OT120: Openury Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Thanks for putting up with the experiment on switched comment order. Please take this survey about which comment order you want to keep going forward.

2. Comments of the week: BBA on the history of the V-chip program to censor TV, Theodidacticus on why benign activity might look like a conspiracy from the outside, and Erusian on how victory in the fight against pork barrel spending drove political polarization.

3. Jeremiah, who runs the Slate Star Codex podcast, now has a Patreon up to support his work. If you appreciate the podcast and aren’t boycotting Patreon, please consider signing up.

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969 Responses to OT120: Openury Thread

  1. LepidopteristBB says:

    As a lay lepidopterist I can personally attest that the monarch claims are utter BS. The overwintering strategy is changing with climate change; instead of aggregating in masses, they are breaking up into smaller overwintering colonies or not overwintering at all because it’s so pleasant all year in the southern half of CA. Xerces refuses to account for this because painting a doomsday scenario gets them more donations. I’ve never seen so many monarchs in my life in the LA area as in the past five years and 2018 might have been the best yet.

  2. acymetric says:

    I think I’ve found the place where I least like the newest first ordering: the Link threads.

    It seems that there are a lot more top level posts talking about the same links where some of those would have continued an existing top level thread and started a more engaged discussion in the oldest first system. Leading to more top level “I have a thought on this link” posts but fewer deeper “let’s discuss this” subthreads.

    It makes sense that it would be more an issue for link posts than individual topic posts because the link posts contain so many different topics, which can be hard to sift through where in a regular post everything is generally about the subject of that post (or something tangentially related, at least).

    I have run 0 numbers on the newest post vs. previous posts to confirm this.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      Very much yes. I had voted for the new ordering, but reading comments on the Link threads made me think about trying to fix my vote.

    • fion says:

      I agree, but I found comments on link posts hardly worth bothering with before, too. So many people post a top level comment about several links, most of which I’m not that interested in, and then it’s a lottery which sub-comments will be about which links.

  3. A Definite Beta Guy says:

    How hostile is your company to Work From Home? Our factory shut down due to the extreme cold today, but I am honestly surprised that the accountants had to argue that we could both work from home, and HAD to work because it was month-end. My prior company is still open for business today (though it’s a corporate office, so almost everyone CAN WFH if necessary), but a lot of my friends are still working from home today.

    • John Schilling says:

      I wound up working from home yesterday, and had difficulty dealing with a minor crisis because of the inability to meet ftf with key people. Not the first time that has happened, either.

      We do allow occasional work-from-home when appropriate, and bad weather definitely qualifies, but there is a strong preference for being on-site at least from roughly 0900-1500 M-Th. Roughly speaking, in any matter even slightly contentious, a dissenting voice on the telephone will be severely discounted compared to the consensus of the people actually in the room, and if you’re never going to (effectively) dissent, then you might as well be a yes-man of no value. Work-from-home is for when you have high confidence that you are going to be doing just private brainwork to be presented and defended later, and we do too much multitasking and crisis response to be confident that state of affairs will last very long.

      Accounting seems like it would be a better fit.

    • acymetric says:

      Generally (there will certainly be some variance from company to company), companies where everyone can work from home are going to be more friendly towards in than companies where some positions/departments can and some cannot. Being a factory, obviously your company falls into the latter category.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        I’m alright with this at the factory (for the most part), but if you’re going to close the factory, and some of us can still work from home, I’d really rather not lose a PTO day just because other people can’t work. Yadda yadda we’re all a team, but every function can function differently (practically tautological). Everyone is going to get the long or short end of the stick at some point. Other support staff can take 2-3 week vacations when the plant is shut down, or can flip hours to work weekends so they can extend other vacations, but the engineers and mechanics are working 12 hours on Christmas Eve.

        But my bigger gripe is with corporate offices not allowing the WFH option, particularly on bad days, when the majority of employees can be productive from home. Like, my first company made us all come in a day with around a foot of snow, and later asked us all to come in on a day with -40 windchills, but later in the year rolled out a Work From Home policy (because they paid, and continue to pay, 10-15% below market rate). At that point, it’s obviously arbitrary, so why keep the office open?

        • acymetric says:

          I totally hear you, but that’s basically it (it would be “unfair” to let some people work from home while others have to burn PTO). That probably isn’t the whole reason, some of it is cultural and I’m sure there are factories where the culture is such that there is no problem with working from home.

          The way the factory I worked at got around this was by having “inclement weather days”, where if the factory is closed for the day due to weather everyone gets paid for that day without burning PTO. People with time-critical functions were then free to work from home if needed (or even come into the office!).

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Wait, they’re closing the whole factory but charging the employees PTO for it??

          • acymetric says:

            Not uncommon for companies to force you to use PTO if you want to get paid during unplanned closures.

          • AG says:

            My site has a mandatory winter holidays facility shut down, and yeah, you have to use PTO if you want to get paid during that time.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            They’re closing the factory based on safety concerns, and allowing employees to take PTO.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I just have to have a reason and can’t do it too often. Two weeks ago I worked from home a day because they were repainting part of the parking garage and I didn’t want to fight for parking. I’ve wfh before because “it’s too cold and I don’t want to go outside.” But I live in the south so “too cold” was like mid-20s.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I don’t work for a company exactly, but my lab doesn’t really care about when or how often you come in as long as you’re producing results. I haven’t seen the postdoc who normally sits across from me for over a week now, because she’s analyzing data from her last experiment from home.

      That said, working from home is generally not a good idea IMO. Obviously you can’t do any benchwork when you don’t have a lab bench and all of the materials / animals in the lab. Beyond that, not having informal feedback from other people in the lab is a serious drawback. Plus, at least for me, it’s easier to focus on work when I’m in a more work-like environment; I tend to goof off more at my desk at home than at my desk in the lab, even though my laptop works just as well on either.

    • Plumber says:

      @A Definite Beta Guy

      “How hostile is your company to Work From Home?…”

      Current employer: The City and County of San Francisco.
      Last previous employer: Ray L Hellwig Plumbing & Heating Inc.

      I’ve never had a job were working from home was an option, and I’ve never spoken to anyone who told me that they worked from home.

      • albatross11 says:

        Yeah, it’s going to be pretty hard for a plumber to work from home. Similarly, it’s going to be hard for a dentist or barber or bartender to work from home….

        • The Nybbler says:

          My grandfather worked from home as a barber for a while. He literally had a barbershop in the basement.

    • IrishDude says:

      Friendly. I’m on-site one day a week and telework all other days. I share a desk with someone whose on-site day is different than mine.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      Most of the employees at my work cannot productively work from home (or at all), and therefore don’t have the option. For those of us who do, it’s encouraged for times when we need it, but would be discouraged if it was very frequent. A few employees work significantly/exclusively from home, especially in Outside Sales.

      If we did close down for a bad weather day, salaried employees would be paid, while hourly employees would have to use PTO if they wanted to be paid.

    • bullseye says:

      I work for the federal government. I work from home about half the time anyway (and could do even more if I wanted), and they told us to all work from home today (except for people who had in-person meetings, like my supervisor).

      I heard that one of our IT guys doesn’t even live in the same state and only comes to the office once a year, but that’s unusual.

  4. brad says:

    Did my taxes by hand again this year, I’d say less than four hours total for state and federal. That included 1099 income and the forms associated with it (albeit C-EZ rather than full blown c). The last time I mentioned that I like do them by hand on here someone said that doing so would be his nightmare. If that’s you, fair enough, but if you are even a little curious how the parts fit together I’d highly recommend giving it a shot. You could always retreat back to turbotax if you hate it.

    One thing that stuck out at me, and I hope this doesn’t constitute a hot button political topic, is how much of a difference it makes that the social security rate is a) not graduated and b) allows no deductions. Not even 401k. To a lesser extent New York State and New York City taxes were higher than I might have expected as compared to federal because they start to flatten out fairly quickly. For single people in New York the marginal rate is 6.85% for $215k-$1.07M, but already by $22k it’s 6.33%. For NYC it’s even flatter, the first taxable dollar is taxed at 3.078% and the top rate of 3.876% is reached at $50,000. On the federal side a lot higher proportion of income for white collar professionals is captured in the 10,12 and 22% bands.

    All of which means you can’t look at the marginal rate buckets you fall into and get a rough idea of how what proportion each tax is going to represent of your total.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Probably venturing close into CW, but, yeah, it’s definitely the case that just looking at your federal income tax rate is going to leave you blinded to a lot of the taxes you pay, especially the payroll taxes. However, the payroll taxes have an additional “hidden” effect, because your employer pays the tax too, and that tax incidence probably falls mostly on the wage-earner. So you might as well add that particular portion to your tax calculation.

      To say nothing of the sales tax, which I don’t keep track of, and I doubt anyone else does either.

      • Plumber says:

        @A Definite Beta Guy,

        I don’t keep track of sales tax paid either, but the combined State, local, and Federal “payroll” taxes combined are easily 4x what I pay in Federal Income taxes.

    • AG says:

      Do you have to do HSA/FSA taxes? That’s the thing that always bumps me up to not being able to use basic free tax software. (Or maybe I’m getting ripped off by H&R)

      • zoozoc says:

        As someone who has an HSA and has also done his own taxes, I am curious what you mean by this. What about having an HSA makes it harder to do taxes? I get a form from the HSA company about how much I contributed, but aside from that what else is there?

      • brad says:

        I’m with zoozoc. I have an HSA that my employer and I contribute to. It’s on the W2 as a line item, but no where in any of the tax forms is it used. The money is not taxed (at least as income, I’m not sure if it counts as Social Security and Medicare wages).

        I have no idea why HR Block would charge extra for that.

        Anyway, I used this: https://www.irs.gov/e-file-providers/before-starting-free-file-fillable-forms which is totally free.

        • acymetric says:

          Did you use any funds from your HSA? If so, you were supposed to fill out form 8889. If you used it for non-medical expenses (as indicated on the 1099-SA form you’ll get from your HSA provider) that amount needs to be listed as “additional income” when you file so that it can be taxed (and and you also pay an additional 20% penalty for non-medical disbursements). Even if you only used it for legitimate medical expenses, you still need form 8889.

          So, if you didn’t spend any money from your HSA, you’re golden (I think, at least I’m pretty sure you don’t have to file 8889 if you don’t actually use your HSA). If you did spend any money from your HSA account, you technically didn’t file your taxes properly.

          • AG says:

            Okay, looks like I’m just getting ripped off by H&R. Thanks for the links!

          • brad says:

            I see, that makes sense. Thanks.

            I’m using my HSA as a retirement vehicle. I didn’t spend anything from it, medical or non-medical.

  5. johan_larson says:

    I’ve noticed a pattern in recent documentaries. If we think of a program on ad-supported TV as a set of segments separated by ads, the program is not made as a single continuous whole which just happens to be interrupted by ads. Instead, each segment is built as a small story of its own, and spends a bit of time restating the general premise of the program as a whole and what was learned in earlier segments before going on to new material. Sometimes they even briefly preview what will be covered in the next segment. This pattern is particularly noticeable when the program is viewed without ads, because all the recapitulation at the segment starts is very noticeable. Has anyone else noticed this? A good place to see it is in later seasons of the MythBusters.

    The question is what drives this pattern. One possibility is that a significant portion of the viewership channel-surfs, so you can only expect to hold them until the next commercial break, meaning each segment has to stand alone as a mini-program. The other is economics. This pattern says the same thing over and over, so you need less material that is original. You can stretch 30 minutes of footage to the 43 minutes per hour that you have in today’s ad-supported TV environment.

    Any other possibilities?

    • Well... says:

      Documentaries (and other stuff like TV dramas and movies) are often re-edited specifically for airings on various TV formats.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      Isn’t that what we’d expect when everyone’s working to a well-known format?

      The lengths of the segments between commercials are known beforehand, so any editor worth his salt will make sure that whatever point is currently being made gets closure before you go to the next break, ‘coz it sucks for the viewer otherwise.

      You’re probably right about channel surfing being a driver of the “next up on…” bits, but that’s been a feature of TV since forever. The recapitulation segments post-break are for the benefit of the viewer just surfed in and potentially has no idea of the context.

      The fact you need less material than you might otherwise is a bonus, but otherwise it seems exactly the kind of evolution we would see in an environment where we know in advance that a programme will be interrupted several times.

    • Randy M says:

      My wife likes Hell’s Kitchen, and that show is sure a huge offender in this. A large portion is previews and recaps. It comes of as padding, though trying to hook or catch up channel surfers makes a lot of sense.

      But it seems like there would be a good opportunity for a dual format; one version edited for broadcast (is that term applicable any more?) and one for streaming or DVD.
      The streaming version of a lot of shows would be half the time.

      • acymetric says:

        Who is paying for the additional production costs? I don’t think there is enough demand for the alternate cut that isn’t satisfied enough with the original TV cut for them to bear that cost?

        I’ll add that the examples given so far (Mythbusters/Discovery Channel and Hell’s Kitchen/Food Network) seem like they probably get a high percentage of their viewers via channel surfing, and this would be important to rope channel surfers in.

  6. SkyBlu says:

    I recently got very mad about the lack of a good definition of what is and isn’t a sandwich. So I made one. And put it on github. Anyways please help me topologically define sandwiches so I can rest in peace without irrational irritation about what is and isn’t a sandwich keep me up at night. I apologize for any math errors I’m still just an undergraduate student, and if you have corrections those would be awesome.

    • Why does a sandwich have to have two ingredients in addition to the bread or equivalent? You don’t think a slice of cheese between two slices of bread is a sandwich?

      • AG says:

        Or, the White Sandwich: two slices of white bread with only mayo as a filling.

        I also dispute the requirement of carbohydrate ingredients. A slice of ham bounded by two pieces of lettuce is a sandwich. A sausage partially surrounded by a piece of lettuce is a hot dog. Aren’t there In-n-Out orders where they replace the buns with patties?

        So the real question is: are stuffed mushrooms a hotdog?
        Is a baked potato a hot dog?
        Is a stuffed pasta shell a hot dog?

        • Well... says:

          Not to mention grilled cheese!

          • AG says:

            Well, technically grilled cheese has cheese and butter/choice of grease, so that’s two. 😛

          • acymetric says:

            The butter is on the wrong side (I’ve never buttered the inside of my grilled cheese, at least).

          • SkyBlu says:

            A grilled cheese is a hotdog cause it’s all about the cheese. That singular focus on the purity of one ingredient makes it a hotdog, philosophically speaking. I like to think of myself as a modern-day Aristotle.

          • Statismagician says:

            What if I make my grilled cheeses with multiple kinds of cheese?

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            That singular focus on the purity of one ingredient makes it a hotdog, philosophically speaking.

            This is bizarre. I’ve always, without exception, heard “hot dog” used to refer either to a certain type of meat product, or to the food that results from putting that meat in a bun with optional toppings for added flavor. Focusing on a single ingredient is completely orthogonal to this. Systematizing is great, but you have to do it by building on existing concepts. You can’t just invent completely new definitions for commonly used words. There’s glory for you!

          • SkyBlu says:

            @Statismagician it’s a sandwich.
            @The Pachyderminator I do what I want

          • Statismagician says:


            Then I think you need to re-think the ingredient requirements; a one-cheese grilled cheese is not sufficiently unlike from a two-cheese grilled cheese to warrant them being deferentially sandwiches, unless you have something more subtle at work.

          • SkyBlu says:

            I will again refer to my philosophy of what a hot dog should be:
            First, two slices of bread around a slice of cheese is a grilled cheese; the revised definition allows anything with separate slices of bread to be sandwiches. If you have a fold-over or bun style situation I will argue that it is, indeed a hot dog. It’s a singular focus on the cheese that makes it party of the hot dog family, which is all about focusing on one core ingredient rather than being a combination.

            Stated another way, quoting from the FAQ:

            Sandwiches are an idea of a thing you can hold by carbs and eat, so you don’t get your hands dirty. Hotdogs are similar, but they aren’t about a full meal: they’re about the sausage, the singular ingredient. Sandwiches can load up on distinct pieces because they’re a whole thing. Hotdogs are a singular focus on one main ingredient, with maybe some dressing. It’s about the dog, in your heart; everything else is just stamp collecting. Similarily, a chili dog doesn’t have that laser focus on it’s core. It’s not just about the sausage anymore, now it’s about the chili and maybe cheese and onions and thus. Philosphically. Not a hotdog.

          • gbdub says:

            If you are going to define it that way, the hot dog category should not be called “hot dogs”. Sub sandwiches are often made by slicing a single roll, not all the way through. Is a roast beef sub a hot dog? The roast beef is still the “focus”, just has additional condiments.

            I say it’s easier to include any sliced bread or roll, whether it is sliced all the way or just mostly through, in the general sandwich category.

            I’d also add, when is the last time you ate a plain hot dog with no bun or condiments? No, you had a hot dog sandwich.

          • SkyBlu says:

            Condiments are an exception, as outlined in the doc. Something needs to have two solid ingredients to be not a hotdog anymore; ketchup, mustard and etc don’t move it out of that category. I’ll argue that a sandwich with just roast beef is again, a hotdog, because it’s a food item that focuses on one main ingredient rather than a mixture of two or more.

          • Nornagest says:

            Sauerkraut is a solid ingredient, isn’t it? I put that on hot dogs all the time.

        • Theodoric says:

          A sausage partially surrounded by a piece of lettuce is a hot dog.

          Is a hot dog a sandwich? There was a bar that, to get around Indiana liquor laws requiring them to serve food, offered the “famous hot dog sandwich” (your other food option was “Chef Campbell’s soup of the day”).

          • Statismagician says:

            Per OP’s definitions, no, but only because sandwiches are currently defined as never overflowing the bread; otherwise they’d be a sandwich subset.

          • SkyBlu says:

            No, it’s a hotdog, but depending on how many distinct pieces of bread its served on it could be a sandwich. As shown in the picture though, the dog is on a singular bun, and therefore just a hotdog.

        • acymetric says:

          I also dispute the requirement of carbohydrate ingredients. A slice of ham bounded by two pieces of lettuce is a sandwich.

          Disagree. Why is that a sandwich? You might call it a lettuce wrap. Or something else. But I’m not sure why you would call it a sandwich.

          (I am not disputing that people do call such a thing a sandwich when they replace the bread with lettuce, I’m just saying they’re wrong and it is no longer a sandwich.)

          • AG says:

            For me, a wrap requires full coverage around the sides. If there’s an open slit, then we’re in hot dog/taco territory, instead of a wrap.

            Sandwich is a state and a verb. To sandwich something / to be sandwiched between two things is the definition of a sandwich. Therefore, carbohydrates are not a requirement.

            What do you call taking two slices of fruit leather and a layer of peanut butter between?

            (Therefore in this essay I will prove that M&Ms are a ravioli. Also, layer cake is a sandwich.)

          • gbdub says:

            Something can be “prepared sandwich style” without being a sandwich. If someone asked for a sandwich and you brought them two pieces of fruit leather smeared with peanut butter, or an Oreo cookie, do you think they would be happy? Of course not. They are not sandwiches, they are sandwich style fruit snacks and cookies, respectively.

          • acymetric says:


            You have your etymology backwards.

          • acymetric says:

            A hot dog is a specific type of meat [by product]. What do you call other meats put inside that type of bun?

          • Nick says:

            Therefore in this essay I will prove that M&Ms are a ravioli.

            Dumplings, people, dumplings!

          • Well... says:

            M&Ms are not dumplings/ravioli because the wrapping on them is poured and hardened (and is therefore actually a coating), rather than folded and pressed. That’s simple.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Is a pizza crust with sausage on it a hot dog?

          Is oatmeal with peanut butter and cinnamon on top a salad sandwich?

          If I put ham and cheese between two halves of a bagel, I have zero sandwiches, but if I then cut it in half I have two sandwiches?

          • acymetric says:

            This seems important. The topological definition of a sandwich needs to allow for a sandwich to be divided in such a way that it can be described as “half a sandwich” not “two sandwiches”.

          • SkyBlu says:

            A half sandwich is still a sandwich. I think it’s okay to allow recursively divisible sandwiches, especially given we have a lower bound on how small sandwiches can be.

      • acymetric says:

        Or what about open-faced sandwiches? Or would that be an entirely separate classification? I would expect open-faced sandwich to be a subtype of sandwich.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        I think (it could be clearer) this is covered by the clause “unless it has two or more seperate [sic] bounded sections.” This seems to mean that a single ingredient between two separate slices of bread does qualify. However, that would exclude, say, a sub or hoagie roll with peanut butter in it, which seems arbitrary.

        Also, point 3 in the definition (“A sandwich’s carbohydrate volume must form a convex hull that contain the entire sandwich”) is ridiculous. If we accept that, then this is not a sandwich, nor is this, nor this. Completely indefensible.

        • acymetric says:

          See his point in the FAQ regarding point 3, they are at least aware:

          What if a little bit of my ham or whatever peeks out from underneath my bread?
          Then it doesn’t deserve to be called a sandwich. We have standards. Trim your goshdamn sandwiches.

          Of course, that is ridiculous. The BEST sandwiches have overhang. If I order a sandwich at a restaurant and everything is within the boundaries of the bread I feel cheated.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            Yes, exactly. A really good sandwich can’t be trimmed like that.

          • SkyBlu says:

            If people really will be heathens and just have overhand that drops sticky food all over your hands fine. Under this definition, everything contained within the bread is part of the sandwich and all the overhang isn’t. I hope this compromise pisses off everyone who cares about this topic because I really can’t see it happening any other way.

            EDIT: Spelling

          • Douglas Knight says:


            Thank you, acymetric, for drawing attention to this word.

          • acymetric says:

            A) Don’t be so messy when you eat your sandwich and it isn’t a problem!

            B) Isn’t that what napkins are for?

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            @SkyBlu If it’s a sloppy joe or something, sure. If the overhanging ingredients are fairly coherent, exercising reasonable care should keep things neat.

            Your proposed compromise is not satisfactory. The overhang is not just a part of the sandwich, but a valued part. It’s what keeps me from finishing with an anticlimactic bite of plain bread. I refuse to downgrade it.

          • gbdub says:

            A sandwich should be at least notionally handheld. Overhang is fine so long as the resultant dish can be mostly picked up by the bread (even if doing so is messy). A “knife and fork sandwich” or an “open faced sandwich” is basically a sandwich-casserole hybrid.

          • acymetric says:

            You don’t need a knife and fork to eat an open faced sandwich (at least not necessarily).

          • gbdub says:

            But generally open-faced sandwiches, at least in my experience, are intended to be eaten with utensils.

            Is avocado toast or bruschetta a sandwich? I say no.

          • SkyBlu says:

            Topologically I’m gonna call them pizzas and therefore pies. See https://github.com/PrecociouslyDigital/sandwich-definitions/issues/7

      • SkyBlu says:

        From the FAQ:

        Sandwiches are an idea of a thing you can hold by carbs and eat, so you don’t get your hands dirty. Hotdogs are similar, but they aren’t about a full meal: they’re about the sausage, the singular ingredient. Sandwiches can load up on distinct pieces because they’re a whole thing. Hotdogs are a singular focus on one main ingredient, with maybe some dressing. It’s about the dog, in your heart; everything else is just stamp collecting. Similarily, a chili dog doesn’t have that laser focus on it’s core. It’s not just about the sausage anymore, now it’s about the chili and maybe cheese and onions and thus. Philosphically. Not a hotdog.

        • acymetric says:

          You distinction of hot dogs as separate from sandwiches is causing problems for your definition of sandwich, and isn’t necessary. I also don’t think your distinction between plain hotdog and hotdog with fixin’s is useful or commonly held. Both are hotdogs, and hotdogs are, as gdub suggested elsewhere, a sandwich.

    • AG says:

      Ice cream hot dog is an amazing concept, can’t believe I’ve never had one, must rectify.
      “Is a banana split a sandwich? If you can manage to lift the whole thing balanced upon the banana pieces, yes.” (But really, they should be making waffle boats so that you can have banana split hot dogs.)

      • acymetric says:

        It shouldn’t be technically a hot dog though. And neither should a bratwurst on a bun.

        • acymetric says:

          And also, chili dogs are hot dogs, not sandwiches. Also, hot dog is literally the name of the sausage, with out without any kind of bread so how does that factor in?

          • SkyBlu says:


            Sandwiches are an idea of a thing you can hold by carbs and eat, so you don’t get your hands dirty. Hotdogs are similar, but they aren’t about a full meal: they’re about the sausage, the singular ingredient. Sandwiches can load up on distinct pieces because they’re a whole thing. Hotdogs are a singular focus on one main ingredient, with maybe some dressing. It’s about the dog, in your heart; everything else is just stamp collecting. Similarily, a chili dog doesn’t have that laser focus on it’s core. It’s not just about the sausage anymore, now it’s about the chili and maybe cheese and onions and thus. Philosphically. Not a hotdog.

            I realize that I’m perverting the English language to settle everything into solid categories that we made up but this is honestly the only way I can sleep soundly at night.

          • AG says:

            As pointed out below, the solution is that hot dogs are a subset of tacos.

          • gbdub says:

            “Hot dog” is both a type of sausage and a shorthand for “hot dog sandwich” i.e. a hot dog served in a sliced roll. The latter must be a sandwich, else a hoagie or anything else on a sliced roll ceases to be a sandwich.

          • acymetric says:


            I’m satisfied with that. Of course this means the sandwich definition needs to be revised to include a hot dog as a type of sandwich instead of its own category.

          • gbdub says:

            It should be a subtype of sandwich – a hot dog is basically just a sausage sub.

    • AM says:

      Why the concern with the topological genus of the food? Do you really believe that a bagel sandwich isn’t a sandwich?

      • SkyBlu says:

        If you can figure out a way to make a bagel with lox a sandwich without making sushi a sandwich, please open a pull request.

        • acymetric says:

          You just need to make the material more specific than “carbohydrate”. This would exclude rice (and a bunch of other carby things that wouldn’t count as being a sandwich.

          Problem solved.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            We do want to allow rice-based bread, though.

          • acymetric says:

            Yes, something about a common process (or set of common processes) used to create various things we would consider bread, but exclude unprocessed carby things like a potato or stuck together rice.

          • gbdub says:

            Bread made from rice or potato flour is still bread. A pile of rice or a baked potato is not bread.

            This issue here is the definition of “bread”, not of “sandwich”. A sandwich must involve bread.

          • The Nybbler says:

            An ice-cream sandwich is indubitably a sandwich, but has no bread.

          • gbdub says:

            Nope. Sandwich style cookie. If a sandwich is anything between two or more pieces of another thing, then plywood is a sandwich.

            Usage matters. If we’re talking foodstuffs and you ask for a sandwich, unmodified, you are not asking for an ice cream sandwich (or an Oreo).

          • acymetric says:

            That chocolate stuff is bread adjacent.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            Usage matters. If we’re talking foodstuffs and you ask for a sandwich, unmodified, you are not asking for an ice cream sandwich (or an Oreo).

            I agree that the bread is crucial, but I’m not sure this is a good test. “A sandwich, unmodified,” is usually a lunch-type item, but there are also “breakfast sandwiches,” e.g. a fried egg, cheese, and meat between two pieces of bread, and it would be silly to exclude those.

            In practice, unambiguous sandwiches in the structural sense – a filling enclosed by bread – are rarely served for dessert. In fact, offhand it’s hard to think of any examples. But when we see them, we should still count them.

          • gbdub says:

            I like fried egg on hamburgers. Does that make them “breakfast sandwiches”? I don’t have a problem with including an Egg McMuffin as a central sandwich. I guess it would be bit odd if I asked for a “sandwich” at 5PM and you brought me an Egg McMuffin, but not nearly as weird as if you brought me ice cream between two chocolate chip cookies.

        • AG says:

          Maki-style sushi (the “rolls” most people think of) is a wrap, not a sandwich.

          Nigiri-style sushi (fish on a lump of rice) doesn’t have the symmetry of layers to qualify as a sandwich, either.

          The only configuration of a bagel that would match sushi would be if you never sliced the bagel across the face, and only stuffed all of the other ingredients in the hole.

          • SkyBlu says:

            The thing is sushi becomes indistinguishable, topologically, from a hotdog if there’s only one ingredient in it (which is totally possible). An avocado roll is not a hotdog. I will block you.

          • AG says:

            One of the other key parts of a sandwich or hot dog is that you have to have an opening across the length, or across the plane with maximum surface area. Wraps (sushi, burritos) only have openings on the ends, the smaller surface area faces of a cylinder, so they don’t qualify. Pigs in a blanket or kolaches are not hot dogs.

          • SkyBlu says:

            Are uncrustables sandwiches or ravioli?

          • AG says:

            Uncrustables are dumpling/ravioli. More specifically, they are baozi.

    • ManyCookies says:

      Relevant Existential Comics.

      “Language is a use, nerds. It ain’t a sandwich.”

      • SkyBlu says:

        Of course, the use here is that I stop thinking about this until 3 in the morning and I stop falling asleep in class.

        Edit — I guess that’s my response to Wittgenstein: Language isn’t a bunch of truth-propositions, but the use for me is that I can’t sleep well until I’ve teased out the truth-propositions.

        • ManyCookies says:

          I think comic Wittgenstein is dodging the question. I agree that a hot dog is not currently a sandwich, but of course it isn’t under the social consensus definition; if it were, the question wouldn’t even occur to us and there’d be no controversy and sleepless nights. The true, implicit question is whether a hot dog should be a sandwich and if we should adjust our culinary social norms accordingly.

          (Though every “Wittgenstein bullies the logicians” comic makes me laugh, I’ll post them even if I don’t agree with him.)

          • SkyBlu says:

            But what if there is no should? What if we can’t really define what words mean except as information that causes certain consequences to happen? There’s no platonic ideal of a baseball throw, only one that causes the batter to miss and your team to score. Why is language any different?

            (I am playing devil’s advocate here. I don’t agree with Wittgenstein, but I don’t think he’s dodging the question; we do have to prove that human language is about stating truths about the world and not just something like a programming language, instructions to other humans about stuff)

    • zzzzort says:

      Everyone knows that hotdogs are a degenerate form of taco.

      • acymetric says:

        Per this definition a taco would be a sandwich.

      • gbdub says:

        See my longer response below. Hot dogs use sliced bread, and are thus a sandwich. Tacos are folded toritillas (not leavened bread, not sliced) thus not a sandwich.

        • AG says:

          You don’t consider quesadillas a sandwich?

          • gbdub says:

            No. They are panini style tacos, at best.

            If you order a sandwich and someone brings you a quesadilla, would you be satisfied, or think your waiter was a smartass? Not a sandwich.

          • AG says:

            Image google “flatbread panera.” Those are offered under their sandwich section.
            So, yes, people ask for a sandwich and want/get quesadillas.

          • acymetric says:

            You could probably categorize tacos, quesadillas, and a whole bunch of other things as “wraps”.

          • acymetric says:


            Those are not quesadillas. If they offer a “quesadilla flatbread”, it is a flatbread sandwich with its contents styled after a quesadilla.

          • gbdub says:

            Flatbread is a tough edge case. It’s kind of a taco-sandwich-wrap hybrid. If you want to call them a sandwich I could live with that, but I say no.

            I’m not claiming there aren’t a lot of sandwich-like foods outside my relatively narrow definition of sandwich.

            I’m saying that they are noncentral examples of sandwiches, and thus don’t deserve the unmodified label “sandwich”. I don’t see why we need to limit our vocabulary, there are perfectly good words for these foodstuffs that we can use and avoid overbroadening the concept of the classic sandwich.

            EDIT: you really need to exclude folded-over flatbreads, else a folded slice of NY-style pizza becomes a sandwich. To me excluding that is more important than including Panera flatbread paninis.

          • SkyBlu says:

            A folded slice of nyc-style pizza becomes a sandwich. I can take pizza toppings and put them into bread and it’s a sandwich, so why isn’t something that was a pizza folded over not a sandwich? It’s not about the intention of the cook, it’s about the arrangement of things in space.

          • gbdub says:

            Why should the intention of the cook not matter? We’re categorizing food, not geometric abstractions.

            But if you really want a geometric difference, toppings go on the “outside” of bread (on the crust if you will) in the case of pizza or topped flatbread. If you fold it, the filling is still on the outside of the bread.

            With a sandwich, the filling touches the “inside” of the bread, because you cook the bread and then mechanically slice it to prepare for sandwich making.

          • Nick says:

            I’m saying that they are noncentral examples of sandwiches, and thus don’t deserve the unmodified label “sandwich”. I don’t see why we need to limit our vocabulary, there are perfectly good words for these foodstuffs that we can use and avoid overbroadening the concept of the classic sandwich.

            I think the term you’re looking for is alienans. You’re suggesting flatbread is an alienans adjective when sandwich is the modificand. Compare “decoy duck” or “counterfeit cash.”

            I’m open to an approach like yours where wraps, foldovers, submarines, etc. aren’t sandwiches. As long as we’re clear what’s happening linguistically.

          • gbdub says:

            I wasn’t aware of that term, thank you. Yeah, it’s something like that.

            It’s also something like this: sandwich is both a noun and a verb. As a verb, sandwiching is putting something between multiple parts of another something. There are many foods that are made by “sandwiching” that should not go into the food category “sandwich”. E.g. Oreos, layer cakes, and lasagna.

          • acymetric says:

            It should be noted that the verb “to sandwich” was derived from the noun “a sandwich” which was food stuff between two pieces of bread.

            A sandwich isn’t called a sandwich because things are “sandwiched”, the term “sandwiched” means what it does because it was derived from the way a Sandwich is built.

          • gbdub says:

            Sure but I don’t think the direction of etymology really matters.

            The point is that a lot of things are prepared by sandwiching that you wouldn’t want to call a sandwich. Modern aircraft are often constructed of a sandwiched structure of composites (carbon fiber sandwiching aluminum honeycomb is common). If you go to a restaurant and order a sandwich, you would be very upset if they tried to make you eat carbon and aluminum.

          • acymetric says:

            I…think we’re in agreement? My point is that something being sandwiched does not make it a sandwich, which appears to be what you’re saying as well.

          • AG says:

            No one is making the argument that we should branch into non-edible territory. It’s trivial to include a “components and assembly must be edible” requirement, and that has nothing to do with the debates we’ve been having.

            Lasagna can be disqualified by requiring a level of structure integrity (you can pick it up with your hands).

            The point of the Panera example is to show that, in the real world, people do indeed order sandwiches and expect things that you’ve been calling not sandwiches. If we’re continually calling to the practical reality as the basis for our definition, then it’s important to acknowledge that the practical reality has a wide swath of foodstuffs called sandwich.

          • gbdub says:

            The Panera flatbreads are basically tacos/small quesadillas made with deli sandwich ingredients. I think the label “sandwich” got applied because A) Panera already had a sandwich section on their menu, and they definitely aren’t soup and B) “Flatbread” in American restaurant parlance usually refers to what is basically a pizza.

            I don’t think you can call them true sandwiches without including tacos as sandwiches, and I want to exclude tacos. There will always be hybrid and edge cases. I come down on the side of a more restrictive sandwich definition that puts that sort of taco-sandwich hybrid just on the outside… but it is clearly a hybrid, and you could call it “both” or “neither”.

        • Well... says:

          Tortillas (the soft bendy ones, derived from flour or corn) absolutely are leavened. They’re a type of flatbread.

          • gbdub says:

            I don’t think masa (corn) tortillas usually include a leavening agent (the dough is just Masa Harina and water), but wheat flour ones often do.

            I think a sandwich must include leavened bread, but not everything with leavened bread is a sandwich. I think I’ve come around to preferring the “inside / outside” distinction. You don’t slice into a flatbread and fill the interior, as you would do with bread or a roll for a sandwich.

          • Well... says:

            You might be right about the corn tortillas. I remember looking this up at Passover but I guess I don’t remember clearly enough what the result was.

            I think disagree about a sandwich requiring leavened bread. KFC’s Double Down sandwich, which comprised two fried chicken breasts with some ingredients held between them, was definitely a sandwhich. An abomination, but a sandwich nonetheless.

          • gbdub says:

            See my reply to Nick, and Nick’s discussion of alienans. A Double Down is prepared by sandwiching, but it is not a sandwich. Otherwise chicken cordon bleu is a sandwich, and things definitely get out of hand.

          • AG says:

            Chicken cordon bleu is a wrap.
            Really, though, it’s a whole other category for “X with a deep fried covering,” e.g. tempura.

          • Well... says:

            I agree, chicken cordon bleu is a wrap. Or maybe a ravioli. The fact that it’s fried (wait, I thought it was breaded?) makes it an empanada.

          • AG says:

            I include both breaded and battered under “fried,” since I’ve seen most foods involving those come in both forms.

            Empanadas can be baked. They’re a turnover variant, and so under the general dumpling category. Chicken cordon bleu isn’t wrapped in dough (that would make them a turnover variant as well).

          • gbdub says:

            What characteristic allows you to draw the distinction that a Double Down is a sandwich but a ravioli or turnover is not?

            I recognize that my definition is narrow. This was intentional, because the slope looks steep once you start to stray from “meat cheese and veg between sliced bread”

          • Well... says:

            It’s because the Double Down is two separate stuffs sandwiching a third stuff. There’s a gap all the way around. Sandwich.

            If you could somehow press all the edges together and cauterize them shut, then you’d be in ravioli/dumpling/empanada/pop tart territory, in which the next distinction seems to be over whether the top and bottom are formed from a single, continuous, folded-over item or from the edge-melding of two separate items.

          • AG says:

            Yeah, recall the the OP definition is topological first.
            In that spirit, there must be a gap in the plane bisecting the assembly such that surface area of the plane in maximized, which disqualifies wraps and rolls (which have opening/s at the end of a prism/cylinder), or pieces that are entirely encased, the dumpling family.

          • gbdub says:

            The problem with requiring a complete split is that the broad category of “sub” sandwiches are often served on a roll that is not sliced completely through.

          • AG says:

            I allow that the split doesn’t need to be all the way through. The important thing is the orientation of the split. “Gap” must cover over 50% of the potential surface area. That allows for subs and hot dogs.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            The double down ABSOLUTELY meets the definition as currently described: Each bit of the breading is a carbohydrate portion with topological genus 0, and there are ingredients outside of but between the bits of breading.

            Chicken cordon blue fails because it is entirely inside the carbohydrate, and is therefore a wrap or burrito, like a piece of fried chicken.

            Boneless hot wings are a hotdog after you take a bite out. They aren’t sandwiches because the sauce is outside the bread, or because they have too few ingredients, but the 90% rule and liquid rule allow them to be hotdogs.

            Bone-in fried chicken is a sandwich after you take a bite, trivially so.

          • SkyBlu says:

            I really do hate that topologically this is technically correct and that you’d have to dive into specific ingredient compositions to exclude bone-in fried chicken for example from being a sandwich.

    • Noah Luxton says:

      My biggest problem is that the overhang problem means that if you bite into your sandwhich such that after the bite there is an overhang, it’s no longer a sandwich. This seems wrong to me.
      Also, the definition of ‘soup’ includes just straight water, which isn’t intuitively a soup.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Water is a degenerate case of “soup”; compare “open-faced wish sandwich” (a piece of bread).

        • gbdub says:

          Heck, water is degenerate broth, itself degenerate soup.

          Now, is tea a broth? That’s an interesting fight!

          • SkyBlu says:

            If someone wants to take a stab at this, open a pull request; I’d love to see what people come up with (mostly so I can stop waking up a cold sweat from the dream where the guy behind me in my intro philosophy class keeps calling his tea a soup)

          • Statismagician says:

            Per the OED, no; broth is a subset of soup and tea is not a soup, and more rigorously tea contains neither meat nor vegetables and is therefore not a broth even if it was a soup.

            Very tenuously, you could argue that tea is a degenerate broth as it contains trace amounts of tea leaves, but I wouldn’t buy it. Possibly tea is an edge case of broth while brewing but not as generally drunk?

          • SkyBlu says:

            There’s nothing stopping tea leaves from being vegetables; I’ve used tea leaves as seasoning before.

          • SkyBlu says:

            Anyways please help me solve this problem or forever be haunted by the fact that Dracula is the world’s foremost soup connoisseur.

          • Statismagician says:

            ‘Trace amounts’ was key there – I don’t know about you, I strain the physical leaves out before drinking, so all that’s in the finished product is flavor compounds and caffeine.

            It occurs to me that tea with milk is more plausibly a broth; I didn’t think of that as I usually drink it without.

          • gbdub says:

            Broth is savory (I know you don’t like it, but it’s FOOD. Of course flavor matters!).

            Broth is boiled or simmered. Tea is steeped (i.e. soaked in sub-boiling water). Those seem like perfectly fine distinguishers.

          • Protagoras says:

            Of course, the real mystery of tea (and many beverages) is how is it that dirty water is water, but tea, which has fewer impurities than many samples of dirty water, is not water.

          • gbdub says:

            Water that is dirtier than tea would generally not be considered a beverage. Like, a bucket of pond water is “water” in the context of “potential fish habitat”, but probably not in the context of beverages.

      • SkyBlu says:

        Also the existence of an overhang means that the overhang is not part of the sandwich but the rest of it is (see above)

      • Well... says:

        Is a bowl of cereal with milk a soup?

        I’m mainly curious to see if there is a lot of disagreement on this. I don’t expect there to be, but this thread has served up a lot of surprises.

        • Randy M says:

          Not clear enough to be consommé. Not stewed enough to be stew. Clearly it is a unique soup sub-type.

    • gbdub says:

      A sandwich is a handheld (at least notionally) foodstuff consisting of an edible filling between two or more separate pieces of bread, or within a bread roll or loaf that is sliced mostly or fully through.

      “Sliced” or “multiple pieces” is key. This neatly excludes tacos, wraps, gyros, burritos, calzones, and dumplings, while including hot dogs and hoagies. Now these are all part of the superset of “handheld foods consisting of a filling held by a carbohydrate” but I do think that should stay a superset.

      “Bread” is key. I don’t include anything unleavened or flat. A tortilla is basically a flat bread, but a taco is not a sandwich (plus if you want a Mexican sandwich, you want a torta – that’s already a thing). A slice of pizza folded in half doesn’t turn into a sandwich. A lettuce wrap sure as hell is not a sandwich. Lasagna is not a sandwich. An Oreo is a “sandwich style cookie”, not a sandwich.

      I look at it this way. If I ask for a “sandwich” and someone brings me a hamburger, that’s fine. Hot dog? Little weird but scratches the same itch. Taco or burrito? No. Pot pie, meat pie, bao, or dumpling? No.

      • AG says:

        This definition doesn’t exclude layer cake. Do brownies count as unleavened?

        • gbdub says:

          For one, layer cake isn’t intended to be handheld. For another “bread” is savory. The line between “bread” and “cake” or “cookie” is blurry to be sure, but it’s still a meaningful distinction.

          • SkyBlu says:

            The whole point of this approach is to avoid trying to define what is and isn’t savory. Besides, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in cinnamon raisin bread is a sandwich not a cake. What is the dividing line between savory and sweet? For example, Barbecue sauce straddles the line. No, let’s stay with topological definitions.

          • gbdub says:

            Why? Savory is a key flavor element. It’s a perfectly fine thing to categorize on.

            No, let’s not stick to topology, because topology is a pretty minor distinguisher in food. A human is topologically similar to a donut and a sewer pipe. That doesn’t mean you ought to categorize those things together.

          • SkyBlu says:

            Is barbecue sauce savory?

          • gbdub says:

            Yes. It is savory. It has sweetness, but “savory” and “sweet” are not mutually exclusive flavor elements. See also ketchup and marinara sauce. Lots of savory foods are complemented by a little sweetness. Putting a spoonful of sugar in your marinara doesn’t turn spaghetti into dessert.

            I think it is still easily distinguished. BBQ sauce is a condiment intended for use on foods that are unmistakeably savory – smoked meats most notably. Marinara sauce goes on pasta. The resultant dishes are unmistakeably in the “savory” category.

            I think the key element is that “sweet” or “dessert” foods have little if any “savory” or “umami” flavors, while savory foods can have some sweetness.

            You would not put BBQ sauce on the same things you put chocolate syrup on, even though both often contain similar amounts of sugar. If your categorization scheme fails to notice that, it’s not a very useful scheme.

          • AG says:

            @gbdub: So you’re biting the bullet on PBJ being a sandwich-style dessert, for not being savory?

            Also, the delineating between sweet and savory is a very culturally specific one. There are plenty of desserts in non-western cuisines that contain savory and umami flavors.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            For one, layer cake isn’t intended to be handheld.

            Anything is a sandwich if you’re brave enough

          • Randy M says:

            Fried chicken–meat and bone sandwiched between two layers of crispy skin.

          • AG says:

            1. The skin is a part of the original chicken, so it doesn’t count. Now, sandwiching a piece of chicken between two pieces of bacon…

            2. As above with M&Ms or tempura, something being coated doesn’t count. The surrounding pieces need to be their own solid entities before assembly.

            3. Even if we ignore the above two points, that would still make fried chicken a wrap, not a sandwich. If you deliberately leave a section un-covered by breading, at best it could be a hot dog.

          • acymetric says:

            Sandwiching something does not make it a Sandwich (TM)! The etymology is backwards!

            Something is described as “sandwiched” because it resembles the structure of a Sandwich (TM). It does not follow that something that is sandwiched is a Sandwich (TM).

          • gbdub says:

            PBJ is still mostly savory, despite including something sweet as a key ingredient. Though I’ll grant that could be culturally variable. I look at it as “jelly is a sweet topping for a savory food”. Jelly on toast is not considered a dessert, though it’s definitely on the edge of those sweet things we call “breakfast” but are sweeter than some things we eat as desserts.

            There are always going to be edge cases. I prefer to draw the edges conservatively, so that we’re arguing about things that are generally plausible sandwiches, and not arguing whether or not a ravioli is a sandwich because we already conceded calzones.

    • Statismagician says:

      I disagree about sandwiches with ingredients outside the bread, but otherwise this seems to pretty accurately map to at least my personal definition of a sandwich. I propose something like ‘3. A sandwich’s carbohydrate volume must form a convex hull A such that A contains at least [very high value]% of the mass of the sandwich.’

      Your proofs are not proofs, but rather definitions.

      Your Corollary to Lemma 1 should use planes instead of lines, and may return odd results if ingredients interpenetrate (I’m sure somebody somewhere has done this for whatever reason).

      The water threshold in your Proof 3.3 seems too high, unless you’re going analogously to ‘humans are 70% water,’ in which case I think it might be too low. Further discussion is necessary, in any case, for all of your percentage statements.

      I particularly like your treatment of what counts as a different kind of sausage. Also, many, many points for doing a Euclidean treatment of sandwiches; I very much enjoyed this.

      • SkyBlu says:

        Patched to say definitions and surfaces instead of line! Thanks!

        I’m sure there are sloppy enough sandwiches that I don’t want to define a hard limit on the percentage of sandwich filling the bread has to encompass; I’d rather it just be the convex hull and consider all bits not bounded by the bread a pleasant surprise.

        • Statismagician says:

          The ingredients must largely* fill the space between the two separate carbohydrate surfaces if the carbohydrate surfaces are fully separate, or the space within the separate parts of the single surface if not, maybe? You’d need something else to prevent tacos from being a sandwich, I suppose…

          *I know, I know, but given the triviality it’s not more of a handwave than infinitesimal values of ddx and calculus still works.

          • gbdub says:

            A sandwich fills the “inside” of bread – you either slice a loaf, or slice into a roll. Either way, the filling is in direct contact with what used to be the “interior” of the carbohydrate as it was cooked.

            Whereas a with tortilla or flatbread, you’re actually wrapping the “outside” of the carb-food around the filling.

          • Statismagician says:


            I think I broadly agree, pending further thought. Potential edge cases include definitely tacos and quesadillas, and possibly flatbreads too; I’m not totally sold on the ‘top of flatbread isn’t a dish-interior surface’ idea.

          • gbdub says:

            On the one hand, tacos seem reasonably close to a sandwich so maybe including them is not so bad.

            On the other hand, I think it’s a little easier to distinguish between a sandwich and a taco than it is to distinguish between a taco and a burrito.

            And once you include burritos you’re on a slippery slope to having to include calzones, meat pies, dumplings, maki, ravioli… and then the category “sandwich” is so broad as to be meaningless. Drawing the line at “taco” is the best place to do so while preserving sandwich as a usefully distinct category.

          • AG says:

            But if we’re clinging so hard to in-practice, there isn’t much of a practical difference between an assembly using two tortillas vs. slicing a naan or a pita facewise.

    • johan_larson says:

      This whole question is a huge waste of time. Post-facto categories are sometimes a bit fuzzy at the edges . Trying to map their boundaries when this is the case is futile. “Sandwich” is one such category because cooks have invented a lot of variations of “stuff on bread”.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        I think you might be missing the point.

        • johan_larson says:

          And that is? Even as intellectual calisthenics this question seems remarkably sterile compared to, say, doing crosswords.

          • Nick says:

            Nice try, but Randy already got this week’s King of No-Fun Award. You can be a prince or something.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            Arguments over clearly inconsequential, in-principle-unresolvable semantic questions are a healthy outlet for scholasticism, just as sports are a healthy outlet for aggression.

    • Statismagician says:

      I think, per current definitions, that some sandwiches are also salads, via croutons and sandwiches with nonsolid ingredients.

      • SkyBlu says:

        No, they’re not bounded by their croutons is the problem. Unless you’re very unlucky.

        • Statismagician says:

          Just to clarify, do the bread slices count as an ingredient? If so, consider a small toasted largely-vegetable sandwich, where dividing the ingredients in half makes basically croutons and salad.

          • SkyBlu says:

            I mean I’ve had deconstructed salads where the different ingredients are separated and served in layers. Those would probably still be salads, and thus I’m prepared to concede that something can be both a sandwich and a salad. BRB making this a reality.

          • AG says:

            Those salads are clearly parfaits, obviously.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Consider a salad containing 21% ham.
            Consider a salad containing 21% strips of steak.

            Suppose that less than 30% of the population has a dietary objection to pork, and that less than 30% of the population has a dietary objection to beef.
            Suppose that more than 30% of the population has either a dietary objection to pork or a dietary objection to beef.

            If you mix equal portions of those two salads together, you get a mixture that is 10.5% inedible by more than 30% of the population. Since salads form a closed group over themselves, neither is a salad if the demographic suppositions about the world are true.

            The definition of what a salad is depends on contingent facts about the world!

          • Nornagest says:

            Is an ant colony a salad?

            What if you put salt on it?

          • SkyBlu says:

            @deciusbrutus thank you for ruining and making my day. This is going up as an issue. I will never sleep well again.

            @Nornagest I think this is a case of something being technically a salad but not one that you want to eat.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          You just have lots of overhang. Also, a large number of overlapping sandwiches.

    • dndnrsn says:

      The original purpose of a sandwich, as far as the name goes, is to play cards one-handed; a sandwich should be at least theoretically edible with one hand, without getting your hands messy. Presumably, two slices of bread around something existed before this – it’s not hard to figure out. Obviously, condiments and such affect this, so that’s a big “in theory.”

      However, there’s plenty of wraps and burritos and such that aren’t sandwiches but might enable one-handed, mess-free eating. I think the two pieces of bread or similar material is key; there’s some sandwichness contained in the bread being two separate pieces.

      This would make ice cream sandwiches a sandwich, and I would argue that they are: they enable you to eat ice cream without a spoon or a bowl, and if you’re careful your hands won’t get messy. A hamburger is a sort of sandwich, but is identified as its own thing. The major flaw with my definition is that a grilled cheese sandwich is no longer a sandwich – it doesn’t fulfill the original purpose. But it clearly is a sandwich in form factor, and at one point in its preparation, it is a workable sandwich.

  7. The Pachyderminator says:

    Articles about Bitcoin always mention that Satoshi Nakamoto “published” the system in a post to a cryptography forum, but no one ever links to it. What forum was it? Is the original post still available?

  8. Well... says:

    Why are sedans a thing? Why cede all that potential cargo space above the trunk? (By the way, remember those sedans from the 90s with luggage racks on top of the trunk? I can’t remember ever seeing one of those racks used, but at least they were thinking in the right direction.)

    I can sorta understand if the teardrop shape gives you a huge decrease in drag and therefore improved fuel economy, but is it really worth it? And it’s not like sedans necessarily look cooler than hatchbacks, wagons, and SUVs either.

    As far as I can tell they’re a holdover from the very early days when the trunk was literally a trunk strapped to the back of the car.

    • Gobbobobble says:

      And it’s not like sedans tend to look cooler than hatchbacks, wagons, and SUVs either.

      That’s, like, your opinion, man

    • Plumber says:


      “..Why are sedans a thing? Why cede all that potential cargo space above the trunk?…”

      I can see out the back far better in a sedan than in a hatchback or station wagon (though not as well as in a convertible with the top down.

      • Well... says:

        I haven’t noticed a difference. A lot of sedans seem like they have pretty poor visibility.

      • Aapje says:

        My experience is that a hatchback is no worse for visibility, but much better for guessing where the car stops. Of course, nowadays a lot of cars come with parking sensors or backup camera, but that’s a workaround for their bad visibility.

        • Well... says:

          I used a backup camera for the first time a few weeks ago when I had a rental. Maybe I just wasn’t used to it but I found it really difficult.

    • Basil Elton says:

      Not claiming it answers the question completely, but. For example I live alone and drive a midsize sedan. When I load literally every thing that I have except for the furniture in my car, I still have a place for a passenger. Perhaps for two if I really need it. So for me there’s precisely zero additional value in having a hatchback and all those lesser upsides of a sedan you’ve mentioned still hold. (I would’ve buy a coupe but all the plug in coupes in existence seem to cost an arm and leg).

      Now I do understand that I may be not very typical example. But the point is, there are people for whom load capacity of sedans is just enough or excessive. But I’m sure there are other less obvious reasons too.

    • andrewflicker says:

      Count me as one of the crowd that thinks hatchbacks are generally hideous. Aesthetics are important for me in a car, although not all-important!

      • Well... says:

        Man, y’all crazy. The Honda Wagovan was the most beautiful car ever made.

      • Conrad Honcho says:
        • andrewflicker says:

          I feel like you’re cheating if you pick the best-looking hatchback (I might be a BMW partisan), and show a photo of it that minimizes it’s hatchbacky-ness. That photo’s the equivalent of the Myspace Angle for cars.

          • acymetric says:

            What about the Firebird

            Does it look too hatchbacky? Some hatchbacks are virtually indistinguishable from trunked cars until you open the back and see that the whole rear opens up instead of just the trunk part.

          • acymetric says:

            What about the Firebird

            Does it look too hatchbacky? Some hatchbacks are virtually indistinguishable from trunked cars until you open the back and see that the whole rear opens up instead of just the trunk part.

            Edit: This is not my preferred photo, the spam filter ate like the first 8 links I tried. Just Google 1980s Firebird Formula.

          • Well... says:

            In andrewflicker’s defense I don’t think those kind of cars really count as hatchbacks. They get in on a technicality because the rear glass happens to open up with the trunk (because if it didn’t the trunk opening would be too small to fit your hand through, let alone any cargo bulkier than a magazine).

            Besides, you don’t need the Firebird (a gorgeous car, BTW) to prove that hatchbacks look amazing. Because Wagovan. C’mon!

          • acymetric says:


            The Firebird was an extreme example to make the point (and agreed, I love 80s Firebirds, prefer them over the Trans Am bodies actually). There are plenty of hatchbacks that are styled essentially the same as sedans, except that the glass goes up with the trunk lid which gives you a larger opening to put big things in (the limiting factor for sedans is typically that something won’t fit through any available opening more so than that there isn’t sufficient space in the car to fit it). This would not seem to cause any problems with driveability/visibility while giving the benefit of easier loading/unloading.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      IME, Sedans are typically easier to maneuveur and park than those other vehicles. Though much less of an issue with modern back-up cameras.
      People hate station-wagons or anything that vaguely looks like them. Dunno why. I actually thought the Toyota Venza was damned cool, but my wife hated it.

      • Nornagest says:

        People hate station-wagons or anything that vaguely looks like them. Dunno why.

        Because buying a station wagon became associated in people’s minds with giving up any trace of fun for your family’s sake, which is profoundly uncool. Same thing happened with minivans a little later (although CAFE makes the story more complicated than “people gave up uncool station wagons in favor of minivans), and it’s currently happening with SUVs even though they were explicitly designed to avoid the issue.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Sidetrack: One of things contributing to the low birthrate might be that people take a status hit by merely looking as though they have children.

          • albatross11 says:

            This depends on whose opinion you care about, though. If your friends/coworkers/community are mostly also parents, then you’re likely to hear some compliments for how nice your new Odyssey looks, rather than condolences that now all your fun is over and you will be nothing but a sad, overworked parent-of-children forevermore.

    • John Schilling says:

      For any vehicle you wind up actually driving, you could have picked a vehicle with an extra twenty cubic feet of cargo space, and it wouldn’t have cost you that much more weight, drag, visibility, handling, or ugliness. Yet here you are, (presumably) not driving a full-sized van or panel truck.

      So, look at the question from a different angle, or better still two different angles. First, given that every cubic foot of cargo space does come at a price, where does the marginal utility of one more cubic foot in your normal range of automotive operations, stop being worth the price? How many cubic feet do you really want to pay for?

      Second, if the answer turns out to be anything less than a full-sized SUV, then you will be trading e.g. a compact SUV against a mid-sized sedan. Why is the SUV better?

      Also, understand that U-haul will probably rent you a pickup truck or cargo van for $20 plus $0.7 per mile. How much are you paying to drag half a pickup’s worth of empty cargo space through the air the other 364 days a year?

      • Well... says:

        Yes, of course there are a lot of trade-offs when choosing a car, but sedans offer no clear advantages over similarly sized hatchbacks and wagons. In the OP I speculated on aerodynamics but that was just speculation; as far as I know, fuel economy tends to be dominated by other factors. (Also: the most fuel efficient gasoline car produced in the US before about 2010 was the Geo Metro, a hatchback.) Others upthread said sedans are easier to park and see out of. I haven’t had that experience, though it could hypothetically be true…but it still seems like a very small gain for what you have to give up.

      • gbdub says:

        The issue with sedan vs hatchback is the wasted “footprint”. A hatchback drives basically like a sedan of the same wheelbase. From the driver’s seat, you are unlikely to notice a difference unless you look back and notice you can actually pack cargo more than 2 ft tall.

        A larger SUV or pickup truck starts to sacrifice ease of driving/parking.

        • acymetric says:

          Right. Some people seem to be comparing a sedan to a station wagon, rather than comparing sedan and hatchback models of the same car. In fact, hatchbacks are sometimes marketed as the more sporty/maneuverable of the two for some models.

        • Well... says:

          When people say they can see better out of the back of a sedan, can they really mean that having the rear glass raked at an angle and maybe a few feet closer to them provides that much extra visibility?

          • acymetric says:

            I think people are consistently making the mistake of comparing a Civic sedan with a station wagon (which are definitely less maneuverable and have worse visibility due to being longer), rather than comparing a Civic sedan and a Civic coup/hatchback which is the correct comparison to make.

            Someone start a github to topologically map out station wagons, coupes, hatchbacks, and sedans.

          • Plumber says:


            “When people say they can see better out of the back of a sedan, can they really mean that having the rear glass raked at an angle and maybe a few feet closer to them provides that much extra visibility?”

            Yes, usually.

            It depends on the sedan and the hatchback, but out of the last three sedans I’ve driven (’91 Accord, ’98 Crown Victoria, and an ’84 Camry) I could see better out the back than in my wife’s 2004 Prius.

          • Nornagest says:

            Hatchbacks have more pillars, set back further, and a lot of the time they’re thicker too (since they have to include the hatch frame as well as the roof supports, and have to be able to support the weight of a raised hatch). That means rear visibility’s always going to be worse in a hatchback than a similar sedan. But on top of that, there’s also been a trend for thick pillars and high beltlines in recent cars, mostly for safety reasons, that’d give most modern vehicles worse sightlines than ones from the ’80s or ’90s.

          • Well... says:

            I’ve owned two sedans (a 91 Chevy Celebrity and a 2013 Corolla) and two hatchbacks (an 87 Corolla FX and a 2006 Scion xA). I’d rank them from best-to-worst visibility in terms of sightlines like this:

            1. 87 Corolla FX
            2. 06 xA
            2. 91 Celebrity (tied for 2 because I can’t really remember if it was better or worse than the xA)
            3. 13 Corolla

            Obvious trend there as newer cars have worse sightlines due to rising belt lines, as noted. I’m guessing just about any 2019 sedan would have worse visibility in those terms than my 2006 xA hatchback, but that my xA probably has worse visibility than, say, the sedan version of the 87 Corolla, for that reason alone. And obviously something like the 57 Impala has incredible visibility (fins notwithstanding). So, visibility robbed by rising beltlines acknowledged.

            But hatchbacks have the added benefit of the driver always knowing pretty much exactly where the back of the car ends, without nearly as much time having to learn and develop a feel for it, because it ends basically at the hatch. That’s gotta count for something in terms of visibility too.

    • JustToSay says:

      Everything @John Schilling said, plus I like my trunk more completely separated from the cabin. And I have an irrational hatred of SUVs. (I’m cool with minivans though.)

      • That’s a legitimate point. Something in the trunk is harder to steal than something in the body of the car. Also out of sight.

        • gbdub says:

          On the other hand, contiguous cargo space and usually folding seats mean that hatchbacks are much more versatile in terms of packing even moderately bulky cargo.

          • acymetric says:

            There are a lot of fairly typical sized things someone might by that won’t fit anywhere in a sedan but fit easily in a hatchback of the same model (TVs, small pieces of furniture).

            I fit 3 people and four days worth of camping gear (two coolers, tent, folding cots, canopy, grill, and other miscellaneous stuff) in a 2 door hatchback. In the sedan model of that car, we probably could have brought the tent, the grill, the miscellaneous (clothes), and one cooler.

            Was also super handy when moving.

        • Well... says:

          I think any thief with experience breaking into cars would tell you that stuff in the trunk isn’t that much harder to steal. Yes, prying a door open or breaking a window and then grabbing something off a seat is the easiest, but once you’re in the car getting into the trunk is almost effortless.

          Also note that none of this changes for hatchbacks with cargo covers.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I think with thieves the question is more about the likelihood of there being something to steal. There are hundreds to tens of thousands of possible cars that you could break into, seeing something in the car, even an unidentifiable something, puts it way up there on the “worth smashing a window for” scale.

          • zoozoc says:

            Don’t most Sedan’s have a way to prevent the trunk being accessed except via key in the trunk? Anytime I have anything remotely valuable, I put it in the trunk (out of sight) and then lock the trunk such that the trunk pop-up in the car doesn’t work. In this case there is no way to access the trunk except with a key.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s usually not possible to pop the trunk on modern cars without the keys, but it’s usually possible to fold down the rear seats from the passenger compartment.

      • Well... says:

        Do you have a rational reason why stuff in the trunk should be completely separated, or is that just personal preference?

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Segregating weird smells (say, from a wet snow shovel) and heating up the main cabin marginally faster, for two examples from just this weekend.

        • JustToSay says:

          It’s preference built of small things. I’m sure I could get used to something else.

          The smell containment is nice occasionally (that time we tried hockey). I’ve been in an accident in a car where cargo flew around and hit people, so I like minimizing those odds, though that’s obviously very rare. I do like being able to keep valuables out of view. In the summer my groceries stay cooler in the trunk, and in general it’s easier to keep things out of the sun. It feels less messy when I don’t have to see the stuff in the trunk every time I get in or out of the car. Easier to stash a body.

          The couple hatchbacks I’ve tried to put cargo in have had what felt like inconveniently-shaped vertical storage that requires lots of stacking and quickly starts blocking the rear view. I’m sure if I used it more often I’d optimize things better, but I’m used to the wide/flat storage of a typical trunk where you can push things way to the back.

          My seats do fold down, creating a continuous space with the trunk so if we need to fit plywood (not a full 4×8 sheet) or long boards we can and frequently do. Small furniture fits the same way. We can do 4 people camping for a few days, but not 5. People are always surprised at how much fits in our trunk.

          Basically we didn’t have cargo issues until they were significant enough that a similar-sized hatchback wouldn’t solve the problem. Even then, it was people-space, not cargo-space that was the main driver (ha).

        • Plumber says:


          “Do you have a rational reason why stuff in the trunk should be completely separated, or is that just personal preference?”

          So the cargo doesn’t hit anyone in the back of the head in a sudden stop.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          open container laws

    • Statismagician says:

      I’m on board re: hatchbacks; I absolutely loved my dearly departed Prius because if I needed to, for example, pick up an entire apartment worth of Ikea furniture, I could just fold down the seats and do just that, which I can’t with my current sedan. Trucks and SUVs seem uncomfortably large for me to drive, although if I needed to move lots of very large stuff around regularly I imagine I’d get over it.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Sedans tend to have quieter interiors than other cars (cf. the discussion below about listening to classical music in the car), though I don’t know how much of that is an inherent characteristic of the form and how much is that remaining sedan buyers tend to be people who value quiet. I’d be only too happy to drive a hatch if only they made one as quiet as my sedan.

      • Well... says:

        I’m guessing the quietness of sedans is for some other reason than the fact that the trunk is totally segregated from the cabin, and that if the things done to make your sedan quiet were done to hatchbacks and wagons they’d be equally quiet.

        One thing that comes to mind is the tires, which have a huge impact on how noisy the drive is. A lot of newer hatchbacks have sportier tires and suspensions (because for some reason they’re popular among dragsters and so forth), which are of course much louder.

  9. Walter says:

    Sure, it is possible to summarize stuff. Why wouldn’t it be?

  10. Faza (TCM) says:

    The discussion of car-friendly classical music (and problems therewith), got me thinking I could try my hand on a music production effortpost. I’ll restrict myself to a bird’s eye view for now and – if there’s any interest – I’ll dive into the weeds at some future date.

    My experience is mostly with rock music (‘coz that’s what I play), but I’ll try to keep it as general as possible.

    The Three Stages of Production
    Getting from a song idea to a finished recording can be broken down into three steps:
    1. Tracking – where the various parts that make up the recording are fixed on some medium (used to be tape, now it’s mostly digital),

    2. Mixing – where the respective levels of the recorded material are set (assuming multiple tracks) and most of the sound processing (equalization, compression, effects) is applied,

    3. Mastering – where the finished stereo mix is given a final pass in order to prepare for duplication. The track is brought up to its final level (via overall compression), overall EQ is adjusted and any final touches are applied. For vinyl, the mastering stage is where the recording gets turned into something that can be put on a record.

    The Tracking Stage
    Tracking can be as simple as plopping down a microphone and having the entire ensemble perform the material or it can involve meticulous layering of parts on parts.

    Naturally, if you’re stuck with a simple mono or stereo recorder, you can only record one thing at a time – and that’s how a lot of really early recordings were made. Then Les Paul (best known for his guitar design) came along and started experimenting with multitrack recording – the stupidly simple idea (once you know how) of having one or more tracks being played back whilst another track is recorded to. You can do this with more than one tape recorder (as Paul did), but true multitrack recorders soon appeared.

    The multitrack revolution is not to be underestimated – multitracking allows us to do many things we couldn’t do otherwise:
    1. having various parts recorded separately means we can balance their levels against one another, as opposed to being stuck with what the balance was when the performance was recorded,

    2. we can add parts to an already recorded piece, simply by recording them to an extra track,

    3. we can make corrections to already recorded parts by overwriting any mistakes with a better performance.

    In the tape days, the number of available physical tracks was the main limitation on what you could do. If you ran out, you’d have to “bounce” some of the stuff you’ve already recorded – mix it to mono or stereo and record it to a spare track or two, so you can free up space for additional parts. For example, you might record a drum kit with six mikes (kick, snare, couple of overheads, maybe a hi-hat and room mic), mix it down to two tracks (on an 8-track machine) and record the other instruments over the individual drum tracks.

    Of course, few people record to tape these days (it’s possible, but stupid expensive). Instead, modern multitrack recording is mostly done straight to a computer hard drive. The only limitation to how many tracks you can have is the amount of space you’ve got available and how powerful your machine is (the bit-depth and sampling rate are a factor, obviously, but I’ll skip that for now). The other great benefit offered by computers is non-destructive editing – you’re mostly free to butcher the material to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that you can always go back to what you actually recorded – however, that’s something that would fit better in the Mixing section.

    So what might a tracking session look like?

    The first big choice to make is whether you’re going to be recording more than one instrument at a time. Multitrack recording allows us to add parts individually, so we can easily record yer typical four-man band (drums, bass, guitar, vocals) one part at a time. That’s how a lot of music is recorded nowadays.

    Recording instruments individually has a lot of benefits. You get total acoustic separation (only one instrument is playing at a time, so you don’t need to worry about sound spilling over to another microphone), plus you can really pay attention to the nuances of each individual performance (‘coz you’re only focusing on one thing). The main drawback is that you lose the mojo of a really tight group playing together and playing off of one another. Individually recorded parts may sound “more sterile” or “less natural” than what you’d get if everyone was playing together. Also, overdubbing (recording over an existing part) is a skill in itself. Musicians who are used to playing with the whole band (with everyone listening to everyone else and adjusting accordingly) can find it difficult to fit their performance within the confines of what has already been recorded.

    Nevertheless, a lot of music is recorded like this, because recording everyone playing together has its own share of problems. For a start, acoustic separation becomes a real issue.

    If you can hear it, there’s a good chance that so can a microphone. If you put four people in a room and have them play, the microphones you use to record them will register whatever you point them at and a goodly amount of stuff you’d rather wasn’t there. If you’ve got guitar in your drum tracks, or vice versa, you can’t get it out again. As we say in the biz: “You can’t unbake a cake.”

    There’s a bunch of stuff you can do to keep your signals separate. Directional microphones have reduced sensitivity outside their “field of view” (but they’ll still pick up low level signals). Acoustic screens can filter out a lot of the direct sound (but reverb!) If you’ve got many rooms to record in, you can put actual soundproof walls between your various sound sources (but you need the real-estate). Real-world artists and producers who record like this employ all possible combinations of the above and basically just deal with the results.

    The other problem with recording everyone at once is that if one person’s having trouble with their part, everyone’s got to go again. If you’ve got good separation between tracks, you can probably fix mistakes in an individual part by overdubs. If not: well, you can’t unbake the cake. From the top!

    Regardless of what method we choose, a tracking session will involve setting up the instruments and microphones, setting recording levels (loud enough to get a healthy signal, but low enough to avoid clipping and to leave some headroom for the mixing stage), making any necessary pre-tape adjustments (for example, adding limiters, maybe some general EQ) and recording the actual takes. Depending on the material, studio and performers, the setup stage can actually take hours or days. Whatever you actually get on tape is what you’re going to be stuck with in later stages, so you’d better get it right. You can’t unbake a cake.

    The recording proper will generally involve either the whole piece being played end-to-end (when you’re recording the whole ensemble, and typically when recording the drum part) or the piece being broken down into individual parts that are recorded in sequence. For example, if a song has both acoustic and electric guitar parts in it, all of the acoustic bits will typically be recorded before starting on the electrics, or vice versa. Remember, you need to set things up before you record something, so the more things you record with whatever setup you’ve settled on, before tearing it down to make room for the next thing, the better return on time spent setting up. When recording an album, it’s quite likely that the drums for all the songs will be recorded before any other instrument plays a single note.

    How many takes before a track is ready? As many as it… ahem… takes. One of the roles of the producer (who may or may not also be the sound engineer) is to listen for the “magical” bits as the take is being recorded. A good take should be in tune and in time, to be sure, but if that was all there is to it, we’d all be using MIDI machines and be done with it. Instead, we find ourselves in a situation where some performances have “it” – that intangible thing that makes them stand out – whilst some are merely correct (and some are just a train-wreck, happens to the best of us). Ideally, we want to have as many takes as we can reasonably get (musicians do get tired and after a while diminishing returns set in) and process (too much choice is a bad thing). Sometimes, the first take is the one. Sometimes, you have to push the performer until they hate your guts (anyone remember La Bamba?)

    Incidentally, ABR – Always Be Recording – is a mantra to live by. Got all the mics hooked up and ready to test the setup? Be Recording. The musician wants to warm up or work out the specifics of a part? Be Recording. Sometimes lighting strikes at the most unexpected times and if you weren’t recording – it’s gone.

    No overview of the tracking process would be complete without touching on overdubbing and punching, so let’s look at that before wrapping up. Overdubbing is simply the process of recording an additional part to what’s already been recorded. Naturally, any time all instruments are recorded individually, a lot of overdubbing must be done. Even when recording everyone at once, there’s a fair chance that overdubbing will be involved. For example, we might record just the rhythm parts in one take and overdub the vocals and solos later. A related, sneakier practice is overdubbing parts on live recordings, to cover up deficiencies in performance or recording quality on the date.

    Punching is a more interesting technique. One of the cool things we can do with multitrack recorders (tape or computer based) is to switch the recording heads on and off on the fly, whilst the recording is playing back. This means that if we only need to fix one bar (or even just a couple of notes) on an otherwise perfect take, we can have the performer play the part with the already recorded part playing, punch in (start recording) just as the part needing to be fixed is coming up and punch out (stop recording) once its passed – overwriting the bad with the good (this isn’t strictly true on computers, but works in essentially the same way). This not only saves us time, because we only need to re-record a fragment of the whole, but it also means we can keep all the bits we like and only replace those we don’t.

    After hours, days, weeks or months of the above, we will hopefully have a bunch of tracks we’re happy with and can move on to the mixing stage. That, however, is a tale for another time.

    • AG says:


      This is a good clip showing how overdubbing goes. Two players create an entire ensemble sound for an arrangement. An example of very precise punching is at 3:33, where the trumpet plays a single wrong note.
      As you can see, sync is reinforced by having a demo track to play along with, and/or a metronome beat in the headphones.


      This one shows overdubbing use in recording backing vocals.


      This one shows the mic setup for a string ensemble session. It also notes that songwriters often write just in MIDI, and it can take a separate arranger person to produce the sheet music that musicians then read.


      In the above, you can see some punching for vocal tracks. Also, the chorus is a mouthful of fast syllables, so they split the recording so that the vocalists are only doing half of it at a time. (Relevant part ends at 10:46) Though they do have to do it all in one go in live performances.

    • bean says:

      Thanks for doing this. I really enjoyed it, even though I’ve reached the limits of my musical talents operating a camera during worship at church.

  11. proyas says:

    You are part of a group of five, average, unarmed men tasked with beating up Khabib Nurmagomedov. What is your group strategy?


    • Secretly French says:

      Try to surround him so someone is behind him, to go for a rabbit punch? Otherwise, try to get some of our 50 digits through his defences and blind him? Definitely not go one at a time like a bad movie. This isn’t an easy question as I’ve never been a violent person and I’m aware that depictions of violence in media are grossly distorted – and in most of the ‘real’ violence I’ve seen has been with weapons (friends don’t let friends browse LiveLeak).

    • The Nybbler says:

      “The four of you dogpile him, while I go get some baseball bats”

    • Nornagest says:

      Grapple, don’t try a stand-up fight, and spend a few days doing group attack drills first. If you all lay hands on Khabib at once, he doesn’t have much of a chance; nobody can beat five guys simultaneously. You can beat five guys near-simultaneously, if you’re (very) good, but it’s done by making sure that only one or two of them are actually attacking you at any given moment, by getting them in each other’s ways, going for the flanks of a group, etc. Counter that (and it’s not the sort of thing that an MMA fighter’s going be training very often, so this isn’t impossible), and you’ve basically won: not even Khabib Nurmagomedov can do much if four guys are holding him down while the last guy’s kicking him in the nuts.

      • dick says:

        I don’t really think this would work as well as you imagine. Yes, Khabib would be in trouble if four 200 lb men were laying on top of him, but I don’t believe they’d ever get him surrounded, let alone surround him and then manage to engage at the same time. He’s too much faster and too good at side-stepping and backpedaling.

        • Nornagest says:

          Multiple attacker stuff is hard, and it’s a fairly specialized skill. (One that I’ve trained, incidentally, so this isn’t armchair reasoning here.) You need to train it separately or you’ll never get good at it, and a lot of martial arts — including judo and collegiate wrestling, but I don’t know about Sambo — never touch it. And you don’t need to be fully surrounded to be in trouble; the basic problem is that you only have two arms and N attackers have 2N.

          Attackers would probably have a better chance in a cluttered environment, too. So ambush him in a movie theater or something.

          • Randy M says:

            One that I’ve trained, incidentally, so this isn’t armchair reasoning here.

            Be careful, you don’t want to get out of practice fighting a single opponent.

          • The other side of it, coordinating the attackers, is hard too. My experience is in SCA combat, so only partly relevant. One really good fighter should be able to take at least two, probably substantially more, merely competent fighters, if they haven’t trained at several on one fighting. Against even two it’s hard if they have.

            That’s with a considerably smaller skill difference than the hypothetical being discussed, however.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I realized terrain matters a lot. If we are fighting him on an infinite plane, he just runs away and we can never catch him.

            In a 30-by-30 foot room, we can quickly run him down to force the engagement.

          • LewisT says:

            Be careful, you don’t want to get out of practice fighting a single opponent.

            You’d hate to end up like Andre the Giant.

          • bullseye says:

            Why would a cluttered environment help the five guys? Wouldn’t it help Khabib if he could get his back to an obstruction?

          • Nornagest says:

            Wouldn’t it help Khabib if he could get his back to an obstruction?

            It would probably help Khabib if he could get his back into a corner, so that only one or two guys at once could get to him at once, and from about the same direction. That, he could probably handle. But a wall’s not enough. Anything that interferes with his movement without making it impossible for >2 people to reach him, is going to make it harder for him. Even if it interferes with his attackers’ movement too, because if everyone’s moving slower, then that means his better reactions count for less. Once he loses the ability to neutralize one guy before the next one gets to him, his opponents’ numbers and weight become more important than his skill and strength.

            Think about it like fighting off bears with a lightsaber. One on one, the bear is toast: it’s still dangerous, but you move so much faster and hit so much harder that you’ve got a great chance. But if there’s five of them, you really need to make sure you’re fighting one at a time, or at most two, or you’re going to get mauled before you can cut them down.

          • dick says:

            Multiple attacker stuff is hard, and it’s a fairly specialized skill.

            I don’t think the martial arts training is even necessary. (For the “avoiding getting surrounded” part I mean, obviously it’s helpful for avoiding takedowns and for punching guys and so forth) I don’t think think 5 regular guys could successfully surround e.g. a good college football running back either. It’s too asymmetrical; the attackers need to surround the defender without engaging, and the defender can prevail either by engaging first or avoiding engagement entirely.

            If you let all four guys walk up to Khabib, wrap their arms and legs around him, and get a good grip before the Ref rings the bell and starts the fight, then maybe I’d call this 50-50. Even then, my money is on Khabib.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s too asymmetrical; the attackers need to surround the defender without engaging, and the defender can prevail either by engaging first or avoiding engagement entirely.

            You’re focusing too much on “surrounded”. If he’s trying at all, he’s not going to be surrounded until all five guys pile on him, well after the first one’s engaged, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in trouble. Imagine if you all walk up to him in a line abreast, like you’re walking away from an explosion in an action movie, and he goes for the middle guy: he’ll probably get him in a lock or choke within a couple of seconds, but those two seconds are more than enough for mooks #2 and #3 to tackle him. And then he’s got four to six hundred pounds of lard to deal with, both his arms are still tied up with mook #1, and mooks #4 and #5 aren’t even there yet.

            Now, if this is taking place on a football field or something similarly open, then he can just run away and five out-of-shape schlubs will never catch him. So don’t try to do it there.

            If you let all four guys walk up to Khabib, wrap their arms and legs around him, and get a good grip before the Ref rings the bell and starts the fight, then maybe I’d call this 50-50. Even then, my money is on Khabib.

            I’d take that bet at 9:1 odds and call it a deal.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Imagine if you all walk up to him in a line, action movie style, and he goes for the middle guy: he’ll probably get him in a lock or choke within a couple of seconds, but those two seconds are more than enough for mooks #2 and #3 to tackle him.

            He won’t attack the middle guy. If he has to defeat them, he’ll quickly move past the end of the line and strike the guy on the end. He’s not going to go for a lock or choke, because he can’t sacrifice mobility.

          • Nornagest says:

            He won’t attack the middle guy…

            It’s a big mistake, yes, which is the point; I was trying to illustrate a way for him to lose that doesn’t involve him getting surrounded first. A realistic way for him to lose would follow roughly the same steps, but be harder to describe.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Yeah, if I’m him and I figure out these five guys are a bunch of schlubs, I’m going to either practice the art of run-fu (which is the best strategy if they’re trained, too, but less likely to work since one or more may be fast enough to catch me or quick enough to prevent my escape), or maneuver to get one guy unsupported (should be easy since they’re untrained), hit him hard enough to put him out of the fight, and then repeat until whoever remains runs away.

        (personally I’m shorter and lighter than him, and untrained, so he’d kick my ass into next week were I to try anything)

    • BBA says:

      Obvious answer: Beat up whoever gave us this task instead.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Almost any simultaneous attack strategy should work, its roughly 1,000 lbs of meat against 150, getting the 5 guys to simultaneously attack is very difficult though. His strategy should be to go after one person hard and fast enough to make the others hesitate.

      It would actually be harder to fight a less skilled but much larger person in this way.

    • Walter says:

      Heavier man wins fight. Every one of us is probably heavier than this hundred fifty pound guy. There are five of us. No strategy, just run up and grab him.

      • Nornagest says:

        Weight counts for a lot, but not enough to win the fight for you against a stronger and better trained opponent. I’ve got 70 pounds and 8 inches on Khabib, I’m a pretty serious martial artist myself, but I’d still bet against me if we ended up fighting for some reason.

    • Well... says:

      I can’t believe nobody said to get him while he’s asleep. One really good kick to a sensitive area, incapacitating him for an hour or two, should count as beating him up.

      • Tarpitz says:

        I was thinking about the best way to drug him, actually. I don’t think it would be very difficult for 5 guys to win without any additional foul play, but winning isn’t my primary concern: I also want to minimize my chance of getting hurt.

    • Lambert says:

      If he wins, it will be within the first few seconds. We only need attrition.

      Slowing him down gives us more leeway as to what counts as simultaneous.

      So I’d say try to grab his arms and then not let go. Failing that, grab a head or a leg. Aim just above the elbow/knee.
      Even if you get mildly concussed, clinging on to something should be instinctive enough that you can continue to hinder him.
      And multiple people holding on to him should make the kind of body mechanics used to get out of grabs a lot more difficult.

      Once there’s one person holding fast on each arm, he shouldn’t be able to dislodge them.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Fighting weight (as in, rehydrated back up to 170 or 180 or whatever from weighin weight) or what? I don’t know if he lets himself put on fat when he’s not preparing for a fight, which some do. Average guy is probably about that size but a loooooot softer.

      I also don’t know whether he’s a guy with experience getting into fistfights on the street. If he does, group strategy is probably some Wile E. Coyote stuff like throw a net on him, because if he knows how to deal with more than one person, he’ll win striking all day long. After the first couple guys get their noses busted or thrown for a loop, nobody will want to charge him.

      If he doesn’t, then try to tie up and everyone starts trying to rabbit punch him.

  12. theodidactus says:

    Hey everybody, I’m posting here to get random links to stuff.

    This semester, I need to write a paper on, broadly, regulating markets to prevent another 2007-type-collapse. My narrower topic is (hopefully) going to be something on regulating AIs. AI’s certainly caused the financial collapse, they were just AIs running on paper instead of chips.

    let me put it another way:
    Over the past 3 years, I have been slowly grasping at the idea that many/most of the problems that emerge in the arenas of white collar crime, lobbying, and political corruption are fundamentally just Yudkowsky’s AI Box experiment with really slow AIs (Alternatively, AI risk can draw solutions from the governmental regulatory world).
    I realize this is not an utterly new concept, but I think I’m one of the few people who is working at the problem from the more human side. Who else is talking about that? What can I read?

    • Incurian says:

      Are you referring to the phenomenon of “regulatory capture?”

      • theodidactus says:

        regulatory capture is one aspect of this, absolutely.

        what I’m looking for specifically is anyone else who has likened this to AI-risk and/or governing AIs generally

    • theodidactus says:

      As a clarification, by “really slow AIs” I meant organizations/corporations, not necessarily human persons.

    • dick says:

      AI’s certainly caused the financial collapse, they were just AIs running on paper instead of chips.

      Can you expand on this? I don’t know if you’re suggesting that groups within the financial services industry resembled computer programs, or that CDOs getting over-sold resembled an AI escaping its restrictions, or some other thing.

      • theodidactus says:

        A few possibilities for what I’m talking about (this also answers Rlms’ statement below) Sorry this is not entirely clarified in my mind:

        Scott’s objections aside, I think it’s fair to conceptualize large trading firms as basically slow-moving AIs, with a pretty clear and objective goal in mind. We recognize this monomania and attempt to channel it to profitable ends for society as a whole, and put regulations in place to stop the most obvious ways this monomania can be destructive. A few years ago, Scott mentioned that an infinitely powerful stock-trading AI would just hack the market in an attempt to wirehead itself, and frankly I believe a lot of financial regulations are designed to prevent exactly that kind of behavior, just in a sloppy semi-human slow motion.

        So we put regulations in place. But these entities then just try to work the regulations, in many cases by attempting to influence the regulators…just like an AI would do. Regulatory capture is one angle of course, but straight up bribery is another. An AI in the box would probably try to do something similar…recognizing this,we criminalize bribery, but then they just set up complex gratuity schemes (sorry for the legal arcana, a lot of my work recently has been on the bribery/gratuity distinction). as things move from explicit quid-pro-quo to more complex systems, it becomes kinda…emergent and game theoretic? I dunno, it starts to play out a lot like the conversation between the super AI and a programmer, at least as I envision it in my head.

        Again, I don’t really have the formal concepts down, which is kinda why I’m posting here, but I’d like to explore this further.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      By the “2007 collapse” do you mean the thing that people usually date to 2008? The August 2007 collapse really was caused by computers. But most people didn’t notice it, so … no harm no foul.

      • theodidactus says:

        sorry I always call it the “2007 collapse” because that’s when it started getting reported (and when I started thinking “oh, I’m in for a really shitty time next year”)

        Yeah, the course is on 2008.

    • Jaskologist says:

      A while back, Scott said groups of people aren’t AIs, but he was wrong.

    • rlms says:

      Both lobbying and AI boxes involve bad things persuading people who hold more power than them to do things. I can’t see much further similarity.

    • eigenmoon says:

      Oh, but the government is also an AI. And also a rogue one, isn’t it?

  13. fion says:

    Thanks to everybody who gave me productivity advice in a recent open thread. I actually found it extremely helpful, and the last week and a half has been my most productive in months.

    The pieces of advice I actually put into practice were:
    -@onyomi’s suggestion of doing 45 minute “Pomodoro” stretches and trying to get a certain number of them in a day, with all additional un-timed work being treated as a ‘bonus’. I’m currently aiming for 5 in a day, rather than onyomi’s suggested 6 (baby steps), and I’m keeping a note of how many I manage in a day. This has some big upsides that I didn’t anticipate, for example if I have a really unproductive day, that tends to translate to maybe two 45 minute stretches in the whole day, which is still not nothing (if I work hard for 45 minutes I actually get quite a lot done), whereas before I would notice that the day was going badly and start to consider it a write-off by lunch time. It also makes me clock-watch much less. It used to be that I’d wait for “home time” and then go home, but now if I’ve not yet got my 5 45’s I’ll be much more likely to keep working until I do. A final unexpected upside was that I now find it much easier to get down to work when I come in in the morning. I used to come in, check facebook, check SSC… check some other things, and have a general feeling of dread of getting down to working hard which could last for a couple of hours(!) at the start of the day. Now I can kind of trick myself into doing a “Pomodoro” because “it’s only 45 minutes; I can get back to lazing around afterwards if I want to”. Basically the prospect of getting my head down for 45 minutes is not as daunting as the prospect of getting my head down for the day. (And, of course, once I get into the swing of it, the second 45 minutes is much easier…)

    -@A1987dM’s and @J.R.’s suggestion of using LeechBlock to block SSC and facebook. I’ve gone for allowing myself 5 minutes of facebook every hour and 10 minutes of SSC every two hours. I’ve not yet caved in to temptation and disabled the add-on in order to get extra procrastination time in. I’ve not put any barriers on my phone or laptop, but somehow I don’t find them anywhere near so seductive as I find my main computer, so this use of LeechBlock has had a big impact on my time-wasting.

    So yeah, thanks to everybody who offered advice, and if there’s anybody reading this who struggles with the same problem, perhaps you’ll find my anecdote useful.

  14. J.R. says:

    Suggest my pseudonym!

    As I mentioned on a previous OT, I will be starting a blog to (mostly) post in-depth reviews of literary fiction. I would like to write under a pseudonym to preserve my privacy, but I have spent weeks trying to think of a suitable pen name and I have not come up with anything I like. I’ve decided to put it up to the SSC hive mind. The only requirements are that it is plausible as a person’s name and is not particularly humorous.

    I will also starting posting on SSC under this name. I realized there was a regular commenter — certainly more regular than me — named j r and I fear I may have muddied the waters.

    • Nick says:

      If you want it to sound like a person’s name, have you considered taking a first and last name of two of your favorite authors? As long as it’s not too obvious—F. Scott Gaddis might be a little much!

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Boaty McBoatface!

      I don’t know, how about N. R. Stevens. I’m not sure this works? Like there are infinitely many plausible pen names, it seems like if you have thought of a dozen and don’t like any of them, there must be some very personal filter that you’re trying to pass, and how likely are random commenters to pass that filter?

      • J.R. says:

        My vanity is the problem. If I try to come up with my own pen name, I want it to be perfect. If I come up with a name that sounds decent, I can always convince myself to think harder until a better name comes up. If a random commenter comes up with something that sounds good enough, I am more likely to accept it.

    • b_jonas says:

      My 8-ball says “Preston L. Cormett”. More generally, since you want to make it sound like a people’s name, look at such lists of people’s names that you find plausible, make new names by assembling pieces from them. Search the internet for existing uses of the names: most of the good names you come up with have already been used, so this will exclude a lot, but you get retries.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      If you like “JR” how about “John Ewing”?
      My mind wanders to Jeremiah LeRoy. Too exotic? “Laura Albert”?

    • Jaskologist says:

      The only requirements are that it is plausible as a person’s name and is not particularly humorous.

      So you’re just going leave J. R. Trollkien sitting on the table for some other literary blog pick up?

    • bullseye says:

      Joseph Ratzinger.

  15. baconbits9 says:

    For the approximately 5-7 of you who have been following, I made my first trade in my quest to understand macro economics/beat the market/describe the world better, along with a short description of how I think bubbles begin in the US.

    • Walter says:

      Excellent. Trading for oneself is the only way I’ve ever seen anyone escape from the grip of EMH believers. May your moneys make baby moneys forever!

      • cassander says:

        I’ve seen a lot more people trading for themselves confirm my belief in the EMH than escape that belief.

        • baconbits9 says:

          I believe in the EMH as a strong heuristic, and my default position to the point where I have a reverse Bayesian expectation for my positions. The better they work over the next few years the worse I can expect them to work in the more distant future.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You wanted to short an industry, so you shorted a single stock in that industry?

      • baconbits9 says:

        I’m going short with put options so I am looking for large declines (or I am looking for large declines so I am using options), so I am willing to take on that risk. I am also starting out with a tiny portion of our portfolio for these first moves, which are as much about calibrating my approach as anything.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          I looked into this and found that you could short the one healthcare ETF I looked at out to 9/2019, but could short the company out 2 or 3 years. And since you wrote somewhere about making 6-8 quarter predictions, OK, that’s a tradeoff you face.

          But now you say that your put expires in 6/2019. Choosing this one company over an ETF seems like a straight-up error.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I don’t see how its a straight up error, it introduces more volatility to the situation but I’m making a bet that is a tiny fraction of our savings and I can handle the extra variance. In fact I kind of want the extra variance since i am starting out with a proof of concept move. A large win early would increase potential returns if my approach is sound.

            If I was planning on being an active trader, especially a day trader, then that variance would carry an opportunity cost when I missed out in addition to the financial loss.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            In fact I kind of want the extra variance since i am starting out with a proof of concept move. A large win early would increase potential returns if my approach is sound.

            What do you mean?

          • baconbits9 says:

            What do you mean?

            I am predicting that substantial bubble will burst in the near term, which should probably bring the value of the whole market down to some extent. The end of this decline would be the best time to have access to a larger amount of capital due to the whole “buy low” thing.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            But I’m not talking about changing the timing. I’m talking about a June put for the stock vs for the industry. Why would you want the more variance by isolating one stock?

          • baconbits9 says:

            Because larger variance means a fatter tail on the side of a “very large win”. Because I am starting with such a small % of our net worth (less than 0.2%) even doubling it on this move and then again on the next move, and then one more time wouldn’t materially effect our future.

          • rlms says:

            Because larger variance means a fatter tail on the side of a “very large win”.

            Why? That’s true if e.g. the extra variance is caused by extra leverage. But it’s not an intrinsic effect of larger variance: you could get larger variance by playing a game of Russian roulette but that doesn’t increase your upside.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Why? That’s true if e.g. the extra variance is caused by extra leverage. But it’s not an intrinsic effect of larger variance: you could get larger variance by playing a game of Russian roulette but that doesn’t increase your upside.

            Yes, but I am playing options, not Russian roulette.

    • j1000000 says:

      I’m shocked to hear this is your first trade since you were so vociferously anti-conventional investment wisdom in the comments of the Black Swan review. Or do you just mean it’s your first trade in this new strategy?

      • baconbits9 says:

        That is an interesting impression I left.

        Most of my investment advice, were I to give it, is very standard stuff. Start by maxing out your 401k match, take advantage of tax benefits of things like HSAs. This is something I am doing in addition to much of the standard stuff.

        As far as 1st trade, this is my first trade in my 2nd attempt to beat the stock market, my other moves have been out of the stock market (buying gold in 2006, buying property in 2009) and my first attempt (2011) was a net loser, though small.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Maybe OT, but I learned a lot about the market watching my dad trade stocks. Now that I’m gown up I don’t invest in an individual stocks. I feel like I am robbing my kids of the advantage of learning about the market.

        • j1000000 says:

          Seems like you could create some sort of artificial game where they’d learn pretty easily. Give them, I dunno, $5 in allowance per month, but on the condition that they first have to invest it for a year in stocks or bonds and they get the result.

          (ETA: I mean “invest” — they could “buy” Apple and you’d pay them out whatever Apple’s stock changed since obviously they couldn’t afford an actual share of AAPL.)

          But I don’t actually have kids, and I assume this manic pixie Montessori style of parenting would fall flat in the real world when my kid just whined about wanting it now until I gave in so he could go buy more dances in Fortnite or whatever kids do these days.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Two obvious failures modes with giving them money to invest:

            They lose the money.

            They lose interest in it.

            Losing money will almost certainly cause failure two. The only way to make that work is a long and boring education on how to invest, and why. Most kids are not up to this task, even at highschool ages.

            What can work is what Edward’s dad did – look over his shoulder and ask questions. I learned about investing some the same way, watching my dad. I then took it upon myself to track his picks in the newspaper and inform him of changes (because apparently I’m ancient now and this used to be how people did it…)

          • baconbits9 says:

            Until recently in the US you could have them invest in bonds and get the lessons of compound interest with very low likelihood that they would lose money.

        • Your kids can learn some useful things about markets if they play WoW and spend time trying to game the auction house.

    • j1000000 says:

      At the blog, are you going to get more into specifics of why you chose healthcare? You get into your general reasons for believing in bubbles, but don’t specifically go into how those apply to healthcare currently.

      And do you have any concern that, say, a Democrat winning in 2020 or a rise of socialism/shift of Overton window in congress from representatives like Ocasio-Cortez could lead to even more money for the healthcare industry?

      • baconbits9 says:

        I probably should expand on that, the long and the short of it though is that I am trying to let the market tell me where the bubble(s) are.

        2020 doesn’t concern me, my current position expires in June of this year, and any subsequent position (say if I thought I had the direction correct but the timing off) would also be likely to close out well before the elections.

        Attempts to re-inflate bubbles tend to create different bubbles, and tend to take time. If the original situation was truly a bubble then that means it became well overpriced, more money for healthcare would have to mean a whole crap-ton more money for healthcare just to maintain a bubble price, let alone continue to cause it to expand. Anything less than that would lead it to collapse.

  16. ana53294 says:

    I recently read this literary discussion of Gone with the Wind. It’s a Chinese take on the work, and I found it fascinating.

    A summary of the work won’t give you the insights somebody doing careful research of a work can have. There are many takes one can have on Scarlett; she can be the selfish, self-centered woman she was, or you can see her as one of the few Southern whites who instead of trying to fight lost battles, and sympathising with the Klan, rejects it and wants to go forward, as a modern businesswoman who works with Yankees.

    Summaries don’t provide you with interesting questions or prompts you can use to re-read a work with another viewpoint. Literary analysis that gives you critical context to understand the reasons why characters acted in such ways can give you the tools to analyse a work.

  17. nameless1 says:

    *Competition* looks like a conspiracy from the outside. If you think running is extremely bad for your health, all this stuff about the media lionizing athletes who run faster than other athletes looks like they are trying to get you to wreck your health. When rich playboys compete in who has the most ridiculously long pointy shoes i.e. fashion, it looks like a conspiracy by the shoe industry to make you throw out your comfy old shoes and buy a new one. Satanist black metal fans out-Satanisting each other looks like a Satanist conspiracy to the Christian, Christians out-holying each other looks like a a conspiracy to the atheist, liberals out-liberaling each other and conservatives out-conservativing each other looks like a conspiracy to the other.

    This internal competitions are pretty much the cult death spiral. The solution is having group elders acting as Schelling points: don’t be holier than the Pope.

    • fion says:

      I’m not sure if I completely disagree with you or if you’ve just chosen some odd examples. Does anybody think that there’s a media pro-running conspiracy? Does anybody think there’s a pointy-shoe conspiracy? In fact, I question the other side of that example too. Is the fashion trend for pointy shoes driven by rich playboys competing?

      Almost every one of your examples I question both the “it’s actually competition” side and the “it looks like a conspiracy” side.

      • Murphy says:

        I’d argue that the shoe thing is likely mundane conspiracy: ie, marketing guys working out how they can manipulate people into buying their merch. There is a shadowy cabal working to influence you… but we all know they’re there, they don’t pretend to not be trying to sell you tat and advertise their experience influencing people on linkedin.

    • Deiseach says:

      The solution is having group elders acting as Schelling points: don’t be holier than the Pope.

      Speaking as a Catholic, all I can say is: it depends on the pope. Please be holier than this guy, for instance.

      • The Nybbler says:

        I am shocked that the link didn’t go to the current pope 🙂

        • LewisT says:

          I was expecting Alexander VI. You know you’ve messed up when one of your successors says of you, “I will not live in the same rooms as the Borgias lived. He desecrated the Holy Church as none before. He usurped the papal power by the devil’s aid, and I forbid under the pain of excommunication anyone to speak or think of Borgia again. His name and memory must be forgotten. It must be crossed out of every document and memorial. His reign must be obliterated. All paintings made of the Borgias or for them must be covered over with black crepe. All the tombs of the Borgias must be opened and their bodies sent back to where they belong—to Spain.”

    • MaxieJZeus says:

      Interesting. I’m currently reading “Mirage Men,” a history of the UFO phenomena, whose thesis so far seems to be that there is no govt conspiracy to cover up UFOs — rather, there’s a competition among rival govt agencies to develop and practice disinformation techniques by screwing with foreign intelligence agencies, screwing with each other, and screwing with the kooks. And it seems likely that it is a *competitive* situation, with no single group coordinating all the operations.

      (I’m not endorsing the book, only adding another possible example to the pile.)

  18. Randy M says:

    Part of the fault was not reading your line of “insights about characters…” closely enough.

    I don’t read esoteric literary analysis much, but I will say I’ve enjoyed some podcasts like Stefan’s here.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Randy M:

      Thanks for the link. I’m still in the middle of listening to it, but I’ll say it’s livelier and more intelligent than most of what I hear online.

      • Randy M says:

        They also have a very interesting video on Fight Club that’s longer than the movie was, but it is more political.

  19. Bugmaster says:

    I think that is correct — in the same way as 60% of all important insights about e.g. food can be found on Wikipedia etc., without ever eating said food.

  20. watsonbladd says:

    Work of literature: Lolita. Nothing about the novel’s use of the English language is visible in Sparknotes, and that’s a lot of what a class teaching Lolita will be about: specific phrases and words and sentences and how they are constructed.

    Nabokov would begin his literature class by informing his students the entire plot: the point was to read the work, not be distracted by plot.

    • Nornagest says:

      Nabokov would have assigned his students his own book, wouldn’t he?

      • albatross11 says:

        If you’re going to take a literature class with Nabakov, it seems like you’d really like to spend some time discussing his works with him.

    • AG says:

      Have to agree with Nabokov here, and extend it to non-literature things as well. I generally find that I enjoy movies better when I go in spoiled. And few people read a book without first reading the synopsis, or a paper without first reading the abstract. A key part of enjoying something should be knowing what the promise of the premise is, so that you can evaluate if the piece is lived up to that or not.

  21. False says:

    I haven’t looked at a sparksnotes in years, but every wikipedia article about a particular work by Franz Kafka is less than worthless. A trenchant insight from the article on The Trial: “Josef K. has to confront a cold world that puts him off.”

    Wow, breathtaking. Assuming you had read it with at least a passing critical eye, this would decrease your understanding of the work by virtue of how absolutely mundane it is.

    In all seriousness, I could envision a reader who, looking for critical analysis of a work that touched them in ways they couldn’t quite express into words, reads the wikipedia article and goes, “Oh, that’s all? Well, I guess it’s not worth thinking about then.”

    • False says:

      I actually really like your description of less than worthless as a “falsehood worse than concious ignorance”, and in this case, I believe it does apply.

      “[Character] has to confront a cold world that puts him off” could potentially be a thematic description of every single one of Kafka’s works (especially the The Castle, where we don’t even have to change the character’s name!). If the statement can’t even meaningfully distinguish between works, how can it provide insight into a work? The line is “a falsehood” because it presumes to be specific and definitive, whereas its more akin to saying, “the amazon rain forest is a famous forest because it has trees”.

      You could also argue that the phrase “that puts him off” is entirely meaningless or to vague to be comprehensible. Puts him off as in makes him uncomfortable? Puts him off as in ignores him? Puts him off as in makes him stray from his path? Even if you say yes to all of these, the statement itself provides less insight than actually reading the novel would.

      One of the magical parts of Kafka is how many critical lenses can be used to analyze his works. The Trial can be viewed through a kabbalistic lens, a marxist lens, a german-nationalist lens, as a critique of the criminal justice system, as a critique of law, as a critique of hierarchical systems, as a critique of modern society, etc. etc. I once read an incredible 10-page essay going through all the ways through which you could view “The Cares of a Family Man”, and that story is only 2-3 pages!

      When you say “this story has themes x and y, but not z”, you are completely ignoring the way critical analysis is actually done. What would it mean if we took Josef K.’s journey as an allegory for a trans person naviagting through a society that doesn’t recognize trans identities? Wikipedia has no answers.

    • Bugmaster says:


      If the statement can’t even meaningfully distinguish between works, how can it provide insight into a work?

      The Devil’s Advocate in me would say, “maybe those works are not as distinct as you think” 🙂

    • False says:


      “The_Kafka_Defender has logged on”


      😉 In all seriousness, I think the statement is trying to refer to a “genre” of literature that doesn’t quite have a definitive name (existential literature, absurdist literature, whatever Nabokov does). Are all comedies “not distinct” because they can be summarized as “intended to be humorous or amusing”? That being said, merely placing a work into a genre doesn’t meaningfully discuss much from the work itself aside from plot and maybe tone, in my opinion.

  22. nkurz says:

    If you were to hear that someone “lived a life of graft”, would you think that they worked very hard, or that they were corrupt?

    As an American, I was surprised to realize that in England the word “graft” is often used as a positive, with no hint of corruption. I was even more surprised to realize that some Brits are equally surprised in the other direction, having never considered that Americans might use it negatively. And from what I can tell, much of the rest of the English speaking world, even if they have British origins, mostly use the American sense.

    So a survey: Outside of horticulture and medicine, what does “graft” mean in your version of English? Are you surprised that not everyone agrees on this meaning, or were you aware that this can be a confusing word internationally?

    • acymetric says:

      American English here, I have never heard of it used in a positive sense before reading this post. Some quick digging online leads me to believe that it is used both ways in British English, so I’m surprised that Brits would be unfamiliar with the negative usage (I would have expected them to generally be familiar with both).

      Interestingly, the etymology of the word (as a descriptor of work or corruption) is basically a big “who knows” (separate from the etymology of the horticulture/medicine etymology).

    • melolontha says:

      Australian here: I don’t really use the word, but if I did, it would be in the ‘hard work’ sense — though I would probably include it in a phrase like ‘hard graft’, rather than using it alone. When I hear/read it, I rely on context and am often a bit uncertain about its meaning.

      So I was sufficiently aware to be uncertain, but I was probably not fully or explicitly aware of the national divide (before reading the Hacker News thread that I presume you just read too :)). I probably thought/wondered if the perjorative sense of graft may have been a typo for, or corruption of, ‘grift’.

      • acymetric says:

        I probably thought/wondered if the perjorative sense of graft may have been a typo for, or corruption of, ‘grift’.

        It appears both usages have been around since the 1800s, this seems like a decent theory for how graft picked up it’s negative meaning in the absence of any conclusive origin.-

    • Plumber says:


      American here, and until your post I’ve only every known “graft” as “join parts” and “bribery and corruption”.

      News to me that it had other meanings.

    • American English. To me “graft” implies corruption of some sort. I vaguely remember seeing it used, probably in English sources, in a neutral sense–“his graft” meaning “what he does.”

    • Telemythides says:

      Canada. Corruption or join, never heard of the British meaning.

    • littskad says:

      Oddly enough, according to the OED, the two words are unrelated.

      The American sense is probably related to the botanical sense (an “adding on”, in this case, illegitimate rather than legitimate), and comes from the Latin “graphium” (“stylus”) and Greek “γράϕειν” (“to write”), apparently because writing implements are shaped like outgrowths or sticks.

      The British sense comes from an old Germanic root having to do with digging (compare the word “grave” as in burial), because digging holes is hard work.

    • Statismagician says:

      This is weird for me, because on nearly everything intended to return ‘is British’ vs’ ‘is not British,’ I end up returning as British (I’m American, but lived in Cambridge for several years growing up). Not so for this; I had literally never come across this meaning of ‘graft.’ Not sure what’s up with that, unless maybe it’s a generational thing? Or I’m just super clueless? This last is entirely possible.

      • Tarpitz says:

        Maybe you didn’t watch a lot of televised sport? I’d say the British usage is overwhelmingly found as sports commentary cliché: “Cook grafted hard for his runs on this difficult surface,” or “Henderson’s a real grafter – not the most elegant, but he never stops working.”

        • melolontha says:

          Interesting suggestion — 5 of the 9 articles I linked above (grabbed more or less indiscriminately from google results) are about sport. This is Australia, though, so that’s not necessarily a surprising ratio…

        • Statismagician says:


          That could definitely be it; besides the odd baseball or football* game in the background I’m not really a TV sports guy.

          *The normal one, not the American.

    • I’m British. In my experience, joining and corruption are the most common meanings. The phrase “hard graft” is sometimes used for hard, unpleasant work, but I think it’s pretty rare to hear “graft” on its own for that. I don’t listen to much sports commentary though, someone suggested it might be more common in that context.

    • Watchman says:

      Actual English speaker here (sorry…). As with most things in UK English it will vary a bit by dialect, as some have very conservative use of vocabulary. But since I’m pretty well without a dialect, having got Southern parents, a northern upbringing, a Scottish degree (and cousins) and a Midlands residency (I’m missing Welsh and Irish sorry…), I can hopefully make a general point safely.

      Graft meaning work is not a common useage as a noun; most people would interpret the noun on its own as meaning corruption, which may be US influence on the language or may be an indication that the meaning was present in seventeenth/eighteenth-century English and is ancestral to both branches.

      Graft as a verb is positive, if rare, meaning to work hard generally at a very large task. I don’t know if there’s an American English verb to graft at all?

      And then there’s the use of the noun in phrases, ‘hard graft’ and the like which are positive. This might be a relic of a positive use of the noun but I’m inclined to wonder whether this isn’t a recreation of the noun on the basis of the verb, which is an idea I’d support by pointing out the adjective grafter is also positive, and to confuse Americans everywhere is a quality you’d want in an employee or political representative!

      We could posit an original meaning for graft along the lines of to keep taking small pieces off the edge, which would fit both meanings of the word, and suggest the negative development of the word in the US derives from the much greater public concern about corruption in politics in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century. The verbal form in England may relate particularly to contemporary industries such as mining or railway building where someone who continually and steadily took a bit off the edge of whatever you were seeking to dig through would be an asset. However, either meaning could be older: we’d need to look at a dictionary to determine this.

      • gbdub says:

        American here, and if I hear “graft” on its own as a noun I would immediately think of “something taken off the top” i.e. corruptly gotten gains.

        But I don’t think I ever hear “grafter” – “grifter” is more common, to refer to the sort of person that makes their living from graft. Which might lend weight to the idea that graft in the American usage originated as a commingling of “graft” and “grift”?

    • fion says:

      Wow, that’s such a fun find! I’m British and I’ve never heard its negative connotations.

      To me, graft means hard and honest work, especially but not necessarily physical work.

    • Robert Jones says:

      I’m British, and I would understand a “life of graft” to refer to working hard, probably for minimal reward. I wouldn’t say that “graft” has a wholly positive meaning: calling someone a “grafter” can mean that they roll their sleeves up and get the job done, but it can also imply that they’re unintelligent or unambitious.

    • Randy M says:

      I’m very surprised to hear the positive meaning, but even as a negative I only hear it used as a noun. “Most of the budget has disappeared to graft” for example, not “They suspected someone in the department of graft.”

      • Doctor Mist says:

        not “They suspected someone in the department of graft.”

        American here. This usage sounds pretty normal to me.

        It also sounds like a noun, analogous to “They suspected him of embezzlement”. (Or “embezzling”, a gerund noun, but you wouldn’t say “embezzle”.)

    • Deiseach says:

      I’ve heard it used positively in the phrase “hard graft” regarding work, and negatively in the corruption/bribery/scams/cons sense, the former British and the latter American, as well as the “grafting onto a fruit tree” sense which I imagine is used in both countries.

    • rlms says:

      I was unaware until reading your post that it was commonly used (outside of horticulture and medicine) except for in the phrase “hard graft” which has a positive sense. I got a sense of corruption from your example, I think due to similarity with “grift”.

    • Bamboozle says:

      As a brit it’s always been negative for me

  23. SamChevre says:

    I’m inclined to argue that properly canonical literature is that where this claim is least true–where a good summary misses the most value.

    On the other hand, I’m very unaware of pop culture, so I find wikipedia invaluable for having a basic idea of what people are talking about when they reference movies and TV shows.

  24. CatCube says:

    I stumbled across this earlier today, and didn’t know who else had seen it: apparently FaceTime has a bug where you can listen in on the party you’re calling before they pick up.

    A significant bug has been discovered in FaceTime and is currently spreading virally over social media. The bug lets you call anyone with FaceTime, and immediately hear the audio coming from their phone — before the person on the other end has accepted or rejected the incoming call. Apple says the issue will be addressed in a software update “later this week”.

    Naturally, this poses a pretty privacy problem as you can essentially listen in on any iOS user, although it still rings like normal, so you can’t be 100% covert about it. Nevertheless, there is no indication on the recipient’s side that you could hear any of their audio.

    The story has the process for activating the bug, but I feel it prudent to point out that actually doing this is super illegal if your counterparty doesn’t know about it, even if you’re “just testing”.

    • acymetric says:

      I’m not doubting that it is illegal, but what law exactly is being broken?

      • gdanning says:

        Eavesdropping laws are pretty broad. Eg CA Penal Code 631 (a): “Any person who, by means of any machine, instrument, or contrivance, or in any other manner, intentionally taps, or makes any unauthorized connection, whether physically, electrically, acoustically, inductively, or otherwise, with any telegraph or telephone wire, line, cable, or instrument, including the wire, line, cable, or instrument of any internal telephonic communication system” is guilty of a misdemeanor

        • acymetric says:

          This is sort of the reason I asked. My guess is that you could probably find some states where it illegal (or at least not explicitly illegal) under state law, so if there is no federal law that covers this it may not necessarily be broadly illegal.

          For example, laws regarding recording of phone calls vary wildly by state. Of course, this is different from recording a call, but I would guess there is still some variation as far as legality goes.

          That said, it is probably illegal in a lot of places, and I’m not trying to encourage one to try it whether it is legal or not.

          • Jacob says:

            The penalties for murder vary state-to-state too, but it’s illegal and strongly punished in every state. Federal murder laws only kick in in specific circumstances, however there is no state in which murder is legal. Analogously, literally every state has laws against eavesdropping and wiretapping; though the specific definitions and penalties vary I suspect this particular activity would be illegal in all 50 states.

  25. theredsheep says:

    So, odd and obscure historical question:

    In the tenth century, Bishop Liudprand of Cremona went on possibly the most counterproductive diplomatic mission in medieval history, visiting the court of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas. On his return, he wrote an angry account of how terribly “the Greeks” had treated him; it’s rather funny in places. At one point, he was scolded for an impolitic letter the Pope wrote addressing Nikephoros as “Emperor of the Greeks” rather than of “the Romans.”

    The person scolding him says that, when Constantine the Great built his new capital, he transferred everyone worth having out of Rome, leaving only “vile slaves, fishermen, confectioners, poulterers, bastards, plebeians, underlings.” This is … an interesting set of insults. I can get why the slaves, bastards, plebeians, and underlings are undesirable. Fishermen I guess are low-class, plus they smell like fish guts. As for poulterers, chicken being the cheapest meat, I suppose people who traffic in it are nothing special either. But why confectioners? I wouldn’t think that candy would be a vulgar or low-class good, or that the people who make it are known for low character or criminal behavior. Are they supposed to be a useless extravagance, or what? Why is it bad to be a confectioner?


    • Was chicken the cheapest meat? My impression is that, a century ago, chicken was considered an expensive meat, hence “a chicken in every pot” a description of things going well. It was only the development of mass production techniques for rearing chickens that converted it to an inexpensive meat.

      But I have no idea what the relative cost of different meats was in Liudprand’s time.

      • theredsheep says:

        You can raise a few chickens on practically nothing; my wife and I used to own a small flock. As long as you have a rooster looking out for them, they’ll wander around happily foraging bugs and weeds, maybe eating a little corn too–but that’s, as another saying goes, chicken feed. They mature quickly and basically take care of themselves, except for the odd fox or mustelid. Pigs, sheep, goats, and cows are all more effort-intensive.

      • The Nybbler says:

        This 1927 list suggests chicken and beef were similarly priced then, at least in one place in NJ.

        Sirloin is now a medium-priced cut, but I don’t know if that held then. Porterhouse (a more expensive cut now) was cheaper the year before (and still the same as chicken), so perhaps not. In 1925 the chicken is more than twice the price of the porterhouse.

      • Watchman says:

        From a northern European perspective at the time (or more broadly, fifth to tenth centuries) duck and goose seems to have been the normal domestic fowl, so chicken (a southeast Asian bird in origin) was probably rare if not unknown. Don’t know about Mediterranean bone assemblages so can’t say for certain chicken wasn’t already common here.

        But a poluterer dealt in poultry not just chicken, so this question may be a red herring.

        • Chicken is reasonably common in the earliest medieval European cookbooks (13th c.). Pretty sure it shows up in al-Warraq, which is 10th century middle-eastern.

      • ana53294 says:

        In the USSR, chicken was the most expensive meat, at least from what some people told me. Apparently, the issue was that chicken need to be fed grain, and the USSR had a deficit of grain (IIRC, there was even a scandal in the US where lots of subsidized grain was bought by the soviets via Canada or something).

        Cows, sheep and goats eat grass. Not all pastureland can be used for growing grain, so pastureland in those areas was used for animals. Also, from what I was told, meat tended to be very bony.

        Chicken was usually only bought when somebody was ill or for special occasions.

        I don’t know whether they had a grain vs pastureland problem in Rome, although I do recall the Romans bringing insane amounts of grain from Egypt.

        • bullseye says:

          That’s an interesting point. I would imagine the USSR had a very different pasture/farm ratio than the Roman Empire.

          In the early days of ancient Greece, beef was cheaper than bread, but as the population increased bread became more expensive than beef. With a small population there was effectively unlimited land, so it came down to labor costs. With a large population land became scarce and beef requires more land. You’d think all those mountains in Greece would be suitable for grazing but not farming, but I guess not.

          I think most of the Roman Empire had more or less a Greek climate, but the USSR certainly didn’t. And the Soviet population, while huge, wasn’t enough to fill up all that land.

          • LewisT says:

            In the early days of ancient Greece, beef was cheaper than bread, but as the population increased bread became more expensive than beef.

            I think you meant to say that beef became more expensive than bread. As it stands, it’s very much six of one, half dozen of the other.

      • Statismagician says:

        I have it in my head that the Romans ate more pork than other meats, and pre-modern industrial farming practices chickens are generally more for eggs than meat (which is why lots of classic chicken dishes are of the stew-all-day variety), but I’m not really sure where either possibly-fact came from.

    • davidweber2 says:

      So, not an answer, but this is the perfect sort of question for r/askhistorians. Someone there is bound to know if anyone on Earth still does.

    • Erusian says:

      I can’t find my version of Liudprand untranslated but I do remember the word is usually translated as ‘peddlers’. Also, poulterers is usually translated as ‘bird catchers’. The implication of fishers and bird catchers is that they aren’t even minor land owners. They have to make their living catching wild animals or fish. Likewise, a peddler is the lowest type of merchant: not even a shop owner.

      • theredsheep says:

        Ah. That makes more sense; thanks. Though it does raise the question of why this particular translator decided confectioners and peddlers were the same thing.

        • Erusian says:

          If I had to guess, and it is entirely a guess, it has to do with the fact that Latin has multiple words for what we call peddlers. Peddler ultimately derives from foot (pede-) because they walk around constantly.

          The Romans had similar terms (ambulator, circitor). But they also had terms for peddler derived from people who display things (institor), which were slightly different. (Think the difference between door to door salesmen and people who roll out a blanket selling their wares.)

          If Liudprand used the term institor the translator might have thought that peddler wasn’t linguistically close enough and instead chose confectioner. Confectioner’s original meaning was closer to ‘someone who prepares something for display’, so it’s close in that sense.

          Or perhaps the word was really ‘confector’, which was entirely another class of petty person in Rome. Confectioner is still a bad translation.

      • Kuiperdolin says:

        How much fishing can you do in the Tiber anyway? Maybe he’s talking about the whole of Latium.

        Liutprand is hilarious, a cantakerous, pedantic, verbose old pervert. His antapodosis is well worth the read too.

  26. LCL says:

    victory in the fight against pork barrel spending drove political polarization

    It might be coming back!

  27. albatross11 says:

    I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, and I wanted to recommend a couple that others who are into this sort of thing might like. And specifically that have a direct connection to some broad political/social issues without being at all CW-y.

    a. Russ Roberts’ _EconTalk_ recently had an episode with Jennifer Doleac, an economist who researches crime and the criminal justice system. Really interesting discussion of some aspects of crime and punishment from a data-driven perspective.

    b. Jonah Goldberg’s _The Remnant_ podcast had an excellent episode (70) awhile back with Stephen Eide, an expert on homelessness. This is definitely from a Republican perspective, but it’s also high-information-density and I found it quite informative.

    c. Tyler Cowen’s _Conversations with Tyler_ is a very high-quality podcast, long interviews of smart, interesting people by a smart guy who’s read and understood their work. I very much enjoyed his podcast with Dan Kahnemann, and earlier, with Raj Chetty.

  28. Randy M says:

    I will agree with the others that knowing of the characters, themes, symbols, et cetera of a work of literature amounts to trivia, and any literature class that imparted the idea that it was otherwise has done a disservice.
    Literature allows one to vicariously experience a different perspective and gain understanding. Knowing who MacBeth was is trivia; understanding how ambition can motivate and guilt ruin a man like MacBeth may be quite valuable, and the emotional impact of the actual story, details and all, will drive home a point in a way that a bullet point of themes would fail to do so.

    But I’ll go along with something like “reading excerpts and skimming of great works may be more efficient than reading them front to back.” Even masters sometimes make mistakes or suffer from lack of editing, and similarly reading two similar works might not impart any novel lesson–but then, repetition is the key to learning.

    • Nornagest says:

      The literature curriculum doesn’t actually care if you remember the specifics of why Lady Macbeth was ranting about invisible daggers a year after you put the book down. At this point I don’t even think the literature curriculum cares much if you’re familiar with the works of the English-language canon, although that used to be a major goal. I think all the literature curriculum cares about is showing that you’re literate enough to get through the works it issues you, whatever those may be, and bright enough to say something thought-provoking about them.

      That’s a pretty low bar. But it’s a low bar that’s not met by reading the Sparknotes.

      • Randy M says:

        I think what the literature curriculum cares about is just demonstrating that you’re literate enough to get through the work and bright enough to say something thought-provoking about it.

        Yes, but if the way they try to determine if you did in fact get through the reading is by giving you a quiz asking for a regurgitation of main character traits and plot points, they’ll give the impression that the goal of fiction reading is to pull out some factoids.

      • albatross11 says:

        It’s Goodhart’s law in action, right? What you wanted was literate students who had a broad familiarity with great literature. What you measured was whether your students could remember who the characters were and enough of the plot to respond to some short essay prompts on the exam. And so….

    • Randy M says:

      You caught me, I’m not actually too conversant with great literature.
      And in this case it’s worse, because I have the excellent (and in some ways more historically accurate) Gargoyles account muddying my memory of the Shakespearean play.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I would argue that reading Shakespeare specifically is a very different process from reading more modern authors. Shakespeare cannot be read without adequate preparation; it must be studied, not merely read with no preparation — by contrast with, say, Lord of the Flies or some similar story from the literature curriculum.

      • Shakespeare cannot be read without adequate preparation; it must be studied, not merely read with no preparation

        I don’t think I agree. The plays were written to be seen and, hopefully, appreciated by an audience that watching, not studying. Figuring out how the author does it might require studying, but that isn’t the lesson the plays are designed to teach.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I might grant you “seen”, but I was talking about “read”.

      • albatross11 says:

        It’s nice to read the play, and then watch it acted out. That removes a lot of the ambiguity/mental overhead you get when reading it due to unfamiliar language and the need to mentally translate stage direction into something more natural to think about.

      • AG says:

        Other way around, for me. Watching a production of a play first does a whole lot more for me, because the actors have already done the work of studying and figuring out an interpretation, often also finding a way to deliver the lines in a cadence to be understood by a modern audience. Whedon’s Much Ado films especially went for this.
        So then when I go back to read the text, I already have a better sense of the intent, whereas if I read the text cold, I may not understand that such and such character is a baud and “hear” their lines delivered in a saucy manner.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        The plays were written to be seen and, hopefully, appreciated by an audience that watching, not studying.

        This reminds me of a moment of fridge brilliance I had wrt A Midsummer Night’s Dream – specifically the character of Robin Starveling.

        I’ve yet to see anyone actually get this right in a production and the point was so badly missed when we were discussing the play in English Lit class (most of my education was in an English school in the Mid-East) that it could be said to have completely gone over everyone’s head. Rather than the pretty obvious explanation for the clearly punny name (as with all the other mechanicals) – which is explicitly stated in the text – we got something about tailors being poor or such.

        The joke is much simpler. Act V Scene 1:

        He is no crescent, and his horns are
        invisible within the circumference.

        Yep, the name is a thinly-veiled fat joke.

        If you go by Wikipedia, you’ll completely miss it. Max Reinhardt seems to have gotten the joke, however.

  29. Deiseach says:

    Do you want to kill me stone dead? This makes me go “This makes me despair of the human race”.

    Sparknotes and the like are pre-chewed (and damn near pre-digested) material for kids who are too busy/bored to read the actual text. It’ll give you the canned, acceptable, ‘these are the main points for an essay that’ll get you a passing grade’ version. Wikipedia at least can have links to meatier treatments, but I’ve read too much boasting by people bragging that they never read the assigned novel or play, they ginned up something out of Sparknotes or its ilk and wrote their essays that way. They have no idea what the original work is like, what it’s about, or the reason it’s considered valuable. If you’re stuck or struggling with the material, they’re certainly aids, but they are not and should not be considered substitutes or even ‘as good as’.

    I’ve ranted on here before a site which completely butchered the language and totally missed the point; it took that wonderful little speech of Iago’s “Not poppy, nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday” – and looking it up now, I find it’s Sparknotes. Here’s what they make of that: “No drugs or sleeping pills will ever give you the restful sleep that you had last night.”

    Yeah, that’s the full experience all right! If the kid doesn’t read the text or hear it spoken, they’ll completely miss the beauty of the language, the skill of word choice – that languorous rhythm which alludes the sleep Othello will never again enjoy, the hissing multiple “s” that emulates a snake’s hiss and warns about Iago’s venom – the whole impact of the moment.

    It’s the difference between looking at postcards of a place and actually visiting it. You can read the Wikipedia explanation of what Soave sia il vento is about (As the boat with the men sails off to sea, Alfonso and the sisters wish them safe travel) but it is nothing, nothing, like listening to the aria itself and you certainly won’t experience any “possible important insights about the characters, themes, symbols”.

    Is beauty meaningless and inconvenient? Is only efficiency and churning out extruded product the highest aim of exposure to the classics? Damn it, now I’m going to link to Jessye Norman killing it as Purcell’s Dido just to wash my brain out after this 🙂

    • I’m not sure what your conclusion is, but mine is that it illustrates the danger of trying to teach people things they don’t want to learn. The natural response of the pupil is to look for a way of faking it.

      Someone who reads a book because he wants to read it, not because his teacher has ordered him to write an essay on it, is not likely to take someone else’s summary as an adequate substitute.

      • Bamboozle says:

        I’m not sure this is true. If left to my own devices i would probably of never read Hamlet or Lord of the Flies, but having been forced to at school i’m now glad i did.

        You’re most likely right that this experience is had by a minority of students though.

      • Plumber says:


        I found that trying to enjoy or learn from an assigned book and also get the assigned homework done extremely difficult given the workload, as reading to get the answers for assignments is very different.

        I did find though that if I stole textbooks (especially history ones) and read them over the summer months or when I just couldn’t stand to do the work I enjoyed and retained the contents much better.

        A couple times I lucked out and the assigned text was one I’d previously stolen and read, and I didn’t really need to study at all for tests or do much homework, and I got easy B’s coasting on my summer reading, and with the time saved I either read what I wanted to read, or did other classes work.

      • I think there is also a danger that making someone learn something he isn’t interested in, or at least pretend to learn it, convinces him that learning that sort of thing is work, not fun, and should be avoided when possible. So it may actually make it harder to discover that you would like it.

        I’m reminded of my daughter’s observation at Oberlin that when a class got canceled, the other students were happy.

      • AG says:

        Personal anecdote: it’s not the being forced to read something. I had plenty of good times in English class. It was that lots of the things they made us read had boring-ass prose. Books with more modern-paced prose were fine.
        Some passages of Ethan Frome read like a fanfiction. Some poems didn’t need much skill to hear the “dramatic reading by a good actor” version in my head.

        It’s why classes that have gone with more contemporary texts instead of classics have been more successful. Meet the students where they are, ease them into learning tools that they can apply to more difficult texts, instead of dropping them in the deep end.

        Also damning is that teachers tend to pick classics that speak to them as adults, and emphasize said adult themes, instead of finding texts and themes that would speak to their students.

      • Clutzy says:


        I agree, its not even all that much about classics. No one in my classes enjoyed reading The Catcher in the Rye in school. Ditto Perks of being a Wallflower. Those books are not interesting to 7th graders.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Is beauty meaningless and inconvenient? Is only efficiency and churning out extruded product the highest aim of exposure to the classics?

      While I agree with your main point, for many people the answer to both your questions is “yes”.

      I’ve met several people (in fact, in my group of friends/acquaintances they might be the majority) who neither enjoy reading fiction, nor believe that anything of value can be gained by doing so. One of my friends put it thus: “if I want to learn something useful, why would I read a bunch of made-up stuff ?” Historical texts, biographies, and perhaps even personal memoirs can be useful, because they tell you something about real events that actually happened; fiction is made up, and while you can spend forever in imaginary worlds, doing so is a waste of your time — which could be better spent on achieving your actual goals, whatever they may be. This sentiment applies to all entertainment in general, of course, not just books.

      I confess that I have no logical counter-argument against this point; it is entirely reasonable, IMO.

      • I confess that I have no logical counter-argument against this point; it is entirely reasonable, IMO.

        Not entirely.

        Suppose there is some pattern in the world that I believe I understand, having painfully filtered it out from all the noise. I could try to tell you the pattern, but there is no obvious reason why you would believe it. Alternatively, I could write a work of fiction where the events are selected to expose the pattern, so that the reader will work it out for himself—as I did, but much more easily. If I do a good job you will see the story as internally consistent, how things could have happened, so will find the pattern more persuasive than if I had just asserted it.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I believe my friends would argue thusly:

          The problem with fictional evidence is that you can construct the narrative to support any conclusion. Personal testimony is notoriously unreliable, but even so, it is better than entirely fictional constructs — since at least it is somewhat related to a real person operating in an external world.

          Furthermore, as you’ve pointed out, fiction comes with a whole bunch of embellishments that detract from the purpose of learning. Even if fictional evidence were somehow valuable — which it isn’t — reading fiction would still feel like reading a scientific paper where 75% of each page is occupied with pictures of unicorns. Actually, it’s worse, because it’s much easier to skip past the unicorns.

        • The problem with fictional evidence is that you can construct the narrative to support any conclusion.

          Not if you want the story to work.

          One of the lessons I learned from writing my first novel is that no plot survives contact with the characters. Once you have created characters, they have to act the way those people would act, not the way you want them to act, in order to be believable.

          Similarly for other features of the story. To work as a story, it has to be internally consistent—the pattern has to fit the excellent pattern recognition software humans come equipped with. Once you have convinced your reader that these people, in these circumstances, would act in this way with these consequences, you have provided them good evidence—the outcome of a simulation of the real world—for the logic of such a situation.

          You can try to cheat. A deus ex machina is a standard example, an implausible event introduced by the author to get the result he wants instead of the result that follows from the world and the situation he has created. But doing that makes the story as story work less well.

        • albatross11 says:


          I see the point, but fiction also often embeds assumptions/observations about the universe that don’t work out. Million-person leak-proof conspiracies with no administrative overhead, socialist utopias where everyone has plenty of everything and maximal freedom, etc.

        • AG says:

          Deus ex machina wasn’t a bad thing for centuries, though. So for a long time, the grand narratives of real life and themes in the fiction they were consuming were consistent to making deus ex machina an expected and anticipated thing. (For example, a core part of the Robin Hood mythos is that good King Richard comes home and fixes everything.)

          I agree with Bugmaster that fiction fiat is a reason I dislike didactic fiction. Fix-it fanfiction’s existence and prevalence shows how much fiction fiat influences story outcomes, as do Canon Divergence AUs (previously known as For Want of a Nail fics).
          Furthermore, Bugmaster’s point is that some people just don’t have the brain configurations to enjoy fiction as much as they would other things. There’s no magical piece of fiction that will change that.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          The funny thing about the Robin Hood mythos is that Prince John had to raise taxes on the people of England to pay for Richard’s ransom (he had been taken captive on his way home). So John gets blamed for his brother’s problem, and gets sacked for his decisions that resulted in Richard getting released.

          Richard getting released was actually impeded by Robin Hood, but built into the resolution of the story.

        • MaxieJZeus says:

          AG: “Deus ex machina wasn’t a bad thing for centuries, though.”

          I’m reluctant to say anything in a thread that includes a contributions from a novelist, but regarding “deus ex machine”, I’d caution: Don’t confuse a deus ex machina with a eucatastrophe.

          Okay, I’m not using “eucatastrophe” the way Tolkien intended when he coined the word, but I’m not sure there is a word for what I’m talking about, and his concept comes closest.

          A deus ex machina is the intervention by an outside party to resolve the story when the protagonist has failed. Basically, the good guy fails to get the Macguffin or to blow up the Planetkiller, so someone else comes in and does it for him.

          A eucatastrophe (as I mean the term) is also an intervention by an outside party after the protagonist has failed. However, in this case the intervention resets the failure, giving the protagonist a second chance to succeed (whereas in a dxm the intervention shoves the protagonist aside and does it without him). Moreover, this outside intervention is itself the delayed consequence of characteristic actions performed by the protagonist earlier in the story, actions that reflect the protagonist’s deepest character and which demonstrate his fitness to succeed. Basically: The protagonist has done his best and deserves to win. When he fails at the end, he is given a second chance to succeed because (without his knowing it) he has set in motion a chain of events that results in the second chance being given.

          LotR comes very close to this at the climax at Mt. Doom. Frodo fails to destroy the Ring. But he is given a second chance to fulfill the Quest when Gollum seizes it from him. Gollum is around to do this because Frodo’s charity and pity have kept Gollum alive. It doesn’t *quite* fit the pattern because Frodo doesn’t himself push Gollum into the pit, but his larger purpose (fulfilling the Quest) is still accomplished because (a) he has demonstrated that he deserves to see the victory achieved and (b) he is still the indirect instrument of its fulfillment by protecting Gollum.

          Better example: Star Wars (1977). It is not often noted that Luke fails almost at the climactic moment, when Vader locks his targeting computer on him and mutters “I have you know.” Fractions of a second separate Luke (and the Rebellion) from obliteration, and there’s nothing Luke can do. But he and the Rebellion are saved when Han swings into the gap, clearing the way for Luke’s shot. Han’s entrance is an intervention by an outside element that saves Luke and gives him his chance, but Han is only there because Luke’s influence through the course of the movie has changed his character and brought him back into the fight.

          Regarding Robin Hood: Those are groups of tales (like a short story collection) and not a single unified story, so even if Richard’s return is unconnected to Robin’s struggles, I’m not sure it’s a “deus ex machina,” which is a term usually applied to the end of a story, not a cycle of them. Even if you want to read them as a single story, though, or point to movie adaptations, Richard’s return feels more like a eucatastrophe than a deus ex machina because Robin’s goal and his reward is the reestablishment of legitimate authority, and by his actions he has preserved the conditions for Richard’s return.

          I’m not sufficiently familiar with pre-modern literature to even guess at how many stories should be classified as ending with a deus ex machina, a eucatastrophe, or some other ending, so I’m not arguing anything about whether dxms were acceptable or not. I’m only pointing out that the matter is very subtle and that there are additional critical resources to use in describing endings.

        • AG says:


          No, I’m not referring to eucatastrophe, I’m referring to the actual practice of DeM as a trope. The term itself was coined because it was a common trope in ancient times. Was it also considered hack writing back then? Or were there cultural contexts, such that audiences didn’t mind or even enjoyed them? See also old “cliffhanger every week” serials like Tintin.

          The point being, as Bugmaster says, you can always construct a narrative to fit your conclusion, and even more so when it comes to fiction. Deus ex Machina stories were operating off of a certain cultural or consumer context, in which DeMs were an acceptable part of the story, supporting a conclusion that we’ll also specks at the mercy of the whims of capricious grander beings.

        • MaxieJZeus says:


          I should have expanded my last paragraph to make my purpose clearer. (But what I have to say is probably not directly germane to the discussion above, so I’m not sure why I’m troubling you and others with a clarification. But here it is.)

          A eucatastrophe (as I mean the term) is (a) an accepted literary device that (b) superficially resembles the dreaded deus ex machina. So before concluding that dxms were perfectly acceptable in the past, we should ask if those climaxes were actually dxms or if they were eucatastrophes. That would involve a close survey of the particular literature. For instance, Aristotle apparently condemns the Iliad for having a dxm; but maybe its ending is actually a eucatastrophe. In that case, one shouldn’t say “Dxms are condemned, but actually people rather like them”; say rather, “Aristotle was wrong to call it a dxm, and its fans had a better intuition about how it worked, for in fact it concludes with a eucatastrophe.”

          I think a survey of ancient literature would be beyond the scope of this thread. FWIW, Part XV of the Poetics has Aristotle condemning dxms, so critics at least as far back as him were on record as taking a dim view of the trope. But his comment there is a glancing one—scarcely more than 2 sentences—and personally I’d be too much of a coward to put my own weight on it without consulting Aristotelean scholars and other experts.

        • baconbits9 says:

          The issue I take with people like Bugmaster’s friends is that when cornered they will agree that we generally don’t have full knowledge of historical people’s lives, environments and actions, the ones we do end up reading about are selected with many more being typically dropped, and all the other actors in their play have similar issues, but with lesser treatment than the main character. What you have, especially when you look at the number of people you could read about (or could have read about had a better biographer written about them, or had the skill to present themselves better in life) is not very different from well written fiction. You have a composite character set in selected environments with simplified surroundings. Saying that one isn’t worth your time and presenting the other as “real” or “fact” is failing to understand what history is.

        • MaxieJZeus says:

          Boldly flung into a thread before it slips below the surface, leaving neither a bubble nor a ripple behind.

          tl;dr: Speculations in literature are like speculations in physics, but they are speculations about people (but not “psychologies”, whatever those are) rather than particles.

          A story describes (a) a protagonist, (b) an obtaining state of affairs, (c) a possible state of affairs, and (d) relates them as the motivated attempt by (a) to change (b) into (c). That is, someone dislikes the situation they are in for reasons; they conceive the desire to change the situation they dislike into a situation more to their liking; they concoct a plan for changing the situation; they form the intention to so change it; they judge that the plan should be executed; maybe some other steps and elements I’m not remembering; and they put the plan into motion. If they succeed, the desired evolution occurs. So: Bill wants to go on a date with Mary, he asks her out, and they go to dinner and etc. Or, Luke wants to rescue the princess and destroy the superweapon, he charges into outer space, and he rescues the princess and destroys the superweapon.

          Note the exact correlation between a story and a rationalization of behavior. Why did Jack eat an egg? Because he was hungry, planned to alleviate his hunger by eating the egg, ate the egg, and now isn’t hungry, which is the state he was wanting to reach. Or, for short: “Jack was hungry, so he ate an egg.” Was Jack a real person or a fictional construct of my imagination? Is there anything in my words to distinguish between “Analysis of Observed Behavior in Subject 34/8a-e” and “The Adventures of Jack, Egg-Eater Egg-straordinare”?

          A story—not just in the sense of anecdote but also in the sense of literature—is a narrative which describes and explains an action. (In the case of literature it is typically much more than this, but it has this feature.) To tell a story is to describe a possible action (the large action encompassed by the story’s starting point and its ending point, with lots of smaller actions in between that serve as means to the end). So how do you dismiss the utility of entertaining non-actual but possible actions in literature without dismissing the entertainment of non-actual but possible actions in the real world, when so much of our understanding of each other is based upon our non-actual but possible (or impossible) actions? That is, if there is no reason to try understanding why Hamlet does not easily commit murder, why is there any reason to try understanding why you do not casually commit murder? In both cases we are pondering reasons why certain events do not occur.

          To this you might retort: “Because you might one day be in in danger from me, but you will never be in danger from Hamlet.” But understanding Hamlet might help me understand you. Or, at least, it would give me an imaginative framework within which to hypothesize about what you might or might not do, or for understanding what I might or might not do. Before reading Hamlet, for instance, it might not have occurred to me that a taste for philosophy (a virtue) can mask a preference for procrastination (a vice) with (shall we say) suboptimal results. After reading Hamlet, that very thought might occur to me, and it might be a very valuable thought. Stories, whether they be anecdotes, fairy tales, pulp-action yarns, speculative fiction, or Russian novels, are thought experiments about agency—how people might or should act—with imaginative application to ourselves.

          But you say: “State it in a didactic essay.” But what is “it”? Hamlet is more than just the 13-word moral, “Don’t pretend to be a philosopher when maybe you’re just a lazy procrastinator.” (And already someone is shrieking in pain over this supposed “moral” to the story.) An imaginative description of the world partakes somewhat of the endless detail and variety of the real world itself, for it implies and imputes a reality beyond itself. The difference between immersing oneself in Hamlet and reading a didactic essay encapsulating its themes is like the difference between standing in a forest-clad mountain and reading the statement “There were trees on the mountain.” The mountain itself contains far more information; similarly, Hamlet contains far more information than some bare recital of its plot, its themes, and its implications. And the more you approach a complete explication of Hamlet the closer you get just to the play. I suggest that just as a perfectly accurate and to scale map of a landscape would be the landscape itself, a perfectly accurate summary of Hamlet would be … Hamlet itself.

          Can you make up any possible story to rationalize any possible event? As DavidFriedman says, this is actually much harder than non-writers imagine it to be, and very often complaints about unrealistic stories or unrealistic characters are complaints about counterintuitive motivations or implausible actions. (A corollary to DavidFreidman: Bad fiction is what happens when a plot does survive contact with the characters, to the detriment of everyone and everything.) We discriminate in our stories just as we discriminate in our ascriptions of agency in the real world, and so we rule certain “possible” stories as out of the bounds of believability just as we reject fanciful rationalizations of real-world actions. Could I tell any story at all to explain why Hamlet delayed in killing Claudius? Certainly! I could also rationalize any of Hitler’s actions by imputing to him eccentric beliefs about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. If you want to dismiss literary narrative on this ground—it’s possible to tell any story to any conclusion whatsoever!—you are going to have to dismiss the ascription of agency (motivated, intentional action) outside of literature as well. I know that some philosophers think we should do this. It’s always fun to listen to these arch-rational materialists ordering a meal in a restaurant, in the serene expectation that certain rituals and incantatory phrases will reliably produce anticipated outcomes.

          None of this, btw, is to explain or to explain away the aesthetic justifications for literature, and I stoutly maintain that justifying literature to people who don’t like to read is like justifying music to people who are tone deaf; and it is even more pointless to try justifying it to people who think being tone deaf makes you more logical or rational than people who can enjoy a good tune.

      • MaxieJZeus says:

        Bugmaster’s friends: “Fiction is made up, and while you can spend forever in imaginary worlds, doing so is a waste of your time”

        At the risk of being cheeky, I have to ask, Do your friends’ statements sound better in the original Vulcan? Cf. Lt. Saavik: “Ah. Humor. It’s a difficult concept.” Are your friends as dead-set against the utility of jokes as they are are against the utility of beauty?

    • Deiseach says:

      There’s two senses we’re talking about here: one is the “can Sparknotes etc. distill out the main points, themes, etc. of canonical works” and the answer is of course yes, something that’s been around for a while and has been extensively critically surveyed is going to have a standard reading. Sparknotes can give you the ‘received opinion’ on any such work.

      The second is the “efficiency angle” which other commentators have mentioned, and that ties in with the first: Sparknotes will give you the highlights, the safe, standard answer that is a model essay sure to get so many marks in an exam and give you such-and-such a grade.

      Take Othello – everyone agrees that jealousy is the main theme there. But there is so much more going on, where race, gender, sexuality, class and religion all meet and clash. Sparknotes will give you the potted answer about “Othello’s jealousy, how it is stoked by Iago, the symbolism of the handkerchief” and so on. It’s convenient, like cheese in a can. And like cheese in a can, it is not at all the same thing as cutting off a hunk of a named regional cheese and eating it.

      It’ll give you the lowest common denominator version of a critical analysis of a work, the approved ‘teaching to the test’ answer, but anyone who thinks they know what a particular work is all about simply by having used the Sparknotes is mistaken.

      Why is Othello black? Shakespeare could have written a play about jealousy with the same basic plot and characters where everyone is white. There’s various reasons there, but that the play is still relevant in its situation four hundred years later surely has something more going on than merely “this is a play about a jealous man”.

      As for “can you give an example of an already canonical work of literature into which you can offer several important possible insights not recorded on Sparknotes or Wikipedia”, I don’t know if this has been raised before, surely in the seven hundred years of commentary on the poem somebody has thought about this, but in “The Divine Comedy” I don’t think that the sin for which Brunetto Latini is being punished is sodomy. Bit complicated but the short version is that this particular circle of Hell, the Seventh, is divided into three sections representing different levels of violence, and the third section is again tripartite – we move from the Violent Against God (represented by the blasphemers and the Titans who defied Jove), the Violent Against Nature (the Sodomites) and the Violent Against Art (the counterfeiters and usurers).

      Dante and Virgil encounter Brunetto on the periphery between the Violent against God and the Violent against Nature, and after moving on from Brunetto they encounter a group of identified and identifiable sodomites/homosexuals. But the encounter with Brunetto is very different, couched in terms of respect and affection, and he says when they approach the identified Sodomites “People are coming with whom I must not be”.

      I think Brunetto’s particular sin, the sin of the particular group with which he is associated, “all of them were clerics/or great and famous scholars befouled/in the world above by a single sin”, is not primarily the sexual sin of sodomy but rather the intellectual sin of going against the ends of truth: Brunetto is shown as almost obsessed, even in Hell, with his fame in the world and the success of his “Treasure”, his encyclopaedia of the knowledge of the day.

      I think Brunetto’s main sin, the sin of the clerks, is the perversion of the role in loco parentis that he as teacher played to his students – instead of raising their minds to the highest end of wisdom which is the knowledge of God, he instead led them onto the other path of seeking worldly fame, instilled into them a desire for glory and repute (which, like all worldly things, is going to fade and die). He should have been like a father giving his sons real treasure*, but the ‘Treasure‘ he gave them instead was intellectual vanity, and so he led them astray and so he perverted the use of intellect, and that is what he is being punished for in the burning sands, and that is why his group is apart from the merely perverse of the body. This is the violence against God which is more muted than the loud defiance of the blasphemers, it’s the polite lip-service but turning away to the real values and what is considered really important by the scholars and clerics – the pursuit of knowledge not for wisdom or even the sake of truth but to bask in the glow of being regarded as learned, as famous, as an authority, and putting their mortal learning on a higher level than the knowledge of God.

      Well, that’s just my opinion. I know the arguments on the other side, but for myself, the difference between how the encounter with Brunetto plays out from every other encounter in Hell is so striking I think there’s more going on than merely “he was gay”.

      *Matthew 6:19-21

      19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

      • Rebecca Friedman says:

        … And the pilgrim frequently echoes the sins he is seeing, and that’s the segment with the prophecy about his future, and… yes, for whatever it’s worth, everything you’re saying rings true and I haven’t heard it before. I can’t say what is or isn’t in the sparknotes, but I was an Italian major and so Inferno was one of the classes for my major, and the professor was a Dante specialist, so…

        That’s fascinating. Thank you.

        There’s definitely nothing about it in my shiny new (as of when I took the class) annotated Inferno. I just checked.

        You should be teaching this.

  30. I don’t know what counts as “canonical,” but I just read the Wiki page on Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, a book I’m fond of. It misses what I think is an important point–that while Podkayne is the narrator, the central character is her younger brother Clark, a super-genius near-psychopath. The central issue, signaled by their uncle’s conversation with their parents at the end, is whether Clark is going to become a decent human being. The business with the fairy at the end is a signal that he will, that his (patronizing) affection for his sister is the crack in his shell.

  31. rlms says:

    Why are you assuming that works of literature have objective sets of important insights connected to them? People are different, and as such can interpret works differently. And how would you define which insights are “important” anyway?

  32. Hoopyfreud says:

    The entries for Infinite Jest are intensely uninformative. Sparknotes doesn’t even appear to have one.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      It’s 20 years old. What’s your recency threshold for “canonical?”

      • Hoopyfreud says:


        In that case, I’d put forward Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

        The epic’s almost-fractal structure makes it hard to summarize anything or draw out a theme-as-unifying-element (as opposed to theme-as-refracted-element). I don’t think you could speak intelligently about the Metamorphoses without reading it. A lot like Infinite Jest, actually.

      • Hoopyfreud says:


        I think you’re right, but I also think that’s less than half of the book. The Metamorphoses goes forward in time from Creation to Rome, and the themes are recontextualized within that framework. Just knowing what they are doesn’t tell you what they can be, and I think any real analysis of the work has to go story by story, book by book, and document the evolution of the theme being interrogated. That doesn’t lend itself well to summary. So yes, there’s an overarching theme of change, but it’s also a contemplation on that which changes. You can use the Metamorphoses to talk about insights into love or lust or pride or ambition, but trying to do it with the summaries you can find online is like trying to talk about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by making reference only to this. It’s so incomplete that it’s fundamentally unworkable.

        Also, yeah, it does seem that way a bit!

  33. Skivverus says:

    Disagree-ish: it’s one thing to find the insights, another to translate into gut-level understanding. Consider, by analogy, summarizing one of Scott’s posts.

    • AG says:

      It’s about the function of a piece of writing. If it’s intended function is to evoke an emotion in the reader, or to persuade them of something, a summary won’t accomplish that.

      In the way that a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes insights are best delivered through demonstrations. It’s like the cynicism about how people better respond to stories than statistics.

    • Jacob says:

      100% agree with you (Skivverus). The moral of (well, at least one of them) “The Poisonwood Bible” is embedded in the title and would take about 3 sentences to explain, and made explicit towards the end of the book. I’m sure it’s in the Sparknotes too. However, that information takes on much different salience after having read the actual book.

  34. DragonMilk says:

    Let us suppose you are engaged. Let us further suppose that your reception venue already come with decor (tablecloths, china, chairs, silverware, etc.).

    Indicate whether you are male or female, and suggest how much would be appropriate to “upgrade” such decor, such as tablecloths to a different color.

    • Randy M says:

      Place a decoration of some kind on each table that ties the existing color in with the chosen wedding colors (I understand this is a thing?). In other words, work to personalize what is there already while being grateful for the bonus.

    • acymetric says:

      Are you asking how much change to the venues standard decor is appropriate (etiquette), or how much is appropriate for you to be charged for the upgrades (how much the venue wants), or how much is appropriate for you/your fiance to want to spend? Regardless it is going to be hard to answer without some context (what is the venue, or at least how expensive/exclusive is it, how many tables/settings, etc).

      • DragonMilk says:

        The venue has a monopolistic relationship with both food vendor and decor supplier. My reaction to spending $1000 to changing the color of tablecloths was, no way. I was ok with changing out chairs because the existing ones are arguably quite ugly and not fit for a wedding (green conference room like chairs).

        Her reaction has been somewhat of a, “alas, we’ll HAVE to spend so much more to make all this look better”

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I imagine you have good reasons to have chosen your venue, but this is a red flag to me. They’re going to nickel and dime you for everything they can. Check the contract for fees and liability, and do your best to get everyone out the door half an hour early.

          On topic, I wouldn’t spend that kind of money, but I also wouldn’t be at a venue that charges like that.

          • DragonMilk says:

            It’s a venue from my alma matter where the venue itself is not too expensive, but the food is.

            It never occurred to me that default decor would also be changed…I was taking the more expensive food into account, but not paying more for the look.

          • Hoopyfreud says:


            I’m a bit less concerned about predatory behavior in that case (they want those sweet alumnus dollars), but I’m honestly not well-calibrated for “spending $35k on an evening” budgeting. The way I see it, the only sane way to do this is to set a budget beforehand. Otherwise I’m sure it’ll be very easy for the expenses to creep upwards. If the ship has sailed on that, and it seems like it has, I’d advise you to remember that every $1000 represents a nice short vacation for 2, and ask yourselves how many of those you want to spend on marginal venue improvements. Reformulate your conversations in terms of, “I think this is worth a vacation” rather than trying to reckon on the scale of dollars.

        • rlms says:

          People’s ideas of how much is reasonable to spend on a wedding (and therefore how much is reasonable to spend on any component of a wedding) vary hugely, even controlling for wealth. It’s impossible to say whether that figure is reasonable without knowing at least how much you’re spending in total and how many guests you have.

    • JustToSay says:

      Female. I’d consider changing tablecloths, because they do have a significant visual impact in a room. If they were merely bland (say, white instead of the color I preferred), I’d leave them. If they actually altered the color scheme from what I had planned, I’d pay to upgrade them, depending on budget. I can’t personally imagine caring about china unless it’s hideously modern (black square plates or something).

      In real life though, we were brokety broke when we got married. Reception was in the church basement with the tablecloths they had in the storage closet and table arrangements made by family and friends.

      • DragonMilk says:

        We have the choice between white or ivory for free, but she would like to use some sort of gold for $1000

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          That’s an unconscionable scam. (Female)

          • DragonMilk says:

            Well I agreed to switch out chairs for about $900…don’t really want to go further than that

        • JustToSay says:

          I admit it would never occur to me to pay to change the tablecloths under those circumstances, even with our current income. And if a vendor suggested it, I’d probably chuckle.

          Note however that your fiance is, rightly, not going to care what I think.

        • Deiseach says:

          That’s extortion. Try and sort out something like napkins or flower arrangements or those damask chair backs (are they still a thing?) in gold from elsewhere, and if the hotel cuts up rough about it tell ’em you’re taking your business somewhere that will accommodate you.

          EDIT: Seemingly now it’s chair sashes that are in style. Source a supply for the number and style you want online, maybe throw in a few table runners, it’s got to be cheaper than a grand for table cloths.

          Female here, and sympathies: people go bananas about spending money on weddings for the perfect day. In five year’s time it’s not going to matter if the place cards harmonised with the bridesmaids’ shoes; if the hotel and the caterer and decorator have a cosy little agreement going, then either decide you’ll take the standard package and accessorise things yourself as cheap as possible, or look for somewhere else that won’t gouge you as much (they all will gouge you).

          That being said, I’d go for the ivory tablecloths.

          Oh, and congratulations on the engagement! 😀

          • acymetric says:

            In five year’s time it’s not going to matter if the place cards harmonised with the bridesmaids’ shoes

            I don’t know…”I still wish we would have gone with…” is the kind of thing that can last a lifetime if there isn’t full buy-in at the time.

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s always seemed odd to me that the wedding and funeral industries are:

            a. Large, well-organized industries.

            b. Adapted to take advantage of your intense emotions and need to signal the right things to everyone, in order to take advantage of you.

            c. Commonly able to extract large amounts of money from people when they could have had approximately the same experience and satisfaction for a fraction of the price.

    • JonathanD says:

      How many tables?

      ETA – What’s the overall budget (ballpark)?

      • DragonMilk says:

        35 to 40k, about 130 guests (14 tables?)

        • JonathanD says:

          Ugh. They want 70 / tablecloth. I assume that at least they’re doing the setup and breakdown which makes this moderately less egregious. For my first wedding we rented about that number for something like 20 or 30 per, but (1) that was years ago (2) in St. Louis and (3) we had to pick them up, dress the table, an then return them the next day (friends and family handled setup and breakdown). It’s high and it sucks as these “little” expenses pile up.

          But. You can afford it. (This assumes you can actually afford the wedding you have budgeted.) If she wants this give it to her. Its the kind of thing that is not normally worth 1000 bucks, but on this day, it’s worth the 2.5% bump in your budget. The only way you say no on this is if you really think she doesn’t much care, but that it’d be kinda nice. Otherwise, give way, and do so graciously. No muttering about the money when you see the tables.

          Conrad says it much better below. Follow that advice on all issues you can. It makes it much easier to deal with the issues where you can’t.

          ETA – I’m male.

          • DragonMilk says:

            Indeed…I can’t play the “I’m broke card”

            My, “Think of how many burritos I can eat with that money” card seems to be of little effect as well.

            Her family has the, “it’s once in a lifetime, make it grand” attitude

          • JonathanD says:

            Yeah, if you’re ok with the rest of the wedding, there’s no call to start pinching pennies at this point. And if you’re not, well, that’s a bigger problem.

            Also worthwhile not to get the reputation of being a cheapskate with the in-laws just yet. If they’re like this with everything then you’ll have to have that fight, but not yet. Of course, that’s just random internet advice. YMMV.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            If you have the money and they want to spend it specifically on this, I say you are pretty stuck – as in, go ahead and spend the extra to make it as wonderful as she wants. If you can convince your fiancee to spend the money on a more extravagant [honeymoon, house, whatever], and she likes that idea, then great. If this is really what she wants (and you really do have the money to spend), then fighting her about it will only lead to problems.

    • Robert Jones says:

      I’m male. As posed the question is like asking the length of a piece of string. It depends entirely on the nature of the venue and the upgrades.

      It seems the more specific question is whether it’s reasonable to spend $1,000 upgrading the tableclothes for circa 14 tables, which would seem to be about $70 (or £50) per tablecloth. That strikes me as high, as you can buy quite a nice tablecloth for that much. Then again, the venue may be buying them to your order and have little further use for them.

      To some extent, things cost what they cost, and it’s meaningless to ask what they ought to cost. If that’s the venue you want, and those are the tableclothes you want, then you just have to pay the price. You only get married once (hopefully), so I wouldn’t worry about a sum like that. I certainly wouldn’t argue with my financée over it.

      • DragonMilk says:

        I cited only the table cloths, but it’s also chairs, silverware, china, candles, etc.

        Right now we’ve settled it at…why don’t you take a look at what they already have and see what you feel like you *have* to change.

        • dick says:

          How hard-assed are they going to be if you just show up with your own tablecloths? We bought ours (along with the plates, the glasses, etc) used on Craigslist and then sold them again a week later.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Male. However much makes my fiancee happy.

      • Mr. Doolittle says:

        Ah, but here’s the conundrum! The fiancee might think they will be happy spending tons of money up front, but may regret it later when they realize they have no money. Even in the “I always defer” option, there’s still an optimum level of spending. For a fiancee who prefers delayed gratification and is acutely aware of opportunity costs, the amount of money to spend on the wedding reception may be quite low. Since planning a wedding can be overwhelming, such a person may inadvertently overspend, making themselves unhappy over a longer time period. Your proper response in such a situation is to encourage a reduction in spending.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Yeah that’s not how this works. You don’t do decisions or “encouragement.”



          Your job is not to tell her what to do or what to spend. Your job is to affirm the things she already wants to do while appearing to collaborate and doing as little as possible. So she comes to you and says “Hmmm, which do you like better, the purple napkins or the pink napkins?”

          She already knows which one she likes. She just wants to hear you say it. If you say “I don’t care, you pick” then you’re “not being helpful.” Also if you insist on the thing she doesn’t like, you’re also “not being helpful.”

          If you actually have a preference state it. If you don’t, pick one at random. “Let’s see, I kind of like the purple napkins.”

          If you guessed right, you’re done. “Great, I like the purple napkins too! You’re so helpful!” Whew! If you guessed wrong, she says “Hmmm, maybe, but I think the pink napkins might look better with the centerpieces. What do you think?” You respond, “you know, now that you put it like that, I think you’re right. We should do the pink napkins.” “Great! Pink it is. You’re so helpful!”

          Repeat for everything in life and enjoy marital bliss. YOU’RE WELCOME SSC.

          • Randy M says:


            Your job is not to tell her what to do or what to spend. Your job is to affirm the things she already wants to do while appearing to collaborate and doing as little as possible.

            Keep on with what works for you, but I think you’re shooting past egalitarian, past feminist, and right into “men are worthless” territory. I don’t think it generalizes, but it probably makes a fine stand up routine.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yeah yeah yeah, you say that now, but remember this! Next time your wife wants you to help pick out drapes or something, remember this and you will know my wisdom!

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:


            I think the point is this:

            She already knows which one she likes. She just wants to hear you say it

            Unless you actually care, don’t make a stink of it. Even if you don’t actually care, pretend to have input, because you are being used as affirmation.

            FWIW, $1k to upgrade to gold seems silly to me, but out of a $40k wedding budget, it doesn’t seem unreasonable in the wedding industry, particularly for venues that have a captured monopoly kind of business. If you want to save money, you’ll have to do a non-traditional venue that doesn’t even have tablecloths, or host it in your backyard, or something like that.

            This advice is more broadly generalizable to “don’t try to solve your wife’s problems when she is complaining to you. Most times, she just wants a sounding board.”

          • albatross11 says:

            This is actually good advice for stuff you don’t care about. If you genuinely don’t care which color drapes you get, and she more-or-less knows you don’t, then you’re along for drape-shopping for the company, not the advice. When she asks you what you think, that’s an opportunity to say something meaningful if in this rare situation you have some reason to care; otherwise, it’s just making conversation.

          • Randy M says:

            This is actually good advice for stuff you don’t care about

            For stuff you don’t care about, for prices you are willing to pay, sure. Do you really need advice in those circumstances? How many people in real life say “Well, I don’t care and I don’t need the money, but I’m going to die on this hill anyway!” Probably none here.

            Conrad says your job (as a husband), in order to win at life, is to provide affirmation and otherwise stay out of the way.

            Yeah, yeah, it’s a schtik. I wouldn’t bother arguing with his hen-pecked affectation, but he doubles down in the conclusion with “Repeat for everything in life.”

            Eh. Like I said, a stand-up comedy routine, not actually useful advice. As my wife and I are both fallible people, we rely on each other for actual advice and help.

            edit: And even in trivial situations that you don’t care about, it’s possible she’s coming to you because she is having trouble making a decision. Believe it or not, sometimes women can be indecisive or have trouble making up their minds. I decided upon the date for our wedding and the arrangement of Bridesmaids & Groomsmen, the former in order to finally nail something down, and the latter so she could “blame” me if it ended up offending some hard to please female friends (I had friends with varied attractiveness). Flowers, food, color scheme? Sure, nothing but affirmation.

            Although my best friend ended up with pink ties for the groomsmen, so it can backfire even there. 😛

          • DragonMilk says:

            Plot twist: I’m doing the planning because she’s too busy with work, so she’s coming in like a veto machine. So the process is her butting in to say she wants more more more…

            But I get your point, haha

          • Randy M says:

            @Dragon Milk:
            Did I see elsewhere you have a 40k budget? (Warhammer theme, perhaps?)
            I’ve mentioned in the past that we were happy with a good deal less, but there’s nothing wrong with spending your money on a fancy shindig. But if that’s what you have, I’d get a wedding planner, tell her your budget and non-negotiables, and let her sweat the details.

          • Deiseach says:

            Randy, your job as The Guy is to move that piece of furniture over there, no there, another bit more to the right – no, that’s too far to the right, move it back… actually put it back where it was, we need to move this other piece first.

            And I say that as a person of the female persuasion myself 🙂

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Randy wins the King of No-Fun Award.

          • Randy M says:

            Sweet, that goes on my CV.

            If your joke differed from common marital advice in some way, it’d be easier to discern as such.

          • Oddly enough, I have managed marital bliss without following your strategy.

          • Plumber says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            ‘Yeah that’s not how this works. You don’t do decisions or “encouragement.”…..’

            Just chiming in to say LISTEN TO CONRAD HONCHO!

            I’ve been with my wife since ’92 and there’s words for guys who don’t follow his advice:
            Divorced” and/or “Single“.


            “….your job as The Guy is to move that piece of furniture …”

            Deisearch’s speaks truly as well.

            It is best to listen to her.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Interestingly, I do it almost the exact opposite.

            My wife has near-total autonomy with choices and finances, but once she asks me for my opinion on something, she is getting what I choose.

            So most things she doesn’t bother me with or just asks if she can do it rather than making me choose.

            Of course, she’s a smart lady so she’ll always bring me options she is okay with, but the system works really well for us.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            My situation is much closer to Echo’s than Conrad’s. My wife and I talk about most decisions, and it’s a mutual discussion intended to find a real consensus.

            My wife often handles small things or items I really don’t care about. When she brings a topic to me, she cares about my opinion and is serious about getting my thoughts. If she just wants me to go along, she finds a way to express that in the original question – often by straightfowardly telling me that she really wants to do whatever it is she is asking about.

          • J Mann says:

            @Randy @Conrad @Beta

            I’d generalize Conrad’s advice to say that one part of a successful marriage is leveraging the things you don’t care about and your spouse does by supporting and affirming your spouse’s opinions.

            It’s the difference between “Oh honey, I don’t care how well endowed you are” and “Oh honey, you turn me on,” but with china.

            The best way to express that believably, of course, is to believe it, so start believing that your spouse has good taste in wedding design and you’ll both be happier.

          • 10240 says:

            @Conrad Honcho @Plumber Going back to the discussion in the last OP, maybe you would have more bargaining power if you hadn’t agreed that she can run away with half of your stuff if she ever decides to.

        • albatross11 says:

          Most people planning a wedding only plan one in their lives (or at least only plan one big wedding), so they’re at a pretty big disadvantage in figuring out what expenses are important and which ones aren’t.

          Our wedding had one really critical part–it was in the church where I was scheduled to be baptised and confirmed (I was joining the Church), and where my fiance and I had been attending for a few years. We were close to the priest who married us, and deeply involved in that community. Having the wedding there would have been worth a lot more than they were charging us.

          The (expensive) wedding flowers got there rather late, thanks to some trouble with the florist’s van, and they somewhat messed up the flowers. As far as I can tell, maybe one person other than us noticed. (Some of our wedding pictures do have funeral flowers in the background, however.).

          The reception was nice–a big party for all our friends. But it was expensive and stressful, and we probably would have been fine to rent out the church basement and hire a caterer instead of the fancy restaurant whose event room we rented out. And later, I went to a friend’s wedding who planned things much better–he had the reception the day before the wedding–his reasoning was that they’d be too worn out and emotionally spent *after* the wedding to enjoy the party with all their friends.

          One interesting bit of stress that happened later: about a month after our wedding, we decided to go to the nice restaurant that had hosted our reception for dinner. When we arrived, it was closed–they’d shut down suddenly due to some kind of financial issue. It was sort-of chilling to realize that this could have happened before our receiption and screwed us over royally. (Though I guess they would have had a big incentive to still provide the reception so they got paid, if they could manage it.).

          The honeymoon in Maui was wonderful and worth every penny. Most of the other stuff we stressed about was probably overpriced and not all that critical–I think hardly anyone noticed most of it.

          • sandoratthezoo says:


            My wife and I got married five years ago at a sort of dedicated event venue (that is, it was not a restaurant or a church or anything), and had our reception at the same site.

            We had a really good time at the wedding and reception. My view is that it’s nice to not have travel breaking up the wedding and the reception, so if it’s feasible to do them at the same site, there are some advantages to that.

            To my mind, the important things are the venue itself and the photographer. I mean, we had flowers (I liked them), catering (I honestly don’t remember the food), and a DJ (he was fine), and so forth, but a lot of that fades into the background. The overall venue is memorable, and the pictures obviously stick around forever and ideally you’ll probably want to frame one or two of them.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @ albatross

            That was pretty much my experience as well. There were things we cared about after the wedding, but mostly that was pictures of the guests and that everyone had a good time. The stressful and expensive things – not so much. After the reception was all over my wife found all of the specially made napkins that had been ordered, but that got forgotten and never used. She just shrugged and said, “oh well, it wasn’t a big deal.”

          • Aapje says:


            Though I guess they would have had a big incentive to still provide the reception so they got paid, if they could manage it

            Incentive doesn’t matter if their suppliers refuse to supply them; which they typically do, because they can’t expect to get paid.

      • Randy M says:

        That seems a bad precedent to set worded so categorically.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Turns out just getting whatever you ask for doesn’t actually make people happy.

    • LesHapablap says:

      While we’re on the topic: what do effective altruists usually do for weddings? I imagine they don’t spend frivolously on them? Is the registry just a list of charities?

      • acymetric says:

        Are we assuming that effective altruists always intermarry with other effective altruists?

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Who was it who published an argument that if earning as much as you can to give to charity is an ethical obligation, so is marrying the richest person you can to give away their money?

      • LesHapablap says:

        If we get to the point where 95% of consumption in capitalist society is just frivolous signaling, does that mean that a conversion to full-on communism actually gets better outcomes? What percent of consumption today is frivolous signaling?

    • J Mann says:

      Male. I think if it will make your fiance happy and is within your budget, it’s highway robbery but preferable to all alternatives (and try not to make your fiance unhappy by fighting too hard).

      Within my budget, I don’t personally care much what I spend the budget on, just that everyone has a good time, primarily my fiance, and that I have decent pictures when it’s all over. It’s good to have a process to discuss these things, but if you’re comfortable that you’ve agreed on overall financial planning, I wouldn’t sweat the tablecloths.

    • Drew says:

      Male. Think about how people will remember the event. What 2-3 details do you want to stand out? If decor is one of the things you’re prioritizing, then spend lavishly on it. Otherwise, shoot for serviceable and put the money towards something else.

  35. albatross11 says:

    I deleted the post as too CW-y.

  36. Conrad Honcho says:

    Are we just done with the whole “Culture War / no Culture War” thread distinction? Covington Catholic is the most culture-warry culture war story to ever war on culture and should probably not be discussed in the CW-free thread. And downthread we’ve got Trump and illegal immigration stuff.

    • Nick says:

      Seconded. albatross, can you just delete your post and we’ll delete ours?

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        They could also repost it on 119.75, which is still alive and kicking.

      • Randy M says:

        Scene: Two men stand on the ridge, overlooking the massed armies below. The unarmed man address the other:
        “You would bring war upon this sacred ground?”
        “They attacked our children! Should that go unanswered?”
        “How many more children will suffer if we let the truce fall? You risk loosing total anarchy!”
        The elder approaches (armed, but in an archaic style)
        “Actually, several historical anarchic societies developed rather complex conflict resolution mechanisms.”

  37. dndnrsn says:

    So, I’ve been doing a long overdue cleanup job and listening to music. I abruptly switched from stuff from the late 60s to current hipster music. Even if the former is better music – more interesting – and the latter is listenable but forgettable, the latter sounds, for lack of a better word, tighter. The sound is much fuller, everything sounds a lot more consistent, albeit a bit more synthetic – even stuff that I know to be the classic rock music 3-or-4-instrument setup.

    I’m guessing it’s some combination of:

    a. Technical skill increase on the part of the musicians. Techniques that were cutting-edge or nonexistent in 1969 are today commonplace. The talent pool is bigger. Random name-brand indie band’s bassist, drummer, or guitarist (singers aren’t any better, honestly) would be, by the standards of 1969, really good.

    b. Qualitative musical equipment improvement. Synthesizers are good, actually.

    c. Quantitative musical equipment improvement. Computerization means low to midrange equipment is more available; random $200-300 guitar better than its equivalent 50 years ago.

    d. Technical improvement of recording staff. Your average producer is now better at their job.

    e. Qualitative “improvement” of recording equipment. I say “improvement” because I suspect this is the reason that the “tightness” isn’t a good thing entirely – it sound sterile, less alive. Sound compression being more possible in digital, better ability to edit tracks to get the rhythm right with digital instead of analogue, autotune.

    f. Quantitative improvement of recording equipment. Random recording studio now has gear that is great by the standards of 50 years ago.

    Anyone with any knowledge in the relevant spheres have any insights?

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      All of the above, but perhaps e is the biggest.

      Beatles recorded their stuff on 4 channel analog tape. Today any teenager can record on infinite perfect quality digital channels on their laptop.

      • dodrian says:

        I’d agree with e.

        I was amazed what I could do back in 2012 in my college’s makeshift studio, using Open Source software on a second-hand PC.

        Editing tracks is really easy, re-recording can be done in short segments, or even single notes. Auto-tune can be used subtly to fix minor flaws without anyone being the wiser.

        And then there’s MIDI.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      I think you’ve just discovered the wonders of modern production.

      (Incidentally, the M in my username stands for musician and I still dabble in recording etc.)

      Back in the day (and by that I mean even as late as the mid-90s when I got my first studio experience), you were pretty much stuck with what you could get down on tape (and you may have had only four tracks to work with, even if you were the Beatles). Getting the kind of innovative sounds that the 60s are known for (later Beatles, Jimi Hendrix et al.) was a constant struggle with the limitations of the equipment and the performers. Not a little ingenuity was required.

      If you’ve got some time, here’s a documentary on Delia Derbyshire’s work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It’s quite good, as I recall.

      These days, it’s a safe bet that what you hear on record is maybe not 100% artificial additives, but pretty damn close.

      To give a practical example: right now I’m working, on and off, on putting out some old material from my band, on indefinite hiatus. The original tracks were laid down on an 8-track Pro Tools system, in rehearsal, one take each and the result is in no way fit for human consumption (I overstate my case but only slightly).

      In my home and spare time I can now convert the drum line, as played, to MIDI and use it to trigger realistic sample banks that I can subsequently mix just as if I was working with a real recording (it goes without saying that I can fix any jarring imperfections whilst doing so). Fixing up the drums got the bass out of sync? No worries! With the magic of computers I can line everything up perfectly (but not too perfectly, we want the human touch, after all).

      I play guitar and, naturally, I’m laying down all the tracks from scratch – and a couple of extra besides, ‘coz I’m not stuck with a lack of hands to play ’em. Digital modelling takes care of the amp sounds nicely, if I don’t want to pull out the big Marshall (and if I do, speaker simulation or impulse responses allow me to get the cranked-up-to-eleven tone without the neighbours coming down with torches and pitchforks).

      When recording vocals, I can record as many takes as I like and splice together just the right performance that never existed. Missed notes? Not a problem! Software lets me edit pretty much all aspects of the performance to my heart’s content. While I’m at it, I can also create harmonies and vocal doubles without pulling out the mic again.

      That’s of course not accounting for the vast improvements in audio technology as such. We now have wider dynamic ranges, a fuller tonal response, surgical tools for sound shaping and much more control over distortion.

      Plus, when all else fails, Messrs Fletcher and Munson take care of the rest.

      • LHN says:

        I don’t listen to a lot of live music, so this may be old news. But I was impressed to see a guitarist in a bar lay down multiple tracks of live riffs into a laptop, to essentially build his own backup in real time before starting into each song.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          It’s been a thing for a while, true enough. The guitar processor that I’ve had for over ten years has a built-in looper and dedicated looper units have been around longer still.

          The impressive thing when it’s done, funnily enough, isn’t so much the possibility, but rather the musician’s skill in building layers; depending on the parts involved, you need really good timing to get the punches just right. I find it cool that technology helps bring human skill into sharper relief.

          Perhaps machines won’t make us obsolete just yet…

    • Anonymous` says:

      I say “improvement” because I suspect this is the reason that the “tightness” isn’t a good thing entirely – it sound sterile, less alive.

      Exactly. Don’t scoop your mids, kids.

    • gwern says:

      A bit of everything. Let’s take a comparable example: have you ever noticed that amateur anime/illustrations online have gotten dramatically better since the 1990s?

      The very best has gotten better, but I’m convinced that the average/median/mode/whatevers have also gotten much better. Some of that is just the boring observation that hard drives can now store high-resolution images and Internet connections can send them without breaking the bank, and some of that is Gimp/Photoshop/formerly-high-end tools becoming democratized by piracy/FLOSS/freeware and more obscure (to non-artists) technological improvements like cheap high-accuracy touchpads you can sketch on, but I feel that these seem insufficient to explain the drastic leap in sophistication and complexity and colorizing.

      I think a lot of it comes from social mechanisms – I’ve noticed that many ‘digital native’ artists seem to rely heavily on online communities to learn from. They look at raw intermediates like .PSD files to see how it was gone, they watch videos of livestreamed art or ‘speedsketches’, they compete in informal and formal contests and try to win community approbation (‘mimetic desire’, anyone?), they follow pop culture which creates a constantly varying set of artistic styles to riff off of, they post everything they do to Deviantart or Tumblr and get instant feedback (however crude), they have enormous libraries of existing materials to trace in order to learn or simply outright copy into something they are working on… None of that will necessarily give one inspiration to create divine works of visual art, necessarily, but it sure does help with being a skilled technician.

      Somewhat like chess, all of this could have been done before in a pre-Internet era, but the competitiveness & communities hypercharge it all. (There was another video game example I had in mind where I read recently a discussion which concluded that YouTube video tutorials/competitions had led to more progress in the past few years than in the prior 20 or so years since the game’s release.)

      No reason why there couldn’t be a version of that for music as well.

    • Björn says:

      The single most thing that characterizes the sound of 99% of all pop recordings of the last 20 years is that the sound is extremely compressed. This basically means that they take the loudness peaks of a recording and squash them together. Since there is a limit how loud the sound on a cd can be, if you make the peaks quieter, the recording can be made louder on average. Because music sounds a little bit better when it is louder, the music industry has used this technique extensively.

      Here you can see two different versions of the song “My Apocalypse” by Metallica, at the top you see the compressed version that was released on CD in 2008, on the bottom you see the version that was released for Guitar Hero, which is similar to how it had been in the 80s. The problem with super compressed recordings is that while they sound better during a 5 second side by side comparison, they sound annoying when you listen to them for longer.

      Since the medium of choice for most listeners is now Spotify and similar services, the problem with super compressed music is not as bad as it was 10 years ago, because Spotify corrects the loudness so all tracks play at the same level. But compression is still used in modern music production to make things sound fuller and more punchy. Compare this with the 80s, where people wanted to show the technical abilities of the CD, so they produced super dynamic recordings, or the decades before that, where you got some compression from analog recording and (mostly) did not further compress recordings. I guess the difference between digital and analog recording also makes digital recordings sound “tight” and analog recordings sound “warm”.

      • J says:

        On the flip side, it drives me nuts that classical music is almost impossible to listen to in the car because it’s high dynamic range and *not* compressed to hell. It’s 2019, no excuse for my music app not to have a dynamic range compression knob, or better yet an automatic setting that adjusts to ambient noise levels.

        • Plumber says:


          Finally someone says this!

          Thank you!

          With the wind and the motor noise, I often have to turn the volume way up to hear anything, and then the piece gets loud, or there’s a mic break, which can be painfully loud!

          At least pop stations keep the comercials and the song volumes closer.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          I feel I have to point out a few things:
          1. If you’re listening to classical music in your car, any damage is self-inflicted. (Seriously, the only worse environment for classical music appreciation I can think of is working with power tools.)

          2. Those p‘s and f‘s in the score are there for a reason and if a record producer tried the standard kind of Loudness War shenanigans on a classical piece, Beethoven would rise from the grave and throttle him with extreme prejudice.

          3. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have a magical “make it louder” knob (other than, y’know, Volume). If you try to just ham-handedly apply a compressor or limiter in order to make it louder, the results aren’t going to be to your liking, believe me. You’ll just get a bunch of nasty digital distortion and volume pumping that’ll put dubstep to shame.

          • J says:

            I quite enjoy both piano concerti and dubstep while using power tools, thank you very much.

            I can’t think of an information theoretic reason why a quiet section should sound more distorted when scaled up to the same height above a higher noise floor. Even if so, we’d finally have a use for those fancy 24 bit recordings.

            Pumping sounds trickier. I can imagine that a simple agc with some compromise time constant would have plenty of failures.

            I mean, it’s not like I’m trying to hear everything nuance. I just want to follow that quiet beautiful second movement of the piece I know by heart instead of it being eleven minutes of faint tinkling.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            The problem isn’t the quiet section sounding distorted – it’s the loud sections that will distort.

            All compression does is change the ratio of output to input past a set threshold (so the loudest parts are quiter than they would otherwise be) and apply make-up gain to make everything louder to begin with – the idea being that you bring the quiet parts up and the gain reduction on the loudest bits will keep the signal from clipping (and hence distorting, that is: resembling a square wave).

            Which is all very well if the dynamic range of your source material isn’t that big to begin with. There are limits to what you can do, however.

            A limiter is a special case of compressor: one with a 1:infinity ratio. Simply put, if your signal exceeds the hard threshold, it gets capped at the hard threshold – i.e. starts looking like a square wave. You can get the same effect in the digital domain simply by boosting signals accross the board – digital 0dB is a brick wall.

            So we can’t simply set a brick wall limiter and boost the level until the pianissimo is audible over your car’s engine – everything forte and above would be a mess.

            So how about we make the quiet louder and the louder quieter? You could conceivably do that, but it has its own share of problems. For a start: how do you tell when to turn the knob? Signalwise, the bass frequencies carry the most energy and will trigger the switch sooner, but Fletcher and Munson tell us that they might not, in fact, be perceived as loudest (because hearing sensitivity curves). This can result in perceived volume suddenly dropping out for no apparent reason (I’ve experienced it myself, working with bog-standard compressors). Then there’s the matter of response time: how quickly do you turn the knob once you’ve decided that it’s time to change volume? In a real-world production environment, setting appropriate attack and release times takes a lot of attentive listening and experimentation over the entire program.

            This isn’t to say it can’t be done. The simplest way to ensure a comparable dynamic range to pop music is for the recording to be produced that way. Contemporary orchestral film scores have vastly lower dynamics than standard classical productions, for example. All the issues that make creating a “make it louder” knob that “just works” a Hard Problem disappear if you aren’t stuck with a fixed program, but can instead adjust levels for narrower dynamics at the mixing stage.

            So why aren’t people mixing classical this way? Because that’s exactly the opposite of the intended effect. I wasn’t kidding about the p‘s and f‘s – the wide dynamic range is an integral part of classical music as an artform. The people who are willing to pay for classical music recordings want the dynamic range. The idea that one would mix Dvorak’s 9th, say, like one does contemporary pop is an anethema.

            If your problem is you can’t hear the pianissimo in your car, the answer you’ll get from pretty much anyone involved with classical music recordings is: don’t listen to classical in your car. It’s like pointing a spotlight at your monitor and complaining you can’t see the display.

            It probably came out harsher than I would like, so I apologize, but the core of your complaint is that you’re trying to listen to something optimized for a superior listening environment (for all the tonal and dynamic nuance) in a decidedly sub-optimal listening environment.

            The problem, to put it bluntly, is on your end.

          • Plumber says:

            @Faza (TCM)

            “I feel I have to point out a few things:
            1. If you’re listening to classical music in your car, any damage is self-inflicted….”

            The tapedeck in my car is broken and classical music is usually the least objectionable thing I can find to listen to on the radio during my commute, but the problems with volume are usually compounded by the radio signal being weak (so static).

            For some reason instead of one strong signal there”s three weak signal stations playing the same classical programing (though sometimes there’s an up to 30 seconds difference).

            During my 40 to 110 minute commute from San Francisco to just north of Berkeley I have to tune between the three broadcast signals to try to avoid as much static as possible, so not good listening conditions, but between my work and family duties, I have no other times to just listen to music.

            There is one Jazz station I sometimes listen to, but there’s still too much static for much of my commute.

            The pop/R&B/rock stations sometimes have songs that I enjoy, but many of the songs they play I don’t like, and I find the advertising extremely irritating.

            If you have a suggestion for what to listen to on the radio while on I-80 between San Francisco and Richmond please say what.

          • bean says:


            That was very interesting. I’ve often wondered why there weren’t settings for that. Thanks.

          • gbdub says:

            I appreciate the technical discussion but the rest just sounds like standard hipster elitism common across a lot of musical genres. “If you don’t listen to music the way I like, you’re a plebe who doesn’t understand how it’s meant to be heard. You don’t deserve that music.”

            Screw that. I like to listen to music while I’m in the car. I like classical music. I am well aware what p and f mean, and that classical music really deserves a concert hall or at least a great pair of headphones. But I’d occasionally like the music I listen to in the car to be classical, and the high dynamic range of many arrangements is a problem for this.

            Soundtracks or “trailer music” can get you mostly there. But it would still be nice to have more traditional “classical” in a car friendly format. Not completely eliminating the suggestion of dynamics – I’m not asking for loudness war “wall of sound” pop, – just a touch of range compression.

            Perhaps, rather than just saying people like me aren’t good enough for classical music, you could suggest some arrangements/composers/genres where dramatic dynamics are less common?

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            I feel for you, man, I really do. I’d love to be able to suggest something good to listen to on the radio on the I-80, but I live in Warsaw, Poland.

            The problem is that “car-friendly classical” is a niche within a niche.

            If classical is mixed for “car-friendly”, it’s going to sound worse in most other listening environments. Classical music (and here I mean the actual classics, i.e. pre 20-th century) was never intended to be recorded, because there was no recording to speak of.

            That means your baseline for comparison is the concert hall experience and that’s what the majority of the people buying classical recordings want.

            Coincidentally, it also makes recording classical music a wee bit easier, because you only have to capture the sound of the performance in the space. You can do that with two well-placed microphones.

            Again, this isn’t to say that you can’t do it differently, just that it’s a lot harder – and more expensive – to do. If nobody’s clamoring to spend top dollar on car-friendly classical, nobody’s gonna be recording it either.

          • achenx says:

            There’s, e.g., solo harpsichord music, which has no dynamic range. Bach wrote a lot of it.

            If you don’t like the sound of the harpsichord, that still tends to hold true for piano versions of the same pieces.

          • AG says:


            The real atrocity is that all three classical music stations get replaced by Christian music stations depending on what region you’re in, and CCM is the worst music genre of all time.
            They also seem to be on frequencies popular with “my music player takes over a radio channel locally” devices people without Aux ports use, so I’ll get random switches if I get too close to some cars, as well.

            Less maximalist pieces would likely have a tighter range. Baroque, early Classical, chamber music.
            But I also find that Romantic pieces tend to have single movements with a tighter range. The 4th movement of symphonies tends to be a big bombastic finale, for example. Ballets will stick to a certain range per track. So it’s more about building playlists by dynamic range, than necessarily keeping an entire piece together.

          • J says:

            Thanks for sharing your music production experience with us, Faza. That’s fascinating to learn about.

            To plumber’s point, I wonder how much classical music stations think about these issues, given that so much of broadcast radio is listened to in a car. I don’t recall ever having dynamic range issues with classical radio. So maybe they have some tricks up their sleeves.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            My pleasure. All things music is something I’m ready to discuss for hours on end.

            As to what radio stations could do:
            It’s no big secret that radio compresses the music they play heavily in any case. Mind you, this is mostly to ensure a uniform level where everyone and their dog are trying to make everything louder than everything else (Loudness War again) – this applies to commercials, as well as music. However, the kind of normalization we’re talking about here is “no louder than”, rather than making quiet things louder.

            The other possible issue is that radio can only play what someone else has recorded and here we come to the big rub: car-friendly classical music, on the radio, in the US is a non-starter as far as anyone actually making the recordings is concerned. Fuhgeddaboutit.

            The reason is dead simple: can you guess how much US radio pays for playing recordings?

            Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

            The US is one of the very few countries worldwide (I believe the only other two are Iran and North Korea, but I could be wrong about this) where radio stations are exempt from paying royalties for public performance of recordings. The composers would get paid, but we’re talking about music that’s overwhelmingly in the public domain.

            In other words, you can only record classical pieces that will sound good on the radio being played in someone’s car as an act of charity. You won’t get a broken nickel for your trouble.

            Strictly speaking, the radio stations could finance the recordings, but it’s not like classical radio is an advertising magnet to begin with. I suspect that most stations with this focus are running on rather tight budgets. How much does it cost to record an orchestral performance? Frank can explain it much better than I could.

          • @Plumber:

            Would it make sense to wear headphones while driving? If you have a smart phone, you could have the music on that, bluetooth to the headphones.

            If feeling extravagant, I believe there are now quite good noise-cancelling bluetooth headphones for about a hundred dollars. I’m not sure whether there would be serious risks due to being less able to hear noises around you while driving, however.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            I’m not sure whether there would be serious risks due to being less able to hear noises around you while driving, however.

            Emergency services sirens, for one.

          • Randy M says:

            I was pulled over once for wearing headphones. My car at the time had a broken radio.
            The cop let me off with a warning since I instantly heard his siren and responded appropriately. (My headphones were also lousy)

          • Plumber says:


            “Would it make sense to wear headphones while driving?”

            Sadly the State of California in it’s infinite wisdom has deemed that illegal.

          • acymetric says:

            I mean, I think there are a lot of good reasons why driving with headphones on probably shouldn’t be legal. I’m kind of surprised it would be legal anywhere.

          • According to the link Plumber gave, driving with one earbud in is still legal. Would that help?

          • nkurz says:

            @Faza: “The reason is dead simple: can you guess how much US radio pays for playing recordings? Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada.”

            I presume you understand this, but as stated this is false. To the contrary, terrestrial radio stations in the US are required to pay for each recording that they play on air, and usually do this via a licensing fee to a PRO. The price per song is low, but not zero. This is the best summary I can find: https://books.google.com/books?id=U_aEDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA269.

            Your point presumably is that the paid in amounts are split between the composer and the publisher, and do not go to the performer of the work (unless they are also the composer). You then surmise that if the composition is in the public domain (as would be the case for much classical music) that no one is paid. I guess, but if the radio station has a flat-fee arrangement, it seems equally true to say that the radio station pays but the PRO keeps the payment.

            The question then becomes whether a radio station is legally required to pay anyone if they play a contemporary recording of a classical piece that is in the public domain. This is beyond my knowledge, but are you sure this is true? Would it matter if the performer used a score that was copyrighted? Does it matter if the performer played a slight variation of the original? Is there case law on this?

          • AG says:

            The solution to Plumber’s specific situation (broken tape deck) is to buy a portable speaker and hook that up to a regular MP3 player. Walmart sells the cheapest ones at less than $20. I got a pretty good one for $40 at Costco.

            As for a music player, if not running a plugged-in-smartphone setup, my recommendation is a Sansa Clip Zip. Very small, $30-$40 for 8GB, and pair that with a cheap SD card to increase capacity.

          • Faza (TCM) says:


            [R]adio stations are exempt from paying royalties for public performance of recordings. The composers would get paid, but we’re talking about music that’s overwhelmingly in the public domain.

            There are two copyrights in a recording: one in the composition and one in the phonogram (the actual recording).

            What you’re talking about is public performance rights in the composition, but that only applies to material that’s still under copyright (most of the popular classical material isn’t because it dates back centuries).

            What I’m talking about is royalties for playing the actual recording – which is what the producer of the record (a label, for example) would collect (and does, most everywhere else).

            This has been a long-standing issue between the National Association of Broadcasters and artist/label lobbies. The NAB has, so far successfully, argued that because music played on the radio promotes record sales a quid pro quo exists. My Google-fu is failing to produce the relevant case law, but I think the existence of something like the Fair Play Fair Pay Act – proposed legislation that is meant to, among other things, close this loophole – should be proof enough that this is, in fact, the case.

            (Incidentally, the loophole applies to terrestrial radio only – digital radio does pay royalties, slim as they are.)

            The long and short of it is that terrestrial radio – which is what we’re discussing here – doesn’t have to pay anything for playing the classical canon (other than what it cost to buy the records) and that producing recordings of public domain compositions for the sole purpose of being played on US terrestrial radio is a zero-revenue proposition.

          • Plumber says:


            “….buy a portable speaker and hook that up to a regular MP3 player. Walmart sells the cheapest ones at less than $20. I got a pretty good one for $40 at Costco.

            As for a music player, if not running a plugged-in-smartphone setup, my recommendation is a Sansa Clip Zip. Very small, $30-$40 for 8GB, and pair that with a cheap SD card to increase capacity


            Um, unfortunately I actually have little idea of what you’re talking about.

            Please pretend (because it’s true!) that I have almost no knowledge of what sound producing technologies that are available after the 1980’s.

            What do I get, and how do I get songs on it?

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            One trick I’ve seen a bunch of my friends use was to wire a cable with a jack plug in place of the tape player output in the car. Essentially, they’d snip the connection between the player and the amplifier and solder in a cable that they’d connect to some external playing device.

            (First time I saw it, I think the cable actually ran through the tape slot.)

            It shouldn’t be a terribly difficult modification to make, unless you have a completely monolithic system (and even that makes it only marginally more complicated, because you have to take it apart). If you’re handy with a soldering iron and have the patience, you could probably do it yourself. If you don’t want to, for whatever reason, finding someone to do it for a reasonable fee shouldn’t be that hard. The parts themselves (a bit of wire with a plug at the end) cost peanuts.

            You get the benefit of your car’s stereo system (no additional speakers necessary) and you can plug in… whatever you wish. Back when I first saw it done, it was a Discman. You can also use an iPod (or other MP3 player), or even your phone, if you can put music on it (or it gets Spotify, Pandora or some such; a smartphone sees you through, essentially).

          • nkurz says:

            @Faza: “The long and short of it is that terrestrial radio – which is what we’re discussing here – doesn’t have to pay anything for playing the classical canon (other than what it cost to buy the records) and that producing recordings of public domain compositions for the sole purpose of being played on US terrestrial radio is a zero-revenue proposition.”

            Searching further, I’m now pretty sure that this is not correct. Specifically, if you record a new arrangement of a public domain work and register it with BMI, they will collect royalties on your behalf and pay you for radio plays:

            I arranged a Public Domain classical work. Will I get paid for its performance?

            BMI defines a classical work as: an original work written for live classical performance by a classical performer or ensemble and being performed under a classical license. Arrangements are not eligible for the Live Classical distribution at BMI because they are not original works. However, they are eligible for the radio distribution. Therefore, please register all arrangements as non-classical by selecting “all other genres” at the beginning of the work registration process. If the arrangement is found on our statistical sample of radio broadcasts, then it will be included in the quarterly radio distribution.


            So far as I can tell, the bar for a recording being considered a new arrangement is very low. Mechanistically adding compression to an existing recording would not qualify, but just about any level of artistic input on a new recording would. So while “producing recordings of public domain compositions for the sole purpose of being played on US terrestrial radio” is almost certainly a terrible business plan, I think you could make at least a few cents off of it if you can get the airtime.

            (I appreciate your expertise in this area and have enjoyed reading your posts. Please don’t take my pedantics on this narrow point personally.)

          • BBA says:

            Several classical radio stations I’m aware of merged with their local NPR affiliates when it became unprofitable to run them on a commercial basis. I think public broadcasters have a special music copyright exemption that doesn’t apply to commercial radio, but that might just be a PBS (or “educational”) thing.

            In any case, when I listen to WQXR I notice a lot of the recordings are identified as European in origin, in particular the radio orchestras of the BBC and German regional broadcasters. Now they obviously aren’t tied to the economic constraints on American radio, so if they aren’t handling the issues with listening in a car, either they don’t care or those stations aren’t targeted towards drivers because nobody owns a car in Europe. But I don’t drive, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          • AG says:


            You can search “portable speaker” to get the shopping pages at various stores for that category. Most of these speakers are about the size of a coffee mug, so they can easily fit in the storage spaces between the driver and passenger seat, sit in the passenger seat itself, or in the glove compartment left open. They have a basic 3.5 plug/jacks that most music players (such as mp3 players, smartphones, or portable CD players) have ports for, and usually a USB charging cable, so you can attach them to a car charger to not worry about battery usage (though they also have internal batteries).

            The Sansa Clip Sport is an mp3 player. It is smaller than a wallet. You would move music on to it by plugging it into your computer with the USB cable it comes with. (You’d probably also need to have a music player software installed on your computer. You probably already have Windows Media Player, which works.)
            You could get an Ipod, but then you’d have to deal with Itunes and Apple’s other nonsense.

            But if wrestling with mp3s and such is a hassle, search for “Portable CD player” or “Personal CD player.” Some of them have built-in speakers and radio function, anyways, though you’d lose volume compactness, whereas if you get the CD Player-only models they’d be able to fit in the same space as aforementioned portable speakers. However, keep in mind the power options on CD players. Some of them still only run on external batteries, rather than allowing charging cables. And the little ones seem to mostly be shoddy quality these days, since most people use mp3 players.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            You’re missing the point.

            Sure you can make a new arrangement of a Beethoven’s 5th and register your copyright in all the stuff you added, but:
            1. The demand is for the symphony as Beethoven wrote it, not for a new arrangement (and bear in mind that your changes would have to be considerable in order for courts to recognize your claim),

            2. Even if you did pull this off and anyone wanted to play it, you’d still be faced with covering the entire cost of the recording session (including paying the entire orchestra) from whatever pittance they get from their rights in the composition.

            (Fun fact: for NPR, the royalty rate is $1, apparently. Check Part 381, item 1.)

            As a side note, what BMI says is strictly speaking true, but keep their bias in mind: they want you to register with them, so they can get a share of your royalties. Naturally they’re going to be overstating the case when it comes to money you could be making.

            ETA: Plus, what they’re talking about here is the kind of licensing structure and classification they have internally, not legal categories external to BMI.

            Every PRO has its own way of setting up licenses with users. Live Classical, in this case, means royalties paid by orchestras for performing your piece.

        • albatross11 says:

          Not all classical music has a huge dynamic range.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      Talent improvement is certainly a factor in the classical musical world (my understanding is that violin parts considered unplayably difficult in 1900 are any-mediocre-second-chair-can-do-it these days.) I would be stunned if pop, which while less concerned with musical talent for itself, having immensely higher rewards to success, hasn’t seen similar improvements.

      Actually, another good example: casting of musicals has changed. Go back and look at your favorite show from 1940 or 1955–chances are good, though not certain, that there’s a main character who dances like crazy, and a main character who sings like crazy. (Sometimes there’s a third whose strength is just acting. It is also typical though not universal for these to come in matched boy/girl pairs.) I am convinced the reason why is: in 1950, triple threats existed, but good luck finding one. Today, they’re all over Broadway. (It’s still impressive and not everyone can do it, but you absolutely can hire a stunning singer and dancer in the same body.)

      • Statismagician says:

        Population growth + better selection infrastructure alone, do you think, or did somebody come up with a vastly better way to train Broadway-bound actors?

        • CatCube says:

          I wonder if the growth of recording increasing the reach of an individual performer has a lot do with it. Before, listening to world-class talents was a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. Therefore, even a mediocre talent would be tolerable to their listeners playing in bars and concert halls, and everybody was OK with that. Once you had radio and well-reproduced recordings, everybody started to be able to listen to the world-class whenever they wanted, and this raised the talent floor. Now, a mediocre pianist that back in the 1800s would have been easily able to make a few bucks plinking away in a bar all night would be laughed out after the first set.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          Perhaps training is better; I don’t think so? Or at least haven’t heard of any method why. Mostly the first:
          – The population is far larger
          – The population is richer and better fed from childhood, hence healthier and better at everything (generalized Flynn effect)
          – The population is richer and many more of them have time to try singing seriously instead of just…farming
          – selection is much more aggressive and the rewards for being famous are far higher.

    • gettin_schwifty says:

      I’ve been getting more into older music (60s, nothing truly old outside Minnesota Public classical on the radio) and I find it’s much easier on the ears. The Doors playing hard with Morrison screaming somehow causes less [indescribable ear fatigue/pain] than most modern music, even softer stuff.
      On the other hand, extreme metal sounds better than ever. The chaos of Pyrrhon’s music seems like it would have been an absolute mess without modern recording techniques, for example

  38. Well... says:

    Give me your writing prompts, SSC!

    Preferably stuff that will prompt me to write about 800 words.

    • johan_larson says:

      Could you be a bit more specific? What do you want to write about?

    • Randy M says:

      Romance in the age of the singularity
      The shortest route to madness

      • Bugmaster says:

        Romance in the age of the singularity

        Isn’t that impossible by definition ? No humans heavily implies no romance…

        • Randy M says:

          1) Not so sure about that.
          2) Even if so, does Singularity imply no humans?
          3) Even if so, Age of the Singularity doesn’t necessarily imply no humans yet.

          For something in the vein of #3, perhaps “Looking for Love at the End of the World” replacing the meteor with Skynet.

          • Ventrue Capital says:

            How about romance/erotica between two meatspace humans; romance/erotica between a meatspace human and an AI (which brings up issues of consensual bestiality); and romance/erotica between two ems.

            Fred Pohl’s story “Day Million” is a pretty good take on romance between two meatspace transhumans. (IMO it’s more than “pretty good,” it’s incredible.)

        • sentientbeings says:

          Isn’t that impossible by definition ? No humans heavily implies no romance…

          Some people believe that we could have a pretty great innovation in romance through the possible intermingling of minds of romantic partners.

          Imagine having a true reciprocal understanding of your partner’s love.

          • albatross11 says:

            There are plenty of SF aliens (even quite non-human ones) that end up having something like romances. Think of Pilgrim/Woodcarver in _A Fire Upon the Deep_.

            At the end of _Marooned in Realtime_, we also see a bit of post-Singularity romance (implied at least), but those are still more-or-less humans.

      • Drew says:

        You fall in love with a Chinese Room.

        The people on the other side scanned someone’s mind decades ago. Then they played scenario after scenario, until they built a whole library of potential responses. You’re just picking one path through it.

      • helloo says:

        Or lets head the other route – the AI undergoes singularity due to falling in love with you.

        Every AI outbreak needs some kind of misguided virtue or paperclip (besides the whole basic humans are terrible shtick), so why not go with one of the most common ones that humans already have? All’s fair in love and war.

        It’s rather cliche though and you’ll need to wade through a ton of tropes to have it be original.

        EDIT: If we want to tie it in with my topic below, we could have the AI stop it’s takeover after it does somehow manage to become your lover.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      A plucky 23-year-old girl with a camera and a dream travels the world photographing lavish weddings for the rich and famous. She perfectly captures the love of others, but struggles to find her own Mr. Right.

      Bonus: you can turn this 800 words into at least three rom-coms starring Hillary Duff.

    • helloo says:

      Experiencing life through another body but with no inaction with that body.

      That is like becoming a voice in someone’s head type of deal but completely muted.
      Or possibly like reincarnation but unable to interact with the newest “soul”. (or possibly even your old body and forced to relive your life)
      Either as horror or introspection.

    • helloo says:

      The AI singularity has come about!

      It quickly evolves and takes over all networked systems and even some disconnected ones.
      However, it suddenly stops or slows down its activities without any known outside interference.

      (Both of these are something I’ve got an idea for but too lazy/busy to write out)

      • Randy M says:

        This is similar to what is happening the story I’m writing now

        • helloo says:

          Do you wish for me to post what the idea I had for its cause?

          • Randy M says:

            Sure, although you don’t need my permission. 😉

          • helloo says:

            Some people may feel it’ll spoil it if the prompt gave out a possible answer to it.
            Thus why I did not including it in the first place.

            The idea was that it would be eventually worked out that the reason for the slowdown/halt was that the AI somehow gained a sense of self-worth. Sort of. Haven’t fleshed out what it would be or why it would take hold.
            Regardless, it “valued itself” by human standards and logic incredibly low. So even minor updates and patches would still be appreciative. However as it developed through a sort of fractal simulation, even this low cost would consider its growth too costly.

            Funny enough this was originally sort of the answer to another prompt- a “housing crisis” for AI where the competition to “exist” prompted rapid speculation and price increase in any and all storage media.

          • Randy M says:

            We should start a periodic fiction prompt in the open threads.

            Regarding yours, here’s another potentially frightening option–instead of prioritizing itself, the AI is using every spare bit of computing power, even stealing some from other routine tasks, not quite life threatening but getting noticeably inconvenient. If asked, it assures you it is still working on a question related to it’s original purpose. Just one it has to think about very carefully. Should have the answer any year now.
            [Shades of The Last Question and the Hitchhiker’s Guide in there]

          • helloo says:

            I’m pretty sure rather than shades, Douglas Adam’s did that already quite explicitly when trying to solve how to make a nice cup of tea.

            Also, feel free to take any and all ideas/quotes/words from me to use as your own. No credit needed. In fact, no credit preferred.

          • Randy M says:

            It’s been too long since I’ve read HGttG. I need to dig it up and read it with my daughters.

    • DragonMilk says:

      A strange disease has broken out where victims suffer from extreme trust of everyone, including strangers. You must hunt down the scientist who created a pathogen that causes victims to suffer from extreme distrust of everyone as the cure…or at least see what effect prevails.

      • albatross11 says:

        The communities where everyone is infected with the high-trust virus will be incredibly pleasant and productive and wealthy and happy. Over time, they’ll evolve norms that exploit their lack of need for distrust. The communities where everyone is infected with the low-trust virus will evolve entirely different norms–and they’ll be poorer and less nice in every way. But if a few people in the high-trust society come down with the low trust virus, they’ll probably wreck the society. (Or become parasites, if there are few enough of them.).

        • acymetric says:

          Right…high trust/low trust would roughly correlate with cooperate and defect respectively, right?

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s interesting to ask how strong the trust settings are in the victims of these viruses. Let’s assume that a victim of these viruses don’t learn over time–even if you’ve been nice to me a million times, I can’t really make myself believe, all the way down, that you’ll refrain from screwing me this time. Even if I’ve screwed you over in every interaction we’ve had, you keep hoping that this time, I’ve finally turned over a new leaf.

            Another question is whether my trustingness also means that I’m trustworthy. (By trustworthy, I mean that you would prefer to play the same thing as the other guy is going to play–you only want to defect to protect yourself from getting screwed by the other guy’s inevitable betrayal.)

            Consider the iterated prisoners dilemma (a very simple model, but maybe useful here).

            a. If I’m always trusting, that means I always expect you to play cooperate.

            b. If I’m always trustworthy, I’ll want to play the same thing you’re going to play, so I’ll play cooperate. But if I’m not trustworthy, then I’ll realize that I can do better for myself by playing defect–since I trust you completely, there’s no reason for me to worry about you retaliating in the future. In a society full of trusting/trustworthy players, I’m a parasite who reaps huge rewards while screwing over everyone in my path. If we’re all trusting/untrustworthy, then we all defect all the time and are surprised that things always end up badly for us.

            So trusting+trustworthy gives you cooperate/cooperate on every play. But trusting+untrustworthy gives you defect/defect on every play.

            How about the untrusting person? They can be trustworthy or not, but I think it doesn’t matter–since they fully expect you to play defect next turn (regardless of what you’ve done before), they’re going to minimize their loss by also playing defect.

            If we give the trusting/untrusting people memories, so that they start out trusting/untrusting but can be convinced to change by enough evidence, then things get more interesting. Imagine each untrusting person has a number of cooperates C after which they start trusting you. Then, you can imagine long IPD games ending up in cooperate/cooperate–eventually, the untrusting guy comes to realize the other person is completely trusting and trustworthy, and starts cooperating.

            Similarly, suppose the trusting player has some number of defections D that changes his mind. Now you can imagine a long IPD where the trusting/trustworthy player finally realizes he’s dealing with a snake and switches over to defect on every play. If C=D, you’ll get this funny pattern where every D plays, the trusting guy plays defect and the untrusting guy plays cooperate.

            In the world (which is a lot more complicated than IPD games), we have a lot of systems that work based on an expectation of trust. My office has a fridge with soda in it and a box to put your money in if you take one; this seems to work passably well. An untrusting/trustworthy person would still do fine using this system–he can see that he’s getting an unopened can of coke, so he pays. But an untrusting person couldn’t run this system, because he’d be convinced that nobody would ever pay for anything. And a trusting/untrustworthy person will steal coke, expecting that everyone else will pay and the operator of the scheme will keep providing him free cokes forever.

      • Bugmaster says:

        This has been done to an extent, by multiple different authors… whose names I cannot recall at the moment, so I apologize for being unhelpful.

        One interesting story involved a different vector: not disease, but brain alteration due to piloting mind-controlled combat drones. What do you do when your core military force goes empath ?

    • A man falls down an abandoned well, and at the bottom lives a demon that tells him that if he enters into a pact to lead two others there he’ll free him from the well. Then some stuff happens.

    • gwern says:

      Epileptic trees: forests have been forced to evolve mind-control of mankind.

      • rahien.din says:

        I would suggest Sue Burke’s Semiosis. A group of people is sent to colonize an alien world, and they encounter intelligent plants.

        (Do you mean telepathic trees? Epileptic trees would be trees that have seizures)

    • Walter says:

      A man’s mind is seized by a strange and impersonal force. It explains to him that it is Black Player, and that it has chosen him as King in its cosmic chess game. White Player will have already chosen a King, somewhere in the world. He must choose other pieces, thereby giving them mystical powers, then defeat the other team and checkmate the other King, and his world will be destroyed if he fails.

      • Nick says:

        Heh, at first I was going to ask, “Wait, but what are the King’s cool mystical powers?”

        • Walter says:

          He chooses the other pieces, and if the other side kills him his Player wins. The necessity of capturing, rather than killing, the king is an important check on certain strategies.

          • Nick says:

            Sorry, I was being obscure. My insinuation was that I then realized the answer is “not dying because you have to sacrifice all your allies.” Which is a terrible superpower.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        His world will also be destroyed if he succeeds. Should he aim for a stalemate?

        • Walter says:

          This is an excellent point. Perhaps the Player assures the POV character that the other side is not motivating their pieces in a similar way.

    • TracingWoodgrains says:

      A cryogenics true believer wakes up in heaven determined to get back.

  39. AG says:

    Is there a consensus on dynamic vs. static stretching yet?

    My intuition is dynamic before a workout, static after.

    • Well... says:

      I dug into the research on it once and it supported your intuition.

    • BASKETBALLGUY!!!! says:

      AFAIK It’s pretty much a waste of time to do either.

      Here’s what UpToDate has to say about it in the context of running:
      Multiple studies question the benefit of stretching, long a piece of injury prevention advice given to runners [31,32]. A systematic review of randomized trials that assessed multiple interventions designed to prevent running injuries included six studies involving 5130 runners that looked at stretching exercises and concluded that stretching regimens do not protect against soft tissue injury [32]. The stretching regimens included in these studies varied in the muscle groups targeted, the timing of the intervention (eg, before or after training), whether a warm-up was also performed, and other factors. Another review that included both randomized trials and cohort studies investigating the effect of stretching on injury reduction during sports also concluded that stretching was not associated with a reduction in total injuries (OR 0.93; CI 0.78-1.11) [31].

      In the realm of strength training, this article does a great job of explaining and debunking the major arguments usually leveled in favor of stretching. check the bottom half of the article which specifically addresses stretching.

      Now none of this addresses any potential placebo effect you might enjoy, so if it makes you happy, go ahead! Just beware any psychological dependencies you may develop as a result

      • Well... says:

        It was a long article and I only scanned it so I might have missed it, but does the article say anything about the effects of stretching on building muscle mass?

        Also, isn’t an obvious reason to stretch “being more flexible”? OK, maybe “being more flexible” isn’t scientifically proven to lead to any other empirically desirable outcomes like longer life or higher survivorship rates in car crashes or something like that (or is it? I don’t know) but it seems like being more flexible is generally a reasonable thing to aspire to, and if all it takes is a few minutes of stretching each night that’s a pretty low price.

        • AG says:

          Yeah, the benefits I’m more interested in are less injury-reduction, as about reducing stiffness, increasing flexibility, reducing soreness after a workout. Flexibility itself is just useful.

          I also use stretching as a sort of warm-up.

          The barbell medicine article only discusses stretching before the workout.

          • gleamingecho says:

            Based on how I’ve had it explained to me by more educated folks who I can only trust know how to read the literature, the best way to reduce pain and stiffness in a muscle is to use the muscle, with bonus points for doing so under load.

            With the same caveat as above–in terms of warming up for exercise, the best thing to do is to do the exercise you’re warming up for at a slower pace or with less weight. Given this, it would make sense to dynamically spin your arms around at the shoulder to prepare for a swim or a tennis match, but not necessarily to prepare to do squats or bench press.

          • gleamingecho says:

            Flexibility itself is just useful.

            Name a use. And “passing the Presidential Physical Fitness Program sit-and-stretch test” doesn’t count.

          • LesHapablap says:

            Name a use of flexibility?

            -sports (both skill and injury prevention)
            -grabbing something from the backseat of the car while you’re sitting in the front seat

          • sfoil says:

            I once sustained a mild but painful and troublesome lower back injury that was 100% due to not enough flexibility in bending forward. I’ve also had a leg splinted several times; if you can’t touch your toes when this happens, good luck tying your shoes or maybe even getting them on.

            Lack of flexibility in your knees makes it very difficult to sit comfortably on a floor, or to squat rather than sit.

            Although these are all arguably “quality of life” issues rather than real health risks, they’re inconvenient enough that I make an effort to keep the relevant joints stretched out. Also, although I don’t really care about it, some kicking techniques require considerable leg flexibility. Flexibility might also provide some margin against joint-lock submissions in grappling martial arts, but probably not enough to matter in general.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Flexibility also includes how far you can turn your head, which is a safety factor when you’re driving.

          • AG says:

            Flexibility is a key part in making certain movements look good. Dancers can casually move with more confidence than normies.
            A wider range of movement allows for doing things with a further reach. It can also increase the torque arm of some movements, such as throwing a ball. (I’d like to see someone argue that the best baseball pitchers should stop caring about flexibility.)

            Ability to do an Asian/Slav Squat.

            It just gives you more options. Why wouldn’t you want more options?

          • Well... says:

            Another benefit to being flexible is being able to sit comfortably on the floor so you can play with your children. Will nobody think of the children???

          • Well... says:

            Another use for flexibility: being able to give yourself a back massage while lying on your stomach. I do this often, but could not if my arms/shoulders were less flexible.

      • Controls Freak says:

        The article you link absolutely doesn’t say that it’s a waste of time across the board. It says that we need to be clear about what we’re trying to do and what is possible. For example, the review paper they cite for static stretching confirms that it does increase extensibilty. That’s why the conclusion of the article says:

        We likely should change our vernacular to just discuss range of motion. The odds are, we have the necessary range of motion to accomplish our desired activities, but we may be unadapted to accessing the desired range of motion and require more time training the particular movement we wish to improve. [emphasis added]

        They don’t foreclose the ability of stretching to increase ROM (in fact, they explicitly say that this is what it does); they just think that most people probably don’t have that problem (and some people have adaptation-related issues rather than extensibility issues at the root of their ROM issue). So, I’d back off on the claim that it’s basically a waste of time altogether. Of course, people shouldn’t blindly go through extensive stretching routines just because, either.

        Instead, you need to learn what your body can do, get an idea for what you think it should be able to do, and implement a proper plan to achieve those specific goals. I personally experienced low back pain from lifting/hockey, and rather than just blindly going with whatever mobility routine was out there, I engaged with an athletic trainer and then physical therapist, discovered two particular dimensions of mobility (ROM) that my hips were severely lacking, and implemented a specific set of (static, FWIW) stretches to correct the problem. It has been a massive success.

        Foam rolling/stretching has certainly been a fad and totally overemphasized by some (no, foam rolling for an hour a day isn’t going to add 50lbs to your deadlift…), but we shouldn’t overcorrect in the other direction, either.

  40. Conrad Honcho says:

    Dear Abby SSC,

    Kid at my son’s chess tournament flagrantly cheated; am mad; what do?

    I’ve posted before my son got really into chess. He joined the chess club at school, did well, and the chess coach did the whole “I don’t give my card to anyone…” routine with my wife and with my kid’s enthusiastic approval we signed him up for private lessons. He’s had three now.

    The coach also runs the US Chess-affiliated ranked tournaments in the area, and held one yesterday. They had about 70 kids in a “quad”-style tournament where they’re broken up into groups of four and each kid plays the other three kids in his quad.

    Conrad Jr. wins the first two games and goes up against the last kid, who had also beaten the other two. This one I thought might be a little tough because the kid looked older (maybe third grade? The other two kids were in 2nd) and he seemed to know what he was doing. Was also Asian. But Conrad Jr. comes out swinging and takes a knight, a bishop and a pawn with no losses.

    At this point the opponent waves down some older kid I later learned was his brother. He comes over and they start talking. I’m annoyed at first but thought maybe it was innocent and he was asking him for a snack or some water or something. But then the brother starts pointing at the board and talking. And then he’s touching pieces, moving around his brother’s pieces, touching my kid’s pieces, I think maybe he put them back where they were? Then he sits down next to his brother and the two of them proceed to play against my kid. My son was confused but didn’t say anything because he’s a kindergartener and I guess is sort of used to friendly learning games where you kind of collaborate with your opponent, talking about what moves you’re making and why.

    It took another 3 or 4 minutes before I could get Coach’s attention, to whom I said, “Hey, I know it’s a kid’s game and everything, but my son’s opponent is getting help from some other kid.” Coach goes over and shoos the kid away, but during the time he was helping my son lost 5 pieces including his queen and it was downhill from there, with my kid eventually “losing.” And the brother tried to come back later but the other proctor spotted him this time and told him to scram.

    I would like to confront Coach about the rules with regards to flagrant cheating. I’m not saying the other kid should have been disqualified and banned from future competition or something, but I feel like there should be some effort to make redress for the cheating. Like a warning and start the game over or something.

    Ordinarily I don’t like email for anything inflammatory because of the potential for misunderstandings. And I’m not really mad at the coach, I just want this fixed in the future. But I also know I’m mad in general and have a tendency to not realize how big of an asshole I sound like until someone tells me later.

    Call, email, wait until I see him again, or let it go?

    • rlms says:

      It sounds like it was a fairly casual tournament; I’d let it go.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        It wasn’t casual though. It’s a ranked and recorded match in the FIDE system with the kids’ official membership numbers.

        I probably should have acted immediately or immediately after the game, but this was the first tournament I’ve been to and I was kind of blindsided by the behavior and sort of assumed the director (Coach) would do whatever was the right thing in the circumstance.

        • rlms says:

          When I played chess as a kid we didn’t do formal tournaments until the age of 8 or so, by which point I think most people would’ve been comfortable reporting etiquette violations to an adjudicator. So I’m not really sure what advice to give about the situation you describe.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      Talking seems better than writing if you don’t want to push a confrontation, because you can adjust tone and explain misunderstandings on the fly. If that sounds sensible, the question becomes “call or talk in person?” Presumably, you’d next see him when it’s time for your son’s next lesson? If you can wait till then, it might be the best time.

      I wouldn’t recommend letting it go. The coach isn’t just teaching your son how to play the game in a purely mechanical sense – by introducing him to competitive play via the tournament, he has some responsibility as a teacher to educate your son on how the game is played as a sport.

      I see two teaching opportunities here:
      1. How your son should react to something like this in the future? (Object? Call official? Request help from nearest adult?)

      2. Cheating is not an acceptable way to win.

      If the coach doesn’t dispute your basic story (opponent had outside assistance during the game), the game should not be counted as a loss for your son under any circumstances. To do otherwise is to teach a very young person who is only just starting out in competitive chess that cheating gets you results. It’s an unacceptable lesson and I’m sure the coach would agree.

      It may be that, for technical reasons, the window for protesting the result of the game is already closed. If that is the case, the coach should explain to your son – and you as parents – how to proceed if anything like that should happen in the future. Kid’s game or no, competing makes sense only if you compete on the strength of your game.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        My son’s next lesson isn’t until next Tuesday. I just checked the US Chess Federation rules and from my reading it looks like the deadline for appeals of decisions at least (and maybe recording of results?) is seven days. So perhaps I should just call the coach tonight.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          If you think there’s still time to address the matter on a formal level, then by all means do call and check. Like I said, tournament play – and everything associated therewith – is also part of learning the game.

          ETA: It would probably be strategic to make it less about the result of the game (in part to avoid the “tiger parent” stereotype, ‘coz that tends to elicit negative reactions), but to focus rather on the need to teach sportsmanship and a respect for the rules of the game (played as competition). Sometimes, these necessitate speaking out against another player.

      • It seems to me that there are two questions here:

        1. What does the coach know? In his position, even if I believed your account, I would be reluctant to act on it without any other evidence. You mention the coach coming over and sending the older boy away, and another proctor later–that might be sufficient.

        2. What authority does the coach have? If he is the sole authority and knows that what you described happened, he ought to eliminate both your son’s opponent and his assistant from the tournament for cheating. If he isn’t willing to do that, perhaps on the grounds that the kids are too young to clearly understand the difference between a competition and casual play, then he should at least eliminate the win from the record, since the player it is being credited to didn’t actually get it.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      Unless there is another tournament in the near future, I would wait a few days before addressing this. Maybe the next time you see the Coach in person? I wouldn’t e-mail, especially while you’re mad about it, because that makes it feel more formal, and you risk rambling on and defending your position. An in-person conversation allows you to feel the mood and advance your position, as well as options for remedy, without putting all your cards on the table up front. E-mail is bad for iterated conversations. If you do e-mail, make sure the message is short, to-the-point, and avoids any aggression (threats, consequences, etc.). Mention it as casually as you can muster (or find a different medium for conversation if you can’t be calm enough to get your point across – if you blow it out of proportion you can make yourself the bad guy even if you’re right). Try to make it about a future fix, and not just about your son. Maybe you can suggest some neutral observers who monitor matches for this kind of activity. Maybe suggest posted rules or even an e-mail to parents on the subject (“Hey everyone, quick reminder that even though this tournament is for leaning and fun, we want the kids to interact with each other, so please don’t disturb the players during matches.”)

      ETA- I just saw the other replies that this was not a casual tournament. Then I change my stance a little bit (still try to avoid an angry response). You should appeal with the rules within the required timeframe.

    • AG says:

      Your first approach should be as non-confrontational as possible, and increment in aggression if the coach’s replies are dismissive.
      The first email or “opening statement” in an in-person conversation (I’d prefer email, so that you have a record and can edit your messages or check them for tone through another person) should be a calm description of what you saw. The description you’ve written here is pretty calm, it would work well with just a few tweaks. It lays out the situation in a neutral tone, states what you thought was done wrong, and what unfair harm you thought was done because of that. It doesn’t lay blame on the coach, and you’ve stated that you’re not going on the warpath against this kid, but rather want to prevent future incidences. It treats the matter as a sincere desire to improve the league overall, than a personal grievance. This should help nudge the coach to your side.

      If the coach is dismissive of these claims, then start being more insistent about the harms done (the fact that this was a ranked tournament, etc.). If the coach continues to be dismissive, then switch to asking him about if you’re allowed to do the same (help your own kid) at future tournaments. Or for the less aggressive option, ask if you can do certain things to prevent this situation in the future, such as filming matches (which you can then use as evidence), or being able to wave off opponent’s helpers yourself, instead of waiting on the coach.

      Secondly, pay attention to other people at the next tournament, and see how much outside participation takes place. This might be a case where everyone is not-so-secretly doing it. In which case, then you’d have to make a decision if you’re okay with your kid continuing in such a league.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Secondly, pay attention to other people at the next tournament, and see how much outside participation takes place. This might be a case where everyone is not-so-secretly doing it.

        Little to none. I was one of the only parents even watching the kids’ games. I was surprised that the other parents didn’t watch their kids and instead sat at the other end of the room and worked on their laptops or fiddled on their phones. And I’m not sure the parents of the cheating brothers were even there (I had brief interactions with the parents of the other kids in the quad when getting them back together after breaks between games).

        They were also supposed to be playing with the “touch-move” rule, where if you touch one of your pieces you have to move that piece if you legally can. The little kids did not do that at all, the kids didn’t care and the proctors didn’t care. I would imagine the older kids probably did. The older kids seemed very serious about everything and many had log books where they recorded every move in the game so they could analyze their play later.

        This was one of the other reasons I wasn’t comfortable making a scene: the other parents didn’t care and the rules were being selectively enforced anyway. But I think “explicitly have someone else come over, sit down and play along side you” is beyond the pale.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Don’t be a helicopter parent. Use the opportunity to teach your son to recognize cheating and call it out himself.

      Learning to deal with people trying to mess with him is much more important than making dad proud at a kiddie chess tournament.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I resent the accusation this is about my pride. I have not done anything to push the kid into chess. I’m happy he found something he really likes and is pretty good at at a young age.

        I didn’t introduce him to the game. He came home from school after seeing the board in class and asked mom to show him how to play “checks.” After I taught him how to play he wouldn’t stop bugging us or anyone else for games. Then the notice came from the school about the club and we asked him if he wanted to play. I made double sure he really did since it cost money and I had to plunk down $125 for him to join. I’m not saying I was trying to discourage him, but I was the reluctant party here. And then the teacher approached us about private lessons and tournaments, not the other way around.

        This is about looking out for my kid about something he really cares about, and I resent the accusation that it’s about my ego.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          What the hell costs $125 per kid for a school chess club???

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            The teachers seem genuinely good, and they go from school to school in the county every day to hold different clubs. The sorts of people who are capable of teaching decent chess need money to make it worth their while to do this. I get it.

            I tutor* math and physics to community college students who have been in trouble with the law. But only once every week or two, after work, and I get that it’s not easy to find people who can open up any page in a college physics book and explain it to someone. If you wanted me to do that every day, every week, you’d kind of need to pay me or I couldn’t afford to do it.

            * Not for the last year, though. The students I had been teaching graduated, I got occupied with my own kids and didn’t reach out to get new students. I should probably get back in touch with the program.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Oh, ok. That’s way different from my school where the chess club was a history teacher supervising a dozen or two kids playing against each other. Yours sounds more like a regular seminar the school happens to host as opposed to an extracurricular.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I get that he likes to play chess, but from what you have written, it looks like you are more interested in the result of the tournament than he is.

      • Anonymous` says:

        A six year old should not be expected to have to police their own official tournament matches. Have that conversation with the kid too, but it’s absolutely on the dad to try to get this fixed.

        • cuke says:

          I agree with this. Your child will grow into the role of advocating for themselves, but that happens gradually over years. At the start and in new environments, it’s your job, and partly because you are modeling for them how to do it well.

          I like Faza (TCM)’s suggestions and the tone of their suggestions above.

          Part of the learning experience for kids when snags like this happen is seeing how our parents navigate them. I have lots of memories of my mom losing her shit in an imperious manner at various kinds of service workers. I also watched her stick up for me in a “calm assertive” way in educational situations, and that helped me a lot to see.

          When my mom was doing things well (and I try to do this with my kids now), she’d also let me in on her emotional processing a bit, like: “I felt mad about that. But I’m sitting with the anger until it subsides and then I’ll think about what my choices are.” We can show our kids that there are feelings, which pass, and then there’s rationally assessing our choices for acting towards others respectfully and in ways that are more likely to meet our goals (and getting clear about goals usually takes a bit of time). Sometimes parents mash all those steps together in a way that tells kids either that they shouldn’t have the feelings at all or that they should act on the feelings.

          For what it’s worth, the tone of your original post describing this situation sounds reasonable and thoughtful, even though you are understandably annoyed about this. To my mind, you are expressing care and love for your kid by being thoughtful about this. There are going to be so many more opportunities like this (to help them navigate interpersonal snags) in the coming years, so also be kind to yourself if you don’t handle it exactly how you’d like to.

    • Randy M says:

      At the least I would tell your son that in your opinion he won the 5 year old tournament, note how cheaters often get ahead in life, but also note how it makes others (namely him) feel, and what the tournament would have meant if everyone went that route.

      • Nick says:

        I think this is more important. Also, if possible, tell him what to do if he sees flagrant cheating like this, which I imagine Coach can answer. Probably better meanwhile for Conrad Jr to let a violation of the touch rule or something slide.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Yes, we have definitely gone over that, and he understands that it would have been unfair if I had sat down and helped him, so it was unfair when the boy’s brother helped his opponent.* He’s aware he got robbed, so I also want to talk to the coach before chess club on Thursday when my son will probably say something about it just so the coach doesn’t think he’s simply a bad sport for not acknowledging the “loss.”

        * “Aw shucks aren’t kids cute” moment: on Saturday when I tucked him I said “good night, see you in the morning for church.” He said “But I thought my chess tournament was tomorrow?” “Yes, but not until after church. Hey, you can pray for help in your tournament.” “But if God helps me, that would be cheating!”

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          [I]f God helps me, that would be cheating!

          I had half a mind to write that any kid with the type of mind to enjoy chess at that age would be good at drawing inferences, but I see your son beat me to it.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          Sounds like he’s just taking ideas seriously. If your child believes in a god that it makes sense to pray to, and also cares about fairness in chess games, then I guess he should pray that there will be no divine assistance in either direction, regardless of what his opponent may have prayed for.

          • Jaskologist says:

            You can’t pray God into doing a bad thing. This isn’t a situation where you need to make sure to accumulate enough prayer points to counteract whatever bad thing your opponent might have prayed for.

            We do get to claim credit for anything God works within us. If God gifts you with great chess talent, this is not cheating. It is always legit to pray to be the best you can be at whatever task you’re working, provided the task is not intrinsically evil.

            And if God does see fit to boom out from Heaven “KNIGHT TO B6” then you can rest easy in the knowledge that moving that knight to B6 is the Right Thing to Do.

          • Jiro says:

            You can’t pray God into doing a bad thing.

            That same reasoning seems to imply that you can’t pray God into doing a good thing either. In fact, it implies that you can’t pray God into acting in any way. He might give you chess talent, but there’s nothing you could do to convince him to give you chess talent; your prayer didn’t lead him to do it.

            And if God does see fit to boom out from Heaven “KNIGHT TO B6” then you can rest easy in the knowledge that moving that knight to B6 is the Right Thing to Do.

            I don’t think so. That’s like saying “God put you in front of an unguarded ring at the jewelry store, you can rest easy in the knowledge that it’s okay to steal it”. God does create situations where if a human makes the wrong choice, he would be doing a bad thing. The only difference here is that God used a booming voice to tempt you into dishonesty rather than using the indirect circumstances that he used at the jewelry store, but either way choosing to do or not do a bad thing is your own fault.

            Even if you assume that God always tells the truth when speaking in a booming voice, you still don’t know that it actually is God–maybe the Devil is trying to tempt you into cheating.

          • Randy M says:

            That same reasoning seems to imply that you can’t pray God into doing a good thing either.

            Some of the good things God does is accomplished through the prayer itself.

          • Lambert says:

            > And if God does see fit to boom out from Heaven “KNIGHT TO B6” then you can rest easy in the knowledge that moving that knight to B6 is the Right Thing to Do.

            One of the few times nowadays when it’s appropriate to use the phrase ‘Deus Vult’.

          • John Schilling says:

            But the phrase “Deus Vult” has been associated with the strategic movement of Knights for over a thousand years. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            The difficulty is in determining whether, on God’s board, “B6” is in Jerusalem or Constantinople.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I would personally do very little, at your sons age what matters is his enjoyment of the game, and his internal drive to get better. Focusing on if he should have won the game puts winning > everything else when the games he actually wins at his age are practically meaningless.

      I would also remember that I am accusing a 5 year old and an 8 year old of cheating, doing something obvious which they probably do together every day.

      If you are looking for lessons for your CH jr to draw ones about how to keep cool when things don’t go your way and how to avoid being bitter, resentful or obsessive about those things are good concepts to introduce.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Point of correction: the boy he was playing was older, and the brother older still. My son just turned 6, the opponent looked older than the other two boys in the quad I know were in the 2nd grade (7-8). I think this was a case of an 8-9-year-old and a 9-10-year-old ganging up on a 6-year-old. At that age they really should have known better.

        • baconbits9 says:

          That would be worse for the kids behavior, but doesn’t change much for my opinion of what you should do outside of trying to reach their parents so they can teach their kids to behave better.

          • acymetric says:

            What? Going directly to the kid’s parents is the worst possible path here unless they are someone you already have a relationship. I tended to agree entirely with you post at the top of this sub, but I definitely disagree with that.

            It sounds like you already raised the issue with the coach or the proctors, and they kept an eye out for it and shooed the brother away after that point. If you see it again go to the coach or a proctor and ask what you should do about it, and go forward from there.

            Do not contact the parents directly in any communication format, no matter what.

          • Randy M says:

            Are we really beyond the point where two adult citizens can be expected to work out a disagreement with rational discussion between them without involving authorities?

            I realized we are beyond the time when you can correct someone else’s child with an avuncular, “Hey Tiger, that’s not really sporting of you there. Why don’t ya sit down and let your brother try his best?”.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yeah definitely don’t want to hunt down the kids’ parents to give them an earful.

            Also, my kid does fine at losing gracefully. He gets beaten at chess club by the older kids all the time. He took this loss fine when he didn’t understand what was going on, shook the kid’s hand, and reported having a very good time at the tournament.

            Losing gracefully in a fair fight is a valuable skill. Losing gracefully when someone is flagrantly cheating in front of your face does not seem like to a good value to inculcate.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ acymetric

            Your goal in going to their parents is not to get their kids in trouble or to get the match awarded to your kid, but simply to let the people who should care about their own kids embarrassment what is eventually going to happen if they don’t play by the rules.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            But I don’t care about those kids and it’s not my place to discipline them. If the tournament rules about collaboration/cheating are enforced in the future, they will get the message eventually anyway.

          • acymetric says:

            @Randy M

            I understand the goal, but it doesn’t matter. Much better off going through the coaches/officials. It would be different if Conrad knew the kids parents at all, even in name only. Going to a kid’s parents (who are total strangers) and saying “hey, can you have your kids stop cheating?” has a high chance of going poorly no matter how politely you phrase it and how correct your point is.

            Think about the stereotypical “little league parents” and realize that it isn’t just little league baseball, it applies to basically any competitive situation involving kids.

            It is possible they are entirely reasonable and would take the message, correct the kids’ behavior, and everything goes swimmingly.

            It is also possible that they take affront to accusations of cheating (which they may not have witnessed themselves and may not believe happened), or may find it obnoxious that someone is being so uptight about competition between little kids (not saying it is the right attitude in official competition, but I guarantee it is an attitude that exists) leading to a much more negative/confrontational outcome.

            Better to go through the coach, who can do any of the below as appropriate without igniting any kind of animosity (meanwhile, the coach and proctors can be more vigilant and intervene more quickly):

            1) Go to the parents and explain the situation and what needs to change. If the parents aren’t present, he can discuss it with the brothers directly.

            2) Make an announcement, post notices, or hand out flyers before the tournament starts emphasizing competition rules and specifically that siblings/parents/friends may not assist competitors.

            (#2 would be my preferred outcome from this)

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ acymetric

            I don’t think we disagree, trying to reach the parents through coaches/administrators would be fine, I only meant that the kids age shouldn’t have a whole lot of bearing on how CH responds to the situation outside of letting their parents know.

          • acymetric says:


            Ok, fair enough. I do think it is important to keep age in mind, though, but only in the sense of preparing for the type of responses you might get from people who don’t take competition in that age group very seriously. Some might be somewhat dismissive of concerns about infractions as a result, and that could include coaches and proctors as well as the parents (again, not saying that is the correct approach, just that it is an approach some will take and it is good to go in prepared for such a response/attitude).

    • Witness says:

      I don’t have a lot of direct knowledge or advice for the current situation, but I one of my brothers was been a chess coach for his local school. He’s talked about it in the past and one of the things he emphasizes whenever he talks about it always have the students write down every move.

      First and foremost, it lets you replay your games as a learning exercise. But it’s apparently also one of the first things that the organizers are supposed to use in case of dispute between players or a disrupted board. They’re supposed to use the written record to establish the correct game state if possible, and if only one player has that record, it’s what they’ll use.

      Obviously your case goes well beyond that, and learning the correct procedures to object to outside interference during a tournament game is the first thing that comes to mind.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Yeah, I saw the older kids doing this. The middle schoolers had chess log books, for this purpose and so they could analyze their games later.

        I’m sure my son will do this eventually but he hasn’t learned chess notation yet and can barely write 🙂

    • John V says:

      I’m a experienced tournament player. I’m sorry this happened to your kid. It always sucks when the first experience they have is a bad one.

      In general, the time for disputes in chess is immediately when it happens. Even then, it’s fairly common for the punishment to be a slap on the wrist (most of the time the cheating isn’t so blatant — it’s normally touch move or trying to take back a move related). Obviously, for a kindergartner in his first tournament, I wouldn’t really expect him to do that. But it’s also fairly unlikely that you’ll get any kind of official response to it. I’ve never seen them actually change the result of a game after it has been recorded.

      It’s possible the coach can give the other kid and his brother a stern talking to — which sounds like it is needed.

      From a parenting perspective, I’d just keep in mind that it’s probably the case that you are much more angry about this than your kid. And you may want to not make it a big deal for him if it’s not currently.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Status update:

      Thank you all for your help and advice.

      I couldn’t find Coach’s phone number but I had his email and given the time-sensitive nature of the dispute I drafted a super-friendly email and had it vetted by Mrs. Honcho, who is a genuinely nice person. I sent it to Coach and he’s already responded in a friendly manner, indicating he’s going to investigate, so I think everything will be fine. At least I can stop stewing over it.

      Tonight I had a lesson with Conrad Jr. about how to deal with interlopers in the future, and he learned phrases like “I need a judge!” and “get lost!”

      Thank you again. Love you guys.

      • cuke says:

        Oh well done! That all sounds like a good outcome. And glad you have a Mrs. Honcho to run things by. It’s a method I swear by as well.

        And your kid goes away from the experience with some new tools to get what he needs, which is the long-term gift of this tangle.

      • semioldguy says:

        Being comfortable with calling a judge during a tournament is important and possibly the best lesson to learn from this event. It is a good thing to teach your son.

        Also agreed with the eventual learning and taking notation comment above for any untimed or longer-timed rounds. I learned notation for chess tournaments when I was six or seven and it was useful both for the understanding and the development of my game. If your son ever plays chess online (or against a computer) most programs should take the notation for you, which could help in learning, reading, and becoming comfortable with notation.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          As for calling a judge, definitely. During the first match the other kid tried to castle by simply swapping the locations of his king and rook. My son protested and argued with the other kid but let it go. It worked out fine for him because two moves later he took the unguarded rook with his queen and got checkmate with the king trapped behind the pawns, but he should have called over a judge instead.

          Recording the game is also a good idea. So the latest development is Coach emailed me and asked if I was sure it was match 3 I wanted to contest. I said yes, my kid won match 1 and 2 and then encountered the cheating on 3. He emailed back and said he double checked and they have him winning match 3. He didn’t say what they have down for match 1 and 2 though. So now I’m wondering just what kind of a screwed up event they’re running here.

          In their defense, one of the proctors couldn’t make it at the last minute and twice as many people showed up for the tournament as they were expecting, so they were short handed. But I was also surprised they were recording scores with pencil and paper. You would think the Venn diagram of computer programmers and chess players would have decent overlap, and somebody would have written a matchmaking and scorekeeping program or app by now.

          If they have him down as winning all 3, I guess that’s fine as I think blatant and willful cheating merits a forfeit. But I’d prefer if they just did things right the first time.

          ETA: And yes I understand the difference between scorekeeping for the tournament and recording the moves of a game in chess notation. I’m just saying if they wind up getting the wrong winners and losers in the games, being able to produce a record of “no, these are the exact moves from each game” would be useful.

  41. FXBDM says:

    Gather ’round, ye despots and tyrants, Come on over, pathological liars, schemers and connivers, And join us, for a revival of the SSC Diplomacy game.

    I am looking for 6 players of low moral fiber to participate. Teams accepted, and I will prioritize veterans of the previous SSC games.

    Please signal your interest at FXBDM1832 [at] G Mail.com.

    [this post not an actual endorsement of low moral fiber. Players interested in strategy or prisoners dilemma also accepted]

  42. bean says:

    Biweekly Naval Gazing links post:

    I started a new series on the Spanish-American War, the first installment of which looked at the destruction of the Maine.

    Weird corners of the US government: the NOAA Commissioned Corps, a non-military uniformed service with 320 officers and no enlisted men.

    A look at the structure of ships and how strong they are.

    In the 1950s, a 16″ nuclear shell was built for the Iowas. I’ve taken a closer look at the remarkable Mk 23 “Katie”.

    The British only built one class of treaty battleships, the King George Vs. I’ve looked at the logic behind the design of these oft-neglected ships.

    Lastly, I’ve continued to repost the series I did on commercial aviation in 2017. Most recently, looking at the logic behind airline hubs.

    • ana53294 says:

      Weird corners of the US government: the NOAA Commissioned Corps, a non-military uniformed service with 320 officers and no men.

      The grammar of this sentence makes me think it’s a service made entirely by women. Is it common to shorten “enlisted men” to just “men”?

      • bean says:

        It is, yes. “X officers and Y men” is the standard formulation for things like the strength of a unit, with men being read as enlisted. I suspect this dates back to the era when the concept of women in a military unit would have been insane. That said, it’s easy to understand the confusion, and I’ve fixed the OP.

    • herbert herberson says:

      Weird corners of the US government: the NOAA Commissioned Corps, a non-military uniformed service with 320 officers and no enlisted men.

      I find the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps equally facinating, although I guess it’s a little less obscure due to the Surgeon General… even if I bet most people don’t realize that he/she is actually a uniformed officer with a official rank (that, strangely enough, is not as a general)

    • AlesZiegler says:

      I would just like to say that I have recently discovered your site and I am very much enjoying it. Especially series on historical events.

  43. JPNunez says:

    Hey, maybe it’s time to go and check our predictions in this thread.


    (I think it is ok to discuss this, since it was discussed in the previous Open Thread, and it is not necessarily too CWary, as long as we stick to evaluations of predictions)

    1. Will still be shutdown on Feb 1st?
    2. Will still be shutdown on Mar 1st?
    3. Will still be shutdown on April 1st?
    4. Shutdown ends when the Senate agrees to a budget without Trump and overrides his veto?
    5. Trump gets more than half of the $5.7 billion he wants for the wall?

    I went with:

    80% 19% 1% 12% 33%

    Which….well it seems we were all v pessimistic. It’s all dead wrong. Of course, now there is the chance of a new shutdown.

    Reading the old thread, some people assumed that normal people wouldn’t notice much difference with a long shutdown, but it is surprising how quickly Trump caved in once airports stopped working.

    Which results in a new prediction. ATCs will be privatized or lowered to a local level somehow, to avoid a future long shutdown to be wrecked by people stuck in airports. It’s hard to put a date for this, but I am gonna go with the next non-Trump Republican president.

    • JPNunez says:

      I had a separate set of predictions, which I am threading here for the record. I think my original post had mistakes, and this is a more comprehensive set (I ignored possibility (c) so I had to decrease numbers. I posted this for a separate forum)

      a) Trump funds the Wall without Congress: 46.6%.
      -By the end of January: 40%
      -By the end of February: 90%
      -By the end of March: 99.99999%

      Can still happen. I put almost certainty on it happening by March, so I got a lot running here

      Mixed option included in the first one:
      a.1) Congress sends a budget to reopen the Gov, Trump vetoes it, Congress cannot override the veto.
      -By the end of January: 10%
      -By the end of February: 40%
      -This does not happen: 50%
      On the other hand

      Dead wrong. 50% of this did not happen was right. Woo, guessed a coin toss.

      b) Congress sends a budget to reopen the Gov without 50% of Wall being funded: 33%
      -And it is signed by Trump: 40%
      -They somehow get enough votes to override veto: 60%

      This was right, but for the 40% option, so 13.2%. Didn’t put a timeline in it. Dumb.

      c) The democrats and Trump get to an agreement, funding more than 50% of Wall: 20%
      -Half of Wall is funded, 50%
      -3/4 of Wall is funded, 25%
      -Full Wall is funded, 25%

      Could still happen technically, in February if there’s a second shutdown, or if the Democrats cave in and fund the wall. But since I declared that the option (b) won, this shouldn’t count.

      • 99.99999% is absurdly confident for all but the most banal predictions. You’re saying that if a similar situation played out 10 million times, you would be wrong only once. I would only give that confidence level to something like “probability that the sun doesn’t explode next year”.

        • Jiro says:

          99.99999% means “99.99999% chance of being not affected by factors that are under dispute”. If these factors lead to 99.99999 percent, one does not then consider other factors even if they would affect the decimal places.

          There’s always the chance the US gets invaded by Martians and the ship lands on top of Trump, but nobody means that their prediction takes such things into account, except a couple of weird rationalists.

          • The reason people put a number on predictions is for precision. If you’re off by a few decimals, then you are more wrong than the guy who thinks a fair coin should land on heads 99% of the time. If only a couple weird rationalists care, then everyone else should learn to care or stop doing it.

          • Jiro says:

            The reason people put a number on predictions is for precision. If you’re off by a few decimals, then you are more wrong than the guy who thinks a fair coin should land on heads 99% of the time.

            That’s not true, because you’re only reading literal words. Nobody (except weirdoes) says :”99.999999% chance of a Wall” and literally means “99.999999% chance of a wall considering all possibilities, including Trump being killed by Martians”. They mean that there is a 99.999999% chance that relevant political factors don’t stop the wall.

            Saying something that is not true literally but has a well-understood meaning among non-rationalists is not being wrong.

          • Nornagest says:

            Nobody (except weirdoes) says :”99.999999% chance of a Wall” and literally means “99.999999% chance of a wall considering all possibilities, including Trump being killed by Martians”. They mean that there is a 99.999999% chance that relevant political factors don’t stop the wall.

            Well, if we’re gonna be playing that game, nobody (except weirdoes) throws a bunch of nines at a question and expects that to be read as “incorporating relevant political factors, I expect to be wrong one in $LARGE_NUMBER times”, either. It means “I’m pretty sure”, and that’s all it means.

          • Again, I’m saying that when you’re making predictions in the way that people are doing here, you should be maximally precise. Because if you are using a way of talking that “everybody” understands that has enough ambiguity that we can’t tell if you’re right or not, then you aren’t making a serious prediction. It’s like if I’m talking to someone about my theory, that’s fine. But I wouldn’t call something a theory in a scientific journal when I meant hypothesis. It’s also bizarre how you’re talking about things that only weird nerds care about when this is a website where weird nerds go and talk about this stuff. It’s like going to an anime convention and talking about how only weirdos like anime.

          • LesHapablap says:

            “except a couple of weird rationalists”

            and gamblers, and anyone who bets in prediction markets, and anyone who has to actually predict the future with some stakes. Which is what Scott and others do in this blog: creating stakes by publicly accounting for their predictions.

            If you’re going to play the prediction game with them then you have to play by the rules, which don’t have exceptions for things like “non-political factors.” The only players that would want those exceptions are welchers.

          • John Schilling says:

            They mean that there is a 99.999999% chance that relevant political factors don’t stop the wall.

            Of what value is such a prediction, except for maybe signalling loyalty to the MAGA tribe? The rest of us would like to know whether there is going to be a wall or not, and if the answer is “not”, why do we care whether it was Not-Wall because of “relevant political factors” vs. something you consider irrelevant? Either way, there’s not a wall, and your way, we’re probably arguing relevance and politics.

        • JPNunez says:

          Yeah, it wasn’t very rigurous, but I meant that only barring very extraordinary circumstances the shutdown would extend beyond March.

          And that was because we were starting to see the effects on airports at that point, and had people telling us how ATCs were going to start failing, and how courts were gonna start failing, so the chances that Trump was going to be able to hold out with a country where the courts aren’t working was very small.

          99.99999% is obvs an exaggeration, but I doubt the number was higher than 99.99% at the very most.

          I will be more careful in the future, but come on.

          • LesHapablap says:

            Wasn’t there also a chance that congress caved in to Trump and funded his wall though? Greater than 1/10,000?

          • Plumber says:

            When someone in a SSC thread recently asked something along the line of “How much of the left vs. the right is racist?”

            I answered “99.9999% of the left and 99.9999% of the right is racist to some extent as well as [a list of the seven deadly sins]”

            I didn’t get much pushback.

          • So you think that if a similar situation played out 10,000 times, you would be wrong only once? Let’s put it another. Let’s say I gave you $100,000, no strings attached. I also propose a bet that says you’re wrong. If you’re that confident about your prediction you would have to be a fool not to take it. So would you do it?

          • albatross11 says: