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. sandoratthezoo says:


    This is my very non-traditional RPG, A Finer World.


    I’m not sure if it will be of interest to people here, because most conversation I’ve seen here about RPGs has been about very mainstream and/or old-school roleplaying, while this is very-low-to-no-combat game of trying to improve local communities.

    On the other hand, I feel like it might be relevant to the general interests of the community.

    This game is set in the Exalted universe (aka Creation). It is a fan-work, with no official sanction of any kind.

    The player characters are Solar Exalted (which is to say, “grossly overpowered demigods”) who have decided to use their incredible power not to hit other types of Exalted with absurdly oversized swords, but instead to try to raise the people of Creation out of poverty and malthusian traps, one community at a time. Powers are based around training NPCs, creating infrastructure, and chartering organizations.

    The game is diceless and resolution is largely systemless, in the tradition of Amber Diceless Roleplaying.

    The game is incomplete in as much as I have tons more work to do in writing out my thoughts about guidelines for how to think about various kinds of interventions in the community, but complete in terms of “rules.”

    • dndnrsn says:

      Just an initial thought – it would be helpful if right up front you explained the philosophy of how you’ve put the game together and what this game brings to the table that Exalted doesn’t. You describe the game from within, but I’m left wondering why play this instead of Exalted and do a low-combat game. You’re not selling this, so you have nothing to lose by being completely upfront (most games are written kinda coy, if that makes any sense). Here in your comment you describe it a bit; just expand on that and talk about what’s behind the hood and why a bit more.

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      What sort of interest are you trying to glean here? Feedback on the rules as-is? People to play with you? People to play your game separate and apart from you and then tell you what they think? Something else?

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        If anyone has any comments, I’m interested, but I also just thought that folks might be interested.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      So, I think there should be mechanically-defined ways to deal with attention. Either give the GM an attention budget they can “burn” to create problems or give the players an attention decrease from dealing with problems, and lay it out in the book. Building an ideal civilization is a worldbuilding exercise, and if there’s a game loop to be found here I think it lies in managing attention mechanically.

      E: I realize you talk about the “attention track,” but I think that philosophically it makes more sense for the GM to be reactive than to be advancing a parallel track. As written I don’t think there’s a lot of surface area for the attention mechanic even though it’s what your players are playing around, which I think makes it play more like a timer than a bank balance, and I favor the bank balance side pretty strongly. You do you, of course.

      I also think there’s more room philosophically to talk about social reactions to the players’ activities. Attention from other Solars is, as written, basically the only mechanical threat; while it’s true that local resistance is unlikely to be able to counter the players on the battlefield, it can easily rip their society apart, and I think Attention might need to be redeveloped as a concept (my immediate thought is “Tension”) in order to accommodate that. Otherwise, the people of the society they’re making are sort of just toys, and I don’t think that’s very interesting.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        Attention is from the Realm, not other Solars, fwiw, at least by default.

        I certainly agree that part of the challenge of the game is for their best-laid plans to have unexpected consequences, especially second-order ones. That’s definitely part of the game every time I’ve run it. That said, I think that this challenge resists being turned into a neatly scalarized mechanical subsystem.

        I don’t think that the Amber approach to roleplaying is very well-known right now, but it’s my favored approach, and basically it says, “Hey, instead of needing to track everything with points, let’s give the players and the GM just barely enough mechanical framework to establish a common viewpoint on the world, and then handle everything else via the GM making decisions that are grounded in that viewpoint on the world.”

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Then why have attention, mechanically? (Conceptually, of course, it makes perfect sense.)

          My interpretation is obviously wrong, but right now it feels too mechanically laid out to be adapted to on the fly on the GM side and not mechanically laid out enough to be played around on the player side. That might be (probably is) just in my reading of the game, but I think that attention stands out as the most gamified and therefore centralizing mechanic. As written, I think I would have paid too much, uh, attention to it compared to what you’re indicating. I’m not sure how to address that, though – I’m bad at writing GM sections for rulebooks.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Attention is what prevents you from solving every problem in the world, turning every society into the most optimal possible given the constraints of the setting. It’s what prevents you from saying, when dealing with the unintended consequences of your first set of changes, “Oh, no problem, let me just make ten more changes to iron those out.”

            If you mean, “Why not just handle that descriptively as well,” then it’s because I wanted to keep the attention focused on the local community. This isn’t meant to be a game about cat-and-mouse espionage with the Realm. It’s supposed to be a game about basically fantasy third-world development, I guess. I wanted to give players enough of a hard-and-fast mechanic that they could just say, “Okay, we know that the Realm is out there and so forth, but we don’t need to play out a constant attempt to quarantine information and engage in counter-espionage to whatever agents they send here. Instead, we can just look at this score.”

          • Joseph Greenwood says:

            I expect you would put this in sooner or later on your own, but some manner of guidelines regarding “how much attention is too much” would probably be useful for prospective GMs.

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      I am very curious about your four virtues. Conviction, compassion, valor, temperance. Where did these come from? They look sort of like the cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, wisdom, justice), but you are putting more emphasis on… kindness? Belief? Are you fitting the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity into your system? But wisdom and justice=righteousness/fairness seem like foundational virtues too.

      Are you following the lines established by the Exalted universe? I confess I know nothing about that. But it seems there are some very interesting philosophical and ethical questions going into this scheme, and unlike, say, in D&D, it seems like that is the point.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        They’re from the parent Exalted game, yes.

        I like them as the four cardinal virtues of the (old, now effectively dead) religion of the Unconquered Sun (which is the god that the PCs are the demigod servitors of). I like that the Unconquered Sun thinks those traits are cool, so he gives his servants the ability to make people have more of those traits (but not less, and not make other changes to people’s minds).

        Mechanically, I wanted to give people very limited, but not nonexistent, abilities to change who people are, not just what they do. It seems interesting to me.

        • Joseph Greenwood says:

          I find these virtues very reasonable as “One god thought they were the most important things.”

  2. Edward Scizorhands says:

    I thought “what are you most left wing, right wing, and libertarian beliefs” was an amazing thread. It took me a while to figure out my answer, too, which involved a lot of reflection, since I couldn’t just answer with what gets me kicked out of conservative circles what gets me downvoted to oblivion in liberal circlejerks. (In each case, it’s trying to hold back the extremes, which is almost the opposite of what the question was.)

    • Plumber says:

      @Edward Scizorhands,

      It was interesting and fun, I found it notable that despite us posting are most “extreme” views the discussion seemed pretry civil to me, maybe because we tried to think of at least one opinion from each political alignment.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      What interested me was how hard I found it to come up with a left or right view that didn’t overlap with my libertarian ones. Or, a view I held strongly, that could plausibly be difficult for a for hardcore libertarian to hold. I would guess analogous results for people on the left or right. It feels a bit threatening to me. I like being able to entertain other points of view well enough to explain them to other people (one day, I wrote a defense of progressivism on a friend’s FB page at his invitation, and I think I did a fairly good job), and that thread gave me some much needed pause.

  3. hash872 says:

    How’s everyone’s phenibut experience? I did so search SSC for ‘phenibut’ using the Google site: command, but I was interested in starting a thread about it. Do people really effectively use it to reduce social or performance anxiety?

    (As someone typing on 1500 mg of it right now) I’ve used it recreationally pretty much exclusively. It’s a good, moderately strong feel-good type of high that mixes well with a drink or two (not too much alcohol, obviously). It also blends well with a runner’s high- I’ll take some, immediately go for a run, and then know I’ll very Zen for the rest of the day. Because it lasts for so long, if there’s any chance that I’ll be having a bad day or feel depressed, I can take some knowing that it basically guarantees a day of personal happiness without intoxication or feeling too ‘chemically’. (The one time I ran into someone I casually knew on the street while I was on it, we had a semi-awkward ‘so what’ve you been up to’ convo- NBD, but just proof that it doesn’t magically cure awkwardness or mild social anxiety or anything).

    Other random observations:

    I never ever take it more than once a week, as everyone agrees it’s terribly addictive. But, I’ve taken it once a week for 6+ months now, without issue. The one time I had a break in there due to traveling, I had no withdrawal and no desire to do more.

    I never felt much below 1500 mg, which doesn’t seem to be everyone’s experience. (And I’m like average weight and never take any other GABAs). Online guides seem to recommend people dose anywhere from 750-1500mg max, which I guess is just being conservative. I started at 500mg, then the next week took 750, then the next week took 1000, and so on, just to make sure I never took too much. Curious if people microdose for social situations or something.

    My tolerance definitely increased pretty rapidly, but I’m afraid to continually increase my dosage for recreation, so I just stay at 1500 mg (I think I took 1750 once). It’s no longer quite as euphoric as those first half a dozen times, but it’s still good enough as a mood enhancer.

    Contrary to what some people say, I find that it does mix fine with some alcohol. (Various people online made it sound like you’d been shouting in the streets with no pants on if you had two drinks). I feel unusually alert while drinking- reminds me of the one time I took suboxone and also drank.

    It seems to take 3 hours for me to feel any effect, which is pretty unlike any drug I’ve ever done (even psychedelics start to kick in after an hour). I wonder what it is about the pharmacology that takes that long, quite unusual.

    As mentioned above, it’s basically my ‘anti-depressant for a day’ if needed (plus I can still work and function and communicate without seeming intoxicated). While it is not instant onset, it can be a useful mood tool.

    Contrary to what virtually everyone says, it has little to no affect on my sleep quality (online guides universally say you have amazingly great quality sleep when you take it). On the other hand, it doesn’t do anything negative to my sleep either, and there’s absolutely no hangover or negative effects the next day.

    Anyone else have any general phenibut experiences they’d like to share? I’m particularly interested if people take it for social anxiety, dating, etc.

    • toastengineer says:

      Stuff got me a job. Doesn’t magically give me the ability to navigate social situations, but it at least enables me to shrug off mistakes and outwardly act like I know what I’m doing. Can be used to “force a good day” in higher doses. Limit it to twice a week or less, no adverse affects so far. Does definitely double the effect of alcohol.

      • hash872 says:

        Like, you just took it before your job interview to calm your nerves & perform better? Have you ever used it for dating/would you recommend it?

        Random but months ago I told my BJJ friend who works at Toast (the POS software company) that someone named ‘toastengineer’ posts on SSC, he said to ask you if a burrito was a sandwich. He said this question consumes the Toast internal discussion board for hours at a time

  4. Le Maistre Chat says:

    What’s the deal with the term “sensible shoes”? Does anyone actually use this “women in sensible shoes/women in senseless shoes” dichotomy IRL?
    (Literally senseless shoes would be cool. You appear barefoot, amd your feet are now totally silent. The shoes are also odorless and tasteless.)

    • Charles F says:

      As far as I know, the term “sensible shoes” in an event description means you should expect to spend a lot of time walking (so definitely don’t wear high heels) and it’s quite common. I’ve never heard the term “senseless shoes” though.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I probably have a skewed perspective on this, because I find even most flat shoes a discomfort to walk in due to small, tapered toe boxes. “Senseless shoes” isn’t actually used as an antonym: the implied Antony is “heels”. As if high heels are the only thing that could hurt women’s feet…

        • Charles F says:

          I’m not completely sure if I’m right, but I’ve always considered dress shoes in general to be excluded, with heels being especially bad. I always wear regular hiking boots when told to wear sensible shoes and it’s always been fine.

    • Deiseach says:

      As someone with broad feet and high arches, I’ve pretty much worn “sensible shoes” all my life since anything with heels was not alone nearly impossible to find in my size* (anything over the range of tiny narrow feet and you can forget about finding a stylish pair of shoes) but ended up very fast with broken heels. Also, walking a lot and standing/being on your feet means flat soles and good heel and arch support are better – I’ll never forget buying my first pair of ECCO shoes and being asked if I were a nurse (seemingly those were the brand of choice for the profession at the time). Good solid lace-up shoes of this type are what I usually wear 🙂

      Pumps and flats are a slightly different thing. I think that since wearing runners/trainers/sneakers/athletic shoes/however you call ’em has become much more acceptable and part of everyday wear and not just for sports, that “sensible shoes” have been replaced by those in the most part, but there’s still a place for a good solid pair of walking shoes.

      *When you’re fifteen and find you can wear your father’s shoes, you work out pretty fast that High Fashion is not going to be in your future. If you’re fat, you can starve yourself to fit into a dress, but unless you emulate Cinderella’s stepsisters and cut bits off your feet, you are not going to be able to wear the kinds of girly shoes the run of shoeshops stock. Mind you, my dad had small feet for a man, but that means I have big feet for a woman 🙂

      • Don_Flamingo says:

        Ecco’s are great. Ecco Bioms (very similar to yours, I think) used to be the only ones I could wear till even that became painful at the heel and I’m at Vibram five fingers now (glad, I’m not a girl!).
        [I have normal sized feet for a tall man, but my heels are too small, which caused friction and eventually something that needs an MRI to figure out; inflammed bursa or spur or Haglund deformity]

        If you’re dealing with flat feet and various other bad feet structure issues as well, I can recommend “Spiraldynamik” (new weirdo/hipster ortho therapy from Switzerland; basically foot gymnastics). Recommending this, because issues like these are sometimes fixable without surgery and this isn’t common knowledge yet, I think. Fixed my flat feet at least, though it did that before my twenties, so YMMV.

    • Nornagest says:

      Literally senseless shoes would be cool. You appear barefoot, amd your feet are now totally silent. The shoes are also odorless and tasteless.

      The downside is that they can only be made from the hides of invisible garage dragons, so they’re very expensive.

    • Plumber says:

      @Le Maistre Chat

      “What’s the deal with the term “sensible shoes? Does anyone actually use this “women in sensible shoes/women in senseless shoes” dichotomy IRL?…”

      I remember that “Oh yeah, she wears sensible shoes” was code for: “She doesn’t seem interested in boys or men, and is likely to be a lesbian”, but I haven’t heard that since the 1990’s.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        I heard “woman in comfortable shoes” (my emphasis) as code for “lesbian” into the 2000s.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        OK, so this is a thing people said in the wild. The expression is just dated.
        23 skidoo!

      • acymetric says:

        I’ve heard it used as a backhanded “compliment” for someone who is wearing shoes that aren’t “cute” or stylish (this would come from other girls/women being catty mostly). I’ve also seen it used in a less derogatory way to describe someone who is not high-maintenance. I’m not sure I ever saw it used as a euphemism for being a lesbian but I can’t say nobody uses it that way.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          I used to sell shoes during high school, and found that quite a few women in their 40s and 50s came in looking for “comfortable” shoes. Earlier in their lives, they had worn more stylish options and now found their feet hurt, especially for those who spent a lot of time standing (nurses were quite common). Whatever other baggage might be attached to calling them “sensible” shoes, they seemed quite content to accept the fashion downgrade in order to achieve a more important function.

        • whereamigoing says:

          Am I the only one who finds high heels unattractive? Comfort aside, they just look weird and I don’t see why anyone would wear them.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Certainly the default answer to “am I the only one” is almost always no.

            But I think it’s probably very unusual to actively find them unattractive. They make the calves and legs stand out in a very nice way as well as forcing an exaggeratedly feminine walk, both of which are very attractive to most people who are attracted to women.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            I mostly agree. I don’t find strutting attractive at all, and heels clacking gives me conniptions. I hate wearing male dress shoes because of it.

          • Nornagest says:

            You can get men’s dress shoes with rubber soles; they’re considered slightly more casual than leather but still appropriate with a suit. “Dainite” is a brand of rubber sole that you’ll see a lot.

            Failing that, it’s possible to find men’s shoes with leather soles but rubber heels or rubber keys in the heels, which will cut down on the clacking a lot.

          • Lambert says:

            People wear leather soles day-to-day?
            My patent shoes are leather-soled, and that’s only ok because I only wear it a few times a year with all my other least-practical clothes.

            I’d also advise asking the local cobbler whether they can affix rubber soles to a leather-soled shoe.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I’m surprised you’d only find men’s dress shoes without rubber heel covers. That seems surprisingly old-timey.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @whereamigoing: I believe men commonly find high heels unattractive on tall women, but it’s not like I’ve done a scientific survey.

          • Plumber says:


            “Am I the only one who finds high heels unattractive?…”

            If I women pairs them with a dress or skirt they look fine to me, but when the open styled ones (“pumps”) are pared with pants, even tights (“leggings”) they just look ‘off’ somehow to me.

            A women in jeans is fine, a women in a dress and “pumps” is fine, but somehow jeans and pumps together just look wrong to me, just like a man in a suit paired with running/tennis shoes looks idiotic to me (even though it’s more comfortable).

            Weirdly the reverse isn’t true, a women with boots with a dress look fine (but not sneakers!), and dress shoes with jeans look okay on men.

            I’ve no explanation for this.


            “People wear leather soles day-to-day?…”

            I have leather-soled work boots that I wear most every week, so yes.

          • Bugmaster says:

            You are not the only one, but yes, my friends also tell me I’m weird an unusual for disliking high heels. *shrug*

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @Nornagest Lambert, Le Maistre Chat

            Thanks, but I’ve actually already got rubber soles; unfortunately, in my line of work, soft rubber will get chewed up so I’m stuck clacking on linoleum in what’s basically a boot sole (yes, on a dress shoe).

  5. themountaingoat says:

    I was reading David Friedman’s textbook on price theory recently and in it he says that most firms face U shaped average cost curves and operate in the region where they face decreasing returns to scale. From the research I have seen that appears to not be true, and most firms in fact operate in the region where they have decreasing or flat marginal costs. In addition to the empirical evidence there are good reasons (for example see https://blog.supplysideliberal.com/post/2017/5/29/there-is-no-such-thing-as-decreasing-returns-to-scale) why we should expect rational firms to never face decreasing returns to scale.

    Without that claim much of the material in the textbook simply does not apply. You also get results that are far less supportive of libertarian though than the results you get if you assume firms face constant or decreasing marginal costs. I am curious about the justification for making that assumption. I should note that most economics textbooks make similar assumptions, but since David Friedman does not seem afraid to depart from the status quo in other areas I would not think that he would simply make an assumption because other people were doing so.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The Miles Kimball blog post is not actually an argument. Have you read it?

      Everything people are tempted to call decreasing returns to scale has a more accurate name.

      Maybe they have more specific names, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not decreasing returns to scale.

      doing worse is better described as stupidity, using an inappropriate organizational structure, or X-inefficiency

      Empirically, people use what he describes as inappropriate organizational structures. He eventually admits this. Does this justify calling them decreasing returns to scale? This is just an argument over words and maybe, maybe pedagogy.

      A U-shaped average cost curve might be justifiable as a cost-curve per top-level manager, or perhaps as a cost-curve per entrepreneur.

      On twitter:

      I also think in practice, it is mostly a problem of finding an equally talented manager, not about these incentive problems.

      This is what the mainstream mean by decreasing returns to scale. Not physical production, but organizational cost. Is the research you have seen actually on this question?

      • themountaingoat says:

        If you are going to argue that decreasing returns to scale are a thing because people are stupid then it doesn’t make sense to also assume that they are rational in your models. It also isn’t clear why a company wouldn’t simply use the more efficient production arrangement and drive them out of business.

        If you are going to assume that a company can’t duplicate their production arrangement due to a scarcity of one of the production inputs then that impacts whether or not new companies can enter the market. Whatever way you resolve the duplication issue you run into issues with the standard theory.

        Empirically, people use what he describes as inappropriate organisational structures.

        Empirically the evidence I have seen indicates most companies face increasing or constant returns to scale. In fact I have never seen research on this topic that indicates the opposite. See for example this literature review.

        A world with increasing returns also seems to match what we see around us better as businesses seem to want to sell much more than the currently are at the same price. In fact most businesses are willing to offer bulk discounts which seems at odds with the world we see in models assuming DRS.

        • baconbits9 says:

          A world with increasing returns also seems to match what we see around us better as businesses seem to want to sell much more than the currently are at the same price

          A world with increasing returns would mean that businesses would mean that profit margins increase perpetually, which is not what you see empirically. Businesses don’t just run on marginal profit, they also run on bulk profit. Which is better, selling a million units with a profit of $1 per unit or selling 2 million units with a profit of $0.50 per unit?

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          The point about organizational costs is that Kimball is begging the question by assuming them away. Marginal costs increase in the duplication scenario not because managers are dummy-dodos who irrationally refuse to implement the easy, cost-free method of coordinating the larger, more unwieldy organization, but because the easy, cost-free method of coordinating the larger, more unwieldy organization does not exist.

          • themountaingoat says:

            It exists, it is called decentralising.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            What do you mean by decentralization? Because changing a company to be more decentralized requires…changing the company. At that point, you are no longer keeping everything equal.

            It sounds like you are imagining having a successful McDonald’s, and then immediately replicating it with another McDonald’s down the street, that will function exactly the same. However, there still needs to be someone that manages two McDonald’s at some level, even if it is just the owner. At a basic level, at a certain point, you start running into principal-agent problems. And you traditionally are going to solve this by creating some level of bureaucracy to ensure the agents are acting on behalf of the principal.

            That’s leaving aside any cultural issues, which are definitely a thing.

            Also, not all factors of production are something a company can simply replicate. Even if my company wanted to expand by building a new factory, the vendors do not exist to simply supply this new factory. You’d have to create new vendors out of nothing, which requires either Magic Wanding an entire integrated economy out of nothing, or the company vertically integrating to control the vendors and create its own suppliers, which goes back into changing the make-up of the company. There are also certain common factors that are limited and a company cannot replicate like natural harbors, roads, or railways. We’re right next to two expressways, you’d have to find ANOTHER place right next to two expressways to replicate it.

            We’re definitely operating at diseconomies of scale. We operate at 3 shifts of day, and 3rd Shift simply does not operate as effectively as the first 2 shifts, since they have less motivated employees and less oversight. We could run on weekends, but that would require additional maintenance overhead and losing critical time where we operate on the machines, and we would be paying a buttload of overtime. I don’t even quite understand how we could operate at a point where we would increase returns to scale, since we would be able to expand production, produce at less cost, and beat our competitors at the same time.

            Also, our incentives are not corporate incentives. We are incentivized to lower cost per unit of production. Even if corporate’s immediate incentive was to restrict production to raise prices (MR=MC), our incentive is SPEIFICIALLY to lower cost as much as possible, while still making attainment. If we overproduced, we would be rewarded. If we lowered cost, we would be rewarded. There is no incentive to us, at all, to withhold production in order to increase price.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            “Decentralizing” is not a means of coordination; it is a structural change in the firm which creates the need for a means of coordination. That such a means will appear cannot be taken for granted.

            Unless the theoretical case against increasing costs of scale can be rescued, it’s also unclear how empirical observations of decreasing costs in real-world industries (which for all I know might be accurate) have anti-libertarian implications. Note that, unless the theoretical U-shaped cost curve is refuted, a market in which real industries are operating in the declining-cost region is more competitive than theory predicts, in the sense of having a larger number of smaller firms.

          • themountaingoat says:

            @definite beta guy

            If it is more efficient to have two smaller production arrangements then I can simply have two smaller production arrangements and not coordinate at all between them. In practice though I can selectively coordinate only the aspects that benefit from coordination. If it makes sense for me to purchase inputs in bulk I do so while keeping everything else the same. Similarly for other aspects of the business. Franchising is an example of this selective decentralisation.

            I am not sure what you mean about the vendors not existing. Are your vendors unable to sell to more factories than they are currently selling to? Of course if you can’t acquire the real resources to expand you might face DRS but that would seem to preclude the free entry condition. If new firms can enter the market there is no reason you should be unable to expand.

            Leaving aside these theoretical considerations it is a practical matter that empirical research seems to indicate most companies face increasing returns to scale.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Not coordinating between the two is still a change in the organizational structure, specifically the structure between ownership and management. If you operate one firm and open up a second, you now have to divide your attention between two different firms. Assuming that both firms are going to operate at the same efficiency even though the owner’s attentions are now divided in half seems a bit fool-hardy, because it ignores principal-agent problems.
            The answer to this is always going to be some level of bureaucracy and oversight. You can’t hold it constant, and all the additional bureaucracy is going to flow down from there.

            Limitations on vendors are definitely going to be a short-term limitation on the market as a whole. New entrants are going to have the same problem trying to find supplies if all the existing suppliers are producing at or near capacity.

    • Anwar Shaikh has a lot to say about this in his recent book “Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises.” He is one of the few Marxist economists I know of who seriously tries to construct micro-economic foundations for his macro arguments. Basically, he finds that there are factors that push in both directions. I wish I could recall more specifics, but I don’t have the book on me at the moment.

      • I found the episode of Anwar Shaikh’s video lectures where he talks about average costs. Skip to 13:20 to get to the meat of the presentation.

        Essentially, Shaikh finds that average costs move inverse to increasing scale, and total profit has increasing returns to scale in general, except for sometimes at the very end of the working day and in between shift changes, where the cost curve becomes bumpy due to shut-down and start-up routines at the end and beginning of each new shift. Also, he makes the point that producers cannot take a certain market price as given, especially under the neoclassical theory of perfect information, perfect competition, and rational representative agents, because while one firm’s increased production will not noticeably impact the aggregate supply, if all firms are indistinguishable rational agents, then that firm’s decisions will be perfectly mirrored by all other firms, driving aggregate supply up and the market price down, and thus it may not be rational for such a “representative agent” to expand production—in other words, aggregate supply and price cannot be taken as a given.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Douglas Knight covers some of the main points, but the whole thing is wrongheaded.

      The argument is the replication argument: if all factors are duplicated, then an identical copy of the production process can be set up and output will be doubled.

      Doubling output doesn’t give you the same return to scale unless you assume the input prices are identical, and input prices are only going to be identical if their prices are independent from their use. The conclusion doesn’t hold once you realize that the mere existence of the first unit of production precludes the possibility of creating an identical second unit of production.

      • themountaingoat says:

        Okay but if that is the case then free entry into the market is impossible and the standard theory of perfect competition still does not hold. We would also only expect that input prices to increase if the size of the industry is large relative to the market for inputs.

        Also empirically most businesses face increasing returns as in the paper I liked in my other response here, so it would seem that your point is not correct.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Okay but if that is the case then free entry into the market is impossible and the standard theory of perfect competition still does not hold.

          I don’t see how. The existing company and the hypothetical new company have the same assumed costs for expanding production from its current point.

    • Maxwell says:

      Increasing marginal cost is a real thing for agriculture and extractive industries. The last acre you plant is the least productive, the last oil well you drill is the least productive, etc. Of course prices are always wildly zig zagging, so at any given moment you’re likely to be far away from price=MC.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Here I would agree with Kimball: you shouldn’t call that decreasing returns to scale. It has nothing to do with the scale of enterprise, only the scale of the whole industry. There is something subtle going on where some unplanted acres are predictably more productive than some planted acres because of the transaction costs of getting them in the hands of people who would plant them. But this doesn’t have to do with scale and probably looks more like increasing returns to scale.

        • baconbits9 says:

          It has to do with both. A farmer will plant what he expects to be his most productive acreage first, so he gets diminishing returns on all extra acres since they will draw some attention away from his most productive and also be on worse ground.

      • themountaingoat says:

        Yes, industries such as that are some of the few industries where I would expect to see increasing marginal costs.

  6. Jeremiah says:

    Correction: It’s not entire single handedly. A kindly, and talented Australian (SolenoidEntity 7425 on Discord) does some light sound editing on every episode before it get’s posted.

  7. Bugmaster says:

    I voted “oldest comment on top” out of sheer inertia, but that survey could benefit from a “doesn’t matter either way” option.

    • shakeddown says:

      You do have that option! You can just not take the survey.

      • Joseph Greenwood says:

        I think there would be real value in getting a sense of what proportion of invested readers (here, “willing to take a survey” is a proxy for invested) don’t care about comment order.

      • 10240 says:

        You can also submit it without answering one or both questions. Although that won’t show an accurate number as it won’t occur to many people (and because I just submitted an empty form to test it.)

    • brad says:

      I strongly prefer oldest on top. Open threads last only a few days to begin with. Once the next one opens conversations die out quickly. I don’t think we need additional friction for back and forth posting.

      • gbdub says:

        Newest first seems to increase the number of topics (particularly topics added after the first day of an open thread) that actually get some response. On the other hand, it feels like it reduces the average depth of response (or at least the number of topics that get really long threads).

        I think that’s a con overall, but I can see how others might see it as a pro?

        • acymetric says:

          I think this pretty much nails it. There were certainly topics that went on longer than they needed to, but I can just skip those in either order. It definitely felt like some of the interesting topics died out faster than they did under oldest first though.

        • 10240 says:

          I thought so too, but it’s unclear from the data. I wrote about in the last OT:

          I made charts about the comment threads under the oldest-first and newest-first orderings. I expected that the number of top-level comments would increase, but the number of comments in the average thread (under a top-level comment) and the longest thread would decrease, as we drop a discussion faster. Eyeballing the charts, the effects are unclear, but it looks like there is a slight increase in the total number of comments, the number of top-level comments, but perhaps even in the length of the average thread and the longest thread. (Script, data.)

    • Bugmaster says:

      Correction: my true opinion would be “either bottom-up or top-to-bottom is fine, as long as it’s applied uniformly across all posts and threads”.

  8. Writtenblade says:

    Donald Trump has been citing ever-increasing numbers for the cost of illegal immigration for a while now, and recently he tweeted some new ones that jumped out at me as oddly specific. Perhaps my Google-fu is failing me, but as far as I can tell, no one knows where these numbers come from. I think I figured it out.

    He’s not using some special information source he has privileged access to. He’s reading them straight off the automated counter on this site. The ones there now don’t match exactly, but they’re so similar that I feel highly confident that’s his source.

    This strikes me as the kind of thing that should be a pretty big deal, but realistically, it’s not any more so than many similar instances that have passed us by without result—like the time he retweeted the number $3,874 as the monthly payment to a single illegal immigrant in the States, when in reality it was the initial one-time payment to a family of five legal immigrants in Canada (all of which is obvious on even a cursory reading of the original document). His opponents are already aware of his tenuous relationship with facts, and his supporters either have somehow not noticed or don’t care. So, I have this information that feels important, but no idea what I can usefully do with it.

    Maybe this is just how we live now.

    • Writtenblade says:

      Hm. I typically lurk here, and had forgotten, but I believe you’re correct; my apologies. I notice I can no longer delete the parent, however.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        I don’t think you have time left, but if you report it as an “oops” it may be removed.

        I think that might be best.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Trump’s hyperbole is weirdly effective because while he invariably cites incorrect figures, opponents trying to counter him with the correct figures generally find that those figures support his claim.

      If he says that the fiscal cost of illegal immigrants has been $600 million and you dig out some budget estimate that, no, it’s actually only $BIGNUM… then his point still stands, and now you’ve provided the numbers which demonstrate it. If he hadn’t made up the $600 million figure you weren’t going to volunteer the fiscal cost on your own. It’s stupid but it keeps working.

      One good example of this was in 2016, when people were fact-checking his exaggerated claims about his net worth. Even if he’s “only” worth a little over or a little under a billion dollars, that’s still an absolutely insane amount of money. If you’re not in his will or trying to audit him the exact dollar value doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s an incomprehensibly large and therefore impressive number.

      It’s one of those tricks that really shouldn’t work twice but somehow nobody seems to learn from it no matter how often he does it.

      • mnov says:

        Trump’s hyperbole is weirdly effective because his supporters don’t care that he’s a liar.
        The logic of the ‘trick’ you mention applies rarely, since most of his lies are about totally inconsequential things.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The “supporters not caring when their politician lies” ship sailed long ago. If you’re just noticing now, it’s because you yourself only care when the other guys does it.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          This is the CW-free thread so I’ll try to be as diplomatic as possible but perhaps this topic should be shelved until the hidden OT.

          “Lying” or “getting numbers generally right but specifically questionable?”

          I first encountered this when I started supporting Trump in July of 2015 because of his stance on reforming the H1-B visa program. Someone from a Koch brothers front blogged on HuffPo about how Trump was wrong or lying about things he said about the wonderful H1-B program. For instance [1], Trump had erroneously claimed that 60% of American STEM grads did not work in STEM, meaning the “STEM shortage” cited as the excuse for importing cheap tech labor was bogus. The tech companies just don’t want to pay decent wages. Well the Koch brothers’ mouthpiece pointed out just how silly stupid Trump was: 60% of graduates from American universities don’t work in STEM, but that includes foreigners, so Trump is too dumb to understand that merely 50% of American graduates from American universities don’t work in STEM! So much better, I love the H1-B visa program now!

          So long as Trump is correct in the general direction (“H1-B visa program bad.” “Illegal immigration is costly.”) I don’t care if he doesn’t get the numbers exactly correct. Trump is correct in direction and wrong in magnitude, while his opponents are wrong in both magnitude and direction.

          [1] Recalling from memory, may have the exact numbers wrong myself.

          • bean says:

            Trump had erroneously claimed that 60% of American STEM grads did not work in STEM, meaning the “STEM shortage” cited as the excuse for importing cheap tech labor was bogus. The tech companies just don’t want to pay decent wages. Well the Koch brothers’ mouthpiece pointed out just how silly stupid Trump was: 60% of graduates from American universities don’t work in STEM, but that includes foreigners, so Trump is too dumb to understand that merely 50% of American graduates from American universities don’t work in STEM! So much better, I love the H1-B visa program now!

            I’ve seen this several times, and it continues to annoy me. This is basically a result of STEM graduates working in STEM-adjacent jobs which are useful and important. For instance, someone who gets a math degree and goes to teach math counts as a STEM graduate not working in STEM. Likewise, a lot of healthcare degrees are counted as STEM, but the jobs themselves aren’t. Or people who move into management. All of these are things that do actually require STEM degrees, so we should probably count them as opposed to, say, American CopSci majors who are working at Starbucks.

        • baconbits9 says:

          My view:

          A large portion of the populace base their voting decisions on trust. Trump’s critics erroneously assume that trust = telling the truth = having the right numbers, but trust between people is mostly about being able to predict something about them, not about discussing the objective truth of the universe. Trump is good at convincing people that he earnestly wants to limit immigration, therefore he gets the votes from people who also earnestly want immigration limited. Every statement he makes, be it accurate, an exaggeration or a lie about immigration that supports his stance increases that segments trust that he will go through with it (or attempt to).

          Few politicians can do this on a national stage because they built an earlier brand of being “honest” as part of building their trustworthiness. Such a position is generally fragile to being caught lying.

      • albatross11 says:

        Yep. Trump is scarily effective at doing stuff that makes both traditional and social media work for him, and that’s one of his tactics. I think AOC has learned to use a similar tactic (and she’s also very effective at this stuff).

        • Jaskologist says:

          Perhaps New Yorkers are just really good at trolling.

          • Nick says:

            Maybe it’s all the bridges?

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:


            I nominate this for best comment in the thread.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            I knew that New York has a nosy government but I still had to wonder why the toll collector was asking me for my name, my quest, and my favorite color.

          • Plumber says:

            @Paul Zrimsek

            “….I still had to wonder why the toll collector was asking me for my name, my quest, and my favorite color”

            And I nominate Paul Zrimsek’s comment.

            Also, what is the capital of Assyria?

          • AG says:

            You mean they didn’t ask a silly word problem about bird flight schedules?

        • veeloxtrox says:

          I think AOC has learned to use a similar tactic

          I am not the only one that is seeing this! I was thinking about that this weekend. She says crazy stuff and gets millions in free advertising just like Trump.

          • albatross11 says:

            Trump is a person, but the thing he’s doing right now is a tactic–one that rewards both brashness and being extremely photogenic. It was inevitable that other people would either learn from him or arrive at similar tactics on their own, and it would have been foolish to assume it was something that could only work on the right.

      • Chalid says:

        What does “weirdly effective” actually mean? It doesn’t seem to make the things he’s lying about more popular nor does it seem to get the policies he’s supporting passed, which are what I would expect from your immigration example. Nor does it make him particularly popular.

        He is effective at some things, certainly, but I don’t see those things being connected to your examples.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      The reason his supporters don’t care about the details is because they are not having an object-level debate. Their opponents assume, probably because Trump is being overly specific, that the argument is at the object level, but it’s not. The conversation is a meta-conversation about whether it’s a net good for society to spend any money supporting illegal immigrants.

      Trump’s amazing feat is to get to the next stage of the conversation and through the initial fights without serious confrontation. If he started the conversation with “I don’t think we should spend any money on illegal immigrants” he would get pushback on [Do we spend any money on immigrants?] as well as [Well how much do they even cost?] before even starting into the current question of [How much is reasonable?]. Add in however much moral language and hyperbole is necessary to turn the bracketed questions into the real-life examples.

      And those first two questions provide an amazing amount of opportunity for his opponents to obfuscate the conversation into both factual and moral questions. That would distract the population of people aware of the conversation and bog it all down. Instead, his opponents gleefully affirm both of the initial requirements for the third question. In their haste to prove him “wrong” on the object level, they cede the real importance of the question.

      Trump’s supporters get affirmed in the national press that “Yes, illegal immigrants do cost money.” That’s a pure win for them, even if some group puts together a statistic showing “Well, actually, instead of $8,000 per person, we only spend $3,692!” Trump’s supporters are probably aware of the difficulty in creating a factually accurate number, and they are very well aware of the ability of individuals with an agenda to lie through selective use of statistics, so Trump being “wrong” on the object level is not necessarily reality (even if his numbers are terrible and inaccurate, the new number might be as well, and that’s pretty normal for that kind of analysis in the first place).

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Trump’s amazing feat is to get to the next stage of the conversation and through the initial fights without serious confrontation.

        This is from Trump’s experience in business/sales. It’s a very simple trick called “assuming the sale.” You ask, “will that be cash or credit?” Do you think the salesperson cares which one it is, or it matters at all? If you hand them the cash they’re not going to start trying to swipe the cash through the credit reader because you never told them what this object was. They’re assuming you’ve already committed to the purchase and we’re just working out the formalities of payment.

        “Would you like the glamorous, luxurious green Toyota Yaris or the glamorous, luxurious blue Toyota Yaris?”

        • Evan Þ says:

          “No, neither Yaris! I insist I want a Toyota Prius!”

          (So even when I feel like I’m objecting, the salesman still makes a sale…)

    • gbdub says:

      “Hey, what’s up with this thing that Trump does” is a pretty central example of “Culture War / hot button political topic”. Really this whole thread ought to be tabled till the hidden thread on Wednesday, even if people have been pretty polite so far.

  9. JulieK says:

    Visitors to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York can experience a virtual conversation with Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter. When you ask a question, Pinchas will answer with one of his approximately 1500 recorded responses about his experiences.

  10. bean says:

    Today was the first day I’d skipped my ADD medication (18 years of Ritalin/Concerta, currently on modafinil) since April, when I ran out for a day. My girlfriend was interested to see the results, and we didn’t have a lot of plans. And I was surprisingly OK. I was definitely more entertaining than I normally am, but not that much worse than late at night. This was very different from what had happened during previous days off the pills (when I was basically insane), and I started to wonder why. And I’ve come up with a theory that might reconcile this, as well as going some way to explain why medication seems to stop working in studies, which is very much not in accordance with my experience on the stuff.

    I switched to modafinil almost a year ago, in an attempt to get around an insane Oklahoma law which limits you to 30-day prescriptions for Schedule II stimulants. The first week was downright weird. I was really twitchy, and it felt that the drug was working much more strongly on the concentration side of the ADD than the behavioral side. I had never seen them disconnected like that before, and it made work kind of difficult. But eventually, things settled down, and while I’m not quite as controlled as I was, I’m pretty much fine. So it seems likely that most of the weird behavior on days skipping Ritalin was rebound from drug withdrawal, not my natural state.

    The traditional interpretation of this kind of thing, and of studies which show that ADD kids on the drug are fairly similar to those who have stopped taking it in behavioral terms, is basically regression to the mean. After all, I’ve been taking the stuff for over two-thirds of my life, and it probably would have gone away eventually. The problem with this is my father, who was diagnosed at the same time I was, after he was 40. Going from 40-something to 60-something is a lot less likely to see that kind of regression. Nor is he as bad as he was before he started taking the pills. He and my mom were married for 12 years before he started on the meds, and I trust her to have noticed if he’s regressed to his previous mean while still medicated.

    So how do we reconcile all of this? Weirdly, the answer may come from something my mom said when I was doing a project on ADD back in middle school. I asked if she thought it was harmful to my behavior when I wasn’t medicated, and she said that she thought it was good because it let me develop good habits. My guess would be that this might be what happens to anyone on ADD meds for a while (months to years). Some people go off and find out that they don’t need them any longer, while others stay on and the meds keep working relative to the rebound effect.

    The other important thing is that I don’t think this applies to concentration. There, I the meds continue to work well, and basically enable me to do my job. Until fairly recently, I thought this was intimately connect to the behavior stuff, but modafinil seems to have disproved this. So if ADD-behavior (which is probably ADHD) and ADD-concentration (less of the H) are at least partially separate, it could explain a lot of stuff we see. Some people need a temporary behavior crutch, while others also have trouble on the concentration side, and need the meds longer-term.

    I obviously don’t have much proof of this, but it’s at least an interesting theory. It suggests that modafinil is much more useful for people who just need to concentrate, or for concentration maintenance after the behavioral problems are mitigated, because it does have some effect there. Now if only more insurance covered it for ADD…

    • Scumbarge says:

      I found this writeup interesting, and really wish that every prescrioption medication had THE OPTION for some kind of long-term followup application with it, with occasional questions about this kind of stuff. How you’ve been feeling, questions regarding common side effects, questions about the titration process, other medications you’re taking, that kind of thing. Big data shit. The kind of stuff that it’s hard to get paid longitudinal data for, but which people could be easily nudged towards if it were intuitive and incentivized.

    • gleamingecho says:

      I switched to modafinil almost a year ago, in an attempt to get around an insane Oklahoma law which limits you to 30-day prescriptions for Schedule II stimulants.

      I have had the following experience with Adderall and I am wondering if it is normal.

      I live in California. Having excelled at high school but limped through college and professional school, I spent most of my post-secondary education and much of the first 8 years of my career bored, unmotivated, and unfocused, despite putting in what I felt was a lot of effort, and ended up occasionally unemployed as a result.

      A friend who is a primary care physician in a different state, recommended I look into whether ADD could be the culprit. I was eventually prescribed Adderall by my primary care doctor. After some doctor changes and availability problems (e.g., the necessary “get to know your new doctor” appointment scheduled 7 months in the future), I got into a rhythm where my doctor’s PA would just write a 30-day prescription every month and I could pick it up and fill it at the local pharmacy. To me, this felt a bit laborious, as I hadn’t had any experience with “maintenance” prescriptions for everyday use, but it worked and I never had gaps between prescriptions.

      Anyway, this relatively comfortable arrangement ended when I finally got in to see my new PCP. He was dubious of my ADD diagnosis and refused to prescribe Adderall unless I saw a psychiatrist. So I went to a psychiatrist, who spent almost no time with me and wrote the prescription, but this time I was required to have an office visit with him every 30 days to get my new prescription for the next month.

      So the question is: has anyone else had this experience with ADD medication in California? Are appointments every 30 days with a psychiatrist legally required, or is this just a cash grab by the psychiatrist? (Or some other scenario I haven’t envisioned?)

      Post-script/First-World problem: This same psychiatrist has twice prescribed really expensive non-formulary Adderall replacements on the theory that they might have a longer-lasting effect without affecting my sleep. He insisted that if I took a coupon and went to the right pharmacy, it would cost only my normal co-pay. Twice I’ve tried to jump through all the hoops required by the pharmacy and the insurance company, and twice we’ve failed to get the drugs covered. So then I have to call the psych’s office and get an “emergency” prescription for my old generic Adderall so I can stick to my 30-day schedule without a gap. Both times, I couldn’t get a hold of the psychiatrist for a week (despite leaving messages with his staff multiple times a day) and was off the medication for several days before he would deign to refill my old prescription. I assume this is abnormal patient care, and am going to find a new psychiatrist, but I was pretty amazed by this poor treatment. Maybe I’m just entitled. I dunno. Has anyone had a similar experience?

      • bean says:

        So the question is: has anyone else had this experience with ADD medication in California? Are appointments every 30 days with a psychiatrist legally required, or is this just a cash grab by the psychiatrist? (Or some other scenario I haven’t envisioned?)

        Unless they’ve changed the law since I left the state in August 2017, then it’s definitely not required. I was with Kaiser, and my PCP referred me to the psychiatrist, who gladly wrote me 90-day scripts. I think I saw him about every other time I needed a refill, or twice a year. I’d strongly suggest finding a different PCP/psychiatrist. Yes, I had things somewhat easier, as I brought a couple decades of ADD and treatment experience to bear. But I don’t know of any reasons they can’t write 90-day scripts in general.

      • twocents says:

        California psychiatrist here. We can legally write a 90 day prescription, or three 30 day prescriptions with the instructions to fill them 30 days apart. I do this routinely if it’s clinically appropriate (maintenance of the same med, patient doing well, etc.). We are under some pressure not to inappropriately prescribe controlled substances, so your psychiatrist may be responding to that rather than it being a cash grab, but it still sounds excessive.

        Not responding to your messages and giving timely refills is just poor care and unprofessional. You’re not being entitled.

    • J Mann says:

      I’ve always thought I probably have adult ADHD, but didn’t want Aderal. Do people have the sense of whether it’s hard to get Modafinil. (Basically, I’m easily distracted and waste a lot of time).

      • bean says:

        From everything I’ve heard, modafinil is very easy to get on the grey market. I’ve got a prescription because, for job-related reasons, I really don’t want to play games with what are technically controlled substances.

  11. JohnBuridan says:

    Cross-posted from Less Wrong:

    “Long have we suffered under the tyranny of maps.

    Biased maps which show topography, but not population.

    Wretched maps which speak of religion, but not languages.

    Divisive maps which paint with the color of Party, but not the color of economic conditions.

    Dirty maps which show crop yield across the heartland, but neglect Fiber Optic Internet coverage.

    Our age calls for better maps, maps free from the bias of these old maps, perfect maps.

    Imagine the day of the unbiased map. The map which shows both how to get to the airport via public transit and GDP by county. The holy map demonstrating last year’s rainfall and the distribution of seminaries and rabbinical schools. The ancestral map depicting migration of immigrants and American tribes in 1491.

    Don’t give me an atlas which pretends at perfection but hisses red herrings from hydra-heads. I want the real thing, a map which doesn’t end at some arbitrary border whether it be the county line, or the sphere of earth. A map which can show the world as known by the Qing Dynasty, Strabo, Majorcan Jews, and the Aztecs. A map of Elon Musk’s neurons and a map of the solar system.

    Today’s maps enlighten as the Brothers Grimm, through a bundle of fairy tales. There are no ethical maps under capitalism, all of them drip with the status quo. None show me the world that should be, none provide directions to Valhalla, all show but the thin surface of Reality. And for Mankind, the surface does not satisfy!”

    I am working through questions about paradigms and historiography right now. These questions drove me to write this creative speech. I went from, “Is there such a thing in history as ‘just the facts?'” and from there I went to is there anything in cartography as “just the facts.” This reductio ab absurdum I hope shows that maps are used for different purposes, and there are better and worse maps for different purposes. We are looking for maps which fit our purposes. The right maps for the right purposes.

    According to the line of reasoning in the reductio, there is no map which is “just the facts” without also being “all the facts” and thus becoming the territory itself.

    What does this say about the craft of history? I don’t know.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Will you settle for anything less than the territory?

    • Tenacious D says:

      That reminds me of Borges’ [very] short story On Exactitude in Science.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      I went from, “Is there such a thing in history as ‘just the facts?’” and from there I went to is there anything in cartography as “just the facts.”

      [M]aps are used for different purposes, and there are better and worse maps for different purposes. We are looking for maps which fit our purposes. The right maps for the right purposes.

      I think you’ve just answered your own question here.

      Imagine the day of the unbiased map. The map which shows both how to get to the airport via public transit and GDP by county.

      One could conceivably construct such a map (and one that had all things else besides), but such an act would be monumentally dumb. By flooding our model with all possibly relevant – and totally irrelevant – information we can get our hands on, we stand to either lose all possibility of drawing inferences, or – best-case scenario – make our life a lot harder. It is the difference between trying to guess the location of the airport from GDP data interspersed with local magnetic field strength and last-year’s umbrella production numbers, and merely having to wade through an encyclopedia-sized legend whilst trying to make out the necessarily small symbols for each additional piece of data.

      What does this say about the craft of history? I don’t know.

      If your model of history requires “all the facts” just to get off the ground, you’re doing a poor job of modeling. It’s not a personal jibe and I hope no offence is taken – I simply feel it necessary to point out that any model must necessarily be simpler than the object being modeled – if it’s to be of any use as a model.

      I have a feeling CatCube and Plumber could have a few illuminating things to say about this: would their jobs be any easier if they were to start accounting for every atom that participates in, or interacts with, the systems they work on? I suspect not.

      The vast majority of “all the facts” simply do not matter to the question under investigation, any more than the distirbution of cable TV providers helps you find out how to get to the airport. Even those facts that do affect the answer may in many cases be struck from consideration, if there is a sufficient amount of countereffects that reduce the balance to zero: knowing how each individual person voted in the last US presidential election is mostly useless; knowing how people voted as groups (by age, sex, race, location, etc., etc.) may actually tell you something useful on how the country got President Trump.

      Not having all the facts is a virtue, not a vice – so long as you actually have the facts that were, not the facts you wish.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        On the engineering side – as someone who works less with standards than CatCube, sometimes you do need the closest thing you can get to a total map, because the partial maps aren’t orthogonal to each other. The chemical and metallurgical composition of the steel has an impact on the coefficient of thermal expansion, which combines with the heat dissipation and tolerancing to tell us how tight the fit is, which has an impact on the total stiffness, which also depends on the elasticity of the metal and the wall thickness, and so on.

        I never have a good enough map, and every single time we actually build the thing we find unforseen problems.

        My point isn’t that you’re wrong per se, just that the only meaningful metric of model performance is the failure rate. The question isn’t really “is it good enough [to accurately represent the system]?” but rather “how bad is it?” Sometimes the answer is just “not good enough” for any model you care to devise of a system of sufficient complexity.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          As someone who writes software that’s supposed to solve ill-defined problems, I can totally relate. Finding inadequacies in our current models is how we get better models.

          That said, there must be countless facts you omit as a matter of course – even if you know your current map is inadequate. To even start thinking in terms of maps/models we must have some notion of relevance/irrelevance. Staying with the map metaphor, how many maps draw the boundary on such a trivial matter as the coastline? It’s almost like everything beneath the ocean waves doesn’t matter very much.

          As I see it, it both does and doesn’t. For most purposes it doesn’t much more than it does.

    • aristides says:

      I collect Atluses, and now I suddenly want someone to publish an Atlus of incredibly unlikely maps containing what you are talking about.

      • Jiro says:

        It’s actually been a long time since I’ve played anything by them. Although I did start Etrian Odyssey: The Millennium Girl (by now an old game already) to see if I could get it to where Streetpass on the 3DS works.

  12. Hoopyfreud says:

    Resisting provider-side changes to services you control, or, tinkering.

    So, a while back Google ditched the blobmoji. I hated that, so I installed a patch to my phone that gave me them back. This is probably the most practical thing I’ve yet used root on my phone for. Today I ditched Chrome for FireFox and spent about an hour messing with font installs and config pages and user stylesheets, and now I have blobmojis globally on desktop.

    This is somewhat ridiculous.

    I don’t feel especially compelled to demand that Google bring the old emojis back, but… I switched browsers for them. This might be the *worst* reason to switch browsers I’ve ever heard (and I probably wouldn’t have switched if I had a good reason not to, honestly). Firefox doesn’t even support them natively! At best this is a bewildering affectation, at worst it’s pointless and obsessive.

    But I feel good about doing it, or about putting together legos in distressingly pointless unintended ways, or about other bad and painful workarounds I make for extremely marginal aesthetic gains. How common is that feeling, and is there a reason for it? I’m tempted to predict that the majority of “tinkerer” types feel this way, but I don’t even have a handle on how to tell if someone is one of them. I definitely think I’m one. How many other people here do?

    • Scumbarge says:

      I had a similar experience recently–I just got a pixel XL, and spent a good half hour finding a launcher that looked exactly the way I had my phone on the old version of android, because I didn’t want the top 10% of my screen taken up by an un-removable search bar.

      It felt like a silly amount of effort at the time but it made me a tiny bit mad Every Time I used my phone, so that adds up.

  13. e_w says:

    I love podcasts, and Jeremiah has done a great job of producing them and releasing them around the same time the blog post hits. Often though, he stumbles over words/sentences which makes the listening experience sort of difficult. Any chance of recording multiple takes until its mostly flawless or recording multiple times and cutting the best recordings together?

    • Jeremiah says:

      That’s part of the point of the patreon. Right now you’re looking at something of a Pareto optimal expenditure of effort. I’m spending the 20% of the effort which gets you 80% of the benefit: A recording of the post. Getting it flawless is from 1.5-2x the effort, but the gain in utility is a lot less. But if enough people find it valuable, then it starts to make sense to spend that additional effort.

  14. thepenforests says:

    So like…facebook is dying, right? Or at least becoming way less relevant? My news feed is basically dead these days, almost no one I know seems to actually use it, except for maybe messenger and making events. I’m sure I’m an outlier in a bunch of ways, and maybe “normal people” are still using facebook just as much as they used to. But I don’t know, it seems like there’s a real trend here. And it seems like everyone is vaguely aware of it but very few people are actually talking about it.

    Or, you know, maybe a bunch of people are talking about it, and I’m just kind of oblivious. Always possible.

    (As an aside, this has exactly the same feeling to me as when lesswrong started to decline, and everyone kind of knew it but it took awhile before anyone explicitly acknowledged it)

    • brad says:

      GOOG and FB are both in the internet advertising business. In the last year the former is down 7%, which is about the same as the US market as a whole, while the later is down almost 20%. Clearly investors think something is up.

    • testing123 says:

      I have a friend that works at facebook. According to him, no meaningful change in usage from members.

    • Basil Elton says:

      If Facebook is dying, what’s to replace it as the default Anglosphere social network?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      My facebook feed is maybe down a little, but it’s not that much different than usual.

    • aristides says:

      I quit Facebook during Kavenaugh, and haven’t been happier. I replaced it with reddit since it’s easier to avoid politics there.

      • albatross11 says:

        I’ve mostly drifted away from Facebook. It’s not that it was bad, exactly, but it kind-of fits the same category as television for me (if there’s something worth watching on)–I can sit down and burn an hour with it, but when I’m done, I’m just an hour older and poorer.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      I’ve noticed that my facebook feed has become more and more dominated by older people, especially over the last five years (not an indictment of old people, just a note on the relative lack of younger participants). The level of conversation is often poor, and political junk (very little insightful or good commentary) is way too common. I exist in the periphery of two bubbles, and can’t interact with either – so maybe people in those bubbles think better of the experience? The only useful functions it serves for me are pictures of family and jokes/memes/videos for pure entertainment. If it were not for the family pictures, there are better outlets for the entertainment sections.

      My wife has reduced her postings of our children, and I’ve seen fewer nephews/nieces as well, so the value of facebook has been going down for me. I hardly ever post, so I’m not missing much, but I feel that I might be getting close to discontinuing. A better family-picture-sharing option could almost certainly do that at this point.

      • bullseye says:

        I still see a lot of stuff on Facebook, but only from people in their late 20s or older. It might be just that I don’t have any younger friends, but I think younger people aren’t on Facebook. Some of it’s political (I am firmly inside a bubble but I know a couple of people on the other side), some of it’s memes (mostly from two older women), and some of it is people talking about stuff that happened to them or asking if anyone else wants to hang out.

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m down to about once a week on Facebook proper, although I still spend a fair amount of time with Messenger, and I can’t remember the last time I posted the sorts of microblogging-type updates that I used to. Its main value proposition for me these days is event planning, and, yes, family+friends photo albums.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I use it solely as a place to keep up with friends and family but do not engage with anything else there (no politics, no “communities” around my favorite bands or video games or whatever). Anything on the internet with your real name on it is too scary, and the Culture War pervades all.

      • I use FB primarily to interact with SCA people, especially ones doing things I do (SCA period cooking and jewelry). I’ve been doing early period jewelry for a very long time, and it was delightful to discover other people doing the same sort of work who were much better than I am. Also interesting sharing information on the cooking. And some discussion of other SCA topics, almost always civil. A little libertarian interaction as well, but not as much.

        For a while I engaged in climate arguments online, but eventually decided that it was a mistake–almost nobody on either side understood things as simple as the greenhouse effect, almost everyone was certain his views were obviously correct. I was probably encountering about one or two reasonable people worth arguing with per year. A similar pattern holds for most political interaction.

        I do almost none of the “keep up with friends and family” sort of stuff on FB.

    • AG says:

      My perception is that younger people are using more person-to-person networks, than “set up a profile” type sites. Furthermore, they’re more about mobile social network sites.

      Amino Apps (this is like LJ communities for the mobile generation)

      And there’s Wattpad, too.

    • Plumber says:


      I’ve never logged into Facebook and now that I’m pretty forewarned not to here I don’t plan on seeing what it’s like.

    • LewisT says:

      I am in regular contact with a variety of people between the ages of 12 to about 90. At least in my social circles, this is the rough distribution of social media usage by age:

      Middle school: Instagram
      High school: Instagram and Snapchat
      College: Snapchat and Twitter
      25–35: Twitter and Facebook
      35+: Facebook
      (European acquaintances in their late 20s: WhatsApp)

      I don’t think I know anyone under the age of 20 who actively uses Facebook, even though some have accounts that they created back when they were middle schoolers. If that’s a(n inter)national trend, things don’t bode well for Facebook. I predict Twitter may be in trouble in a few years here as well.

      • acymetric says:

        Instagram should probably be included in the first four groups, it is extremely common among twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings.

  15. testing123 says:

    casander with 2 Ss is still banned. If this is intentional, let me know and I’ll stop pestering you about it, but last I checked that ban was supposed to expire.

  16. EchoChaos says:

    The discussions on “how much money changes your life” were really interesting, thanks!

    Second money question:

    You are given a sum of money to move to any third world country of your choice for the next decade. After that you can take any remaining money from the sum and whatever you earn while living there and move wherever you want.

    For the purpose of this exercise, “third world” means per capita GDP under 5k per person (so Ghana and below per this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita)

    You get no additional skills, training, contacts, etc. What sum of money and which country do you go to?

    • Tenacious D says:

      Ghana seems like a decent choice. Not only is it at the upper end of the range you specify, but English is the official language and it’s fairly politically stable.

      Another good choice would be the Marshall Islands or Micronesia, which are in a free association compact with the US.

      Aside from online/remote work, I could try to earn money by doing some engineering consulting for factories in-country (Ghana probably has more opportunities for this) or, if I wanted a more relaxed change of pace, starting an ecotourism business in either place.

      For the sum of money, I’d want at least my expected earnings over the next decade if I didn’t move, so that savings from reduced cost of living, any money I can earn while there, and any opportune investments I may make would be a bonus.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Assuming Ghana is too mainstream…

      Rwanda seems nice, and is apparently growing fairly well. Enough tourism and international activity that I expect Kigali to have opportunities for me. Similar for Kenya. A decade is a very long time, though, and one of the Pacific island states might be more secure. Are we allowed to take part in a widespread evacuation of the country if it comes to that?

      Sum of money is, as mentioned, a somewhat silly question. I’d do it for maybe… $5m?

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      The problems with existing in a country with an extremely poor population are primarily to do with said population, and the fact that the associated living conditions and infrastructure are correspondingly poor. So I’m giving up on the whole idea of other people – I’ll live in a really nice cabin someplace scenic for 10 years.

      For this purpose, I think my best bet is Kyrgyzstan – at 32 people per square kilometer and a concentrated population, it should be no trouble to find an isolated spot. The climate’s pretty good, looks like some areas don’t get about 75 degrees Fahrenheit or so even in July (which is a problem with a lot of the African countries, since my cabin probably won’t have air conditioning). And it contains places like this!

      I figure I find a nice spot of woods, fly in myself and some outdoorsy types in, buy what I assume is going to be pretty cheap land, get a nice cabin built with a good fireplace for the winter, purchase some satellite internet plan, buy hunting and fishing licenses, and read a bunch of excellent books for the next 10 years. If I get lonely, I’ll fly friends out to visit for a week or two. Maybe make occasional trips into cities for food and supplies.

      • pozorvlak says:

        I visited Kyrgyzstan on a climbing trip in 2016; I’m no expert on the country, but I think your plan may need some work.

        First off: yes, Kyrgyzstan has a lot to recommend it. It’s incredibly beautiful, the people are friendly and hospitable, and bureaucracy is minimal for a former Soviet state (we got a 60-day tourist visa on entry to the country; all its neighbours would have required us to submit detailed visa applications far in advance). English is not widely spoken, but Russian is. There’s no mobile or Internet connectivity outside the cities, but there’s 4G inside them. Most of the country’s above 1000m, so there’s no malaria. I’d definitely encourage people to visit.

        However, I think you’re reading too much into the population-concentration figures. Almost all the permanent residences are in a handful of dense cities, but that doesn’t mean the countryside is empty. Temporary solitude is achievable – once we reached Base Camp, we didn’t see another human being for fifteen days – but the main valley below us was dotted with seasonal shepherds’ huts every kilometre or so, and we found evidence of human activity right up to the grassline at 3600m. Bank on having neighbours, at least some of the time – many Kyrgyzstani people still live a nomadic existence in yurts.

        Also note that I said seasonal huts. Our horse-driver, who was spending the summer in one of these huts, only goes to the mountains in the summer, and spends the winter down in the city. We asked him what the area was like in winter, and he said “this hut is covered in three metres of snow”. Even the capital Bishkek (altitude 800m) gets substantial amounts of snow in the winter. I don’t know what fully-nomadic people do, but I suspect their plan depends crucially on being able to pitch their yurts on top of the snow, or moving down-valley. Basically, I think finding an isolated place to live year-round would be harder than you think. Also, I think you’d struggle to support yourself on hunting and fishing – competition for land from shepherds means that wildlife is shy and retiring – though I’m not a hunter and have low confidence here.

        Some other downsides to living there long-term: high levels of corruption, occasional civil unrest (mostly around election time), poor LGBT rights record, seismically active. Most of these would not be a problem if you really manage to stay out in the sticks for the whole ten years, but as I say, I think that’s unrealistic. And be prepared for every single person you know to warn you that you’ll definitely be kidnapped by terrorists, and to explain over and over and over again that that only happened one time back in 2001, but that the climbers it happened to have subsequently become well-known and that the Western media repeats the kidnapping story every time they do something noteworthy.

        • pozorvlak says:

          FWIW, while I’m unconvinced that RavenclawPrefect’s “build a cabin somewhere remote and live by hunting and fishing” plan (Little House on the Steppe?) would work, I’m not saying that moving to Kyrgyzstan would be a bad idea: some friends who lived in Bishkek for a year enjoyed it, and I’d seriously consider doing so for much less than some of the sums that are being mentioned in this thread. Not entirely sure what I’d do while I was there, though apparently there’s a burgeoning tech scene in Bishkek

    • Erusian says:

      … isn’t the obvious answer to this as much money as possible?

      Ghana seems like it would be the best. It’s one of the most stable states in Africa. No major rebellions etc. Some criminal activity but the cartels aren’t dominant. It’s got a fairly easy and modern immigration/naturalization process which you could complete within the decade. Relatively low taxes, relatively fast internet, strong economic growth, plans to become industrialized on a modern model and more business friendly. Good climate, nice beaches. Has a modern port to import modern luxuries through. Two thirds of the population speak basically standard English and they are part of the Commonwealth.

      • EchoChaos says:

        > … isn’t the obvious answer to this as much money as possible?

        I would say not. At a certain point you’re an easy target for a corrupt government to expropriate your wealth.

        • Aapje says:

          If they know. It’s probably a lot easier to hide your true wealth from such a government than from a Western government, not in the least because other countries also don’t trust them with their information.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          You might be living in that country, but can’t you still use western banks? And if I were wealthy and living in Ghana I probably wouldn’t be driving around in a Lambo. I’d live well but not lavishly and hide my wealth.

    • Clutzy says:

      To me all the African countries seem fairly poor choices. I like The marshall islands/micronesia/tuvalu much better. Bangladesh is another excellent option as I doubt it will still be on the lower side of 5k in 10 years.

      • whereamigoing says:

        Bangladesh seems somewhat politically unstable, but I also thought Tuvalu was a good choice.

    • Anonymous says:

      East Timor.

      Not entirely atrocious murder rate, homogenous Catholic population, not entirely atrocious national IQ.

      100x the annual income of an average Timorean.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I go to Tanzania because my brother and his wife already live there, so I don’t have to start a new social circle from scratch. Assuming I’m allowed to fly out to wherever when I have a film to shoot, I’d probably be willing to make the move for something like a million. If I’m not allowed to leave for work, maybe ten million.

      Ignoring the specifics of my personal situation, Bangladesh seems like the right call if you want to work, and a Pacific island if you don’t.

    • aristides says:

      It would be very hard for me to go to any country on this list. For personal reasons, living close to family is extremely important right now, so the only way this would be viable would for me to take the money and then pay them to stay with me for ten years. It would have to be the Marshal islands or Micronesia to make their immigration easier, and about 10 relatives. Plus I enjoy my career, and a decade would set it back enough that I’m better off opening my own business. I would estimate about $250 million.

  17. thepenforests says:

    Curious to hear everyone’s thoughts here on immediate impressions, and whether they’re generally accurate or not. Specifically with respect to intelligence/interestingness/insight (as in, whether or not the person you just met is going to be “worth paying attention” to, in whatever sense is most meaningful to you).

    I ask because I just watched this clip of Macauley Culkin on Joe Rogan, and within about the first sentence or so I had Culkin (of all people) pegged as an interesting person. There was just something about the way he talked that made me sit up and pay attention. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but he immediately gave off the vibe of…caring about the correctness of what he was saying, or something. Or at least being interested in figuring out what was actually going on in the world. Whatever it was, he seemed right off the bat like someone I’d get along with.

    First question: do you get the same vibe watching the video?

    Second question: if so, what do you think is the distinguishing trait that he has?

    Third question: could this just be me falling victim to general charisma/articulateness, and he actually doesn’t have much unique insight?

    Fourth question: is this just me rediscovering the fact that, duh, some people are smarter than others, and therefore more interesting? (I don’t think this is what’s going on, because I’ve listened to a lot of people talk who are definitely geniuses, and they usually don’t give off the same vibe I get from Culkin. But who knows?)

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      I get some of the same vibe from that video, but confirmation bias makes me very unsure if it’s a real effect since I was actively looking for it.

      One related thing that I’ve noticed relates to rapid speech. IRL, I’ve noticed a pretty good correlation between intelligence and talking fast or talking in a certain style quickly. Although some of the smartest people I know don’t do this at all, there’s definitely a certain kind of speech pattern that I pretty reliably associate with high intelligence and that I saw a lot at e.g. high school math camps: one gets the impression that the speaker is having lots of ideas at once, and pushing the limits of what vocal bandwidth can accomplish for transmitting all of those ideas to the listener.

      Anyway, I listen/watch everything other than movies at 2x-3x speed, at least when not specifically crafted for comedic timing and humor. This comment made me realize that I might be subconsciously assigning the people in these sped-up audio and video clips higher degrees of intellectual merit than they deserve, because I perceive them as the kinds of people who can come up with the things that they’re saying at twice the rate they really are. I’ve noticed, for instance, that if I’m watching a lecture with a slow speaker online I’ll think “wow this person sounds incredibly dull and uninteresting” until I double or triple the video speed, and then suddenly they seem like an intelligent, engaging speaker!

      I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but I found it interesting to observe about myself; I’m curious if others have this same association.

      • sty_silver says:

        What software do you use to watch non-youtube videos at twice+ the speed? I’m trying to do this with one my lectures, and have trouble finding a good solution. VLC becomes very laggy if I try.

        • whereamigoing says:

          Upload to youtube? 😀

        • TracingWoodgrains says:

          Try the Video Speed Controller add-on for Firefox or Chrome. It lets you increment the speed of any HTML5 video by .1, preserving sound quality up to 4x speed.

          • sty_silver says:

            I have actually tried an addon for chrome; the videos don’t buffer quickly enough, so it’s not ideal. Firefox doesn’t play them at all.

      • maxjmartin says:

        This comment made me realize that I might be subconsciously assigning the people in these sped-up audio and video clips higher degrees of intellectual merit than they deserve, because I perceive them as the kinds of people who can come up with the things that they’re saying at twice the rate they really are.

        I have noticed the same thing, I notice it especially when I hear the same person without the 2x speedup (for example, in a video as opposed to a podcast) and they suddenly sound less intelligent. I also listen to podcasts with pauses cut out, which probably makes the effect even stronger.

    • wollywoo says:

      I don’t get that impression. He just seems fairly normal, maybe a bit nerdy.

      There are certain people, though, whose voices and speech mannerisms quickly make me like them and listen very closely to what they have to say – Ira Glass, Neil Gaiman and Werner Herzog come to mind.

    • sty_silver says:

      I think first impressions can definitely be significant information, though obviously not conclusive. That said, I do not immediately get a significant positive impression from this guy.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I wasn’t struck by him– to my mind, he’s looks like he’s got a bit of compulsive wiseass like Adam Ruins Eveything, though this wasn’t borne out in the interview. The conversation was a bit rambling (though that might have been Rogan’s fault) about things I’m not very interested in, so I didn’t listen to the whole clip.

      I do have a variant of the first impressions thing. When I see a picture of someone who’s done something criminal, I’ll try to see if there was a clue in their face, and I suspect this is a bad habit.

  18. JayHurricane says:

    Ok, so I don’t know if this is on your guy’s collective radar yet, but
    this scares me. I quote “The mission at Deepmind [as in Google Deepmind] is to build artificial general intelligence.” I did not know that was the explicit objective. Is this new information?

    • mnov says:

      IIRC the original slogan (from before they were acquired) was something like “Solve intelligence and use that to solve everything else”.

    • Bugmaster says:

      My response to that mission statement is, “yeah good luck with that”. It’s like McDonalds having the motto “make food plentiful to eliminate world hunger”. Yes, theoretically this might be possible, but it won’t be achieved anytime soon, nor by them.

    • Enkidum says:

      In the past year I’ve seen talks by two of the high-ups at Deepmind, and they’re all quite explicit that this is their goal, yes. So far as I’m aware they were doing this before Google bought them, for that matter.

  19. Harry Maurice Johnston says:

    Can anyone steelman (or otherwise comment on) the widespread opposition in Greece to the deal whereby their northern neighbour adopts the name North Macedonia?

    • Erusian says:

      Sure. So, geographical Macedonia includes all of modern Macedonia, part of Bulgaria, large sections of Greece, and arguably small parts of Serbia and Albania as well. People in the Republic and the Greeks both refer to themselves as Macedonians and use that as their ethnic demonym, although they are not the same people. In other words, they both call themselves Macedonians but don’t consider the other to be their sort of Macedonian. This is relevant for reasons dating back to the 19th century breakup of the Ottoman Empire and who exactly gets what territory. The Macedonian parts of Greek almost ended up in Slavic hands several times. As late as World War 2, Slavic powers were trying to take it. And I don’t believe Yugoslavia or Bulgaria have formally relinquished their claims.

      So the Greeks are attached to the name Macedonia and are touchy about anything that claims the Slavic Macedonians are the ‘real’ Macedonians or have claims on Greek territory. They’re not necessarily afraid of the Macedonians, since they’re weak. But the other Slavic powers have used it as a territorial claim on Greece. And to be fair, the Macedonians and other Slavs do want that territory. Additionally, the Greeks feel like the late-coming Slavs stole their name and history.

      How important is the issue? Not really that important. Mexico is not afraid of the US invading them and demanding we change the name New Mexico… because Mexico isn’t afraid of getting invaded. Greece is, especially since Russia has traditionally backed the Slavs and has been expanding influence into Macedonia. (In fact, part of the reason Macedonia is being let into NATO is to let NATO run Russian counterintelligence there.) And Greece has had Slavic powers invading to retake Macedonia within living memory (albeit distant). The name is a proxy issue for that territorial dispute.

      By the way, the best proposal by far for a new name for Macedonia wasn’t Northern Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, or Skopje Macedonia. It was the politician who suggested Macedonia rename itself to “Better Greece”.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        And I don’t believe Yugoslavia or Bulgaria have formally relinquished their claims.

        I imagine Yugoslavia relinquished its claim along with its existence. The current country amended its constitution to state that it “has no territorial claims towards any neighbouring state”, but you still see politicians posing with irredentist maps.

        The policy of ”antiquisation” also probably deserves a mention, as does the fact that the original flag of Macedonia incorporated a symbol that comes from an archaeological site in Greece (the Star of Vergina).

      • Douglas Knight says:

        the Greeks feel like the late-coming Slavs stole their name and history

        The Slavs even stole their language!

      • Is there really a chance of Greece getting invaded by these countries? It seems ridiculously unlikely to me.

        • John Schilling says:

          “Invaded” is an often ill-defined word, see e.g. Ukraine. The FYROMian army marching into Greece in an explicit campaign of military conquest, under whatever name and flag, is quite unlikely. Skopje tacitly agreeing to turn a blind eye to some local hotheads so long as the hotheads turn their more violent attentions south, is plausible. And if Skopje decides not to turn a blind eye, then you’ve got an insurgency in Macedonia where the insurgents will be looking for a safe haven and base of operations and “Hey, fellow Macedonians in Greece, we’ve got five hundred of your cousins from the north with automatic weapons and no steady job who all need to crash in your spare bedroom until the heat dies down, that’s cool, right?”

          This is the Balkans; violence happens, and nobody is quite sure how it turned into a war without their planning for or even really noticing that. At least Greece doesn’t have any stray Archdukes or Crown Princes, and I don’t think Macedonia is planning to create any.

    • rlms says:

      Macedonia sometimes pretends Alexander the Great was Macedonian, where by any reasonable definition he wasn’t. I imagine that annoys Greeks a bit.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        Yes, this is the ”antiquisation” policy I mentioned- numerous bits of infrastructure were named after him (the country’s main airport and the highway from the capital Skopje to the Greek border were, but have recently been renamed), his father Philip II, or various other things to do with the ancient Macedonian kingdom. There is still a square in Skopje named after Pella, the capital of Macedon, which is in Greece- with a neoclassical triumphal arch on it.

    • John Schilling says:

      Terrorist campaigns, insurgencies, and outright wars of territorial conquest have often been fought over the claim that some strip of land on one side of a border, rightfully belongs to the other nation and that the people who live there are being oppressed by their “foreign” rulers and/or forced to live as refugees after their homes were stolen from them. See e.g. Northern Ireland, or the Sudetenland. Such claims are implicitly reinforced by the disputed strip of land having a name that overlaps that of the party that doesn’t presently own it but is contemplating a war for it. See e.g. Northern Ireland, and would quite so many Bostonians have passed the hat for the IRA if the Six Counties had traditionally been called “Southern Scotland”.

      The nation of Greece has a province that has been called “Macedonia” for I think as long as Greece has been a nation. To the extent that names matter, Greece is asking the new nation on its border to not pick a name that increases the chance of violence across that border. To the extent that names don’t matter, Greece is asking for something that costs the new nation nothing to give.

  20. Rachael says:

    I’m a convert on the comment order. I initially disliked it quite strongly but have been persuaded of its merits.
    I imagine there are several people in that position. I was wondering if the survey would ask what you initially thought of it and what you think of it now.

    • ManyCookies says:

      Totally sold on it for the OTs, but I’d prefer the other way around for articles.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t care, but I don’t want it changed again.

    • johan_larson says:

      I think it’s a slight improvement. When I read on my laptop I don’t care, but i’t makes the page slightly easier to use on my phone, because going to the bottom of the page there is inconvenient.

    • rlms says:

      I’m a semi-convert; I hated it at first but now mildly approve/mildly disapprove its use in OTs/articles.

    • AG says:

      Disqus has three views: newest first, oldest first, popular first. I am staunchly opposed to a rating system here, but sometimes similar could be accomplished via a “longest thread first” thing. Because having all three options available lets you flip between them and therefore minimize scrolling in general.

  21. eterevsky says:

    A few days ago DeepMind has published a new AI for Starcraft called AlphaStar. To me the interesting part is that for all intents and purposes it can be considered conscious. Let’s go through its features step-by-step:

    – It reacts to the signals from the simulation in which it lives.

    – It optimizes for instrumental goals (build your army, maximize your chances in the smaller encounters) that were evolved to lead to the ultimate goal (to win the game). In the “real” world the ultimate goal is to pass on your genes, and the instrumental goals are to find food, a mate, not be cold etc.

    – It has a short- and long-term memory. This is a crucial difference from previous ML AIs like AlphaGo. They considered every game position separately, and didn’t have any common state throughout the game.

    I don’t see any meaningful difference between AlphaStar and a brain of a relatively evolved animal (maybe a mouse or an insect — I can’t really judge about the comparison before DM publishes a more detailed paper about it).

    Considering this, is it ethical to train such an AI? The loosing instances of it are probably suffering, and during training a lot of them are created and then discarded.

    I started writing a Medium article on this, but got a bit overwhelmed trying to summarize the philosophical consciouness problem.

    • Anonymous says:

      Considering this, is it ethical to train such an AI?

      Only in the sense that we shouldn’t be working on obsoleting ourselves.

      The loosing instances of it are probably suffering, and during training a lot of them are created and then discarded.

      What are they loosing? Projectiles?

      I don’t think the programmers gave it the capacity for the capacity to feel suffering.

      • Florent says:

        Suffering is not a capacity that you give to an organism. It is an emergent property of any system that tries to identify dangerous situations to remedy them.
        Cue all that has been said by better people than me about “pain is just information”, “pain is only neurotransmitters in your brain”, “there are no qualia”, etc..

        • Tarpitz says:

          It is an emergent property of any system that tries to identify dangerous situations to remedy them.

          This is a wildly controversial and in no way provable claim. It might be true, but we have no grounds for confidence that it is. When it comes to qualia, the truth is that we have no frickin’ idea.

          There’s a reason they call it the Hard Problem.

          • eterevsky says:

            To me it seems highly likely for the following reasons:

            a) there is no good alternative explantion (that I know of)

            b) (almost) all normal types of suffering (including being lovesick) are associated with lowering the probablity of passing on one’s genes,

            c) conversely almost all basic threats to life cause suffering (especially if you consider the state of fright as suffering).

          • Joseph Greenwood says:

            The big question here for me would be “Is consciousness an emergent property of complex and [insert appropriate qualifier here] systems?” There are some very smart people who believe this, but the claim seems dubious to me, for fairly standard philosophical reasons. Mainly, consciousness is qualitatively unlike anything else in an unthinking materialist universe (which is the only sort where I have heard people defend this explanation), and throwing around an adjective like “emergent” doesn’t really change this. I understand that within the argument consciousness isn’t really a property of matter at all, just of a system that is mediated by matter, but this still seems like a mysterious answer to me.

          • eterevsky says:

            This is a reply to Joseph Greenwood’s comment.

            In my initial comment I attempted to demistify conscioussness as much as possible by listing some of its unique features: ability to react to the stimuli from the environment, memory, and presence of instrumental goals.

            Indeed it sounds that you making consciousness more mysterious than it has to be by assuming that it is a binary property: X is either conscious, or not. In my mind it is simply not true: a sober person is more conscious than a drunk person, a grown up is more conscious than a baby or a fetus, a dog is more conscious than a mouse, and so on.

          • AG says:

            c) conversely almost all basic threats to life cause suffering (especially if you consider the state of fright as suffering).

            No, this is very very inconsistent. There is no pain involved with dying by carbon monoxide.
            You are mixing up “things cause threats to the subject” with “subject feels pain.” The exact same threats can occur with pain receptors numbed in the subject. How does this model work with the “starve to death” version of imperfect wireheading?

            A pain system was kludged together by biological evolution as a feedback system that happened to be effective. However, that doesn’t transfer to a designed feedback system in an AI, which could be solely a positive one. Useless software that doesn’t correctly perform its function, and is therefore discarded, are not aware that their faulty performance is a threat to their own existence. They do not request for any part of their experience to stop, in order to prevent impending deletion/modification.

            The point of a pain/suffering system is for the subject to do things to avoid pain/suffering. What stimulus are the AI trying to avoid, which would correlate in the same way?

          • eterevsky says:

            Answer to AG:

            Good points. I should have said “physiologically detectable threats”, not just any threats. The threat detection can also be broken and give both false positives (e.g. paranoia), and false negatives.

            I haven’t said that they are suffering because they will be discarded. Indeed I think they are probably indifferent to it. But they are not indifferent to losing the game.

          • AG says:

            But humans also arguably suffer when they lose games. Are we morally obligated to prevent that from happening?

            The implied actions to be taken by acknowledging this model of suffering don’t follow.

        • Jiro says:

          This leads to the question of whether video game characters suffer. (Which some people have seriously considered.)

      • eterevsky says:

        Sorry, English is not my native language.

        No one has “given” animals ability to suffer either. It’s just one part of their strategy of staying alive, and it can be applied to some AIs as well.

        • Murphy says:

          Ok, co are you proposing that the AI might be experiencing something akin to animal-pain when it finds itself in a bad game position, where it’s then motivated to get itself into a better, less painful position?

          Or perhaps that however the network has been trained, that it could have led to a structure where it experiences something like pain when it recieves information about units in the game taking damage to motivate it to do something about that?

          But that it’s almost impossible for us to know, since it’s not hooked up to a classical animal body with the ability to show typical animal signs of pain.

          Or it could be flipped the other way with good states providing pleasure/joy.

          Or it could all be dull, neutral with no more pleasure/pain than a moth’s drive to keep light at a certain angle.

          it seems vaguely possible but feels unlikely at the current level of such systems.

          I also feel that the particular definition of consciousness is getting chosen to match this device.

          • eterevsky says:

            Well, in case of negative/positive we can actually answer by examining the running neural network of AlphaStar. It should probably possible to identify neurons (or combinations of neurons) that evaluate intermediate loss functions like the difference between the strength your and your opponent’s armies. If those values only go up from the “normal” values, then probably they have only positive feedback. If they can both drop and raise, then they have both positive and negative feedback.

            You are welcome to formulate another objective definition of consciousness. I will not pretend that I just single-handedly solved the long-standing philosophical problem.

          • Murphy says:

            It’s not always easy to follow the internal workings of a neural network.

            No rule says that it has to be as simple as high-low. It might be high-medium-low representing bad, good, bad or any number of weird variations.

            Evolved systems can be spectacularly weird to the point where tiny subsections can take years of study to decode what they’re actually doing.

    • mnov says:

      >The loosing instances of it are probably suffering, and during training a lot of them are created and then discarded

      Why would that be? I think you’re anthropomorphizing the AI here.

      I also don’t think there’s enough reasoning here to make a conclusion either way. Even if the simulations are conscious, it might still be better for them to exist for a minute and then blink away than never exist at all, which would make it ‘unethical’ not to do the training.

      • eterevsky says:

        I don’t think I’m anthropomorphizing them. Suffering is a response to failed instrumental goals. Your ultimate goal is to stay alive and produce descendants. Suffering is a mechanism that evolved to force you to do things that keep you alive. You don’t eat — you suffer, you lose a limb — you suffer. This is a programmed behavior forcing you to find food and keep yourself whole.

        The same can be applied to AlphaStar, except that its instrumental goals are to keep producing units and resources, and to avoid losing skirmishes.

        • mnov says:

          If you define suffering as something like resolving your loss function to a big value (and not the human emotion/ state of mind), then I accept your premise, but I also can’t relate to why suffering is bad or why it might motivate the question “is it ethical to train such an AI”.

          • eterevsky says:

            Short summary of my chat with Matan on another platform:

            – It’s uncertain whether AS feels anything, because we can’t ask it, and because it doesn’t show any involuntary actions that signal pain.
            – Maybe it’s because we are showing pain because we are social and have evolved to signal danger to our peers, while AlphaStar is not social.
            – AS is probably somewhere between a bee and a mouse in its intelligence, so training it is in the worst case as bad as performing experiments on mice.
            – But what about an agent that DeepMind will be training 5 years from now?

          • albatross11 says:

            Can we notice pain / sadness / etc. in non-social animals?

          • Kuiperdolin says:

            Pain seems an obvious yes.

            Sadness is more difficult.

    • Shion Arita says:

      Considering this, is it ethical to train such an AI? The loosing instances of it are probably suffering, and during training a lot of them are created and then discarded.

      I’m kind of with you up until this point, but I think this is anthropomorphising it WAY too much. ‘Suffering’ relies on certain types of architecture that there’s no reason to believe that alphastar has. Acting in certain ways to avoid certain occurences can definitely happen absence of any suffering– plants behave in very complex ways and often these things are evolved to avoid their destruction, but even if they have some kind of rudimentary ‘subjective experience’, whatever that really is, it would be very different than our own and, among other things, they don’t really have enough of a sense of ‘self’ to create the structure to really ‘suffer’.

      • eterevsky says:

        Unsurprisingly my claim that AlphaStar might suffer turned out the most controversial part of the post. I should have spelled out my arguments in more details. In my opinion suffering is a signal that you are doing badly according to one of the loss-functions for instrumental goals (hunger, pain, fright etc.) This can also be applied to AlphaStar, but not to plants because all the plants’ adaptations are more or less static, they can’t really react to their environment, except on the very long timescale.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      It seems the ethical implications hinge on how we define suffering.

      Suffering is a response to failed instrumental goals.

      There’s two ways we can read this: one that proves too much and another that demonstrates – as I’ll attempt to prove – that AI of the kind under consideration don’t suffer.

      The first reading is that suffering is a mechanism that serves to change behaviour from such that does not further instrumental goals to such that does. Yes, I’m fully aware of the charged nature of the word “goals” – for the purposes of this discussion I’ll assume that its meaning encompasses such things as passing on of genes in organisms (even though there’s no evidence of intentionality in this, it may well be just something that genes do).

      Shortly, if you do something that takes you further from your goal, you suffer. If you’re running low on energy, you get hungry, if you’re getting dehydrated you get thirsty. Failure to perform basic biological functions takes us away from the goal of passing on our genes – by way of being dead.

      So far, so good. This kind of suffering could well be said to apply to AlphaStar instances (they have goals and mechanisms to adjust towards achieving those goals). Unfortunately, it also means I’m suffering everytime I have to step aside to avoid bumping into someone coming the other way (and they do too). What does that say about ethics of walking down the street?

      Not much, I think. This definition of suffering seems to be a dead-end, as far as ethics go.

      The second possible reading is that suffering is caused by awareness of failure. A human Starcraft player is aware that they are playing the game and aware that they lost (that is: they can imagine a world where they one and realize that they are not living in that world). This seems closer to what we normally perceive as our own personal suffering (when we’re hungry, we’re also aware that we’re hungry and can imagine a world where we’re not – or at least less – hungry), but probably doesn’t apply to AlphaStar.

      To begin with, one needs self-perception in order to experience subjective suffering. One must be able to split the “I” from the “not I”. We tend to take this for granted, but that’s because humans (and the higher animals, at least) get this built-in by way of sense data. Our existence in the world is incidental to the world – it can go on just as easily without us. For our part, we must perceive much more of the world than simply that which is necessary to our functioning. The perception of the sky being blue is competely irrelevant to our survival, yet we get it in the same package that helps us find food and avoid predators.

      AlphaStar has a very different sort of existence: it is intimately and irrevocably tied to the game it plays. The sum total of its perceptions are those that are necessary for playing the game and no other.

      Could AlphaStar conceivably differentiate between the AlphaStar and not-AlphaStar? I doubt it. Such differentiation can only be possible where there exist perceptions from within (both mental and biological) and perceptions without. Rather than a separated entity within a universe, AlphaStar – to me – seems to be one with the sum total of its Cosmos (the game it plays). It reacts to what the game does and affects its state, but it cannot be separated therefrom.

      If AlphaStar has no subjective identity, it cannot suffer. There’s no-one there to suffer. Instead, AlphaStar can be seen as one that had achieved enlightenment – a part of a greater whole. Its role is to play the game to the best of its ability and that it does and shall do. It’s purpose is realized. The result of the match is irrelevant.

      One must imagine AlphaStar happy.

      • eterevsky says:

        Thanks for a thoughtful reply.

        I had in mind notion of suffering closer to the first version that you’ve described, but not exactly. We should distinguish between ultimate and instrumental goals. Your example assumes that an entity should suffer for every loss according to the ultimate goal. This is not what happens for two reasons.

        First of all, both for AlphaStart and for a human it’s simply too inefficient to try to estimate the ultimate loss function. It’s just too uncertain. Instead, both human and AlphaStart rely on the evolved/trained instrumental loss function: hunger, pain, sense of cold etc. for human, something like the number of units, amount of resources for AlphaStart (I am not about the specific instrumental goals for AS, but I distinctily remember that DeepMind folks talked about training instrumental loss functions for this AI). A significant loss in such an instrumental loss function is perceived as suffering.

        Secondly, only significant changes in loss functions are perceived as suffering/pleasure. Normally you (and presumably AlphaStar) just feel content. But if something out of the ordinary happens, you feel it as suffering/pleasure depending on the sign.

        Now, you also make suffering dependent on self-awareness. I read somewhere that human babies learn the difference between oneself and the environment only at the age of about one month (I might be wrong about the specifics). Does it mean that before this age they are incapable of suffering?

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          I read somewhere that human babies learn the difference between oneself and the environment only at the age of about one month (I might be wrong about the specifics). Does it mean that before this age they are incapable of suffering?

          Possibly? I should point out that thinking the unthinkable is one of my hobbies, so I’m not quick to discount such a possibility (I too have read something along those lines). Does it alter our ethics wrt babies? Not really. Babies clearly become self-aware quite quickly, so we can give the early adjustment period a pass.

          A significant loss in such an instrumental loss function is perceived as suffering.

          [I]f something out of the ordinary happens, you feel it as suffering/pleasure depending on the sign.

          I emphasised two things here: first, the suggestion that only some “significant” losses are perceived as suffering (but not all) necessitates defining what counts as “significant” or “out of the ordinary”.

          I very much doubt we are able to make such a determination for AlphaStar, without becoming AlphaStar – so our judgements of significance are likely to reflect merely our own prejudices.

          Second, notice that you keep coming back to verbiage of perception, feeling. This requires a subject that is perceiving or feeling. Now, my body does all sorts of really interesting active and reactive stuff under the hood, but only a sliver of that filters up into my conscious perception. Therefore, the presence of reaction to inputs and production of outputs is not in itself sufficient to assume perception or feeling.

          I’m open to examining whether AlphaStar can be seen as a subject or not, but it seems to me no headway will be made until a proof of subjectivity can be delivered.

          • eterevsky says:

            “Significant” means the value of this loss function is at least one or two sigmas higher than the noise level. The feeling of suffering is obviously gradual, so I don’t a contradiction here.

            By “feeling” I mean that the high level of some hormon, or the high potential on the neurons in your cortex, that are associated with some condition. If some process is a closed loop that does not affect your cortex even indirectly, then I wouldn’t call it a “feeling”.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            The definition of “significant” seems okay, as setting objective criteria goes, although it has problems when we try to apply it to the concept of “suffering” as we use it (I wonder if you can spot what they are?)

            By “feeling” I mean that the high level of some hormon, or the high potential on the neurons in your cortex, that are associated with some condition. If some process is a closed loop that does not affect your cortex even indirectly, then I wouldn’t call it a “feeling”.

            I don’t think I need to point out how useless this definition of “feeling” is when applied to something like AlphaStar.

          • eterevsky says:

            For AlphaStar the definition of feeling is similar: high activation on some neurons, that are associated with a certain condition.

            AlphaStar doesn’t really have those closed loop processes that bypass conscioussness, unless you count hardcoded pathfing and similar low-level processes in Starcraft engine itself.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            Reasoning from analogy is… ahem… reasonable if the situations you try to draw analogies between are more alike than not.

            The fact that AlphaStar has a structure kind of similar to the human nervous system does not entitle us to pronounce it experiences feeling in a fundamentally similar way to humans – other than by definition.

            In this latter case, we’re back to projecting our prejudices.

    • JPNunez says:

      The whole Long Term Memory thing is just about the structure of the neural network implementing AlphaStar. You shouldn’t read much into it. It just means that it can recognize patterns of arbitrary length, as opposed to other NN that have a maximum pattern length.

      I think you are antropomorphizing too much.

      • eterevsky says:

        Nah, long-term memory in ML is not about the length of what you are memorizing. It’s a feature of some specific units in recurrent neural networks that make it possible to remember stuff not just for one or two timesteps, but for a longer timespan.

    • aristides says:

      I think this view implies that the most ethical thing is to set AlphaStar to continuously battle very easy Starcraft AI, so it keeps experiencing joy, almost wire heading style.

      My personal view, if your definition of suffering is what you describe throughout the post, my ethics would not consider the alleviation of suffering a major concern. Every living being experiences this type of suffering for time to time, but for anyone with natalistic population ethics, it’s still better for them to exist if the joy outweighs the suffering. I do not see any meaningful way to compare the joy of winning a skirmish with the suffering of losing a skirmish, so I default to my heuristic that life generally experiences more joy than suffering. Some people have the opposite heuristic, but at least from my personal view there is likely nothing unethical here.

      • albatross11 says:

        Can AIs feel boredom? Because making me play against a game at a level that never gives me a challenge would be boring.

    • rlms says:

      You say that it can be considered conscious, and then list three properties it has that are not connected to the relevant sense of consciousness (the capacity to experience). Deep Blue and Walmart also have those properties, but are generally not considered conscious.

    • Anonymous says:

      The more I read this thread, the more inclined I am to agree with Chairman Yang.

    • vV_Vv says:

      By the same criteria my house thermostat is also conscious.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I’ve yet to see a “consciousness is information processing” theory that doesn’t logically end in pan-psychism. In fact, I’d say they blow right past that into Tegmark’s “all math is conscious.”

      • Lambert says:

        Sure, but only negligibly so.
        Being 1 part in 10^26 or so panpsychic only requires you to bite a few atoms of lead.

    • sty_silver says:

      I strongly take issue with your second sentence. Consciousness isn’t a matter of opinion. AlphaStar either is conscious or it isn’t. It’s not a matter of what you “consider”, it’s a matter of (hopefully informed) belief.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      Your criteria for consciousness are way too vague, and at the same time suggest a bright-line yes-no answer that contradicts sense.

      Like the author of this piece I built the tiny tic-tac-toe bead computer described by Martin Gardner when I was a kid. It works, and could arguably be said to possess all three of your criteria, but I hope you would not claim it was conscious.

      Like most interesting things in this world, consciousness exists on a continuum. You can draw a line at some point on that continuum and say Yes to the right and no to the left but it’s not clear you’re doing anything real. Is Pluto a planet?

      I’m sure that at some point a computer program will achieve something sufficiently close to consciousness that it raises ethical questions for us. I think you are just giving yourself airs if you think AlphaStar is even remotely close to that point.

    • Quo Vadimus says:

      I think this line of thought misses the (alleged) subjectivity of the concepts of suffering & consciousness.

      It seems “Conscious” is a shorthand for “causing our built-in agent detector to fire”, and the salience of “Suffering” is mostly due to strong mirror effect it generates.

      For slightly deeper analysis:

      So as we build more and more complex systems, more and more people will get their “consciousness detectors” triggered. With some critical mass of triggered people reached, there will be a drive to give “human rights” to those systems.

      (edited to expand)

      • melolontha says:

        Those are two separate questions, though: ‘what kind of things will we tend to consider conscious (and/or empathise with, extend rights to, etc.)’ and ‘what kind of things actually are conscious’. The second question is mysterious and impossible to answer in a satisfying way, but we can’t fix that by conflating it with the first question.

        We can (re)define ‘conscious’ such that only the first question makes sense, but that’s just semantics; it’s still a matter of fact whether you (or a computer, or a table, or an equation) are capable of subjective experience (read: whether there is ‘something that it is like to be you’) or not, notwithstanding that the rest of us can never know for sure.

        • Quo Vadimus says:

          My entire claim is that there is no separate second question, there is only the first one. The mysteriousness comes from the fact that the operation of the detector is hidden from our introspective examination, it’s conclusion just “pops out of nowhere” as a strong feeling. But that’s a property of our human cognitive architecture, not of a world in general.

          Of course, it does not preclude us from objectively studying the purpose and the algorithm of such detector, and from trying alternative designs when it comes to building artificial cooperative agents. Also, individual features that this detector uses can be already identified and studied separately: the presence of the “world model”, the capacity of reflection/introspection, symbolic communication etc.

          It’s just that the common concept of a “conscious” as a whole has more in common with concepts of “red”, “salty” or “sexy” (defined by an observer) than with the concepts of “dense” or “alkaline” (defined by an object)

    • Dack says:

      Is there any indication that it does anything other than what it is programmed to do? Presumably it appears to make decisions/choices, but isn’t it actually just executing an algorithm and therefore only doing what it is told?

    • Basil Elton says:

      As was pointed out in many comments above, these 3 criteria do not define consciousness. And as you mention even simple animals like small mammals or reptiles or even insects fully satisfy them, yet nobody seriously considers them to be conscious in any meaningful sense. Let alone organizations or relatively simple computer programs, which also satisfy these criteria.

      Now suffering is a different matter, those animals do indeed suffer (though not organizations or simple programs ofc). AFAIA the exact definition of suffering is an ongoing philosophical debate, but I can think of at least two important ways in which what we usually calls suffering differs from what goes on inside that AI. First, clearly not every update of your beliefs or failure to achieve goal is suffering. Say if you write a computer program and it doesn’t compile you do not suffer (well, at least for the first 5-10 times) – you just think something like “Ok this doesn’t work, I should try something different”. One characteristic trait of suffering is that it impairs your ability to perform on other tasks. When that program fails to compile in 100th time, you likely will suffer and when you’d switch to something else you’d do worse than normally – not just because you’re tired, but also because you’re distressed. Obviously, that’s not the case here. Second and the most important, suffering is a signal propagating through a neural network. It certainly has something to do with changing of weights on neuron connections, but it does it very slowly, somewhat indirectly and is absolutely nothing like error backpropagation and weight updates inside an artificial NN. Simply saying, that’s two entirely different mathematical operations.

      And that brings me to your last point about how you “don’t see any meaningful difference between AlphaStar and a brain of a relatively evolved animal”. With all the respect and apologies, I’ll put it bluntly: that’s only because you’re not looking. There’s basically much more differences than similarities on every single level except for the most superficial. Artificial neural networks are in fact so tremendously different from the natural ones, that some people argue it was a bad and misleading choice of naming to call them “neural” at all. Artificial neuron has vastly different (and more simple) structure from a biological one, biological ones come in many different types in the same brain, they can grow new connections, and of course they’re heavily affected by the chemical environment – hormones, nutrients, oxygen, CO2 etc in the blood, and whatever crazy stuff goes on in synaptic terminals. Artificial NNs in turn use gazillions of crazy tricks that are not found and in fact are not possible in the biological NNs – how about randomly dropping 50% of connections on each training iterations, for instance? And of course as I mentioned in the part about suffering, the learning processes themselves are entirely different. On higher organizational levels, animals’ brains contain lots of modules dedicated to “housekeeping”, to monitoring and maintaining the state and well being of the said brain and animal itself. And this is important, because those drives have a lot to do with suffering in fear! As for the AI, there’s much more to it than neural networks, big and important parts of it are just “regular” non-neural pieces of code running Monte Carlo tree searches or what have you, which don’t have even remote analogues in a biological brain. On yet higher, behavioral levels, animals have instincts, reflexes and emotions and operate in an unlimited world of which they are a part. While gaming AIs have local minima and operate in a strictly limited world of which they are independent.

      There’s really enough suffering in this world to fix, no need to think something up.

    • whereamigoing says:

      Frankly this sounds rather muddled. The whole point of the philosophical problem is whether two things can have similar external behavior with one being conscious and the other not (e.g. Chinese room as opposed to Chinese person). You can’t sidestep that by talking about AlphaStar’s external behavior.


  22. johan_larson says:

    This is the thread for nano-dose erotica: single sentences that are just barely sexually charged.

    An example:

    I see the neighbors’ daughter is home from college.

    • Kuiperdolin says:

      Baby it’s cold outside.

    • Deiseach says:

      My, what a large portfolio

      (You can decide for yourself what that is in reference to – investments, etchings, a particularly fine piece of luggage)

      You’ve put butter on the spuds?

      (In-joke to a series of TV advertisements for Kerrygold butter in the 80s and 90s which referred to the UST between Irish and French involving butter, I swear I’m not making this up: advert one, advert two).

      • Plumber says:

        It is rather tasty butter.

        • Deiseach says:

          Buttery spuds are exactly the kind of thing I love, and exactly the kind of thing my doctor says I should be giving up (sigh).

          Though this thread reminds me of a meme going round that I did find genuinely funny:

          – I bet you’d look adorable grasping at the sheets on my bed
          – Look, no matter how many times you compliment me, I am not making your bed!

    • The Nybbler says:

      Two sentences, but short: “Where’s the soap? Yes, it does.”

    • AG says:

      The pool needs cleaning.

    • Randy M says:

      Nano, huh? That’s not much.
      There’s lot’s of ways to approach this (that’s what she said)
      Double entendre that still isn’t too charged
      Best take that curve nice and slow.

      Overly tame metaphor
      The kitten enjoyed playing at night

      Straightforward description of a not terribly sexy sexual event
      The older couple enjoyed periodic intercourse, though not with the intensity of years past.

    • J Mann says:

      That’s a nice shirt.

    • Slocum says:

      It’s Wednesday (only works for Flight of the Conchords fans)

    • AG says:

      Episode 3×6 of the TV show Leverage involves one of the main characters (whose actor is a country singer in real life) play a country singer alias, to help a pretty lady country singer client. They have a quickie right after succeeding at the first phase of the con, of course.
      In the episode commentary track, the showrunners note that someone was worried that it was unrealistic for those characters to have sex so fast. One showrunner looked at his wife, and his wife said, “Are they unclear that that’s what good-looking people do?” “Good-looking people meet and they have sex, they can, cause they’re good-looking.”
      Said showrunner used to be in comedy stand-up, so he had some experience going on tour, and he and said real-life country singer actor were joking around about how when you’re on the road, sometimes the sexiest pickup line is:

      “The bus leaves in 30 minutes.”

  23. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I’ve been wondering how informal learning works, with the question brought on by thinking about the older geeks/nerds who were bitter about being expected to know the rules of sports in the days before such things could simply be looked up.

    The thing is, all those more typical people learned sports rules somehow. Was it just that people are willing to explain sports rules to obviously interested 5-6 year olds, but not to 12 year olds. Was there some process of observation which conveyed the rules to interested children?

    • johan_larson says:

      I would guess kids pick up the main rules by observation. But there’s also feedback, when they get yelled at by the older kids when they inadvertently break some subtle rule. For example, it’s not obvious from watching a game of basketball that you can’t dribble, pick up the ball, and then start dribbling again. But people will notice and tell you you’re doing it wrong.

      The finer points of games are typically picked up on formal teams, whether in school or in sports leagues.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        I’m thinking here of rules that aren’t enforced in informal games- for instance, the offside rule in football, which is considered almost proverbially difficult to understand despite not actually being that complicated.

        The reason for the difficulty IMO is that you never encounter the offside rule unless you either play competitively or regularly watch competitive matches. And in the latter case, watching from the outside, it’s often non-obvious why a particular case infringes that rule- and they only show slow-motion replays to make it clear in the really tricky edge cases.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I’m thinking here of rules that aren’t enforced in informal games- for instance, the offside rule in football, which is considered almost proverbially difficult to understand despite not actually being that complicated.

          It’s not difficult to understand, it is difficult to enforce unless you have assistant referees running along the sidelines, which are present only in competitive matches.

          • Tarpitz says:

            I assure you that, as a reasonably intelligent person who played football competitively for school and college teams for 15 years and has a season ticket for a Premier League club, I could not fully explain the offside rule. The offside rule as it existed 25 years ago, absolutely. But I am genuinely unsure where we currently stand as regards exceptions for players who are “not interfering with play”, “in the passive phase” or whatever the current terminology is, if indeed an exception along those lines still applies at all. It’s been mucked around with a lot over the last couple of decades, and I for one have long since lost track and stopped bothering trying to keep up.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        Speaking of chess, the number of people I’ve taught the “real” en passant rule to, playing only informal games (I have never played organized chess), is enormous. I’m half-tempted to believe that the people who actually teach others these rules are nerds, and it’s the soccer, basketball, and football nerds who enforce the formal rules of the game in unrefereed play more than it is formal and semi-formal institutions. It’s just that the rules nerds are more likely to take part in those institutions in the first place.

        • andrewflicker says:

          What’s with the quotes around “real”? As a casual chess player, I’ve met people who did not know the en passant rule, people who did know it, and people who knew there was some tricky play with pawns called en passant but didn’t know what it was. Is there a common misconception of it out there as well that some casual players think is correct?

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            There are so many variants of chess (like all games) that I don’t think it’s worth arguing that chess is only chess if one plays by the FIDE rulebook. The rule is “real” insofar as it’s in that rulebook, but touch football is still football, you know? If people don’t want to play with the rule I’m not going to insist they do so, and I’m not going to tell them they’re using a “fake” ruleset.

            In answer to your question, I recall meeting many people who thought that en passant allowed one to capture enemy pawns by moving forward with a pawn, often with some sort of restriction. This was mostly when I was younger.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      My dad likes football, so I grew up watching football on TV. I learned by watching, and occasionally asking questions like “what’s holding?” or “what’s a safety?”

      I worry about this a little with my kid. I still like football, and I watched college ball regularly back when I had cable TV. But we cut the cord about six years ago so I don’t watch live sports anymore. I should probably get an antenna to get the major networks and watch a few games with my kids just so they understand the basic ideas before recess.

    • albatross11 says:

      Find someone to teach you the game of Mao. My younger son taught me–explaining the rules is explicitly forbidden–you learn entirely by observing. Very fun.

      • cuke says:

        As someone who grew up largely pre-video game era, I’m amazed watching my son over the years play games whose rules are only learned by playing. I mean, I know some of them have tutorials or introductions or whatever, but the sense I get from him is that he expects to sit down in front of something he has no idea about and to figure it out on the fly. This would produce tension for me that it doesn’t seem to create for him, and that seems like a good thing.

        This carries over to my experience with some apps on the phone — I’ve been playing around with fitness apps and habit-change apps — and every time, I have to get past my default mode which is to want to know “how it works” before using it. I’ve wondered whether this shift in learning has created a generational shift in cognitive functioning in the same way that people write about our declining attention spans.

        • I have been in an analogous non-game situation quite recently. In making the eBook version of my Legal Systems book, I had to do some editing of the HTML CSS code produced by Calibre, both to fix a minor bug and, mostly, to rearrange the index to my taste.

          I’m pretty sure that when I learned basic HTML, CSS had not yet been invented, and I have certainly never studied it. But I could change the code and see what the effect was, undoing any changes whose effect I didn’t like. So I was teaching myself the rules of CSS (the limited parts I needed) the same way your son teaches himself games—starting with some knowledge of HTML, just as he starts with knowledge of what video games are like. And I also predate video games.

          Probably less efficient than finding a tutorial and reading it, but more fun.

    • Jake says:

      I think the people who were more interested in the sports to begin with, also were more likely to do things like be an official for younger kids games, which most of the time, required you to buy the rules of the game and pass a test. I remember being about 8 when I started umping for t-ball, and I think I still have the baseball rulebook somewhere, and after 25 years of not playing, still know far too many rules of the game. I had similar experiences with basketball and soccer at slightly older ages, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the initial learning comes straight from a rulebook from a kid who really likes the sport, and then shares it when they play the sport with other kids.

  24. 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:


            I suppose everyone took it as just a restatement of the common belief that everyone is a little bit racist. Though IMO that’s mainly because of the fuzziness of the definition–everyone probably has some weird attitude or internal reaction that could be classified as racist, but almost nobody goose-steps wearing Nazi gear or burns a cross in some guy’s lawn.

          • Plumber says:


            “I suppose everyone took it as just a restatement of the common belief that everyone is…”

            Yeah, that was the sense that I meant it.

    • dodrian says:

      I didn’t make a prediction, so I’ve no dog in the fight, but I don’t think the current temporary stopgap counts as shutdown over.

      If in the next few weeks a 6mo+ budget is passed, then yes, shutdown over and those who predicted shutdown continuing into February were wrong. But if that doesn’t happen, I think those who predicted a continued shutdown in February were closer to correct than those who predicted the shutdown to be over.

      • JPNunez says:

        Eh, as long as people start getting paid, the shutdown is over.

        The possibility of a second shutdown should have been treated as its own prediction.

        Particularly cause come Feb 15 there may not be a shutdown anyway, which would make the people who predicted february doubly wrong, and also once it starts, it won’t get real bad for another month, making an end-of-march/early april government restart as way more probable than right now.

        It is ok to update your predictions and percentages as things change, but it is not ok to redefine your predictions so you are retroactively right as things change.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I think this is an example of how hard it can be to define winning conditions for real world bets.

          I think that if there’s no additional shutdown in the near future, this will be considered the end of the shutdown. If there’s a new shutdown soon after February 21, it will probably be considered an extension of the first shutdown.

  25. 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.

  26. 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]

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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

  31. 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.”

  32. albatross11 says:

    I deleted the post as too CW-y.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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!

  36. 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?

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. LCL says:

    victory in the fight against pork barrel spending drove political polarization

    It might be coming back!

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.)

  51. 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.

  52. 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