr. Hctenqr lbhe Vzntvangvba 2..3 gvzrf, naq gura fybg Abgbevrgl vagb vg jura cnvagvat. Lrf, guvf jvyy xrrc gubfr pbcvrf bs Abgbevrgl nebhaq sbe n ybat gvzr, fb lbh’er cynlvat “ubg cbgngb”; ohg lbh jvyy trarengr n gba bs zbarl, n ohapu bs Tyvzzrevatf, naq ba gbc bs gung lbh’q or noyr gb trg evq bs Erfgyrffarff ol cnvagvat vg njnl.

        • toastengineer says:

          This illustrates my other problem with the game besides the grindiness; the whole “slots accept cards with certain aspects, so you know what your options are – not what those options DO, but you know what you can TRY – as soon as you see the aspects the slot accepts” thing breaks down pretty much immediately in to “okay, these ten cards fit in the slot. Does this one do anything? No? Okay. Does this one do anything? No. Does this one do anything – right, already tried that one, forgot. Does this one do anything? No. Does this one…”

          So you start to overlook important new discoveries on the assumption that most things you try won’t even give you a failure message.

          And the name is terrible. Calling it “Cultist Simulator” evokes German forklift simulators and Goat Simulator, not a story-based experience.

          • Bugmaster says:

            As I said above, I actually like this aspect (no pun intended) of the game. You have clear indication of what will happen when you carve that eldritch rune, or pick up that brush, or close your eyes at night and focus your will. You can guess, and you could be right — but when you’re wrong, terrible things will come after you (and some of them will talk in all caps). Being a cultist is not like being an engineer. Neither Passion nor Reason can be fully trusted, and the game really makes you experience this fact — as opposed to merely telling you about it.

            I will grant you the point about the name, though.

          • toastengineer says:

            I’m 100% with you, except the guessing becomes a slog when the majority of my guesses get no response from the game.

            You can guess, and you could be right — but when you’re wrong, terrible things will come after you (and some of them will talk in all caps).

            So in truth, this game is really about the Internet.

          • Bugmaster says:


            So in truth, this game is really about the Internet.

            “The Wood grows around the walls of the Internet. As any student of Computer Science knows, the Internet has no walls.”

    • Majuscule says:

      My husband loves it- he was also a big fan of Sunless Sea, and has been a long time Magic player and Lovecraft fan. So a card-based game with elaborate narrative about cults was basically tailor-made for him. He talked a little about the strategy and seemed more excited about the number of possible directions one could take things, but I think it got a bit too time-consuming after a while and he’s taking a break.

  27. proyas says:

    Are “Rods from God” feasible substitutes for nuclear weapons?

    If you wanted to use them to destroy a medium-sized city, what characteristics would the kinetic weapon need (number of projectiles, size of projectiles, spacing of projectiles, speed of projectiles)?

    Would a tungsten rod the size of a ruler and traveling at Mach 10 blow my house to bits if it hit straight down into my backyard? Is a weapon consisting of a gigantic shotgun blast of “tungsten rulers” what you would use to destroy a city?



    • Hoopyfreud says:

      With a moonbase, yes. Without one, all that kinetic energy (much more, actually) has to be added to the system with rockets, so probably no. mc^2 >> mgh + 1/2mv^2 for for any practical values of v and m (yes, yes, there’s a more correct value for PE, but who cares, the order of magnitude is probably the same)

      E: just saw Bean’s response. The comparison I made above is regarding pure energy delivery; if you sent a nuclear warhead to space, it would be much cheaper, obviously. The delivery system cost is what sinks you; I expect deploying a KE bombardment weapon to be at least as expensive as deploying a nuke. This is the spherical cow vs 3D horse.

    • bean says:

      Are “Rods from God” feasible substitutes for nuclear weapons?


      First, the big issue is that they’re assuming SpaceX delivers on the BFR. This is not a good bet.

      Would a tungsten rod the size of a ruler and traveling at Mach 10 blow my house to bits if it hit straight down into my backyard?

      I don’t think that’s a feasible projectile. The rule of thumb is that something with a sectional density lower than the density of the atmosphere (about 10 tons/m2) is going to be falling at terminal velocity when it reaches the ground. IIRC, this gives a minimum length for a tungsten projectile of about .5 m.

      The whole article does not impress. Besides the fact that he doesn’t seem to have looked very deeply into the technical problems with the issue (guidance isn’t even mentioned), he’s comparing material and launch costs for one of these rods with the all-up nuclear weapon cost, including R&D and sustainment costs. This is talking about a spherical cow vs a really high-fidelity 3D model of a horse.

      I also have issues with his math. For instance “assuming even distribution” (not how it works), chunks that can destroy “about 30 square feet” will take out an area “about 800 x 800 feet”. That assumes that the 30 ft2 is an actual square, and the projectiles are tiling cleanly. This is not how it works. Cut that to a circle maybe 700′ across. Maybe.

      With 6–8 satellites on a given orbit, a target could be hit within 12–15 minutes from any given time, less than half the time taken by an ICBM and without the warning.

      This is another gem. You actually need something like 100 satellites to get that kind of response time, and big boosters to put them on the correct trajectory for impact. (Another factor he fails to mention when evaluating costs, now that I think about it.)

      Such a system could also be equipped with sensors to detect incoming anti-ballistic missile-type threats and relatively light protective measures to use against them (e.g. Hit-To-Kill Missiles or megawatt-class chemical laser).

      Wait, what? Now you’re just being stupid.

      The higher damage likely involves taking the rods to a far higher orbit. It would likely double fuel cost to get to the higher orbit but the damage would increase ten times.

      This is even worse. The math to do this kind of thing isn’t that hard. Neglecting atmosphere, you’re going to need to about triple speed to increase the damage tenfold. From a low-orbital strike, that’s well beyond escape velocity. Is he under the impression that the things fall straight down?

      This is being added to my pantheon of really stupid defense articles.

      • Tuna-Fish says:

        Not commenting on the rest of it, but:

        > First, the big issue is that they’re assuming SpaceX delivers on the BFR. This is not a good bet.

        I’d really like to know your reasoning for this. To date, SpaceX has typically been very late, but still eventually successfully delivered what they claimed. Now that they have dropped the composites, I see nothing particularly hard about the BFR that they shouldn’t be able to do.

    • John Schilling says:

      You seem to be assuming that the purpose of nuclear weapons, or of orbital kinetic energy weapons, is to destroy cities. This is debatable in both cases, but we can use it as a starting point.

      Ruler-sized rods are probably too small; they’d lose too much of their energy to drag and too much of their mass to ablation on the way down, unless you can do something very clever. Clever usually means some combination of expensive, unreliable, and prone to countermeasures. For a brute-force solution, a 500 kg weapon including a ~375 kg projectile (of which ~300 kg reaches the ground) would be about right. Such a kinetic weapon, delivered from Low Earth Orbit, could deliver about the effect of a 4000 lb HC bomb. Note that for surface targets, you don’t want a long, skinny tungsten rod, but something that will very rapidly give up its kinetic energy, so either a material that will fully vaporize under the impact shock or something with a proximity-fuzed bursting charge to fragment a few tens of meters above ground.

      About 500 such weapons would deliver one Hiroshima’s worth of damage to an urban target, or 8400 to match a nominal one-megaton city-busting hydrogen bomb (effects are nonlinear with yield). You could launch about 100 at a time on a Falcon Heavy, at an advertised price of $90E6, so we’re talking $7.5 billion per equivalent megaton before you even pay for the weapons themselves. That’s not going to be cost-effective compared to an ICBM, even before you consider the vulnerability and inflexibility of the basing mode.

      If you’ve got some extremely poor extraterrestrial society with ready access to heavy metals in cislunar space but no fissile materials, say maybe a penal colony, OK, this could be made to work, but that’s a decidedly niche application.

      The other application is to exploit the fact that 8400 small(ish) explosions are much more useful than one big one IF you can target them with reasonable precision. But that runs into the problem that anything moving that fast through the lower atmosphere will be surrounded by dense, RF-opaque and incandescent plasma in a way that makes any sort of guidance a tricky proposition. Rather like playing hide-and-seek while the seeker’s head is wrapped in a burning towel.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Instead of use as a city destroyer, how about a plausibly deniable bunker buster?

        [tinfoil hat]

        There was that mysterious collapse of North Korea’s underground nuke labs that killed a bunch of scientists last year. Right before Kim suddenly got inexplicably friendly.

        And there was that weird exchange between Obama and Trump during their Oval Office meeting, about the “high-flying assets” that doesn’t seem to make much sense (and as we all know, Trump is always clear spoken and makes perfect sense).

        Just sayin’.

        [/tinfoil hat]

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          The problem with those tinfoil hat theories, neat as they are, is that pounds of metal screaming through the atmosphere would produce sonic booms and radio waves across a continent. Nothing that’s launched from an orbital platform is going to be able to go down. It’s not a stealth weapon.

          On topic, I expect they might work for bunker busters, but those things are really hard to aim. Reentry is a chaotic business, and you’d probably want a series to hit near the same place. I expect short range missiles to do a much better job.

      • cold_potato says:

        I’m a bit dubious about the way you seem to be comparing different weapons – nuclear bombs, conventional bombs, and kinetic weapons – directly in terms of their energy content. To illustrate that this doesn’t always hold, consider: an APFSDS round will penetrate a tank’s armour, a 3kg TNT charge will dent it slightly, and 300 mL of burning gasoline will only scorch its paintwork. These are three different ways of applying the same energy – about 12 MJ – with very different effects.

        I would be happy, for example, lumping together all weapons that cause damage through the overpressure of a blast wave, and comparing them directly in terms of their energy yield. That would include, for example, the 4000 lb HC bomb you linked, or a small nuclear weapon – but not a similarly-sized Tallboy bomb, which is designed to penetrate and explode underground, or a large nuclear weapon, which achieves its destructive effect mostly through the thermal pulse.

        It’s not clear to me, though, that an orbital kinetic weapon would have this effect. Certainly there’s a problem – as you noted – that a simple tungsten rod would expend its energy penetrating into the ground rather than generating a blast wave at the surface. If you dealt with this with a bursting charge, you’d have a cloud of fragments which would vapourise as soon as they hit the ground. Would these impacts generate a single coherent shock wave? Maybe it depends on the size of the blast pattern: you need their spacing to be tighter than the physical thickness of the region of overpressure in the initial shock.

        It’s worth also considering the merit of an orbital kinetic weapon against buried targets. For armour penetration, a good figure of merit is the momentum per unit cross-section. A 5m tungsten rod at orbital velocity will have 8e8 kg/m.s, compared with 2e7 kg/m.s for a typical anti-tank APFSDS round. That gives it a potential role against bunkers that can’t be destroyed by any other conventional munitions, or by nuclear weapons without causing too much collateral damage on the surface. With the substantial problem, as you pointed out, that there’s no good way to guide it.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Would a tungsten rod the size of a ruler and traveling at Mach 10 blow my house to bits if it hit straight down into my backyard?

      The article suggests a 6.1 meter x .3m (probably translated from 20 feet x 1 foot) rod would have a KE of 11.5 tons. Cut it down to 3 feet by .20 feet (about the size of a yardstick) and you get a cylinder of 0.006 times the volume (and thus mass if we assume a solid rod). Mass is proportional to KE, so this gives us an energy equivalent of 0.07 tons of TNT.

      That should be quite sufficient to destroy your house. Here’s someone blowing up a house with a slightly smaller explosion of 100 pounds of dynamite (probably in it rather than next to it, but… well, watch the video)

      (and yes, this assumes you can get such a small rod to the backyard at Mach 10)

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      I don’t think its very practical to use small tungsten rods to terrorize a city, as others have pointed out, small rods would lose lots of velocity in the atmosphere, and to get them to come down, you got to send them up which is a shit ton of fuel.

      Perhaps a more interesting application of kinetic energy bombing would be clandestinely hijacking asteroids. Imagine, if you will, that you deposit, secretly, a robotic miner onto an asteroid that slowly tosses off material in a calculated fashion such that the rock is re-directed towards earth, and eventually the capital city of your geopolitical foe. Bam, all the benefits of a nuke, none of the culpability or radiation.

      • bean says:

        That’s going to take an awfully long time. If the asteroid hits at, say, 12 km/s (slightly above escape velocity, and probably not far off if you’re going for a minimum-energy transit) then it’s going to be at 16 Ricks (KE equal to 16 times weight in TNT). You’re going to need at least a thousand tons to get serious damage. Someone is likely to notice the course change, and send a mission to investigate. Other problems:
        There’s no stealth in space. “Hey, that asteroid you sent a mission to just crashed on your rival!”
        How can you be sure it won’t break up in the atmosphere (dumping all of its energy early) or tumble unevenly and end up plowing into the countryside near the city?
        How much does this cost, and how long does it take? How can you be sure that peace won’t break out before this actually manages to bear fruit?

        Remember, Rocks Are Not Free, Citizen!

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Remember, Rocks Are Not Free, Citizen!

          Required reading:

          Rocks are NOT ‘free’, citizen.

          Firstly, you must manoeuvre the Emperor’s naval vessel within the asteroid belt, almost assuredly sustaining damage to the Emperor’s ship’s paint from micrometeoroids, while expending the Emperor’s fuel.

          Then the Tech Priests must inspect the rock in question to ascertain its worthiness to do the Emperor’s bidding. Should it pass muster, the Emperor’s Servitors must use the Emperor’s auto-scrapers and melta-cutters to prepare the potential ordinance for movement. Finally, the Tech Priests finished, the Emperor’s officers may begin manoeuvring the Emperor’s warship to abut the asteroid at the prepared face (expending yet more of the Emperor’s fuel), and then begin boosting the stone towards the offensive planet.

          After a few days of expending a prodigious amount of the Emperor’s fuel to accelerate the asteroid into an orbit more fitting to the Emperor’s desires, the Emperor’s ship may then return to the planet via superluminous warp travel and await the arrival of the stone, still many weeks (or months) away.

          After twiddling away the Emperor’s time and eating the Emperor’s food in the wasteful pursuit of making sure that the Emperor’s enemies do not launch a deflection mission, they may finally watch the ordinance impact the planet (assuming that the Emperor’s ship does not need to attempt any last-minute course correction upon the rock, using yet more of the Emperor’s fuel).

          Given a typical (class Bravo-CVII) system, we have the following:

          Two months, O&M, Titan class warship: 4.2 Million Imperials

          Two months, rations, crew of same: 0.2 MI

          Two months, Tech Priest pastor: 1.7 MI

          Two months, Servitor parish: 0.3 MI

          Paint, Titan class warship: 2.5 MI

          Dihydrogen peroxide fuel: 0.9 MI

          Total: 9.8 MI

          Contrasted with the following:

          5 warheads, magna-melta: 2.5 MI

          One day, O&M, Titan class warship: 0.3 MI

          One day, rations, crew of same: 0.0 MI

          Dihydrogen peroxide fuel: 0.1 MI

          Total: 2.9 MI

          Given the same result with under one third of the cost, the Emperor will have saved a massive amount of His most sacred money and almost a full month of time, during which His warship may be bombarding an entirely different planet.

          The Emperor, through this – His Office of Imperial Outlays – hereby orders you to attend one (1) week of therapeutic accountancy training/penance. Please report to Areicon IV, Imperial City, Administratum Building CXXI, Room 1456, where you are to sit in the BLUE chair.

          For the Emperor,

          Bursarius Tenathis,

          Purser Level XI,

          Imperial Office of Outlays.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I think the asteroid’s orbit would look very suspicious. It would be clear that it was an attack, even though it would take earth-focused detective work to have a chance of figuring out who was behind it.

        It might be a good premise for a novel.

        Also, at that tech level, the asteroid would probably be deflected away from earth.

      • John Schilling says:

        Bam, all the benefits of a nuke, none of the culpability or radiation.

        How do you get “no culpability” when everybody in the solar system will see you do this? There Ain’t no Stealth In Space, as we have discussed here before. By the time anyone has the ability to move asteroids in a dangerous manner, everyone will have the ability to monitor almost every spaceship in the solar system capable of moving an asteroid or delivering asteroid-moving equipment. And, more importantly, to monitor every potentially-threatening asteroid in close enough to real time as makes no difference – so if someone does pull off one of the clever schemes that might occasionally allow a spacecraft to sneak off into the dark, we’ll know right where to start looking when an asteroid shifts to a dangerous new course for no apparent reason.

        Also, a dangerously large asteroid whose natural trajectory takes it within 650,000 km of Earth is an exceedingly rare thing, whereas an asteroid aimed dead center at Earth is rendered harmless by a 6,500 km course shift. So if it is at all possible for an attacker to aim an asteroid at one of Earth’s cities, it is at least two orders of magnitude easier for the Earthicans to say “nope, not going to happen” and make it so.

        This is not an effective attack unless you assume the attackers have resources and technology vastly greater than our own, while the Earth they are attacking is still that of 2018.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          The idea is just something fun to ponder, because you know, sometimes people aint looking. Plus, the US could do my plan right now of planting the device if they just tried, and do the separation as it was on the far side of an asteroid, then begin operation whenever. Its not like its a great plan, but its certainly better than moon base tungsten missiles.

          For some plausible idea about how one could overwhelm in a space fight without FTL, super stealth, etc look at the Conjoiner v. Demarchist war at the beginning of Redemption Ark. Although the tech powercreeps pretty hard in the series after that, that particular set of conflicts is fairly plausible about how to win a war of relativistic weapons.

          • John Schilling says:

            Plus, the US could do my plan right now of planting the device if they just tried…

            If by “the device” you mean the previously-mentioned robotic mining and rock-tossing machine, nobody in or out of the United States knows how to actually build such a device, and the concept generates howls of laughter from even the optimistic sorts of mining engineers who are willing to listen to space enthusiasts making the pitch.

            Also, if it has to operate on an asteroid-moving scale, I’m pretty certain “the device” will be too massive for even the ultimate planned version of the SLS to actually send to an asteroid, never mind the Falcon Heavy that we actually know how to build, so that adds another entire class of thing we don’t know how to do. In this case, one where the necessary developments will announce themselves with ginormous pillars of fire of the sort that people actually are looking for.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            John, I find it hard to see how people laugh at it as a plausible try (tbh its just as likely to cause chaos rather than damage). I could erect such a machine in my garage that operates off solar power and scoops little piles and tosses them with enough force to change the direction of an asteroid over the long term.

            The tough thing would be that you probably wont have a good enough guidance system to stop the asteroid from spinning wildly to the point that you can no longer toss rocks with accuracy, let alone probably being cast away.

          • James C says:

            tbh its just as likely to cause chaos rather than damage

            Chaos might be a strong way of putting it. What you’re doing is randomly changing the orbit of an asteroid to something that might, at some point many years in the future, come close to the Earth. More likely you’ve just spent half a billion dollars to mildly annoy an astronomer who’s job it is to check up on the damn thing once an month and make sure it isn’t going to hit anything important.

          • John Schilling says:

            I could erect such a machine in my garage that operates off solar power and scoops little piles and tosses them

            At any temperature from +100C to -200C, in hard vacuum, without using any oil or grease, while subject to random bursts of hard radiation and electrostatic effects, with only a milligee of gravity to hold your scoop-machine to the surface it is trying to scoop, with that surface being a complex aggregate of boulders, gravel, quasi-concrete, and a dust that is perhaps the most horrible abrasive known to man? Powered by solar cells that stop working under a thin coating of dust such as might be kicked up by your activities? For years at a time, with absolutely no outside maintenance or adjustment whatsoever?

            I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that your belief that you could do this has never been put to the test and is naively optimistic to say the least. Actual professional mining engineers are almost universally confident that they could not build such a device.

  28. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I saw this joke: “Scientifically, a raven has 17 primary wing feathers, the big ones at the end of the wing. They are called pinion feathers. A crow has 16. So the difference between a crow and a raven is only a matter of a pinion.”

    I poked around a little, and couldn’t find anything about number of wing feathers for either crows or ravens. For that matter, I don’t know whether bird species have set numbers of wing feathers.

    Gregory Bateson wrote about how sometimes genes code for specific numbers (five fingers) and sometimes for “many” (number of hairs). Wing feathers could go either way, I think.

    • Machine Interface says:

      The first problem with that claim is understanding what is meant by “crow” and “raven”. The corvus genus contains around 45 living species, and which are called “crows” and which are called “ravens” seem to be more of a factor of local preference than any serious classification — especially when some of these species are actually called both alternatively depending on the locality/author (and that’s even before accounting that the genus also includes “rooks”, and sometimes “jackdaws” depending on classifications).

      Generally the ones called “ravens” tend to be bigger, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule.

  29. baconbits9 says:

    Wikipedia states that Albert Einstein won his Nobel Prize for “his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. Is the first half why he doesn’t have a Nobel for Relativity, or is there some other reason?

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      He only has one nobel prize. He won it for the photoelectric effect paper. The fact that he didn’t win multiple is most likely due to politics. Firstly, relativity was not “proven” until 1919 and even then people were skeptical of the eclipse data. Also, antisemitism was running rampant in Europe in his heyday. Then, they decided to award him one for the PE effect AND HE DIDN”T ATTEND THE CEREMONY.

      So, he snubbed them, and further alienated himself from the physics community by calling quantum theory stupid. This is ironic because a great deal of his thought processes and papers generated important quantum theories: Bose-Einstein condensates (aka super chilled helium being a super-fluid), his work helped elaborate Plank’s work that won him the 1918 Nobel, his work on particle-wave duality contributed to Louis de Broglie’s 1929 Nobel, he proposed spontaneous emission of light. So they weren’t keen on giving him more prizes.

      Even so, he should have easily had 3 outright nobels: Photoelectric, General Relativity, and Brownian motion + a few shared: Special relativity, Bose-Einstein Condensate, wave-particle duality.

      • ec429 says:

        and further alienated himself from the physics community by calling quantum theory stupid

        In fairness to Einstein, if the only people explaining quantum theory to you are the Copenhagen crowd, with their collapse postulates that break everything from Liouville to Shannon*, calling it stupid is an entirely reasonable response.

        * Yes, it’s anachronistic of me to invoke the dread name of Shannon here. No, I don’t care.

      • chrisminor0008 says:

        I think history will vindicate him on calling quantum theory stupid. I would have liked to hear his thoughts on many-worlds. I think he would have liked it — it follows in a long tradition of physics showing us that our place in the world is less privileged than we thought, a tradition he played a role in.

        • mcpalenik says:

          I think history will vindicate him on calling quantum theory stupid.

          No it won’t. Quantum mechanics is an integral part of more technology than you realize. Not only are there the obvious things, like transistors, which could only be developed once the band structure of semi-conductors was understood, and MRI, which depends on the behavior of spins in magnetic fields (which is determined by quantum mechanics), but quantum mechanical modeling is used regularly to predict chemical reactions and molecular structures that go into everything from drug design to the development of solar cells to explosives. Of course, there are things that could be considered more direct evidence as well, like STM and AFM, which actually allow you to visualize wave functions, the very fact that quantum computers work, or measurements of Bell’s inequality. Not to mention, of course the phenomena that were inexplicable even at the time of Einstein without some form of new physics, like the photoelectric effect, black body radiation, the hydrogen spectrum, or the very fact that atoms are stable (accelerating charges should radiate and therefore, electrons should lose their energy and crash into the nucleus in classical physics). Heck, classical electrodynamics isn’t even a consistent theory when you allow charges to interact with their own radiation (they end up seeing the future).

          As for interpretations of what wave function “collapse” is, many worlds has some followers, but most of them ignore the fact that it fails to reproduce probabilities correctly, i.e. in many worlds, there’s no connection between the amplitude of the wave function and probability. Every possible “measurement” gets its own world.

  30. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Does anyone have a good rebuttal to Random Critical Analysis’s contrarian take on cost disease in US health care?
    (conveniently rounded up recently at https://randomcriticalanalysis.com/2018/11/19/why-everything-you-know-about-healthcare-is-wrong-in-one-million-charts-a-response-to-noah-smith/ )?

    I know everything on that blog is excruciatingly long even by SSC readers’ standards, but reading the section headings and drilling down on the interesting ones should give you a good idea.

    tl;dr of argument is that
    a) Actual Individual Consumption (AIC) and Household Disposable Income (HHDI) are generally better national affluence measures than GDP.

    b) By AIC/HHDI, the US is by far the richest country in the world, and it ceases to be an outlier on the health spending vs wealth graph. Other countries are also seeing their health spending grow and grow as they get richer, but the US is farther down the same path.

    c) The US looks the way you’d expect a country of its wealth to look by most healthcare system measure. We’re high on metrics if and only if they correlate with wealth among other countries.

    d) Therefore, basically all mainstream rhetoric on US healthcare is wrong. Private vs. single-payer vs. public healthcare has little bearing on total spending. High healthcare spending is here to stay and only going to get higher as long as wealth increases, and we just have to live with it.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I had a response a few threads ago.

      Basically, my position is that right now average costs and high-amplitude outcome measures are keeping pace with trends. However, the author demonstrates that demand is elastic and fails to show that overhead costs for low-level (low amplitude outcome) care have not grown in excess of their outcomes. So people die older and have similar end-of-life levels of care, but their healthcare consumption in the elastic region may still be lower in the US relative to other countries; basically, the institutions that have made end-of-life care so good have given us $20 individually wrapped asprin even though nobody wanted it. This doesn’t show up because end-of-life care is by far the most expensive part of healthcare! It dominates all the other signals, so the economics on that scale tell you very little about how much it costs to see a doctor for a medical issue that falls within the elastic region of care. Insofar healthcare debate is about that, I don’t think this article provides any answers. Yes, total costs are justifiably high and should be expected to remain so. No, that doesn’t mean that the cost of seeing a doctor for a cold or a sprained ankle has the same cost as a percentage of AIC in the US that it does everywhere else.

      And also I think it’s entirely possible that the reasons for this cost increase are (in order of likelihood) a permissive legal environment (malpractice avoidance incurs enormous costs), insurance fuckery, and regulations. But looking at things on that scale doesn’t really give us a good idea of which of or how much, these are blowing up costs at that level.

      • rcafdm says:

        so the economics on that scale tell you very little about how much it costs to see a doctor for a medical issue that falls within the elastic region of care…. No, that doesn’t mean that the cost of seeing a doctor for a cold or a sprained ankle has the same cost as a percentage of AIC in the US that it does everywhere else.

        In my view, the combination of domestic health prices indices and international comparisons of heath price levels suggest it’s very unlikely our least complicated, most everyday health encounters are all that much pricier than would be expected given our average income levels, especially if one further accounts for what’s actually done vis-a-vis technology (preventative care, diagnostics, etc).

        Sure, physician wages are a little higher here, but not so much when you look at the income distribution or returns to skill and even less so if you look amongst PCPs. And the higher wages amongst higher skilled healthcare workers in the US are likely offset by relatively lower wages for lesser skilled workers in the health sector, probably more liberal scope of practice laws, investment in IT, etc. Overall compensation in the health sector is basically at the US average today. Even the cost estimates for office visits by organizations other than OECD, which have tended to be not very “apples-to-apples” (probably less of an issue for office visits), suggest US office visits aren’t very expensive. And if the organizational/bloat story were true, why haven’t alternatives like “doc-in-a-box” or integrated organizations like KP managed deliver this sort of healthcare much cheaper?…

        Long story short, I don’t see a compelling story for much higher prices conditional on average income-levels for every day medicine when we don’t see this with much more complicated procedures or in the broader index of health prices that is weighted to reflect expenditures. To the extent we perceive higher prices for presumably similar encounters, this is likely to be much better explained by technology/intensity/cutting edge medicine. Countries are much more likely to chase incremental improvements as they get richer…. especially when these improvements are (initially) very expensive and the benefits uncertain.

        – RCA

        • cassander says:

          And if the organizational/bloat story were true, why haven’t alternatives like “doc-in-a-box” or integrated organizations like KP managed deliver this sort of healthcare much cheaper?

          Because there’s no advantage to competing on price with consumers who are almost totally insulated from costs. I got a steroid injection from an ER a few months ago for an allergic reaction. My visit involved at least two doctors and several nurses and non-nurse officials of some kind, plus a mandatory 4 hour stay in the bed. Total bill, over 3 grand, about 40 of which was the actual medicine.

          If Walmart offered me the same thing for 500 bucks, I wouldn’t go, because my deductible is 200 bucks either way and the hospital is closer to the subway. And if my insurer started sending everyone to walmart, everyone who works at my company would get up in arms about it and demand we switch insurers.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I don’t know anyone with a $200 deductible, except for my former neighbor who combined Medicare with an ultra-gold-plated retiree health insurance policy from a teacher’s union.

            In every place I’ve worked, the most popular coverage has been a HSA or the “bronze” equivalent, which typically come with large deductibles. My wife and I finally reached a several thousand dollar deductible this year due to a combination of fertility treatments.

            It’s hard to price research because the system is designed to be incredibly, incredibly, incredibly, incredibly opaque. My experience in a Fortune 50 health company working with another Fortune 50 health company has been one of all sorts of complicated, secret deals, and a great deal of forcing employees into silos (presumably so no one knows too much). It is entirely the opposite of every job I’ve had since then. Like, I work for a major food company now. If I want to know the secret recipe to one of our major products, I literally just have to go downstairs and ask the guy who designed it. I worked B2B collections for a health care company, and I still had no idea what the actual agreed price structures were. I really don’t even think the people who WROTE the contracts understood the price structures, and each one had a team of, like, a dozen people to help design them. It’s insane.

            I also suspect there’s a fair degree of gross incompetence across all sorts of functions. For instance, we were talking about shortages of certain drugs and medical supplies, of which huge numbers of hospitals (something like 30-60%?) had no idea there was even the possibility of a shortage until they couldn’t order something. At a personal level, I had to argue with doctors who continued to prescribe drugs on lapsed licenses, and were asking ME how to renew their license. Dude, I’m making $8/hour, you went to medical school, why don’t you tell ME how you got your DEA license? And if you don’t know, maybe you shouldn’t be prescribing drugs?
            At an anecdotal level, my wife has worked for “advanced” hospitals that have done absolutely bonkers shit WRT accounting and other administrative practices. Some of this borders on years-long fraud that should’ve been caught in like 2 seconds by a competent accountant, and some of this is “oh, we really wanted to hire you, but we actually forgot to call you.” And I’d say these are one-offs, but they happen again and again and again and again and again and again. She consulted for a while at some REALLY bad hospitals in places like Oklahoma and West Virginia, or at least she claims they were hospitals, because some of the stories make them sound like Gulags.

            It also seems that relationships are largely adversarial in every single hospital she has ever worked at, which cannot possibly help. Also, this is a biased opinion from my wife, but I can’t help but adding that most hospitalists and surgeons come across these stories as giant jerks who do not cooperate well and generally insist that their opinions are gospel. I definitely had this issue somewhat when CMS demanded valid NPIs submitted with every prescription, because doctors didn’t like being hassled (especially hospital doctors). They REALLY didn’t like it when we started looking into DEA numbers.

            Overall, the people I liked dealing with the most were the Tricare guys. They were pretty awesome and understanding.

          • cassander says:

            @A Definite Beta Guy says:

            It’s not precisely a 200 dollar deductible, it’s more complicated than that, but the point is it’s reduced to the point where it’s not worth my time to haggle over it, but someone is paying 3 grand.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Sorry, went off on a bit of a rant. I just meant to say that you seem to have a pretty low deductible. Most of the people I know have high deductibles ranging in the thousands of dollars, so we are at least somewhat price sensitive.
            A. There’s not really a good way to price research.
            B. Once you have a BIG problem, then, yeah, there’s a lot more insulation from the cost.
            B is definitely true, but even then, insurance companies CAN control prices and utilization, through PAs and the like.

          • rcafdm says:

            Because there’s no advantage to competing on price with consumers who are almost totally insulated from costs.

            In the short term or within a given plan, maybe not (though I wouldn’t entirely dismiss OOP playing a role here). However, if health plans can presumably save so much money and the marginal utility of these alternative sources of care is truly not much less, why wouldn’t employees/employers switch plans that would make this happen with better incentives or other mechanisms in place to steer business that way?

            More generally, if the bloat/overhead argument were substantially true, why aren’t these alternative systems actually operating much more efficiently and at much lower cost? The evidence generally suggest cost issues cut across the particulars of organizational and reimbursement characteristics like this and that this ultimately goes overwhelmingly to demand (rising income levels).

          • cassander says:

            @A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Sorry, went off on a bit of a rant. I just meant to say that you seem to have a pretty low deductible. Most of the people I know have high deductibles ranging in the thousands of dollars, so we are at least somewhat price sensitive.

            I don’t mean to be snarky, but have you ever tried to shop on price for health services? It’s not easy, but in my experience it’s never done for anything covered by insurance.

            A. There’s not really a good way to price research.

            Every other industry manages is.

            B is definitely true, but even then, insurance companies CAN control prices and utilization, through PAs and the like

            They can, but when they do, they get complaints. And because most companies self insure, and health expenditure is tax exempt, competition is mostly on better service, not price.

            @rcafdm says:

            In the short term or within a given plan, maybe not (though I wouldn’t entirely dismiss OOP playing a role here). However, if health plans can presumably save so much money and the marginal utility of these alternative sources of care is truly not much less, why wouldn’t employees/employers switch plans that would make this happen with better incentives or other mechanisms in place to steer business that way?

            One, the same thing I said to beta guy, the price sensitivity is weakened by the fact that most companies self insure and use the insurance company as more of a billing and processing company than a proper insurer, and do so with tax deductible dollars.

            Two, the power of the insurers to change things is limited. You need to get the providers to adopt more efficient methods, and they face very little incentive to do so.

            Three, a lot of the bloat is legally mandated, either explicitly or implicitly by a desire to avoid getting sued.

          • rcafdm says:

            the price sensitivity is weakened by the fact that most companies self insure and use the insurance company as more of a billing and processing company than a proper insurer

            I really don’t think that answers the question. If the cost of US healthcare is presumably so much higher because of unnecessary administrative bloat in hospitals or what have you, why wouldn’t consumers and providers route around these institutional issues when they don’t need them? Yes, in the short run within a given plan employees may not be incentivized to seek lower cost treatment, but in the long run this doesn’t make sense as employees, who are presumably bearing almost all of the incidence of health spending, could presumably get the same utility at ~half the cost by seeking other forms of treatment through regimes that aren’t so burdened, especially amongst large employers that have the resources to actually organize changes economically. As in, companies would change plans, existing payers would offer alternative plans (incentives, restrictions, etc), large employers could organize their own clinics, etc. if administrative bloat explains much of the high costs (presumably providers AND patients are only being hurt by the status quo!)

            Also, why aren’t actually existing alternative forms of organizations like drop-in clinics or integrated plans like KP, delivering healthcare significantly more efficiently? It’s not like we don’t have any data on this sort of thing!

          • Nornagest says:

            If the administrative bloat is driven by e.g. compliance requirements, then there wouldn’t be anywhere to hide from it in the legitimate medical system. Consumers’ choices would be e.g. treatment at an independent hospital with administrative bloat or treatment at an HMO clinic with the same administrative bloat.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          especially if one further accounts for what’s actually done vis-a-vis technology (preventative care, diagnostics, etc).

          I can’t tell if the index you’re talking about amortizes the total overhead costs over all dollars spent. If it does this is consistent with my claim, since overhead had a significant flat component and treatment costs do not – in fact, complex treatments scale very, very hard! So the more your flat overhead increases, the more you drive down demand for simple treatments – and you already showed that such demand is elastic. I could be wrong, and the index could be amortizing overhead per-patient instead of per-dollar, but I can’t tell.

          But also, there’s a reason why I identified the legal environment as a source of costs. Treatment can be overhead in a system like this, because the purpose of providing treatment at higher quality is to not get sued. And to an index, that looks like treatment costs! That’s the problem with the pricing scheme you describe at the end of your article – patient demand is not the only thing driving prices higher, and even if you open the regulatory framework to allow for different standards of care, I doubt any of it will work without tort reform. And so we return to a policy-level debate: what can be done to reduce costs for people seeking treatment for simple ailments?

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Two more things: one, the treatment for a sprained ankle is the same almost everywhere. Almost nobody is chasing the incremental improvements you point to for everyday medicine like that, even though people are chasing those improvements for chronic conditions (these incremental improvements still come into play, mostly [I believe] for reasons gestured at above). This seems fairly obvious given the definition of chronic condition. Two, I don’t understand why you’re using mean rather than median AIC throughout. I feel like you’re starting from a premise that available treatment is based on average AIC (probably true) and that median demand is based on available treatment (sketchier, IMO). Given the elasticity you demonstrate, why not use median AIC? Average seems better-suited to the case where there’s inelastic demand that’s constrained by the money flowing into the system. But that doesn’t match the macro-level behavior you see on a country-to-country basis, or you’d see other countries spending substantially more as a share of AIC on reproducing the US’s quality of care. If you want to argue that demand is only locally inelastic, I think you need to justify it more (yes, I’m aware of the irony of this statement).

          • rcafdm says:

            I can’t tell if the index you’re talking about amortizes the total overhead costs over all dollars spent. If it does this is consistent with my claim, since overhead had a significant flat component and treatment costs do not – in fact, complex treatments scale very, very hard!

            The OECD researchers publish disaggregated statistics for individual procedures, hospital services (weighted average of procedures), and health care (weighted average of all healthcare) and overhead is calculated into all of this [presumably they have price indices aligned with various SHA components to do these calculations for the entire health sector, but I haven’t found it yet]. Their data indicates we are relatively lower in the overall component than in hospital services, so I think that tends to argue against your notion because hospital services should be relatively more loaded towards end-of-life/high intensity care. Also I think you’re likely to see much more need for administrative overhead in the hospital/institutional sector because of the variety and complexity of what they do than in PCP settings outside of hospitals and their subsidiaries. Billing for a single office visit with no additional services (lab work, preventative care, etc) is about as straight forward as it comes and tends not to be particularly well reimbursed.

            Treatment can be overhead in a system like this, because the purpose of providing treatment at higher quality is to not get sued. And to an index, that looks like treatment costs!

            Perhaps, but then it must be through extra treatment, diagnostics, etc as opposed to higher overhead costs. This is distinct from “price” as people would typically think of it and it’d still look a lot like what I’m arguing, i.e., higher intensity/technology per encounter. While I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the idea that our particularly plaintiff (+attorney) friendly tort system leads to some unnecessary treatment and inefficiency, it seems to me the data are still generally more consistent with changes in material living conditions (e.g., US spending didn’t diverge until recently and US indicators generally following the same trend across a variety of available metrics, little change in concentration and little increase in out-of-pocket spending amongst low spenders ).

            what can be done to reduce costs for people seeking treatment for simple ailments?

            I honestly don’t believe that’s the issue it’s made out to be. The cost of the basic healthcare probably hasn’t risen relative to incomes and people that aren’t consuming a lot of healthcare generally don’t pay much out of pocket either. The issue, such as it is, is that we do far more across the board and we as a society have decided that patients should be sheltered from the cost of their health consumption. Our willingness to spend ever more through these arrangements is a consequence of rising material living conditions, but for the small proportion of people that fall through the cracks of our various overlapping system the apparent “price” can seem very high because healthcare providers are conditioned to treat according to the average demands of the entire population under this extensive system of third party payment (and, to lesser degree, the prices they are presumably billed to these individuals can sometimes be much higher than the average prices actually paid for the same treatment). That is, it’s not just end-of-life care or even necessarily care for very sick or badly injured; the growth rate is broad similar at all points in the distribution, albeit somewhat lumpy due to the nature of changing technology and medical know-how.

            Two more things: one, the treatment for a sprained ankle is the same almost everywhere.

            I presumed you were using sprained ankle as a stand-in for presumably basic healthcare, but I wouldn’t be so sure that’s true in the long run and we don’t actually have prices to compare with this specifically. Even if said treatment, diagnostics, etc are exactly the same, the environment this care is provided in is clearly not and these higher costs will tend to get reflected in prices in less obvious ways. The technology, the training, staffing levels, etc has changed quite dramatically in hospitals over the past few decades; just because you might get the same treatment in the ER for a given condition doesn’t mean the cost structure to provide this care is the same or could be provided more efficiently by hospitals given demands for other types of care.

            Two, I don’t understand why you’re using mean rather than median AIC throughout.

            Several reasons.

            1) We don’t have good internationally comparable statistics for income or consumption at various points in the distribution. The distributional estimates are based on household surveys and they clearly miss a great deal of income and consumption (people lie and the surveys themselves questionably exclude certain things like indirect taxes, implied rent, etc). They have a lot of measurement error and they likely yield systematically biased estimates for the US (under-estimates of income for the bottom ~40% of the country). For instance, these types of surveys have lower income households in the US consuming multiples of their reported income every year on average despite the fact that they have an average net worth of <= ~0 and little ability to borrow and higher-income households under-consuming (when we know they aren't saving this much either). It's just not plausible.

            2) When I’ve looked to suggest measured differences in the distribution or the median is a better predictor. Quite the contrary, mean household consumption and income are typically substantially stronger predictors and mediate these sorts of measures in multiple regression.

            3) This makes sense because there is approximately no relationship between individual income and health spending in the developed world, including the United States. Our spending is determined by how much we are willing to put into the system, which has to do with the mean, and we don’t want or tolerate much inequality in healthcare. The rich subsidize the poor and likely even 50th percentile household. Lower income households might prefer to consume relatively more of their comprehensive incomes in other forms of consumption but it’s not like any developed country really gives them this choice.

          • rcafdm says:

            WordPress ate my reply twice for unknown reasons, so I’ve posted it as a comment on my blog.

          • Hoopyfreud says:


            Your site ate my comment right back, sadly.

            I can’t find a way to access the procedure data, but that’s where I’d like to look. I think I agree that the rate of hospital procedure cost growth outpacing the rate of total care growth points away from overhead, but I feel unable to be confident about that without seeing the equations. For the record, this is why I hate indices.

            Anyway, moving on…

            While I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the idea that our particularly plaintiff (+attorney) friendly tort system leads to some unnecessary treatment and inefficiency, it seems to me the data are still generally more consistent with changes in material living conditions (e.g., US spending didn’t diverge until recently and US indicators generally following the same trend across a variety of available metrics

            You’re not addressing my issues with your metrics here; I don’t disagree that health outcomes have gotten better overall, but I do disagree that this is the only important measure of healthcare accessibility. All healthcare metrics I saw in your essay are targets for justifiably-costly intervention, which means that they don’t provide a basis for comparison for low-amplitude treatments. Those low-amplitude treatments are also the simple ones, where a doc-in-the-box shop would shine if the regulatory environment allowed it. But I still have a feeling that the lack of this sort of establishment is driven by perceived risk (especially perceived liability risk) rather than by inelastic demand for more diagnostics.

            Regarding this I would suggest that median household income should be compared to median expenditure, not mean expenditure. On a population level, the mean values are expected to mediate spending! Whether you sum up all the components of the mean or you multiply the mean by the population, you’ll still get the same number! So the mean isn’t telling you anything about the internal distribution of healthcare costs.

            I actually find the paper you linked last to be more supportive of my point; they claim that

            pre-1960 data where insurance is less prevalent and most payment is made out-of-pocket shows a much larger income elasticity (0.2–0.7)

            Well, with deductibles rocketing since 2000, when the paper was written, why would you not expect that elasticity to reappear?

          • rcafdm says:

            For the record, this is why I hate indices.

            I’m certainly all in favor of more data, but I’d place much more weight on a well designed price index than an ad hoc collection of prices (especially if they’re not actually accurate reflection of real prices).

            Those low-amplitude treatments are also the simple ones, where a doc-in-the-box shop would shine if the regulatory environment allowed it.

            My point is that drop-in clinics & urgent care centers are quite numerous these days and the evidence suggests they haven’t reduced costs. They are a convenient and sometimes nice alternative to finding a regular PCP or visiting the ER (I’ve used them myself between moves), but the prices they charge aren’t all much lower in practice and the evidence thus far suggests it leads to somewhat higher spending, even amongst fully-insured people like myself. Much the same applies to KP and other integrated care organization vis-a-vis presumably high administrative costs, provider incentives, etc. That they’re not able to deliver care much more efficiently should tell us something!

            Regarding this I would suggest that median household income should be compared to median expenditure, not mean expenditure.

            Why? Medians for expenditure and income cannot be estimated as reliably *within* countries, cannot be compared readily *across* countries, and such statistics are not nearly as readily *available*. More importantly, the (1) median household is not the median health consumer, (2) the relationship between these groups isn’t exactly the same between countries [some countries may skew relatively older or have otherwise greater health needs across the population and thus have somewhat different skew in the distribution of spending], (3) the median consumer and median household are likely still subsidized to some degree by higher income households. Under collective payment regimes and with high cross-subsidization there is no reason to expect a consistent relationship in the spatial or temporal dimensions.

            Well, with deductibles rocketing since 2000, when the paper was written, why would you not expect that elasticity to reappear?


            1) the vast majority of people are insured today and 3rd parties pay for almost everything.
            2) most people without insurance are healthy and have little need for healthcare
            3) out-of-pocket spending has NOT increased substantially in years and it’s concentrated amongst high spenders (who tend to be much sicker).
            4) OOP spending actually represents a smaller (and falling) proportion of incomes and health spending in the US than most other high-income countries.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Your last four points are telling the same story that your article does.

            Third parties pay for almost everything (beyond the range of the deductible).

            Out of pocket spending has not increased for low spenders (although deductibles have, from a near-literal zero around 2000, so this leads me to believe that demand is highly elastic in the sub-deductible region).

            Doctor’s consultations per capita are mostly flat over time for all OCED countries, but I’d really like to see consultations against AIC – I don’t have access to the datasets so it’s a bit onerous to plot. Anyway, they’re here: https://data.oecd.org/healthcare/doctors-consultations.htm, and I can’t tell how well they correlate to regulatory environment (institution of single-payer, etc). My initial guess is not much, which leaves my mystified; what does this indicate? I have no idea. In any case, I’d also really like to see the distribution of per-capita consultations between spending bands within the US, though that data doesn’t appear to be available.

          • rcafdm says:


            Doctor’s consultations per capita are mostly flat over time for all OCED countries, but I’d really like to see consultations against AIC – I don’t have access to the datasets so it’s a bit onerous to plot.

            I already did this as it relates to GDP and health spending. The results for AIC are much the same, as in, r ~=0 and the implied income elasticity of office visits ~= 0 (when viewed from the HH perspective instead of GDP/economy wide). It’s generally quite clear that the rapid increase in spending as income rises cannot be explained by people going to the doctor appreciably more often, nor crude averages of inpatient volume (bed-days, discharges, etc), nor aging, nor disease burden, etc. Increasing application of cutting-edge medicine and all that goes with it (rising staffing, training, etc), on the other hand, explains a great deal statistically and makes a lot of sense at multiple levels of analysis.

        • rcafdm says:


          If the administrative bloat is driven by e.g. compliance requirements, then there wouldn’t be anywhere to hide from it in the legitimate medical system. Consumers’ choices would be e.g. treatment at an independent hospital with administrative bloat or treatment at an HMO clinic with the same administrative bloat.

          What compliance costs? Who is driving this? Has anyone made a credible argument that the compliance costs in the US are much higher than they are in other countries?

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        a) I agree the data in that post doesn’t prove that simple/primary care in the US isn’t overpriced (relative to what it could cost under a different healthcare system). But where’s the evidence that it is?

        b) Certainly he hasn’t proven (nor claimed) that the US healthcare system cannot be improved. If copying England or Singapore or whoever would lower costs by 1% without hurting quality, that would be both totally consistent with all that data, and enough to make it a really good idea. But I think he’s proven that we have to cancel the State of Emergency that the liberal mainstream has declared around US healthcare costs.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          But where’s the evidence that it is?

          Purely anecdotal, really. Surveys that show that people don’t go to the doctor because of how much it costs. GoFundMes that pop up for people with a torn ACL. My $3,000 deductible, the reason I haven’t been to a doctor in years despite getting pretty badly sick.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Do you have an HSA? Does your employer put money into it? I have a several-thousand-dollar deductible, but my HSA with employer contributions fills in all the gap IMO.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Yes, but coinsurance above the deductible means I don’t feel safe spending it.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            All of those are evidence of high costs to patients, which could be explained by either total costs of these things being high, or the proportion of costs borne by patients being high. Since the latter seems very likely, I don’t see it as much evidence of the former.

            (Obviously you can argue that the high costs to patients is a problem in itself, but that’s a different argument from the one you’re making)

          • Hoopyfreud says:


            Total costs being high strikes me as the most likely explanation for costs to patients being high, but you’re right that this argument mostly directly applies to cost-to-patients.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I haven’t read it yet, but anyone who mocks Noah Smith is alright in my book!

      Maybe tonight I can read it through.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      Its perfectly reasonable to say that healthcare is a luxury good. That is just a really long way of saying it.

      I am at least partially on board with this because the cost drivers of what we call “healthcare” actually should be called, “State of the Art Heathcare”

      • baconbits9 says:

        Its perfectly reasonable to say that healthcare is a luxury good. That is just a really long way of saying it.

        He isn’t just saying it, he is demonstrating it which is why its so long.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          But his title should be: “Healthcare is a Luxury Good, blah blah blah”

          • rcafdm says:

            I argued that point years before, but some academics argue otherwise and the question isn’t just whether it is luxury good (e.g., what income measure to use, how much wealthier is the US, how much is explained by price, idiosyncratic use of state of the art technology, etc). Noah Smith, the person I was nominally replying to, was arguing this is just about price….

    • cassander says:

      This is the best kind of news, complicated math that “proves” something I already believe!

    • Statismagician says:

      The OP’s a) through c) form a compelling argument that current health care spending isn’t going to break the economy (note that future spending still might; there are some very unpleasant demographics and environmental factors coming down the pike) – that’s just an orthogonal point to a lot of what I, at least, mean when I talk about the US overspending on health care, so I can’t really agree with d).

      Look, this is a truly staggering amount of money in absolute terms. There are some similarities to other ‘luxury goods’ in that cost drivers include useless signalling (latest designer shoes =~ that last week in the hospital with machinery replacing all major organ function) and a disconnect between cost and functionality (I can buy a latest-model iPhone which costs ten times as much as a more reliable phone with the same features from Google =~ I can require enough pointless compliance documentation that physicians need to hire twice as many secretaries to handle it, with no impact on quality of care), but there are differences as well. We’re dealing with literal matters of life and death, here – suboptimal resource allocation has more serious consequences when the resources are doctors and medicine than it does for other things with similarly-weird cost matrices.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I got around to doing basically what you suggested (reading the headings and looking at what I find more interesting a bit further.

      1. This piece agrees with my prior position on US consumption. If you look at basic consumption of things we can measure well the US is WAY ahead of countries with similar GDP numbers. Things like automobiles per capita, sq ft of housing per capita, median sq ft of housing, number of TVs per capita has the US well ahead of most other countries, and the countries that are fairly close in one category or another are not (or with few examples) close in several categories, its typically just one or two. So on the one hand I might be biased because it confirms my prior, but on the other hand it also confirms some uncontroversial things.

      2. Economically the reasoning is sound, there is no justification that I have heard as a fairly broadly read follower of economics blogs that support using GDP instead of consumption measures.

      3. Statistically I am not qualified to judge, but I don’t see much leeway (really none at first blush) for a different interpretation. If he isn’t doing anything dodgy with the statistics then I his position looks as solid as it can be.

      I’ve bookmarked it, it looks outstanding as far as comprehensiveness in addressing an issue.

      • rlms says:

        automobiles per capita, sq ft of housing per capita, median sq ft of housing, number of TVs per capita

        I think the first three of those are at least partially explained by the US’s low population density in comparison to other developed countries.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Partially, but not fully. The US has a higher population density than Australia and has 20% more vehicles per capita, higher than Sweden and its almost double.

          • rlms says:

            You also have to consider related factors (long distance road trips are less desirable in Australia than the US, American cities and transport networks are designed around cars more than in other countries). I think it’s more helpful to look at various consumer goods per capita measures, where the US usually comes pretty high (except for phones/capita apparently).

          • baconbits9 says:

            It doesn’t particularly matter, if people in the US are buying cars because of the uniqueness of the American landscape then these adjustments are automatically factored into the other consumption choices. If Americans spend more on cars that is less that they have to spend on other consumption goods. Americans spend more on healthcare, Americans spend more on cars, more on TVs etc… if the US is supposedly on the same level as other advanced countries in terms of earnings where is all their consumption going?

          • rlms says:

            For cars, the obvious answer is public transport. In general, taxes. But I’m not arguing against the proposition that the US is actually richer in terms of per capita household expenditure, just saying that statistics about cars or house size are not convincing arguments for it.

          • baconbits9 says:

            You don’t think that the country with the highest level of sustained consumption is a decent proxy for the wealthiest country?

          • rlms says:

            I think you’re confused about what I believe. I’m not taking any position on how rich the US is by per capita consumption, or what the implications of that would be. I’m saying that you shouldn’t conclude from high per capita consumption of cars that the US has high per capita consumption of everything, because there are other relevant factors. (And in fact, contrary to my previous comments, I don’t think looking at consumer goods per capita shows the US is far ahead of everyone else in consumption by capita; the statistics I’ve looked at show the US being consistently up with Norway, Switzerland etc. for e.g. TVs per capita, but not as being ahead of everyone).

          • baconbits9 says:

            Norway’s GDP per capita is 15-30% higher than in the US, and Switzerland is 2-15% higher (depending on the year, your source and if you are using nominal vs PPP), having similar levels of consumption across those countries is another data point in favor of GDP being a worse predictor.

        • rcafdm says:

          If lower effective population density lets people consume more cheaply and thereby frees up resources to be spent elsewhere, does it really matter? One could probably argue the cost of living differences in or near-by urban core of NYC vs Kansas City are substantially explained by population density of the greater areas, but it doesn’t change the fact that the price of housing, food, transportation, daycare, etc. are substantially higher in NYC and that one needs a higher income to maintain the same standard of living or, if one doesn’t have it, one will have less money to spend elsewhere. Even if one cannot entirely dismiss the amenity value of living in a major vibrant city (at least if one can afford to live near the nicer parts), this still has implications for how one consumes out of their income.

          Besides-there are clearly strong relationships between total real consumption per capita and real expenditures across these functional categories and the US generally hews very closely to trend. Even if we exclude health, education, and transportation, the US still pulls far ahead of the rest and is close to trend for real AIC (never mind that SNA health accounts for more comprehensive SHA health spending relatively better in the US than in other OECD countries and likely actually overstates the health expenditure adjustment effect). The relationship between real AIC and real GDP are likely much better explained by other factors, such as substantially under-estimated nominal GDP and GNI due to corporate tax avoidance, and different behavior in the corporate sector (they’re able to finance investment cheaply with foreign funds), which also contributes to the relatively better purchasing power for consumers vs producers, and the highly atypical characteristics of a few high GDP countries.


        • rcafdm says:


          I think you’re confused about what I believe. I’m not taking any position on how rich the US is by per capita consumption, or what the implications of that would be. I’m saying that you shouldn’t conclude from high per capita consumption of cars that the US has high per capita consumption of everything, because there are other relevant factors.

          My position is that national accounts measures like AIC and AHDI, combined with good estimates of prices faced by consumers (e.g., PPP for AIC, private consumption, etc), are far more reliable means to compare material living standards across developed countries than ad hoc comparisons of any individual quantity of consumption measures or arbitrary weighting of several of them (especially when derived from household surveys!). The statistics vis-a-vis cars, housing, etc. merely further the argument that US has a substantially higher material standard of living than the OECD average, much more so than would be suggested by GDP. Incidentally, with respect to housing, it’s not just the square footage; it’s also other metrics like number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and other attributes.

          Some may not like this sort of consumption, but the fact remains that these sorts of things are strongly tied to material living standards. As average disposable income levels rise people buy substantially more of these things, both in real (price-adjusted) terms and as a share of consumption. Therefore these sorts of indicators will tend to be more robust indicators of material living standards than normal goods like communications, which decline in importance in real terms and as a proportion of expenditures.

          I don’t think looking at consumer goods per capita shows the US is far ahead of everyone else in consumption by capita; the statistics I’ve looked at show the US being consistently up with Norway, Switzerland etc. for e.g. TVs per capita, but not as being ahead of everyone).

          It seems like you are taking a position here 🙂

          Keep in mind that not all items have high elasticity or even particularly well correlated with any mainstream indicator of income or consumption. For example, the phones per capita statistic you cited has an implied elasticity within OECD data of about 0.6 and it actually correlates at least as well with GDP (some of this is probably due business usage being included in the count). Comprehensive measures of household consumption as derived from surveys of students (PISA questionnaire) suggest that even (younger) US households consume more of a variety of these sorts of things overall and that the weighted average of these things are in-line with the material living standards indicated by AIC.

          That said, I wouldn’t expect any country to lead in every single statistic, even when the lead is as large as the statistics for the US imply because the correlation across most of these is considerably less than one (there is measurement error, some role for idiosyncratic preferences, etc). In other words, if you actually are going to use ad hoc statistics to argue against the indicated position of the US you need to consider the reliability of the measure in question (especially amongst high-income countries). If the residuals for phone lines presumably suggests the US lead in the far more comprehensively measured real consumption is somehow meaningfully overstated, then you should also be willing to argue this implies that, say, Estonia exceeds Canada or Italy exceeds Norway (both of which are obviously unlikely IMO).

  31. Andrew Hunter says:

    Hey, you know how Neal Stephenson writes these great novels establishing fascinating fictional worlds? We see a window into a life of nanotechnology and explicit tribal affiliation, or math monks in happy isolation from wars both cultural and physical, or “rocks fall everyone dies, what now?” Have you ever been frustrated we don’t get to see follow-ups and further investigation?

    Well, we’re getting a sequel to his Tom Clancy novel.

    (ok, I’m being too harsh two ways. I liked reamde, even if it was a really, really good Tom Clancy novel stapled to half of a Stephenson virtual world and culture setting, and this is clearly going to be very different. But seriously, I am surprised *this* gets the follow-up.)

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I’m not, honestly. Seveneves told me that Stephenson is much better at carrying a premise to its conclusion than he is at going EVEN FURTHER BEYOND. Seriously, the last third of the book was interesting, but so so much worse than the rest.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I thought Reamde was shit because he obviously forgot what novel he was writing in the middle of it and wrote an entirely different novel that had nothing to do with what the first couple hundred pages of the book promised. I’m not surprised that he’d want to go back and actually write the novel this time, but I’m not sure I want to give him a second chance after I suffered through eight hundred pages of waiting for him to get back to the good stuff for no payoff.

      • tossrock says:

        Well, reading the publisher’s blurb suggests that you won’t be getting it. It’s not really a sequel to REAMDE so much as it uses a characters from REAMDE to investigate something totally different, which rationalists may actually be more interested in – (blurb-level SPOILERS) the protagonist gets put into cryonic storage after he goes braindead during a routine medical procedure, and then wakes up in a post-upload virtual world.

        • John Schilling says:

          OK, but in a post-upload virtual world it seems likely that a lot of people would occupy themselves playing immersive MMORPGs, so maybe we can finally see the aftermath of the Apostropocalypse and the epic struggle between the Forces of Brightness and the Earthtone Coalition.

          As I’ve said before, Stephenson can usually end the story he started if you give him 2500 pages or so.

          • quaelegit says:

            Huh, the blurb turned me off (maybe I negatively pattern-matched to Ready Player One, which I didn’t hate but didn’t find super interesting), but you’re right — I’d love to see further developments of Apostropocalypse and the color war! I’ll probably wait a year and see what people are saying about it, then read it anyways — worked for his last two books 😛

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          Yeah, it’s clearly a different novel, but I would be very surprised if T’Rain doesn’t show up for exactly that reason.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      So 1: This doesn’t look very much like it’s a sequel of Reamde, veering more into traditional sci-fi.

      But 2: Reamde is very good, and does all the usual Stephenson dialectical stuff, and is far from the first time that Stephenson has wrapped his expositions in a not-very-science-fiction-y shell (see: Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, Zodiac). The settings are rarely really the point of Stephenson books anyway.

      And finally 3: The worst thing about Reamde is T’Rain, which is obviously just not what a WoW-conquering MORPG would look like. Nobody wants to play ultra-simulationist MMO games with heavy death penalties and extremely complicated tertiary systems that people need to master in order to participate in combat + loot.

      • Nornagest says:

        There’s a market for extremely complicated ultra-simulationist tertiary systems (see: Dwarf Fortress). So far that market hasn’t shown much overlap with the MMO scene, but that might just be because no one’s figured out how to make it work yet.

        That said, I don’t see it having WoW-like mass appeal.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          The controls seem to be the most limiting factor at the moment. I tried DF and found myself frustrated at the complexity of controlling the dwarfs, much more than figuring out or being interested in what was going on. Graphical interface was certainly a good bit of that, but not all.

          If someone could develop a very complicated game with graphics that are at least consistently legible and a control system that feels truly polished, I think it would do quite well. WoW is an incredibly complicated game, with a really good UI and kid-glove help built right into the quests.

          • toastengineer says:

            The trouble is that mechanical complexity inversely correlates to graphical fidelity for a reason. Making things happen in a simulation is way, way easier than making it look good.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I found T’Rain itself not that interesting, but the Apostropocalypse/Brightness War very interesting indeed.

        I’m not upset that it wasn’t science fiction (I’m not upset at all, but you know what I mean); it really just feels like we have two plots not really stapled together.

    • theredsheep says:

      Reamde is actually my favorite Stephenson novel, but mostly for the sheer unapologetic absurdity of it, not necessarily for the characters as such. Still, it might be a fun read.

      • Nornagest says:

        I think Snow Crash has it beat for sheer unapologetic absurdity, but it was fun to see a Tom Clancy novel written by an author that can actually make the infodumps fun to read.

        • theredsheep says:

          Yeah, but Reamde is much better written. It doesn’t have, for example, five consecutive chapters of one character explaining his ideas to two other characters, who only participate to ask very simple questions. Also, it has an ending.

          • suntzuanime says:

            (Spoiler warning for Reamde, but if you’re planning to read Reamde you should read the spoilers and change your plans)

            Reamde is a structural disaster, I wouldn’t hold it up as well-written. It has an ending, sure, but it’s not an ending to the inciting incident, it’s not a resolution to any of the T’Rain stuff that was set up, it’s an ending to the abrupt left turn side quest terrorist hunt that the novel turned into when the protagonists literally just randomly blundered into a terrorist hideout three hundred pages in and forgot about everything they were doing up to that point. At least Snow Crash was about the titular Snow Crash.

          • theredsheep says:

            See, I saw the improbability of it as the point. What are the odds of just stumbling into a terrorist cell? I don’t know, what are the odds of Forthrast’s niece getting nabbed by Russian gangsters over a theft by her boyfriend (which he chose to execute at precisely the wrong moment to get her involved) that got sidetracked by a virus written for the game Forthrast created? What are the odds that Forthrast himself would later have exactly the knowledge needed by the terrorists? It’s all grossly improbable. It’s a bizarre world. Sure, why not?

            Dodge, Zula, Marlon, Czongor, Ivan, Olivia, Sokolov, all these people who have nothing to do with each other, all get thrown together and start a chain reaction with enormous consequences, because of something that happened as a spiteful gesture by resentful gold farmers working a fantasy world. The weirdness is a feature, not a bug.

          • John Schilling says:

            There is certainly room for a good story, or many good stories, where the premise is that a couple of interesting people who don’t really belong in this kind of story knock on the wrong door, Osama bin Laden answers, and they have to call on their similarly interesting-but-misplaced friends to continue with the not-being-dead part of the story. I’m all for that.

            But if that’s the story you are trying to tell, then spending 300 pages setting up a genuinely interesting story about MMORPG development and/or credit-card fraud, that you are never going to resolve, is as the cartoon general says structurally disastrous. That’s more than you need to establish the characters as interesting, and the sudden course change undermines both the plot and the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

          • theredsheep says:

            Given Stephenson’s penchant for winking over-the-top silliness, I don’t view the suspension-of-disbelief aspect as a big thing. The way I see it, the point of it all is that T’Rain, like all MMOs, is basically a giant Skinner box being micromanaged by a corporation to ensure that the rats will keep pushing the lever indefinitely. All the story and fantasy of it is just a superficial trapping for the grinding, which is ruthlessly exploited to the extent of marketing out menial tasks like airport security. Everything it touches is manipulative, right down to Dodge’s devious handling of Skeletor and Don Donald. The WOR is a superficial form of rebellion against all that; the reamde virus is a deeper one. In all cases, the weird cascade of events unleashed by it is supposed to be the main draw of the story–we’re meant to focus on the real-world havoc, not the digital drama.

          • suntzuanime says:

            The real world events were not, in any meaningfully causal sense, unleashed by T’Rain. They literally just knocked on the wrong door and it happened to have a nest of terrorist badasses behind it. They could just as easily have been delivering pizza and gotten the address wrong. T’Rain had nothing to do with the primary action of the novel.

          • John Schilling says:

            They could just as easily have been delivering pizza and gotten the address wrong.

            Hiro Protagonist vs. Abdullah Jones: Who. Would. Win?

          • smocc says:

            You guys have got the story all wrong. Reamde is not about T’Rain, it’s about a growing division in American (and global?) culture. Conflict and difference between the two cultures show up all over the book. The Brights vs Earthtones conflict is one manifestation, embodied in particular by the two eccentric MMO writers. The story’s obsession with guns is another manifestation; guns are the purview of one of the cultures (known here as Red Tribe), and not the other. Whether a character knows how to use a gun is treated as crucial information and it usually tells us a lot about who they are.

            Richard Forthrast straddles the line between the two cultures. On the one hand he is a genius tech guy who hangs out with hackers and coders and business people. On the other hand he spent his youth carrying drugs through the woods, and the book opens on him shooting guns with his rural family.

            I think the narrative assumes that the reader finds the Brights / Gun-users distasteful (I recall a long musing on how casseroles and rice krispie treats, while kind of gross, represent a particular culture’s creative and resourceful approach to food). But then the point of the story is that they can’t be discounted. The story climaxes in a climactic shoot-out at the home of Richard’s hardcore prepper brother. When terrorists show up, it’s not the tech gurus who can save you, it’s the guys who know how to handle a gun.

            I see Reamde as having gotten to Red/Blue tribe theory well before us here.

            Plus I enjoyed the over-the-top narrative whiplash, but I guess it’s not for everyone.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            I’m just glad I’m not living in that building, that’s all. You don’t even want to know who lives in the flat below the hackers.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, I think as good Bayesians we should assume that every single flat anywhere near the one with the ransomware authors in it had some equally interesting set of antagonists. We open four doors and find ransomware guys, Islamic terrorists, an MI6 agent, and the Russian mafia plus kidnapped techies. I assume there was an Eldrich Horror in the basement, some guys from The Laundry surveilling it (along with Peter Crossman), a few console cowboys in mirrorshades planning a bank heist, Seal Team Six, a couple Marvel superheroes laying low, a time-travelling anthropologist studying 2010s China, maybe the odd space alien, etc.

          • albatross11 says:

            One thing I found entertaining was Sokolov’s reaction to the survivalists. Turns out his experience with armed religious fanatics living in the mountains hadn’t been so great up until then.

      • quaelegit says:

        It’s not my favorite Stephenson but I did think it was a good fast-paced thriller (I guess that’s the comparison to Tom Clancy? I’ve ever read any of his books) and I genuinely liked the wide span of characters and settings.

  32. Le Maistre Chat says:

    We know from Linear B tablets that Mycenaean Greeks worshiped most of the later pantheon. We also have one large piece of evidence for how the Greek gods were envisioned in the Late Bronze Age. Excavations at Mycenae turned up a free-standing building separate from the palace where numerous terracotta idols had been stored in the creatively-named “room with the idols.” These are crude schematic figures whose bodies consist of a hollow upside-down pot, thus wearing a dress or long kilt. Naturally, the ones with hair and breasts jutting from narrower torsos are believed to be goddesses, while the barrel-chested idols are bald.
    “The tallest of them all in his right, upraised hand … holds a hammer axe.” (Taylor)
    The short-handled “hammer axe” is of course the weapon of the Germanic thunderer Thor and his Balto-Slavic counterpart Per(k)un(as).

    • bassicallyboss says:

      Nice! Somehow I never thought about whether Myceneans were Indo-European or not. It makes sense they would be.

  33. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    What? John Schilling doesn’t get a comment of the week for his amazing four-part effortpost on guns? This is an outrage!

    • Vorkon says:

      Man, I am extremely annoyed that I missed that thread. Having intermittent connectivity sucks!

    • John Schilling says:

      Effortposts and comments are a different class of thing, I think, and effortpost threads are their own reward. But thank you.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        (Great series, but gonna quibble)

        I was intrigued by your characterization of the AR-15 as “originally designed as a light utility rifle for people who weren’t primarily infantry soldiers”, and the “comedy of errors” that led to its adoption as a main infantry rifle, so I looked up more about it.

        Googling ‘M16 history’, I get these histories covering the design’s origins.

        All seem to suggest it was designed to be a main infantry rifle, with its first significant military advocate being an army general pushing it for this role (though as you say, the Air Force was the first branch to actually order it), and that it became an infantry rifle by repeatedly doing really well on tests.

        Not that I don’t think you could be right and the mainstream story wrong, but this calls for elaboration.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Okay, my reply with got eaten, so I’ll try again without links…
        Your series is great but I have a quibble with one of the asides.

        You mentioned that the AR-15/M16 was originally designed for people other than frontline infantry and only got adopted for that role through a comedy of errors. I was interested enough by this to look it up myself.

        But googling ‘M16 history’, most sources tell a rather different story. The AR-15 apparently was designed to be a standard infantry rifle, and its first support from the military came from an Army general advocating it for this role. The Air Force was, as you say, the first actual customer, but shortly afterwards the Special Forces tried the weapon in the field.

        On the other hand, these sources also generally portray the M16 as a clear step forward, suppressed for years by hidebound reactionaries in the Army in the face of overwhelming evidence in its favor, which sounds mythologized. And Robert McNamara supported the weapon’s adoption by the Army, which (I gather from Bean) should count as evidence against that being a good decision (though my sources do agree that the implementation of that decision was bungled pretty badly)

        What’s the deal here?

        • Nornagest says:

          John Schilling knows more about this than I do, but there’s a fair bit of mythologization on both sides. The M16’s adoption by the Army got off to a rough start, which gave it an extremely bad image in certain quarters; even today it’s easy to find people who talk it down as an unreliable plastic toy compared to their favorite rifle (which is often, but not always, the AK family). The truth as best I can tell is that the Army badly botched their first cut at training for routine maintenance, leading to reliability problems which were exacerbated by some design decisions (e.g. lack of a forward assist) present in its first generation.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Ultimately it seems very American to make an infantry weapon that’s as good as a Kalashnikov when in proper working order but only works with a specific kind of routine maintenance. Our whole way of war is based around making metric megatons of equipment that require US military discipline to maintain, shipping them to a foreign country in ships and cargo planes, and just hoping the enemy will surrender because we shipped so much stuff.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            The reading I just did suggests that on the one hand they failed to provide training or supplies for routine cleaning (Colt apparently claimed it was self-cleaning), and on the other they switched to a dirtier powder as they scaled up for mass production of its 5.56 round, so the need for cleaning was much higher than the previous experience indicated.

          • Aapje says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            The M16/AR15 is a lot better than a Kalashnikov when in optimal shape, but worse when abused. There is a reason why irregular armies with not very capable soldiers love AKs, they keep shooting even if you never clean or lube them.


            The M16 has a self-cleaning gas system. This was misinterpreted by some (including some soldiers) as being a claim that the entire weapon was self-cleaning.

            Ultimately, most of the issues with the M16 can be attributed to cost- and cornercutting. For example, the dirtier ammunition was adopted due to cost.

            Aside from the dirtier ammunition, another issue was that Army Ordnance had requested chrome-plating, which increases reliability, reduces maintenance required, etc. McNamara thought that it was a stalling tactic to prevent adoption of the gun, so he refused at first. The second version supplied to the troops, M16A1, did have chrome-plating.

          • Vorkon says:

            The truth as best I can tell is that the Army badly botched their first cut at training for routine maintenance, leading to reliability problems which were exacerbated by some design decisions (e.g. lack of a forward assist) present in its first generation.

            Yeah, John touches on this below, (thanks for the effortpost in a thread thanking you for your previous effortpost, by the way!) but I’ll say it up here as well for easier reference:

            The forward assist (or lack thereof) pretty much did nothing. It was there mostly because stubborn traditionalists wanted something similar to their old rifles. It was primarily using the wrong grade of powder in the ammo that was responsible for the M-16’s initial reputation for unreliability, with the lack of cleaning kits/lack of emphasis on keeping it clean as an important side issue. (Which isn’t to say that it is somehow especially prone to getting dirty and will jam if it isn’t perfectly immaculate, as the negative rumors lead you to believe; if you never ever clean an AK, you’ll have similar problems, albeit maybe not quite so quickly. We’re talking simple routine maintenance here, though.)

          • Lillian says:

            The M16/AR15 is a lot better than a Kalashnikov when in optimal shape, but worse when abused. There is a reason why irregular armies with not very capable soldiers love AKs, they keep shooting even if you never clean or lube them.

            That’s not true, all guns will jam and suffer malfuctions if they are not given regular maintenance, even the rugged AKM. In fact modern ARs can be more reliable than modern AKs, as can be seen in this mud test video. A new AR and a new AK are both dunked in mud, and yet it’s the AR that continues firing and the AK that jams. It is my understanding that for dry dirt and dust build-up the results are usually the other way around, but the AR will reliably unjam after applying a bit of lubricant.

          • Aapje says:


            Mud tests are rather extreme tests that don’t seem illustrative for ‘normal’ abuse of guns, which more often involve dust, residue from shooting, lack of lube, etc.

            One reason why they are relatively popular is because they are an easy way to break a gun. Actual military-level testing often involves shooting many thousands of rounds and is thus rather expensive.

            Mud tests of many guns at InrangeTV have shown pretty conclusively that thick mud is a killer if it gets into the operating bits and that preventing ingress of mud is crucial. No gun can deal with a big clump of sand in the internals.

            AKs have loose tolerances, which means that they are not that sensitive to dust and residue, but more sensitive to mud. The AK is much more tolerant of poor cleaning and lubing.

        • Statismagician says:

          I believe that was regarding the M1 carbine, not the M-16 assault rifle, but could be wrong.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            “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(*).”

            He said something similar about the M1 carbine, of which it’s uncontroversially true.

          • Statismagician says:

            Ah, gotcha – must have missed that sentence.

          • John Schilling says:

            Right. The Army adopted the M-1 carbine, said “great for truck drivers and the like”, and never tried to make it a front-line rifle. Individual soldiers sometimes did, because light and handy, and often regretted it.

            The AR-15 was originally designed just as an experiment to see whether such a rifle would be good for anything at all; I skipped that part. The USAF saw it and said “great for airbase security personnel and the like”, and never tried to make it a front-line rifle because they don’t have any use for those. Then the US Army got real desperate, and see below.

        • John Schilling says:

          Short version, sourced primarily from Assault Rifle, Popenker and Williams, 2004: The first non-experimental US purchase of the AR-15 was by the US Air Force, 8000 rifles in 1960. Next up was ARPA (not yet DARPA) with 1000 rifles in 1962, and then finally the Army with 85000 rifles in 1963. The USAF version was officially adopted as the M-16 in 1964, the Army version as the M-16A1 in 1967. If anyone has a source citing earlier dates for any of these, let me know.

          As for McNamara, there was a Good decision in there, and a Bad decision, then an Ugly decision, and McNamara got stuck with ugly. So on to the long version.

          First, some cleverness. As the combat results of WWI started coming in, every rightthinking firearms designer on Earth realized that the infantry rifle of the 20th century needed to be a semiautomatic carbine firing a 6.5-7mm bullet at ~750 m/s, ideally with the option of fully automatic fire from a 20-30 round detachable magazine in emergencies. Oh, if you were in the middle of a World War when the idea came up, you might use existing barrel-making machinery of a somewhat larger caliber, but you’d use the lightest possible bullet with a reduced powder charge to try and match the 6.5-7mm optimum. This would be a bit less accurate and powerful than previous military rifles (7.5-8mm bullet at 850 m/s) at long range, but long-range combat was going to be dominated by crew-served weapons going forward, and infantry rifles needed to really shine in close-quarters battle where you can’t set up a tripod-mounted machine gun.

          So, the Bad decision. Ordnance officers around the world, but particularly in the United States, insisted the if the thirty-ought-six was good enough for his grandpappy at the Marne then it was damn well good enough for our boys today. And we’ve got about ten billion rounds in inventory, and you think we should throw that all away to buy something smaller and wimpier? Not on my watch, kid. Wait, we’re part of NATO and we have to use a metric cartridge to satisfy the euroweenies? OK, metricize the .30-06 and get off my lawn.

          Pragmatism time. Right-thinking firearms designer Eugene Stoner of the Armalite Rifle (check the initials) corporation, decided to make the best rifle he could subject to the understanding that nobody would buy it unless it used the 7.62mm NATO cartridge. The resulting AR-10 was handicapped in part by the excessively heavy and powerful ammunition, but even more so by being five years late to the market.

          Meanwhile, Army’s R&D groups (i.e., the people without the ability to order millions or even thousands of rifles) started asking, “what if we tried using reallly small, really fast bullets”? Stoner and Armalite promptly shrunk the AR-10 to fit a modified version of the civilian .222 Remington varmint-hunting cartridge, produced the AR-15, and submitted it for test. 5.56mm bullet, 1000 m/s. Everyone agreed that it performed astoundingly well at close and medium range, but the Army thought that it had given up a bit too much in long-range performance and said “No thanks – maybe something about 6.5mm would work better next time”. Aaargh. There were also some reliability issues, as you’d expect from an experimental weapon.

          Armalite ran out of money, Colt bought up the product line, and started looking for customers who needed a good light utility rifle but didn’t insist on long-range performance. That was the Good decision, because fairly early they get a chance to demonstrate the thing to Curtis LeMay. His preferred long-range weapon was the B-52, preferably loaded with hydrogen bombs, but he needed something a bit smaller to defend the airfields and he didn’t want to see his SPs carrying around heavy, high-powered rifles like they were trying to refight the Marne. That gets us the first order for 8,000 proto-M16s. ARPA picked up another thousand to see if they were any good for jungle fighting.

          Now we get to the Ugly. And it doesn’t help that McNamara should have seen this coming and not wasted his time on Buck Rogers fantasies, but by 1963 the writing was on the wall and time had run out. Combat results from Vietnam showed a conspicuous lack of anything remotely resembling the Battle of the Marne, but a whole lot of US soldiers being outgunned in jungle and urban combat by rampaging commie hordes with AK-47s. The only two choices immediately at hand were the heavy and overpowered M-14 that wasn’t working, and the M-16 that as doing quite well for the USAF and ARPA.

          The 1964 incarnation of the M-16, when it worked, worked very well at close and medium range. It really wasn’t quite powerful enough for a front-line military rifle, which sometimes still does have to provide long-range fire and sometimes has to make very determined people very dead very fast. More importantly, it often didn’t work at all. There were still issues with functioning in adverse environments, which jungles are in a way that Air Force bases usually aren’t. Going from eight thousand to eighty thousand rifles in service in a year, meant buying ammunition from low-bidding second-tier contractors using the wrong grade of powder. And there wasn’t time to rotate 80,000 soldiers to the rear and train them in the care and feeding of the modern assault rifle.

          It took a long time to work all those bugs out. As in, we’d pretty much lost the war by then (albeit mostly for other reasons). By our next serious war, in 1991, the M-16A2 was a perfectly adequate late-20th-century military rifle, and in particular has an enviable reputation for reliability. Many NATO and other US ally nations have seen their special-forces units turning down whatever similar assault rifle the local arms industry foists on their regulars, demanding the M-16 because that thing just plain always works.

          Except, US operators keep asking for a few old-style M-14s or even AR-10s, upgraded to modern standards and fielded alongside their M-16s, because sometimes you really do need the long-range performance the AR-15 gave away. And people keep pointing out that the AR-15 could quite easily be adapted to fire a 6.8mm bullet (yep, at 750 m/s). But there wasn’t enough time for that in 1963, and there isn’t enough money for it now.

          • cassander says:

            I’d be interested in your elaboration on how the US army changed the AR-15 design as part of the process. I’ve heard that some of those changes resulted in some of the problems, and don’t know enough to know why some of them were made, e.g. changing the twist rate.

          • John Schilling says:

            It’s not so much that the Army made it worse, than that it took too long to make it right because it didn’t entirely understand the problem.

            And the biggest problems weren’t with the rifle, but with the soldiers who didn’t have manuals or cleaning kits, and the billions of rounds of ammunition made with the wrong grade of gunpowder. Getting the ammunition right, and teaching the soldiers how to use the thing, made a huge difference.

            W/re the rifle, a few significant changes from the M-16 to the M-16A1. First up, chroming the barrel and chamber to improve corrosion resistance was a modest but unambiguous improvement, and the only reason it hadn’t been standard from the start was a miscommunication when the design was transferred from Armalite to Colt.

            The forward bolt assist was mostly a wasteful bit of complexity, and mostly because of the guy whose grandpappy at the Marne had always had a forward bolt “assist”. The M-16 had enough force margin that if the spring wasn’t enough to seat the cartridge and close the bolt, something was already very wrong and manual force assist would more likely make it worse than better. Stoner had deliberately not included one, and it didn’t actually fix the problems that came up in ‘Nam. But, tradition. And it’s apparently mildly useful once you’re trained to know when (rarely) and how to use it.

            Rifling twist: The original AR-15 had the 1 in 14″ rifling inherited from the .222 Remington, which was adequate for light varmint bullets out to 400 meters in moderate conditions. It was only marginally adequate for 1960s military use (somewhat heavier bullets, occasional 600-meter shots, arctic testing if not fighting), and contributed a bit to the reduced long-range accuracy.

            The right value for a broad range of military applications is 1 turn in 7″ or maybe 9″ (cue holy war), but the Army had noticed that the M-16 occasionally produced devastating wounds instead of clean penetrations, wrongly deduced that this was due to weakly-stabilized bullets tumbling on impact, and limited the first upgrade to a 1 in 12″ twist to not “overstabilize”. I think that was adequate for anything they were doing in Vietnam, but it did mean they needed yet another upgrade before Desert Storm. Now we know (really, we knew then if we cared to check the literature) that all military rifle bullets tumble, the very light and fast 5.56mm bullets also sometimes fragment, and that was causing the impressive wounds. Go ahead and make them extra-stable, so long as you keep them light and fast.

            There were some other minor issues, but those were the big ones. As I said, 20 years later it was a superb weapon save for still being bit underpowered.

          • bean says:

            and limited the first upgrade to a 1 in 12″ twist to not “overstabilize”.

            I’ve always been a bit baffled by this. Flesh is about a thousand times as dense as air. To a first approximation, this is also the ratio of upsetting forces when the bullet is in the two media. Good luck getting it not to tumble in flesh if that’s what it wants to do.

  34. Nicholas Weininger says:

    Somewhat related to the autonomous driving thread:

    Some friends and I were idly wondering why, instead of building high-speed rail from SF (ish) to LA (ish), one couldn’t just build a special lane on I-5 for semi-autonomous high-speed buses. Think Level 4 vehicle autonomy when in that lane, separation sufficient to keep normal vehicles from wandering into the lane and/or alert mechanisms to detect when they do, and a cruise speed of 100-120 mph for buses in that lane. The buses would have drivers who would drive them normally for the first and last miles. Maybe you add in-road charging so the buses can be electric and not have to have long-range batteries.

    Would this work? If not, why not? It seems like it would have analogous advantages to doing BRT in urban areas instead of light rail: greater flexibility, easier point-to-point service requiring fewer transfers, lower infrastructure cost to build. Am I missing something about how high rolling resistance would be with tires on pavement at that speed, or how even a dedicated lane would be too accident-prone for non-rail vehicles at that speed, or how it wouldn’t actually cost that much less to build than tracks for civil engineering reasons, or…?

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Maybe you add in-road charging so the buses can be electric and not have to have long-range batteries.


      As far as the rest goes…

      You need to do a cost/benefit on single-engine, high-loading-cost (rail) vs many-engine, zero-loading-cost, high-operator-cost (busses) The rate of failure, which will be nonzero, needs to be taken into account. The existing infrastructure needs to be taken into account. And you can’t, as referenced in another thread on rods from god, compare a spherical cow to a high-res horse render; the costs need to be evaluated at the same level of abstraction. I think busses are likely to end up marginally more expensive, but I can’t substantiate that.

      • The Nybbler says:


        High-speed on-road charging of such vehicles is certainly possible. However it requires catenary, which isn’t cheap.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Yes, sorry; it is, of course, possible with wires (though stupidly expensive). It’s the inductive roads that are monumentally bad ideas.

    • cassander says:

      If you have to have a driver along for the ride the whole time, what advantage is there in level 4 autonomy?

      • Mr. Doolittle says:

        The other thread’s discussion was about a driver starting and ending a trip, but not leaving the local area. Since the other discussion was about long haul trucking, it wouldn’t be identical, but I guess the driver would take the bus from a congested area to the “launch” point where the road simplifies and there is no other traffic or something. If that were in essentially the periphery of the parking lot, then he rides a golf cart or something back to the station to move the next bus, or he drives the returning bus back.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Once you get it to the periphery of the parking lot, wouldn’t it be simpler just to bring it in the rest of the way?

          The huge advantage of having a driver would be to avoid needing separate right-of-way in built-up areas. Essentially, the bus could pull into a suburban station, the driver would get on while whoever wanted to would get off, and then he’d drive it the rest of the way to downtown. Once you have the semi-autonomous buses, this’d be a lot easier to build than high-speed rail, but it’d be more expensive to operate.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            It depends on how reliable and sophisticated your automation is. The easier plan is to have the bus drive on a straight road with limited turning and controlled interactions with other vehicles (a special lane on an existing road, in this case). I think we could easily do that with today’s technology and few errors. With a little bit better automation, and maybe a higher tolerance for problems, we could have the buses with more highway interaction and driving around the depot to drop of passengers directly.

            Agreed on both easier to build and more expensive (per passenger) to operate.

          • Evan Þ says:

            What I was thinking was more “build a special lane right next to the parking lot, if not an elevated road above that parking lot.” Elevating it would be expensive, but it’d pay itself off soon in reduced driver wages.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        The point of autonomy is greater safety at high speeds (i.e. implicit assumption, which may be wrong, that a human bus driver would not have reflexes as good as a self-driving system and that this would be unusually important for safety at 100+ mph). The point of having a driver along anyway is that then you don’t have to have level 5 autonomy. You can imagine the driver getting on and off at stops right by the highway to which the bus can drive itself, like a harbor pilot.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Well, high speed rail from SF to LA is dumb, even in a world in which the construction costs weren’t insane. Does your proposal improve on the HSR in any way besides construction costs?

      Is there even that much of a cost-savings for being autonomous here? If we pay bus drivers like, what $25 per hour, and it’s a 4 hour drive, that’s $100. If you get 25 people on the bus, they spend an additional $4 each for having the driver along?

      Autonomy is highly cost-saving when you have a low ratio of passenger:driver (or paying unit to driver).

      The proposed HSR thing gets up to 200mph or so. It seems like a weakness of your scheme is that it takes a route that’s already arguably too slow and makes it that much slower.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        As mentioned above, the point of autonomy is not cost savings but higher feasible highway speed. If autonomy wouldn’t in fact enable that it’s indeed moot.

        On the speed issue, the idea would be that:
        — you get some significant speed win vs existing buses even though not as much as HSR, and at (hopefully) a disproportionately small fraction of the cost

        — you make up some of the cruising speed disadvantage in door-to-door-time savings from having bus stops closer to where people live and more numerous than HSR stations can be.

  35. johan_larson says:

    What’s the current thinking on the quality of the post-TNG Star Trek TV series? I remember watching all or nearly all of TNG back in the day and liking most of it. I think I watched the first season of Deep Space 9 and wasn’t impressed enough to continue. I got maybe halfway through the first season of Voyager before dropping it. Is any of the newer stuff better?

    • cassander says:

      I straight up prefer Orville to Discovery. As much as I adore Patrick Stewart and Picard, I have very little hope for the new Patrick Stewart project given direction of recent star trek and the tenor of advice he gave to the movies. But I would definitely recommend sticking with DS9, it will rapidly become the most sophisticated of the trek. If you liked duet, you’ll get a lot more where that came from.

      • Walter says:

        I’m there with you on the Orville. It feels like Star Trek is kind of mired in its own endless canon, and this is someone’s fanfic (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) where anything can happen.

        • cassander says:

          the thing that boggles my mind about star trek is that they have a wonderfully successful model for how to do new series in themselves, roll the time frame forward and start with a new crew. Despite this, they keep trying to go back in time, and not only back in time, but back in time while avoiding the one area that is maximally interesting and minimally constrained by canon, the earth/romulan war, which even enterprise took spent 4 years not getting to.

          I don’t know why they ignore their own successful history in favor of repeating their own mistakes. They’re deliberately making their own canon problems worse.

          Oh well, I can dream, at least.

          • Bugmaster says:

            The reasons for this are basically “corporate shenanigans”. Due to a complex web of copyright bullshit, new Star Trek series can only be produced if they differ substantially from all the existing ones — in terms of plot, aesthetics, and tone. Hence you get stuff like ST:D.

          • cassander says:

            right, but not just make something “substantially different” by rolling the timeline forward and start over again. It worked 3 previous times, and the only thing that failed was going backwards. but they keep going back!

          • John Schilling says:

            Not sure what you mean by “keep going back”; they’ve only AFIK had one series that was set chronologically prior to its predecessor, and even if you do count Discovery, that’s still a fairly small data set. And Enterprise didn’t fail because it went back, it failed because it went dumb. Scott Bakula and his Space Mutt, T’its and her tube of decontamination gel, would have made for a bad story in any century. And for that matter, Star Trek and GrimDark don’t go together in any century.

            Going forward, runs into the problem that you have to either say that it’s a hundred years later but nothing that matters has changed, or you have to start telling post-singularity stories that nobody really knows how to do on television. Going back, guarantees you about a century of playground that Star Trek will definitely fit into, that’s never been competently explored.

            However, Discovery’s shtick of going back just before TOS is I think a mistake, because it lets the creators think they are doing a good job just because a subset of fans squee like schoolgirls as soon as they see OMG THAT’S THE ENTERPRISE! THAT’S CAPTAIN PIKE, I KNOW WHO CAPTAIN PIKE IS AND THE MUNDANES DON’T HOW AWESOME I AM OMG SQUEEEEEE!!!!, and that’s one more distraction from storytelling.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      TNG and DS9 were both good quality shows. DS9, especially later on, is probably the deeper show in some areas, but being on a single space station also limits some of the diversity that a roaming starship can provide. I’d put them on a very similar level overall.

      Voyager…wasn’t bad? It had some positives, and some episodes were more than just decent, but it always felt like it lacked quite a bit that the previous two shows had. Writing quality was not distinctively bad, but it wasn’t all that good either. Plot lines and ideas seemed to come and go, and it wasn’t rare for them to seem to forget what they were doing for an episode or two before going a different direction again.

      I honestly didn’t watch much Enterprise, but what I did see didn’t encourage me to return. Also, lots of people warned me off from trying to get into it more. After losing interest late in Voyager, I didn’t need a lot of prodding to move on. I haven’t seen the newest one at all.

    • John Schilling says:

      Deep Space 9 was a well-written show that didn’t really fit into the Star Trek mold and suffered from the attempt. Wanted to be too much about geopolitical conflict and eventually outright war stories, and the format pretty much locked off anything about exploring strange new worlds etc. I am sympathetic to the claim that it was intended as a Babylon 5 ripoff competitor, and we already had Babylon 5 to do that better.

      Gilligan’s Starship, never took its central conceit seriously, and was not nearly well-enough written for us to not notice or care that it wasn’t taking itself seriously.

      Enterprise, understood what Star Trek was supposed to be about, tried real hard, and had the setting that might have allowed them to out-Trek TOS, but failed in the execution at almost every level and from the first note of the opening theme.

      Discovery, we’ve talked about here at length. Star Trek and Grimdark are two great tastes that really, really don’t taste great together.

      The Orville, see above re Enterprise but with added Seth McFarlane humor for its own “two great tastes…” effect.

      • Randy M says:

        How would Galaxy Quest rank as a rendition of Star Trek?

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I agree with pretty much everything John said, except that Enterprise is mildly underrated. There are a number of good episodes (and more skippable ones.) “In a Mirror Darkly” is easily in my all-trek top-10.

        I suppose I will also fight back on DS9 being a crappy Babylon 5: DS9 is Babylon 5 minus a smart setting & genuinely interesting plot complications, plus highly competent acting [1] and production values that weren’t out of date in 1990. I think they’re both worth watching; they’re just different. (DS9 also does funny infinitely better than B5. See “Magnificent Ferengi” or “Take Me Out To The Holosuite” or “Who Mourns for Morn”.) It’s not Trek by my very picky definitely, but of the things that aren’t that claim to be, it’s the closest to trying, and says the most interesting things about what Trek is (“In The Pale Moonlight” being the canonical example, but there are other many good cases.)

        Anyway: watch seasons 4-7 of DS9 (I honestly don’t think you need to see the first three to understand, and you’re not missing all that much) and, like, half of Enterprise. (All of season 3, anything in season 4 that sounds interesting is, and the ones from season 1-2 that people don’t make fun of.)

        [1] G’Kar and Londo have great moments. Ivanova and Garibaldi are good at their respective one-notes. All the other actors in B5 are terrible. Fight me.

        • John Schilling says:

          [1] G’Kar and Londo have great moments. Ivanova and Garibaldi are good at their respective one-notes. All the other actors in B5 are terrible. Fight me.

          No love for Vir Cotto? I might have to fight you on that. Lennier is also fairly consistently and Delenn somewhat inconsistently good.

          And then there’s the recurring cast, where Walter Koenig made me pretty much forget that he ever played a faux-Russian Davy Jones impersonator on That Other Series, and whoever played Neroon was just superb, among others.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Could you recommend a good Delenn episode? I consistently found her hammy, but maybe my memory is failing.

            I did enjoy Vir’s famous speech (and wave), and he had a nice characterization going, I’ll admit that.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          G’Kar and Londo have great moments. Ivanova and Garibaldi are good at their respective one-notes. All the other actors in B5 are terrible. Fight me.

          What, are you saying you don’t like Bruce Boxliker? Is he too wooden?

          • Deiseach says:

            What, are you saying you don’t like Bruce Boxliker? Is he too wooden?

            I thought Boxleitner was good in the part and did what he could with it and fitted in very well, but it didn’t help that I intensely disliked and resented Sheridan the character (Sinclair is and will remain the true commander for me).

            I cheered when Garibaldi criticised the cult of personality that Sheridan was creating/permitting to be created around himself (although I could see why it was happening and the good reasons he’d let it): “He’s not the pope! He doesn’t look anything like her” 😀

          • John Schilling says:

            What the Irish lady says. Bruce Boxleitner is a nice guy and a competent but not remarkable actor, who played John Sheridan as a Mark I Heroic Space Captain straight from central casting. That was enough for the story JMS was trying to tell in S2 and S3. S4 and especially S5, really would have benefited from someone who could project a bit of self-awareness at what they were being turned into.

            In S1, they accidentally hired the mentally ill actor coping his way to functionality via strict self-discipline and stoicism, to play the mentally ill heroic space captain coping his way to functionality via strict self-discipline and stoicism. That worked better than it had any right to, with some truly delightful moments along the way, but was clearly unsustainable.

          • Deiseach says:

            That worked better than it had any right to, with some truly delightful moments along the way, but was clearly unsustainable.

            Oh yeah. I wasn’t aware until later that it was health issues that made Michael O’Hare leave, so I was pissed off that (apparently) the Powers That Be had decided to junk Sinclair’s quieter, more restrained and understated character for, as you say, “Mark 1 Heroic Space Captain”.

            God rest the man, I loved how he played Sinclair and it’s even more remarkable given that he was falling apart mentally at the time.

            S4 and especially S5, really would have benefited from someone who could project a bit of self-awareness at what they were being turned into.

            I think it dragged on a bit too long, I’m not sure Season Five was strictly necessary. Some of it was quite silly – I remember a joke at the time being that the explosion that killed the Resistance telepaths was not a suicide bomb, it was all the hairspray they must use being ignited by accident (never outside of a shampoo commercial have you seen a group with more luscious long lovely flowing locks than the Rogue Telepath Resistance).

            Whatever about Boxleitner’s acting abilities (and I think he does play very well that kind of rogue with a twinkle in his eye, adventurer type – so the Heroic Space Captain was right in his wheelhouse – and there’s no shame in finding what you’re good at and sticking to it), the character had been written into a corner. For all that Straczynski was willing to look at morally grey areas and the grubbier side of the heroic legend, he couldn’t do that with Sheridan who was a very necessary part of the whole rebellion and resistance and replacement to Clark. Explicitly examining the tension between the popular image and some of the shadier things Sheridan did would have undermined the show, even at the very end (in the final episode, Sleeping in Light) he is presented as this almost Arthurian figure about whom and whose legacy no questions have been voiced (that we see or know) – Garibaldi’s criticism can be written off as “under the mind-controlling influence of Bester”, Lennier’s opposition as his romantic jealousy over Delenn. For the plot, they needed the heroic, worthy, moral figurehead to resist both the Shadows and the Vorlons and to be the harbinger of the new regime on Earth, and to include too much shade in the portrait would have been messy to handle.

            An episode set after the show’s end (as Sleeping in Light was) that reassessed President/God-Emperor Sheridan and some of the things he did (and he did abuse his authority) would have addressed this, but naturally for the final episode the fans wanted to go out on a high, and this would have been akin to starting up “Yeah but George Washington was a slave owner/Abraham Lincoln wasn’t all that” at a Fourth of July party where everyone just wants to have a good time and ooh and ahh at the fireworks.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I didn’t see Babylon 5 from the beginning; I entered the Golden Age of SF (fifth grade 😛 ) like a year before it switched from network to TNT. By the end of Season 3, Sheridan was being treated as Generic Heroic Space Captain upgraded to Lord of the Rings scale legendary hero, which even at that undiscriminating age I could tell didn’t fit Boxleitner’s acting prowess*. At the end of Season 4, I remember people online comparing him to Ayatollah Khomeini for staging a revolution to make himself President for Life backed by authority like “I met the first sapient being, gave orders to angels and demons, and have a fleet of superior ships that angels taught elves how to build in orbit above this conference.”

            *I agree with John that he’s a nice guy and a competent actor, so I hope it doesn’t sound too harsh to call him “the poor director’s Michael Douglas.”

          • Deiseach says:

            have a fleet of superior ships that angels taught elves how to build in orbit above this conference

            Ohhhh yeah. “Unlike my predecessor, I believe in dialogue, representation of the smaller and weaker planetary governments, and coming to agreement by negotiation and compromise. And if you don’t sign up to everything I want, I’ll have my space fleet blow you all to Hell”.

            I hope it doesn’t sound too harsh to call him “the poor director’s Michael Douglas

            I was thinking “Indiana Jones lite” 🙂 If you’ve seen him in shows before Babylon 5, like Bring ‘Em Back Alive or Scarecrow and Mrs King, it’s as John said – nice guy, competent actor, has a limited range but given a part within it works well, but outside that range he doesn’t quite fit the part. Even for “Scarecrow and Mrs King” I couldn’t buy him as a suave secret agent, she seemed more convincing than he did 🙂 But as that light romantic hero type he’s very good.

          • John Schilling says:

            I remember a joke at the time being that the explosion that killed the Resistance telepaths was not a suicide bomb, it was all the hairspray they must use being ignited by accident

            Since we’re giving the actors their due here, Robin Atkin “Byron” Downs was in on the joke as much as anyone. I’ve heard him say that he could never understand why the telepaths needed to wage a terrorist campaign to secure a world of their own, when they could have just sold their wardrobe and cosmetics and bought one.

            At the end of Season 4, I remember people online comparing him to Ayatollah Khomeini for staging a revolution to make himself President for Life

            Hey, that was a legitimate election! The president and his staff all said so, fair and square. I mean, everything from the selection of candidates to the campaign to the counting of votes across dozens of worlds and hundreds of light-years, and probably the establishment of the constitution defining the offices being elected and the procedures for filling them, fit into the gap between two midseason episodes and generated no drama whatsoever. But they told us they were legitimately elected, and if you can’t trust a guy who keeps getting legitimately elected President for Life, who can you trust?

          • Doctor Mist says:

            I’m not sure Season Five was strictly necessary.

            Yeah, as it turned out. The problem was that they were getting cancelled after four seasons while JMS had a five-season arc sketched out. (!) So they scurried around to tie everything up early, and then TNT picked them up for a fifth season, which they had to pretty much make up out of whole cloth.

            I had not heard about Michael O’Hare’s medical problems. It was clear that the vision had been for Sinclair to be there until the Big Finish, which in practice got stuck into the middle of season 3. (Gosh, I wonder if that was because he doubted he could return any later? I see in IMDB that he had only two other small roles after that.)

            I’m convinced the five-season arc of Babylon 5 as originally imagined is the best TV I’ve never seen (except possibly seasons 2-5 of Firefly). Man proposes…

        • Deiseach says:

          the ones from season 1-2 that people don’t make fun of

          There are such episodes? 😉

      • Deiseach says:

        Enterprise, understood what Star Trek was supposed to be about, tried real hard, and had the setting that might have allowed them to out-Trek TOS, but failed in the execution at almost every level and from the first note of the opening theme.

        I might quibble a tiny bit with the first half of that sentence but the second half is right on the money. I still remember the WTF? moment when I sat down, all excited about new! Trek! going right back to the start of the Federation!, in front of the telly and instead of a stirring, uplifting “this is Humanity going out into the stars for real for the first time” theme I got the soft fusion new country/AOR power ballad about believing you can git where you’re goin’ ‘cos you got faaaaaaith of the heaaaaaaart (the opening credit visuals were fantastic, whoever decided this was the theme music they wanted should have been stood against a wall and shot).

        Then they gave me (1) racist Vulcans (I will not forget or forgive this) who also later turn out to be homophobic or transphobic or whatever metaphor that “mind-melding transmitted virus” was meant to be about (possibly an AIDS metaphor?), (2) wasted Scott Bakula by giving us “the captain is a well-balanced man – he’s got a chip on both shoulders” (3) sexxxay Vulcan babe who’s hot to trot with those stinky Terrans (4) the whole stinky Terrans thing as canon and not a bad stupid dumb joke (5) half-clothed male and female crew rubbing “decontamination gel” all over each other (no we’re not going for cheap titillation, this shows how, er, um, low-tech – yeah! low-tech! this era is – thank God somebody grew a sense of shame and further uses of the decon chamber had everyone fully dressed and not lubing each other up) (6) Charles “Trip” Tucker III (7) the Captain’s doggy-woggy and the hissy fit said captain threw over said doggy-woggy when it was all his own goddamn fault letting his dog run free on an alien planet (8 ) the triple-breasted whore joke (of all the ways to work in a reference to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” they had to pick that one?) (9) the “our tech is so primitive we don’t even have the universal translator yet, we’re going up against time-travelling species, with such advantage in tech they should stomp us into the ground but naturally we win this one” (I’ve been told this turned out less idiotic than the premise and was actually quite good, but as soon as they decided to turn Archer into Kick-Ass Action Hero, I bailed and never came back, so I have no idea).

        That’s probably enough to be going on with 🙂

        What did I like? Malcolm Reed, but then they decided they needed to make the neurotic, introverted, not a caring and sharing person, by-the-book officer into someone more popular and gave him some “lovable quirks” such as “I’m allergic to pineapple but instead of avoiding it like a sensible person it’s my favourite food!” and the really embarrassing crush on T’Pol.

        Discovery was, amazingly, even worse. Inventing yet more hitherto unknown relatives for Spock? Motormouth Tilly, a Barclay knockoff with none of the depth of characterisation that Dwight Schultz brought to the part? Swearing in front of senior officers while on duty to show how hip, cool and happening you are? The whole fungus-fetish guy? And having to go Mirror Universe in your very first season really is jumping the shark. You’re supposed to wait a season or two before doing a Mirror episode. Again, I had high hopes and they got crushed, but I’m probably too old to be the audience for a show that was desperately trying to appeal to Current Generation’s Mores in Current Year.

        • Nick says:

          And having to go Mirror Universe in your very first season really is jumping the shark. You’re supposed to wait a season or two before doing a Mirror episode.

          I’ve been following Chuck’s reviews at SFDebris rather than watching the show, and I actually liked the reveal that Lorca is from the mirror universe! But I didn’t like, well, just about everything else about that arc, most of all the decision to bring the totalitarian genocider back to our universe.

          • John Schilling says:

            In hindsight, I think it is reasonably clear that the whole of the Mirror Unverse plot, including bringing mirror-Georgiu back, was planned before the first episode was shot. In part as a way to emphasize the darkness-and-edginess of their variant of Star Trek, in part to make maximum use of Michelle Yeoh.

          • Deiseach says:

            Lorca being from the Mirror Universe is a wonderful idea, much better than the notion that no, he’s an actual real Starfleet officer (the way he behaves would make you wonder what the hell is going on with Starfleet, apparently not noticing or caring that a serving officer is suffering trauma and behaving in agreement with that and no longer fit to command a starship until he gets treatment). The way he manipulates Burnham who is so sure of herself and her self-righteousness that she is blinded to how he’s playing her like a fiddle? As well as the other losers and weirdoes of the crew (and deliberately picking people who are losers and weirdoes to bind them to him with a sense of personal loyalty and indebtedness – nobody wanted them before Lorca and if he kicks them to the curb they’ve no place else to go).

            But the entire “oh look Mirror Universe all the way! We resurrect the dead Captain Georgiou by way of the Empress Georgiou! Mirror Mirror Mirror!” arc is a bad sign, since Mirror Universe episodes are old reliables that you pull out when you want to kick back, let the cast have fun playing their Mirror versions, and be sure the fans will all tune in to watch. Needing to pull that out of the bag in the very first season shows a weakness with Discovery itself, that it couldn’t be sure it could stand on its own two feet (everyone expects the first season to be rocky as the characters and background get introduced and take a while to settle down and solidify, so long as you don’t do anything excessively stupid – see for example how the Ferengi changed from the first introduction in The Next Generation) and so they needed the sure-fire thing that the Mirror Universe represented.

            It would have been better if they let that build into the second season, instead of the rush reveal “Surprise, I’ve been a Mirror Universe infiltrator all along!” and then had the “Tilly and Burnham play their Mirror Universe selves, we get to see Lorca taken down and killed, then the Empress comes back as Giorgiou after we wasted the original character of the Captain by killing her off too fast”.

            I’m not objecting to Mirror Universe as such (it seems to be established tradition now that every series has to do at least one Mirror episode) but the way Discovery handled it was botched.

            Mainly I didn’t like any of the Discovery characters (except Sarek, I will always love Sarek no matter what they do to him) which is a large problem when you want someone to watch a show.

          • Deiseach says:

            In part as a way to emphasize the darkness-and-edginess of their variant of Star Trek

            “Dark and edgy” is silly, though, particularly their version of it. “We’re dark! We’re edgy! We wear T-shirts with the abbreviated version of the ship name so we’re running around with DISCO on our chests, tee-hee! Oh what a knowing and arch sideways nod and wink to the audience! Ooooh listen, we have our cadet saying naughty words in front of her superior officer – how daring and bold and taboo-shattering!”

            *insert eye-rolling emoji here*

            They shouldn’t have killed Giorgiou off so fast, and though I loved Lorca’s manipulativeness, for crying out loud – he does things like deliberately stand in darkened rooms to keep his subordinates off-balance when they have to interact with him on the excuse that “my eyes, they are weak after the torture you know”. What are Starfleet teaching their cadets, for heaven’s sake? This is the kind of “and here are basic psychological manipulation techniques to recognise if anyone tries them on you” that they should be teaching people going out to interact with alien cultures and making first contact.

          • Nick says:

            Chuck of SFDebris was of the opinion, incidentally, that the story of Michael betraying Georgiou should have been a mid-season or end-of-season reveal rather than the pilot. We should have started in medias res, Michael on board an unfamiliar ship whose crew doesn’t trust her, a crew which is our actual main characters, let us see her break down those barriers, even as we piece together Lorca’s strange behavior and confidence in Michael. I agreed, as I was watching the reviews at the time, that that would have been a stronger start for the series.

            …But you know, looking back, that probably wouldn’t have worked with the Mirror Universe arc. You can’t have a mid-season reveal of Captain Georgiou and then a mid-season arc featuring Empress Georgiou—the too-recent introduction of the former takes the punch out of the latter. So they sacrificed a better opening for the series to instead give us the pretty terrible Mirror Universe arc. I think Deiseach is right: this should have been season two material. Put off the reveal about Lorca and the return of Georgiou, and save Michael’s origin story for mid and end of first season too. There’s plenty to do in the Klingon War to fill out the gap, after all. Hindsight’s 20/20, but that would be my recommendation.

          • Deiseach says:

            To go off on a tangent, every time I heard the name Lorca, it made me think of this 🙂

            Distant stars shining bright
            In the cavern of the night
            All is still and silence screams
            To the thunder of the Lorca train

    • MrApophenia says:

      DS9 spends about two seasons being what it started its life as – a weird TNG-spin-off developed from a stolen copy of the Babylon 5 series bible. And it shows – it spends most of that time being sort of an inferior knockoff of both of those shows – trying to do TNG stories with a B5 setting and characters.

      However, over the course of the late second season and third season it begins to find its legs and develop into its own thing. And the more it does that, the better it becomes. At its best, it is probably the best Star Trek ever got.

      But you need to give it a lot of runway before it gets there.

    • gbdub says:

      This is the no culture war thread.

  36. Theek1953 says:

    Request for Help: Looking for an article I read!

    General Idea of the article was: How very, very, small groups of people on the extreme fringe of many “identity politics” issues are able to effectively drive the national conversation around these issues by being the loudest or most offended or most outrageous.

    The article possibly (but not certainly) came to me from or was written by one of these sources and was written in the last 90 days or so:

    SSC Links post
    RIbbonFarm / Breaking Smart
    Exponential View by Azeem Azhar

    You know when you have that popcorn kernel in your teeth of the internet, looking for something you know you read but can’t find?….Yea, please help!


    • Skivverus says:

      Dunno about “last 90 days”, but Toxoplasma of Rage comes to mind for subject relevance, at least.

    • johan_larson says:

      Maybe a reference to the report “Hidden Tribes”? It made quite a splash in the pundit-sphere back in October.


    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I don’t know whether this will help, but I remember something about small numbers of people who care a lot about something being able to get what they want when no one* else cares about the issue. The example was kosher food being fairly generally available in the US.

      *Actually, almost no one. There are anti-Semites who resent the availability of kosher food.

      • Theek1953 says:

        YES!!! That’s the article I’m looking for! Nancy, Thank you so much!

        There were several other examples given like Kosher.

        uggggg, now I HAVE to find this. I’ll do some more searching with that example.

        Thank you again. If this jogs anyone’s memory it would be greatly appreciated!

        • nkurz says:

          It doesn’t match your date constraints, but with this description, perhaps you mean this chapter from Taleb’s “Skin in the Game” entitled “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority”:

          A strange idea hit me. The Kosher population represents less than three tenth of a percent of the residents of the United States. Yet, it appears that almost all drinks are Kosher. Why? Simply because going full Kosher allows the producer, grocer, restaurant, to not have to distinguish between Kosher and nonkosher for liquids, with special markers, separate aisles, separate inventories, different stocking sub-facilities. And the simple rule that changes the total is as follows:

          A Kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food , but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher.


          • Theek1953 says:

            YES! That’s it.

            Thank you, Thank you, Thank you nkurz (and Nancy).

            You are right about the dates. I just happened to be reading Skin in the Game within the last 90 days and my brain decided that it was an article that I found recently.

            Thank you so much. Now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

          • Deiseach says:

            A Kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food , but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher.

            Much the same principle as “the weaker brethren” from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 14 & 15:

            14 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.

            …Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

            …Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

            …15 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up

            “If it doesn’t matter to you but it does matter to them, then indulge them on that”.

      • gbdub says:

        Maybe search SSC’s monthly links posts for “kosher”? I feel like it was in one of those.

        • Theek1953 says:

          I actually went back through the last 3 months of Links posts searching for that.

          Turns out it was in a book ^ see comment above.

          Thanks though!

  37. Slicer says:

    You guys know Jeanne Calment, reported to be the world’s oldest person?

    Yeah… about that…

    • Thanks. Fascinating story.

    • Evan Þ says:


      Are there any similar suspicions about Sarah Knauss? Her record’s more believable, but from a glance at Wikipedia, it looks like she doesn’t fit the curve either.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Great link, thanks.

      This is interesting to see a few days after Gwern’s list of open questions, which includes why Jeanne Calment lived so much longer than theory would predict. Congrats to Gwern on good work noticing confusion.

    • Chlopodo says:

      David van Reybrouck, in his history of the Congo, makes a surprisingly compelling case that one of his informants, Etienne Nkasi, was 126 years old when he interviewed him and 128 when he died. “Surprisingly compelling,” of course, in the sense that it’s still probably false, but interesting nonetheless. Reybrouck says that the Congo is still a young country in terms of having modern technology and records, and it’s possible that if some Congolese families have the genes for ultra-longevity, we still might not be able to prove it.. not yet.

      I don’t necessarily believe what he says about Nkasi, but the theory is sound: if it takes ~120 years after every citizen starts getting tracked by the government for plausible longevity records to show up, then there are many areas of undeveloped countries where people might routinely live to be 125 and we’d have no idea. I mean, there are still centenarians in Europe and America who don’t know what their birthdays are.

      I put this forward as a humble, possible, alternative to the null hypothesis that “every population succumbs to the same iron laws of aging, so it’s no coincidence that the first countries to have good records also have the first supercentenarians”.

  38. Well... says:

    “Ja, ich liebe Rot und Dunkelrot!” Tom said Teutonically.

    “Ow! I tripped over these stupid aerosol cans the vandals left behind” Tom said, sprayin’ in paint.

    • Don_Flamingo says:

      “I will not suffer this tone in my house!” said Claudette, the suffragette.

    • dick says:

      “Verily, I hath been besieged by the townspeople,” wrote Hester in undated, withered letters.

      (that one might take a minute, but I’m proud of it…)

  39. sansos says:

    RE: the whole CRISPR baby scenario, I posted this on the subreddit but i decided to post it here as well:
    I’m willing to bet $1000 that in 18 years both children will be fine, for some mutually agreed upon definition of fine.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      My feeling is that the whole thing will turn out to be a scam. If the twins are fine, it could be because the genetic modification never happened.

  40. Conrad Honcho says:

    Yes, I’m aware I’ve been posting a lot about video games. Also, I promise I’m not an Ubisoft shill.

    Ludonarrative dissonance is the disconnect between your actions in a video game and what the game says you’re doing. Like Link is the hero of Hyrule, but he also goes into peoples homes, smashes their pots and takes the 5 rupees they had saved to feed their families and the villagers still treat him like the “hero of Hyrule” and not “Link, the home invasion robber.”

    I posted before that this was especially weird in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey where you’re hunting down this cult, that we know is evil because they do things like manipulate politics to profit off war. In the game, though, you’re a mercenary, who’s entire job is profiting off war. And you do things like assassinate an area’s leader to weaken the state enough that an opposing army can invade, and then you can sign up with either side to fight in the battle for money. It seems like the cult isn’t any worse than your character is, they’re just better organized.

    And the game seemed to be entirely unaware that you’re a really horrific murderer and robber. And it’s not like the accusations that Grand Theft Auto was misogynist because you could kill a prostitute and take the money. But that’s not a quest or anything. The game isn’t telling you to do that, the game lets you kill anyone, who you kill in that regard is on you. (If anyone disagrees, let’s save that discussion for the CW thread. I’m just acknowledging the controversy, not attempting to fight it).

    But in Odyssey you’ll roll up to, say, the Temple of Apollo in the middle of the city and a box will pop up letting you know your objectives for that location, like “Kill captain [of the guards]” and “Loot treasure.” That’s the game designers telling you to do that, for rewards and to complete the game. So you murder that guy and take the 100 drachmae or whatever in the chest and it’s all “yaaaah objective complete!” and you have to wonder what happens the next day when the temple priest shows up and is all “oh shit, somebody broke in and stole the 100 drachmae we were gonna feed the orphans with! And they murdered Kevinocles! He was a good man, with a family! Who would commit such a horrific crime against man and the gods?!”

    So yesterday the first chapter of the expansion DLC for Odyssey came out and I’m very amused that it’s finally recognized this. In the story a new secret group shows up, intent on hunting your character. Events lead you to this dead tree covered in bodies, with corpses strung up in the branches, and the “bad guy” informs you that these are your victims. The families of the victims confront you, and you try to justify your actions and they advance on you. One of the women even says “we were going to start a family!” I found a way to avoid having to murder the families of my murder victims, but after the events you kneel before the tree and have two dialogue options: “I’m not a monster” and “I’m a monster.” I picked the second and finally got to say “THANK YOU! I’ve been saying that this whole time!!! Yes, I completely agree with this group of people who want to kill my character! It’s about time someone tried to end the blood-drenched reign of terror I have inflicted on the entire Greek world!”

    I just thought that was amusing that the game designers have finally figured out what a horrible, horrible person the protagonist is.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      L/N dissonance drives me nuts. I yell at the screen every time Shepard would murder his way through hundreds of nameless mooks, only to confront the villain responsible for it all and spare his life because “we’re better th