Open Thread 121.5

This is the twice-weekly hidden open thread. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

643 Responses to Open Thread 121.5

  1. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Etsy (a website for selling crafts) has been arbitrarily withdrawing money from its sellers’ accounts, hundreds and thousands, occasionally tens of thousands, of dollars. *Some* of the money has been returned after five days or more, after what seems like unnecessary added drama of depositing money and withdrawing after five minutes. I am not making this up.

    So, why should ssc care? Banking security might be an interesting angle– apparently it’s unusually bad in the US. Why did this happen? My default is honest mistake amplified by panic and incompetence, but I’m willing to go with employee wants to destroy Etsy.

    Etsy stock has fallen a bit but not tanked. This story hasn’t hit the news.

    • acymetric says:

      Does Etsy really market itself as a “blog” for selling crafts (as opposed to simply as an online marketplace)?

      I only ask because I’ve been aware of Etsy for years, and if you asked me to “list 10,000 blogs you know of” Etsy never would have come up.

      I need more information to come out before I have any thoughts on what happened, your two suggestions (panic/incompetence or internal sabotage) do seem like the most likely.

    • Erusian says:

      This is the curse of being first. I’ve worked on banking software. The core standards are very, very old. There’s a huge push to move all transactions from T3 (three days to finish transactions) to T2 (two days) when nations like South Korea (who were latecomers) already have a few hours maximum. But South Korea had the benefit of making its system in a relatively developed environment while US banking was the pioneer. And now that everyone in the US is using the same, old, slow system it’s hard to change.

      Also, frankly, banks tend to be in relatively monopolistic positions. Though this is universal, which makes it a bad explanatory variable. But it’s been getting worse with banking regulation since 2008, which has, in turn, led to a noticeable decrease in financial innovation. Cracking down on risky stock traders betting the farm is hard without also killing small fintech startups.

      • dodrian says:

        I think the problem with banks in the US is actually the opposite of a monopoly: there are so many that it makes it hard to coordinate new standards and technologies. The town that I live in has two banks that are local to this part of Texas. There’s also a local credit union.

        Contrast with the UK, which has about five major national banks and only a few payment processors (Visa, MC, etc). Much easier to coordinate. My experience with banking in the UK has been much better from a technology standpoint.

        • Erusian says:

          I’ve actually worked with the UK system too. They too are benefitting from the fact they got to be second movers. They learned from the mistakes Americans made in inventing electronic banking in the first place. They’re actually worse on the innovation front than the US is and they eagerly seek to poach US fintech people. Perhaps they were flattering me, but they openly said that the US was better at innovation than they were (something I’ve heard from many countries). The dynamic of innovation that being just behind the leader is much easier than actually pushing the boundary.

    • Aapje says:

      @Nancy Lebovitz

      Another possibility is that they have financial problems and are paying their bills with money from their sellers, with a sort of ponzi-style setup where they make it look like an accident.

      • acymetric says:

        That kind of thing obviously can happen, but it would seem so difficult to cover up for such a large company, and so likely to lead to actual jail time, that I just can’t imagine this is it.

        Naturally, there will be a major announcement in about ten minutes that the Etsy payment errors were the result of a ponzi-style setup where they [tried] to make it look like an accident.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      I hadn’t heard about this, but coincidentally I did get an email today saying that a project had been cancelled that I had contributed to on PledgeMusic, which seems to be having a similar meltdown. Now we may never get to hear the full expanded remake of Mike Batt’s The Hunting Of The Snark.

  2. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Inspired by the GPT-2 thread: why does so much thought on AGI emphasize software running on the silicon equivalent of a brain in a jar and not machines that sense, move around and interact with the environment like the intelligences we already know?
    Oddly enough, the best send-up of this mindset in SF that comes to mind is Futurama, where in the Amazon episode a “fembot” disguised herself as a mainframe computer to exploit the fact that humans are willing to be ruled by immobile computers but robots are treated as an underclass.

    • Nornagest says:

      Wasn’t always that way; if you look at sci-fi from the Fifties and Sixties, it’s full of sentient robots and hardly a stationary AGI to be seen. There are exceptions (like AM), but not many. I think it’s shifted since then because that’s the way real machine learning research has gone.

      And it’s gone that way simply because it’s a whole lot easier. If you’re dealing with data types that good I/O libraries exist for, you can write a functional (if not particularly elaborate) neural network classifier in a few hundred lines of any modern programming language; the hard part is training it. But a few hundred lines isn’t even close to what you’d need to drive a robot that can navigate and learn from its environment, to say nothing of actually building the hardware. I haven’t actually worked on one, but I’d expect you couldn’t even do something as simple as a Roomba that learns room layouts and uses them to figure out an optimal vacuuming path in much less than a hundred or so KLOC.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        So imaginative authors focused on the imaginative end-state when there was no real research*, and as the research actually happened, they downgraded the vision to something that matched it, to be “realistic”?

        *Even the Iliad had artificial girls Hephaestus made out of metal.

        • Nornagest says:

          Well, a lot of the AI research around that time focused on robotics, too. The abject failure of that research is how we figured out that some of the very hardest things in AI are background processes that we take for granted, like standing upright and manipulating loose objects.

          Robotics research continues (as see below), but it’s not as closely tied to machine learning as it once was.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I was just thinking that adding sensory input would do a lot for the program’s ability to understand words. And more so if it could also move and interact with the world.

    • John Schilling says:

      Because a brick of high-grade computronium costs a few thousand dollars off the shelf, can be used by an average coder or comp sci major with no special training, rarely breaks, and if the code you run on it breaks then it’s a few keystrokes to restore from a known-good backup.

      Anything with moving parts, requires a completely different skillset that few AI researchers have and the people who do have it won’t work cheap (nor on the speculative hope that they’ll share in the Nobel or IPO for the first AGI, because everybody knows the people with the comp sci degrees will take all the credit). Then it requires parts, many of which will be special-order or custom-made and not in a cheap 3-D printer. By the time you’ve got something useful, you’ve probably spent tens of thousands of dollars. And then it breaks, and no you can’t just restore from backup.

      So the AI research community is going to focus on what they can do in the near term, with some vague handwaving about hiring some MechE types when they’re rolling in money after the IPO. Since there’s a fair bit of useful stuff that can be done without actuators, that’s what they use as their up-front selling point.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      They do, or did. 20+ years ago when I was an undergrad I worked at a robotics laboratory and this was basically our take, that “intelligence” is a collection of behaviors layered on top of each other. So we’d build things like little mobile robots that would seek out charging stations as a low-level behavior, but with IR sensors to detect walls that would interrupt that behavior if they were going to crash. You could thereby get something that behaves like, say, a mouse navigating a maze for cheese. Kind of a like a roomba but before roombas. Build up enough of those behaviors and complex “intelligence” emerges.

      So that idea was definitely out there. But then I went into computer architecture instead of robotics in grad school and haven’t looked at it much since.

      • Nornagest says:

        So we’d build things like little mobile robots that would seek out charging stations as a low-level behavior

        A friend of mine brought a bunch of Roombas to a Defcon several years ago, the SDK platform that they used to sell, with transponders operating on cellphone frequencies and a simple flocking algorithm programmed in. Anyone nearby who took a call would find themselves surrounded (and potentially followed) by a small flock of Roombas, crowding around like ducks begging for breadcrumbs.

  3. Lambert says:

    Well UK politics has gone in an unexpected direction.

    3 Tories and 8 Labour MPs have defected to form an ‘independent group’ proto-party.

    The labour MPs criticised Corbyn, as well as alleging anti-semitism within the party ((at least) one defector is Jewish).

    The Conservative defectors complained that the Tory Party had lurched rightwards, becoming UKIP-lite.

    The reason I’m posting this is that a number of people here have been talking about a broad Realignment in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, towards a ‘populist localist vs neoliberal globalist technocrat’ divide. Seen through this lens, this is a response by the globalists against populist dominance within both parties.

    • Erusian says:

      What’s their stance on Brexit?

      • Lambert says:

        They’re only a couple of days old, so they don’t have any proper policies yet, but they think that both Labour and the Tories are too pro-brexit.
        I think they’re all remainers at heart, but I’m not certain how that will translate into actual current politics.

  4. Uribe says:

    Sleeping is the hardest thing in life

    This has been true for my life. So much of who I am, what I’ve done, what I can’t do, is due, I believe, to the fact I don’t sleep well, early or often.

    And one thing I despise about the work-ethic moralism of this site — maybe it’s just the conservative side of it — is in not understanding how everything changes when you don’t sleep well. Emerson or Franklin or whoever it was was right: early to rise is the way to go. Who who rises early has a weak work ethic?

    Me, I sleep in. I stay up late. I drink. I eat. I watch TV. I post comments on blogs. I don’t want to. I dream of going to bed early, waking early, having a great productive day tomorrow. But it’s midnight and I’m not tired — even though I was tired all day — now I’m not tired — got a goddamned second wind because it’s midnight. Thinking about heading to the nearest bar and drinking Scotch, hoping it will knock me out.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m already on sleeping pills. Powerful ones. Controlled substances. But I’ve been on them a long, long time, so they aren’t as effective anymore. I wish I could sleep right now. I have a long day tomorrow. A lot to do.

    If I’m late to work tomorrow I will get shit from my colleagues and my boss. I will explain for the thousandth time that I had trouble sleeping, and I will be met with the understanding of an octopus (I know that octopuses are supposed to be smart, but I still bet they have no good concept of time or what it means to be inherently a Night Owl. I doubt they even know what owls are.)

    It makes me tribal. I meet another Night Owl, and I’m immediately willing to fight to the death to defend the reputation of his or her sister.

    In my experience, most successful, responsible people are early risers, but, to me, you’re the Out Group I want to see annihilated when the revolution comes, because I’m sick of putting up with your type at the office.

    • LewisT says:

      Night owl here. I’ve found that I can go to bed before 9:00 pm (sometimes before 8:00) or after 2:00 am. Anything in between and I’m unable to sleep due to second wind. It may seem strange to go to bed at 7:30 and wake up at 2:00, but it might be worth trying.

      (I don’t know of anyone else who has tried this sleep schedule, so I have no idea if it will work for others or not. I do know it doesn’t play nicely with a social life, which is why I’m not following it at the moment.)

    • Baeraad says:

      Hey, I hear ya. I force myself to go to bed on time most nights, but I absolutely don’t wanna. And I hate early mornings with a passion. My main challenge most days is dragging myself out of bed in a timely fashion. If I manage that, then chances are the rest of the day is going to go quite smoothly, but I frequently fail and spend that day in a haze of self-pitying self-contempt in which very little gets done.

    • Chalid says:

      I used to be a night owl like you. I spent most of my twenties going to bed past 4 AM and rolling into the office well past noon.

      Then I got older and now have no trouble falling asleep at night. But occasionally, like tonight, I wake up at 3 AM for no reason whatsoever, feeling wide awake, and cannot go back to sleep. Of course my body desperately starts craving to go back to sleep around 8 AM when I actually have to do things.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        This maps my experience pretty well. I used to stay up until 4AM. Once I started working, I shifted to a 11PM-6AM schedule. With my wife, it’s more like 9PM-5AM.

        Getting sufficient sleep is basically a superpower. My QOL improved dramatically after I started sleeping 7+ hours every night religiously.

    • brad says:

      For the last several months I’ve found myself never being able to sleep past 7 and mostly getting up by 6. The only exception is where I drank the night before, but then I’m not rested.

      It has certainly improved my productivity at work, but it has harmed what little social life I had and all but killed off my hobbies. Involuntarily waking up, realizing it’s 5:15 and that I won’t be able to fall back asleep is not something I am ever happy about.

      • Randy M says:

        My body is very consistent in waking up, too. It’s a good thing, since I’m not late for work even if I forget to charge my phone, but it is irritating on Saturday morning when I’m up at quarter to seven even despite staying up later on Friday since “I can sleep in tomorrow!”

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      We have a couple production supervisor spots open for 3rd shift. If you have no experience, you can get hired as a palletizer and probably get promoted reasonably quickly, because staffing 3rd shift is nearly impossible.

    • Clutzy says:

      I am also a night owl. But also very capable at waking up early. I just find the morning quite boring.

    • VivaLaPanda says:

      Things like this are why flex hours are great. I have a coworker who regularly work 11-7 because she just doesn’t do well in the morning. She’s totally productive and it turns out having slightly imperfect overlap on hours actually helps a lot of things, because it makes the team more robust to things happening very early or later in the day. I get that it doesn’t work for every industry, but I feel like a lot of places just don’t do it because of tradition.

    • Robin says:

      I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned melatonin. 0.25 mg works great for my son.

  5. johan_larson says:

    The Ark of the Covenant …
    a) … never existed.
    b) … existed, but has been destroyed.
    c) … exists but no one knows where it is.
    d) … exists and someone knows where it is.
    Best bet?

  6. Tenacious D says:

    I’m curious what everyone thinks about the ethics of bribery. It erodes the rule of law, so even when it leads to a fair outcome (e.g. getting some legitimate shipment released from customs in a timely manner) it makes future fair outcomes marginally less likely and it contributes to keeping societies low-trust. However, when someone is outside of their own society in a place where bribery is common, how much responsibility do they have to refuse to go along with it?

    This article claims that journalists can’t cover conflict zones without greasing some palms, and it was prompted by controversy around a Canadian engineering company paying bribes to get some contracts in Libya (which presumably they might as well not bother bidding on if they were going to resist making any “facilitation payments”). What do you think? Is it possible to work in corrupt countries without paying bribes? If not, does ethics require not engaging there at all?

    • CatCube says:

      Bribery is really corrosive, because the end state of widespread bribery that I’ve seen is that salaries stagnate to the point where the government employees cannot make a living without supplementing it with bribes. (Why would the government pay them a living salary when they can get workers who are more than willing to work without it?)

      Then this turns into a situation where even honest men cannot make a living being honest. They end up being underbid by the dishonest.

      None of this is engaging with your question about whether participating in the system of bribery when trying to work in an area where it’s widespread, but it at least explains why you end up needing to do so–if the workers gave you a discount, they might well be giving up a substantial portion of their “salary.”

    • Protagoras says:

      Corruption is really costly. It’s also really difficult to discourage, so the chance that people boycotting corrupt countries will ever make them change their ways is small, but I think this is important enough for even a small chance of any beneficial impact to be worth it. But different cases are different; if nobody is willing to pay a bribe to get a contract, the country suffers for not having anybody to carry out whatever the contract was for, and perhaps the higher ups will get the idea of cracking down and making their subordinates stop asking for bribes. But it is unclear who in the country a journalist is reporting on would regard their reporting as beneficial, and far from clear that if they are any such people they would have any influence over the corrupt officials demanding bribes from journalists. So, contrary to the article, I do not think a journalist bribing people is as bad as an engineering company bribing people (though a boycott on all bribes is of course easier to consistently follow and enforce than one which makes exceptions).

    • Randy M says:

      Avoid bribery from either side if the society you are in is anything less than fully corrupt at all layers. You can’t really calculate how much you are adding to the corruption vs how important your individual project is.

      But there are societies where bribery is basically just the unwritten rule. They are going to be a lot less efficient than otherwise, but you aren’t moving the balance anywhere from participating.

      Of course, attempting to get an unjust act should even still be prohibited. Bribing an official to look the other way while you knock over the local market is wrong even if bribery is endemic.

      • VivaLaPanda says:

        I think that’s true if you’re a member of that society, but I do think there is value for all external actors to say “we won’t do bribes no matter what”. It basically says to leadership that as long as you are corrupt you’re bushiness prospects will be hampered, and if you stop dealing in bribes you might be able to get a bunch of additional business from foreign sources.

    • hls2003 says:

      I expect you already know this, and are asking a different question, but just to be clear – if you are operating within reach of U.S. jurisdiction, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act answers this for you. Don’t do it, or you will be in big trouble.

      Whether or not it works well, it is designed to solve the coordination problem where everyone wants to deter corruption but nobody wants to sacrifice the sale.

      • Tenacious D says:

        Good point about laws attempting to solve the coordination problem. As Protagoras notes, not making exceptions is a good Schelling point.

        And to be clear, I’m not trying to justify bribery; I was surprised to read the linked article by a prominent journalist going on the record doing so.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Does FCPA cover journalists? Have it ever been applied to journalists? Does paying for freedom of movement count as “obtaining business”?

        (google results for fcpa journalist are dominated by stories of people bribing journalists)

        • Tenacious D says:

          Eric Rall pointed out a clarification to the article that says:

          Prior to October 2017, the payments to foreign officials by Neil Macdonald described in this column were considered facilitation payments, rather than bribes, under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act*and were not illegal. The law has since changed, and any such payments are now forbidden.

          *Canadian counterpart to the FCPA

        • hls2003 says:

          I don’t know; I would have to research it. There might be regs or guidance or case law on it, but it wouldn’t be simple to track down the legal basis. I only ever dealt with the FCPA in a business context.

    • Aftagley says:

      In addition to the above, there’s also a follow-on effect of corruption: how it enables so many other more dramatic issues. If you look at really any thorny international problem, be it terrorism, drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, etc. the common thread is always that local law enforcement COULD prevent (or help mititgate) the issue, but is far too corrupt to do so.

      • albatross11 says:

        OTOH, when the authorities are supposed to enforce evil rules or impose evil policies on people, having them be corrupt, inept, or indifferent is likely to be a blessing. I wouldn’t be surprised if imposing evil rules/policies accounted for a large fraction of what police in corrupt places were doing day to day.

        • Aftagley says:

          From personl experience, I don’t think you’re correct. Yeah, I’m sure there is some % of their time spent enforcing evil policies, but the vast majority of what gets bribed away is murder investigations, anti-trafficking operations and other systemic problems that dramatically impact both the home country and the region.

          I mean, look at Mexico. Public corrpution is high on the short list of why they’ve had such endemic violence over the past few decades.

        • Walter says:

          I tend to disagree, I feel like even nazi or samurai cop equivalents mostly wrote parking ticket equivalents. Like, even in systems that were openly evil the majority action day to day can’t be evil, or why are people tolerating it instead of anarchy? I dunno if that is true, but it feels like there must be a plausible worst state the dictators are defending people from or there would be an uprising.

      • SamChevre says:

        …Brandy for the parson, ‘Baccy for the clerk,
        Laces for a lady, and letters for a spy,
        So watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by.

    • Jaskologist says:

      There was a decent consensus in a recent thread that Amazon pulled out of NY once members of the local machine starting coming around looking to get their palms greased, and there’s a Moldbuggian analysis which says that “impact studies” are really just our way of making sure certain people get their bribes. Are we willing to extend the “don’t do business in places that require bribes” to NY and other US localities?

    • Eric Rall says:

      The most interesting piece of that article to me is the clarification footnote about the FCPA changed in 2017 to also forbid “facilitation payments”, which previously had been specifically permitted as a separate category to bribes.

      To oversimplify slightly, the key distinction is that bribes are paying an official to do something he shouldn’t do (e.g. award a contract to not-the-best bidder, or overlook a criminal act), while a facilitation payment is paying an official to quit dragging his feet and do something he’s supposed to do anyway (e.g. issue a permit that you meet the requirements for, or release your non-contraband property that had been improperly seized at customs).

      To put it another way, a bribe is an attempt to induce an abuse of discretion, while a facilitation payment is more like the governmental equivalent of tipping your waiter.

      The main reasons I see to ban facilitation payments are 1) they’re inefficient (they make the cost of doing business more unpredictable and opaque, since you need to negotiate with every official who crosses your path), and 2) the line between bribes and facilitation payments can be fuzzy and difficult to prove, so a serious effort to crack down on corruption is much easier if both are prohibited.

      But both reasons are much stronger if its the country where the corruption is occurring that’s trying to stamp it out. For another country to prohibit its citizens from making facilitation payments in a country where such payments are normal and expected (and probably baked into the salaries of the officials, like how waiters get very low base pay because they’re expected to make most of their money from tips) is more problematic.

      • Theodoric says:

        the key distinction is that bribes are paying an official to do something he shouldn’t do (e.g. award a contract to not-the-best bidder, or overlook a criminal act), while a facilitation payment is paying an official to quit dragging his feet and do something he’s supposed to do anyway (e.g. issue a permit that you meet the requirements for, or release your non-contraband property that had been improperly seized at customs).

        Forget 3rd world countries, isn’t “facilitation payments” much of what NYC “expeditors ” do with the city bureaucracy?

        • hls2003 says:

          In most local bureaucracies, it’s usually not a direct payment to the immediate official, it’s contributions to the machine. As in “Thank you for your application for a building permit. We will begin our review process. On a wholly unrelated note, would you like to contribute to the Mayor’s re-election fund? [or charitable foundation]. How much can I put you down for?”

        • Eric Rall says:

          I’m not familiar specifically with NYC “expediters”, but when I’ve worked with expediters in other contexts, they’ve seemed like they’re the bureaucracy-navigation equivalent of hiring an attorney: you get someone who knows the rules and the system and how to game them in your favor (frame your case so it checks the right boxes, complain the right way through the right channels if your case is getting mishandled, etc).

      • Tenacious D says:

        I missed that footnote–I think it was added after I read the article–so thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t realize there was a formal distinction in law between bribes and facilitation payments.

        • Eric Rall says:

          And I realized I misread it slightly (or it got further clarified since I first read it): the 2017 modification was to a Canadian law similar to the US FCPA, and the “facilitation payment” loophole in the FCPA itself remains intact as far as I can tell.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      An argument anti-corruption in a very corrupt country is that even a small-scale boicot (i.e. US legislation explicitly forbidding bribes) it will force the systems in that country to find _a_ bribe-free way of doing things. Sure, 99% of contracts will go to China, but in a small number of cases the system will have to adapt to working with this US company because there is no replacement. So when another need arrives to do something without bribes, there will at least be something of a beaten path.

      This being said, you shouldn’t underestimate the lenghts they’ll go to to avoid non-bribeable projects. In my Romania there are plenty of very obvious projects (smaller or greater) that aren’t being done, even though they’re obvious – we’re a country full of programmers and small software companies, half of which are also passable project managers. And yet, a dismal percentage of public services have any software infrastructure at all. Why? As I’ve been explained by somebody on the inside, when they identify a very good project opportunity they put it in a file, and wait for it until they can do in nationally with their boys. Which takes a while, even though at some point most large, 100% local software companies were “their boys”.

      In the meantime, we keep dreaming of writing software for free for the post office.

    • DragonMilk says:

      Bribes are injust because the poor cannot afford them…

      Think of it as arbitrary regressive taxation, do you want those instances to be more frequent/expected?

      • Bribes are injust because the poor cannot afford them…

        Alternatively, they are better for the poor than fixed charges, because it pays corrupt officials to engage in price discrimination, accepting low bribes from poor people, since that’s better than nothing and charging all the market will bear to those who can afford it.

        • DragonMilk says:

          How exactly are we defining bribes here?

        • Chalid says:

          I think even if you take the most cynical view of government, you’ve got the stationary bandit/roving bandit issue. The cop shaking you down for a bribe at a traffic stop wants to maximize revenue from that particular interaction, as he will likely never see you again; the government has better incentives.

    • monistowl says:

      From where we’re standing bribery erodes the rule of law, but I’m under the impression that historically it’s sometimes done the opposite (immediate disclaimer: I’m fuzzy on details and not an expert of any kind). I’m thinking of the feudal-to-modern transitions in Europe, particularly in England. As I’m given to understand it in broad terms, the ur-feudal condition is a hierarchy of landlords, and it gives way to a central state as the monarchs realize it’s less risky to have some smart-but-disposable commoner running things for them than a powerful vassal who might rebel. But, since the new guys aren’t landed aristocrats, they don’t have an independent source of revenue. There’s no real financial infrastructure, so you can’t just send out paychecks — the solution is to have everything be revenue-positive in the first place, and letting them take a cut, such that a job as tax-collector/judge/magistrate is the official license to collect bribes. The hypostasis, where everyone gets used to there being a state, comes later; bribery precedes the environment where you can even articulate a debate on whether to crack down on bribery.

  7. Aftagley says:

    I’m the middle of a quarter-life crisis and would appreciate some outside perspectives:

    I’m 26, entirely debt free, unattached and have very limited financial needs (no expensive tastes/habits and I’ve got a pile of savings). I’ve got a degree in Electrical Engineering from a relatively prestigious institution (a US service Academy) and a pretty strong job history (5 years as a commissioned officer). I’m getting out in a few months with an honorable discharge.

    The standard practice for people in my shoes is to do one of three things:
    1. Leverage my experience to get a government (or contracting) job and basically just do what I did while on active duty but while wearing a suit instead of a uniform.
    2. Go work for a large companies (Walmart, GE, USAA, etc…) that has dedicated Junior Officer hiring program. This is a fast-track into middle management with pretty strong options for advancement.
    3. Go to grad school on the GI bill, then take option 1 or 2

    I don’t object to any of these paths. They’d likely be not-particularly-challenging paths to a comfortable life, but I’ve got this building feeling like my life is on rails and I don’t want to take any of them, at least not yet.

    Long story short, I’m willing to invest the next couple of years of my life into something entirely new and unexpected. Whether it’s a job in an industry/location I haven’t considered or some entirely new developmental program, I’m open to almost anything at this point. What are some options you’d recommend?

    • johan_larson says:

      Do you want to join a startup, a very young technical company that’s running on venture capital and focused on growth? With an electrical engineering degree, you could certainly jump aboard one as an engineer, perhaps one of the more hardware-oriented ones. You would do well to move to the Bay area, or maybe Seattle, New York, or Boston if you want to do that, since that’s where such companies tend to locate. Pay tends to be decent, and particularly in the younger companies (10-50 employees, or so) things can move pretty fast. There’s a remote chance of a life-changing payday if the company succeeds big.

      This would be a good place to start looking: It’s a jobs board for companies accepted into Y Combinator, one of the top accelerators.

    • sfoil says:

      The “work for a big organization” option can be “not-particularly-challenging”, but if you want to claw your way to the very top — or at least out of “middle management” — then it is a lot of work. The lack of “up or out” regimes in most of these organizations creates a pretty different dynamic than the military.

      I don’t have any specific recommendations for you, but if you’re interested in using your degree you might check into companies that work on the power grid. Some of these build and maintain plants and transmission lines in remote locations — I knew an electrical engineer who worked on automated hydroelectric plants in Alaska/northern Canada, although it was a long time ago and I forget who he worked for.

      That being said, grad school has a lot of upsides too — although are you eligible for the GI bill at only five years as an officer? I thought you needed at least several years past your ADSO. Aside from the credential, it should refresh and increase your technical skills (which probably are and feel pretty rusty). If you go to a decent research university, you should get exposed even as a Masters student to new work in the field and other people working on it — possibly putting you in a position to get a startup together, if you’re really adventurous.

      • Aftagley says:

        I am still GI elligible, albeing only through some congressional incompetence. Basically, when they wrote the law increasing the commitment from 5 years to 7 for Academy graduates, they forget to include my service. By the time they updated the law to make it more in line with the other services I was already vested.

        Interesting perspective on the corporate cultures inside the larger organizations. I’ve heard that promotion those kinds of organization can be overwhelmingly political from a couple people, which is why that’s likely my least-favored option now.

    • Tenacious D says:

      If you’re under 30 and don’t intend to settle there, you can get a 1 year work visa for New Zealand very easily. It might be good for a short term commitment while you put more thought into the long term—and probably won’t look bad in your future resume.
      I wouldn’t recommend going back to school unless/until you have a path in mind and can clearly see how a graduate degree would help you on it.

    • baconbits9 says:

      If you ever want to own and run a business this sounds like the best time to investigate that path.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Depending on your familial origins, you might be able to get a second citizenship somewhere. If you can do this, go there, learn the language, find a job there, etc. That might be a location you haven’t considered.

      Is there any particular reason you don’t want to stay in the military, or was it just never your plan?

    • Depending on your background and tastes, you might think about something where you are not an employee but a small scale entrepreneur. One example would be writing a book about your experiences in the military, if you think you have things to say that people would like reading and are a good enough writer to make it work. Another would be writing a simple program, perhaps a game, for cell phones.

      Neither of those two is likely to work for a random person in your situation but there might be something analogous that is, and you should consider that category of things to do along with others.

    • Incurian says:

      I found that going to grad school gave me some low pressure time and space to re-acclimate to civilian life. Depending on what your service was like you may or may not benefit from this. If you find yourself in a program that isn’t particularly challenging, use the time to catch up on your reading and other hobbies.

    • Plumber says:


      You could get into the pipe trades via the Veterans In Piping program.

    • hoof_in_mouth says:

      It’s a very good time to be an airline pilot. It’s expensive to get started and there are no guarantees, but you could be working for a mainline carrier in 8 years, 30 years at a mainline carrier is a 10+ million dollar career. The GI bill will cover a good portion of flight training that most of your peers will have loans for. Lots of mobility, lots of flexibility plus flying is still cool from the front seats.

      • LesHapablap says:

        Second being a pilot. There are also plenty of other avenues aside from airline pilot: helicopters, medical transport, etc. There’s a lot of demand across the industry, all over the world right now and for the next several years at least. Factors to consider are whether you’re single, whether you want to sleep at home every night, your appetite for adventure in far off places, how easy you’d find it to move around.

    • DragonMilk says:

      GI bill pay for an MBA? That sounds like a good networking experience to transition to civilian sector as well as learn about civilian businesses.

    • Elementaldex says:

      Hey, I did that quarter life crisis thing at 25 (though with the significant difference of being married). I disposed of 90% of my stuff until everything we owned would fit in two backpacks. then I spent a year backpacking the developing world on ~$50/day (for two people and not including plane tickets). 365 days, 17 countries, two (three?) near death experiences, one robbery, one burglary, several interesting people and places later I got back to the US and one of us got a job and the other went to grad school. It’s a monetarily cheap way to pick up a lot of interesting experiences and buy some time to think about what you want to do next. I recommend.

      • Aapje says:

        two (three?) near death experiences

        It’s a monetarily cheap way to pick up a lot of interesting experiences

        Sure, but if you value your life highly, it might seem costly.

  8. theredsheep says:

    Okay, before I even post this, a disclaimer: I am not interested in starting a general gripefest about how terrible online social justice mobs are, or liberals in general, or what-about-conservatives who X, etc. That may be a naive hope, but I’m trying here.

    So, it’s increasingly common to see stories where somebody commits a transgression against some contemporary progressive’s values, and the sky falls on their heads, with lots of people on Twitter or Instagram or [name of social media platform goes here] screaming about how terrible this one person is. Within a couple of days or so, they’ll be shunned, un-followed, possibly doxxed, and will likely face long-term economic repercussions or anonymous threatening voicemails, etc. Again, I don’t want to get bogged down in how messed up this is, or to read about conservative counterparts (which I believe also exist, I’m just more familiar with the liberal sort of online lynch mob). What I’d like to do here is brainstorm ways to short-circuit the process once it’s started.

    If you run a website about something utterly harmless and somebody tells you that saying [innocent remark] is intolerable, is there something you can do to turn the conversation in a productive direction? Based on the general template of such stories, the best strategy anyone’s found is to go belly-up, confess to being terrible, talk about how you need to educate yourself on whatever. This is obviously suboptimal in that it encourages further censorship and a climate of fear. Is there a way to stand one’s ground respectfully without escalating?

    • albatross11 says:

      One pretty obvious solution is that employers should not react to a bunch of angry randos on Twitter as though it is evidence of anything. It seems pretty common that people get fired like four hours into a Twitter outrage storm, where their employer has almost certainly not done any actual independent investigation into the outrage.

      The parents of the target of the Covington outrage mob[1] hired a PR firm. That seemed to work out about as well for him as it could have. I suppose if I were in the middle of an internet outrage storm, I’d try to fall back on any formal employment protections I had (union membership might be a big plus), and I’d probably hire a PR firm that specialized in this sort of thing.

      [1] A large number of respectable adults with professional journalism jobs and blue checkmarks badly damaged their credibility in future stories there, IMO. Tribalism makes you dumber, but the mob mentality makes you a both dumber and a lot worse of a human being.

      • Theodoric says:

        One pretty obvious solution is that employers should not react to a bunch of angry randos on Twitter as though it is evidence of anything. It seems pretty common that people get fired like four hours into a Twitter outrage storm, where their employer has almost certainly not done any actual independent investigation into the outrage.

        Problem is, the mob is going to threaten to boycott the employer if the person is not fired. Maybe what’s needed is laws that a)prohibit firing for lawful off-the-clock activity and b)specify that “a mob is threatening to boycott us for our employee’s lawful off-the-clock activity” does not transform the activity into on-the-clock activity.

        • John Schilling says:

          Problem is, the mob is going to threaten to boycott the employer if the person is not fired.

          Or the mob is going to be distracted and go away, like a dog that has just noticed his surroundings include a mailman AND A SQUIRREL! SQUIRREL!!!!!!

          The vast majority of tweets complaining that so-and-so has committed an offense against social justice are utterly ignored, the vast majority that produce any response produce only a briefly enthusiastic response that may not last long enough to e.g. figure out who the target really works for and where their pressure points are. Only a rare minority result in sustained or damaging mobbing.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, my impression is that the boycott threat is almost always empty, and in particular that it’s much, much easier to get a million Twitter handles (some of which are owned by actual humans) to threaten to boycott your soda company than to get more than a couple hundred humans to actually change their soda-drinking habits.

      • J Mann says:

        One pretty obvious solution is that employers should not react to a bunch of angry randos on Twitter as though it is evidence of anything

        At a minimum, I’d like to see employers and schools not overreact. Instead of firing or expelling the target, put them on leave and announce “We take X very seriously and are doing a full investigation.”

        Agreed that if you are the target, hiring a PR expert (and possibly an employment lawyer) is probably the least bad solution in most cases.

    • Plumber says:


      All I can think of right now is to repeat the stories of people being falsely accused of being the Boston Bomber.

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      I doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all approach for how to deal with such situations; it depends on the (social media) platform, the transgressor, the transgression, etc. I think it also depends what you count as “short-circuiting the process”: is the goal to just avoid shunning and doxxing and long-term repercussions? Or to turn the conversation in a productive direction? What counts as success?

      My guess is, the best strategy is to respond as little as possible, minimize your social media presence as much as possible, and wait for things to blow over, but obviously the feasibility of this really depends on the situation. If people are mad at you for a bad tweet, but there’s no risk of anything other than being yelled at on twitter, I think this is the right strategy: Productive conversations aren’t going to happen while feelings are high, and no amount of rhetorical jiu-jitsu or whatever is going to find a way around that; if you want a productive conversation you’ll have to wait till tempers cool, so giving space for that to happen is key.
      If there are direct, serious repercussions to you, though, it is probably something of a high-risk strategy to wait too long before defending oneself, which is why I think it depends on the situation what the best strategy is.

      • albatross11 says:

        It’s probably important to remember that you’re not dealing with a rational or thinking being that can be reasoned with or appeased–you’re dealing with a mob, which works very differently from an individual. My impression is that most often, even direct evidence that the Twitter storm is based on a lie or a massively misleading excerpting of some real thing you said doesn’t calm the mob.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          Yeah, a sort-of corollary to both this point and what I said above is: if you are worried about real-life repercussions, my guess is, it’s best to take your concerns not to the mob itself, but to the people with the power to make decisions over your fate: the social media platform itself, your employer, whoever.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Yes. And while yes, every situation is different, a good rule is “never apologize to a mob because a mob has no power to forgive you.” An apology just becomes an admission of guilt. Do nothing, lie low, and wait for the next idiot to step on a landmine and take the attention off you.

        • Randy M says:

          This. Apologizing to the mob works even worse than apologizing in a courtroom.

        • 10240 says:

          An apology just becomes an admission of guilt.

          Yes, and at the same time you lose any allies you might have had among the opponents of the mob.

    • The Nybbler says:

      If you run a website about something utterly harmless and somebody tells you that saying [innocent remark] is intolerable, is there something you can do to turn the conversation in a productive direction?

      If you run the website, just ban (or better yet, shadowban) the complainer(s) without responding. You can’t reason with them, you can’t bargain with them, you can’t make them feel remorse or fear, but maybe you can put them in a box where they can’t harm you.

    • Jiro says:

      I think the general opinion is that you should ignore the person and not apologize, because the person getting offended wants to be and benefits from being offended; it isn’t like an actual grievance where the person is there to make the problem stop. And if you apologize, it can be taken as a sign of vulnerability that leads to attempts to extract more concessions from you.

      Edit: seeing other people’s comments, I seem to have reacted to the scenario where it’s an individual. Mobs are also a problem, of course, for somewhat but not very different reasons.

      • theredsheep says:

        This does have the precedent of the recent “Blood Heir” kerfuffle, where a first-time author retracted her entire book over … I don’t know, some kind of insensitivity that POed advance reviewers. OTOH, in other situations it does seem to stop the flood of abuse a bit, so it might depend on the particulars of the situation.

    • Walter says:

      So, like, first off, it is probably a good thing to reflect on whether they might be right.

      Like you said, mobs gonna mob, but the profile of ‘I’m totally harmless and someone objects’ is what bad guys internal state looks like too. Make sure you are actually, in your own judgement, not a witch.

      Then, after that, I’ll echo what everyone else is saying about the overall situation. You cannot affect the feedback loop at all. Attempts to silence it, via apology or argument, will at best do nothing, and at worst kick off another round of it. Do not engage.

      Instead, engage with whatever ‘real’ force in your life you are concerned it might impact. If you might be fired, go to your managers. If you might lose your channel, go to the hosting service (good luck there). You can’t reason with the process, but the people deciding your fate can understand words, and at least have the possibility of sympathizing.

      Earlier I mentioned that you can’t call off the process, and that is mostly true, but there is an observable relationship between the amount of harm they can do you and the amount of effort they put forth. For example, after you’ve been fired and blacklisted they might move on, or after it is clear that there is no way to harm you they will find a better target. Their activation energy comes from the delta between your status and where they can push you.

      So NY Times hires the racist and tells mob to get bent. They bail, because there is no longer a plausible win. Other side, Chick Fil A continues blithely about its business, and the boycott collapses. Standing up works, after resolve is demonstrated.

      Oppositely, capitulation works too. Google Memo guy is no longer a target, having been canned. Rachel DSolezal has also stopped twitching, and so the kicking is less fun.

      The mob is here for people it can hurt. Give them everything or nothing, and they’ll find a better target. Just don’t take the middle route.

      • albatross11 says:

        I think even if you come to believe you were wrong in what you originally said/did, it may still be the right strategy to not admit it while the mob is raging. (In the same way, you need a lawyer if the police are going to question you (and you should shut the hell up until you get to talk with your lawyer and have him present at the questioning), and you probably want to follow the same strategy whether you did or didn’t do the crime.)

        Repairing the damage your error or evil did is worthwhile. Coming clean and making amends is good for the soul. But you don’t confess to an angry mob, even if you come to think you’re guilty–they’ll just rip you to pieces.

      • John Schilling says:

        The mob is here for people it can hurt. Give them everything or nothing, and they’ll find a better target. Just don’t take the middle route.

        I rarely do “+1”, but +1.

      • J Mann says:

        Attempts to silence it, via apology or argument, will at best do nothing, and at worst kick off another round of it. Do not engage.

        I think there are cases where a very sincere apology can carve off a significant fraction of the people coming for you. Obviously not all of the people, but a bunch. Donglegate is a good example, or I posted one the other day of an actor apologizing for accepting a blackface role in a Will.I.Am video a while back.

        Occasionally correcting the record works. A few years ago, there was a campus blackface scare where the subject came up with a better-lit picture of the Halloween costume in question, in which it was clear she was a purple-faced alien.

        • albatross11 says:

          J Mann:

          It seems like your last example isn’t apologizing, it’s just showing that some claim is not true.

        • Walter says:

          My (admittedly hazy) memory of the dongle controversy is that it died down when everyone and their dog got fired and the convention hired a new diversity commisar. That is, the mob had done all the damage it had done and was moving on.

          In the case of the actor, were they presently under mob onslaught, or was this a person preemptively destroying grounds to get them? In my model of how this stuff works, you can use an apology to make a mob strike less likely (though this is incredibly dangerous), but not stop one once it is ongoing (I’d expect that to end only when you have suffered all available damage or it becomes clear that your employer/landlord/whoever isn’t listening).

          Correcting the record is definitely something I failed to mention before, and you are totally correct about it. The mob is made of status seekers, out to win virtue points by hating on the target of the day. If you can transform the rewards for attacking you from them feeling virtuous to them feeling stupid you can actually end a mob strike. Very hard to pull off, but Covington happens.

  9. johan_larson says:

    Let’s suppose one of the top-tier US universities (Stanford, Harvard, MIT, something like that) were to offer to sell ten or so places in their next class of students. They would take elaborate measures to conceal who was actually admitted by purchased admission, and whoever was so admitted would have to clear a lowish bar of academic ability, say 1200 or better on the two-part SAT, so they wouldn’t just flunk out after first year.

    How much could these institutions get per place?

    I’m guessing at least a million dollars. There are plenty of private prep schools that charge $50,000 a year, and a big part of what that gets you is preparation for getting into and through the upper tier of colleges. So that’s $600,000 over 12 years, and that doesn’t come with a guarantee.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      You know this already happens, right?

      • johan_larson says:

        I suspect it happens sort of unofficially with “donations”. But I’ve never heard anyone put an actual figure on how much you have to give to get your kid in.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          I think that’s a feature, not a bug. If the university actually disclosed how much money would be required to get a kid in, they wouldn’t be able to price discriminate.

          • albatross11 says:

            If it were easy to tell which students had only gotten in by paying a bribe or by connections, then people would probably think of their Ivy League diplomas as coming with an asterisk.

    • Deiseach says:

      Let’s suppose one of the top-tier US universities (Stanford, Harvard, MIT, something like that) were to offer to sell ten or so places in their next class of students.

      Isn’t that the whole point of legacy admissions? Three generations of the Smythe-Stapletons attended Big Name U, now young Trevor de Montmorency Smythe-Stapleton IV is coming along, are we really going to turn him down in favour of some kid from the Midwest? Particularly as we’ve already got the Smythe-Stapleton Sports Stadium, The Smythe-Stapleton II Auditorium, and the Smythe-Stapleton III Dormitory Block and we’re hoping to hit them up for the next Big Fancy Expansion?

      The old-fashioned “gentleman’s third” where you scraped by on the modicum of academic work but were there mostly for the sport, networking, and it being expected that you’d go to college to pass the time until you inherited the estate? That’s probably gone by the wayside but there still remains the gulf between students who attend universities and join dining societies and the like which will net them contacts very helpful to their future careers, and those who are there to study and get the degree which is the key to open the door that would otherwise be closed to them, which the first class of students always have access to.

      And more prosaically, isn’t that the whole point of places for international students – universities and colleges hike the fees sky-high to milk the rich parents who want their kid to have the kudos of attending Big Name Ivy-Covered U?

      • I don’t think legacy admissions are limited to the children of alumni donors. They may get a bigger boost, but my impression is that simply having a parent or, better, two parents and perhaps other relatives, who graduated from the school, substantially increases your chance of admission.

        That is, at least, consistent with our experience, although the sample size is small.

      • edmundgennings says:

        In my observations legacy benefits are not directly tied to donations.
        Legacy benefits also make a lot of sense as tie breakers when there are more qualified applicants than spots. They tend to result in people getting to schools they, and their parents, prefer rather than a peer institution. Legacy students are more able to continue the tradtions of the place. Moreover, legacy preferences continue a sense of connection between universities and their alumni. Saying this is my families school is quite easy if one’s parents have gone there and one has reasonable hope at least one of one’s kids will go there as well. This matters for donations but also other less tangible things.

        Also they make a lot of sense for reasons that would horrify the very people using them. How successful one’s relatives are is predictive of how successful one will be (I will randomly guess r squared value of .5). Once one knows the person this drops very quickly but while college applications contain a lot of data they are only very imperfect measurements of the traits they care about. So knowledge of the strength of ones relatives’ college applications in an independent instrumental variable to determine the true traits of the applicant. The soulless technocrat would ask and make admission decisions with some consideration placed on lots of information about one’s blood relatives and their academic careers. But doing this explicitly is feels bad so it is done much less precisely an quite possibly less equitably through legacy ties. Someone whose parents were both on full rides at less prestigious schools instead of going to elite schools where they academically could have gone for financial reasons get hurt by this.
        I imagine this is almost everywhere done unconsciously and without understanding the mechanism. But I imagine admission departments at elite universities have research shows that despite legacy admits getting an artificial admission help they do not perform worse academically or afterwards. Thus given the previous benefits they do not have any reason to get rid of legacy admits.

    • Gossage Vardebedian says:

      so they wouldn’t just flunk out after first year

      That’s a good one. Most of those colleges don’t flunk students, at least in my experience. That’s one of the things you’re paying for.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Daniel Golden (Harvard ’78) wrote a 2006 book about this. Reviews from the time of publication focused on the example of Jared Kushner (’03) whose father pledged in 1998 to donate 2.5 million, probably because Golden quoted several people from his high school about how he was unqualified. Qualified for what? If Harvard predicted that he was destined for power, good call. (Matthew Yglesias (also ’03) puts Kushner in the bottom third of the class, which is plenty qualified.)

      Golden also talks about the Z-list of ~20 students per year admitted at the last minute with the requirement to take a gap year, which may be relevant to fear of the applicants flunking out.

      In 2010, Steve Sailer heard that “the number” is $5 million for a competitive applicant and $10 million for a non-competitive applicant. Most interesting is the claim that there is a number, rather than boutique negotiation.

  10. Philosopher Peter Singer is known for his concept of the expanding circle. Back when we we hunter-gatherers, we only had moral concern for those in our immediate tribe. That has steadily spread to where we are generally expected to care about all people. One consequence of this is that previous in-groups garner much less esteem than before. Handing our political positions to your family used to be expected but is now stigmatized as nepotism. How far can this go?

    Peter Singer has explicitly called for us to expand our “circle” to animals and to some extent that has happened. But in 100 years, are people going to think that animal lives should be considered equal to humans, or possibly even more so? If we ever met aliens, would any significant amount of people put their concerns above the human race? Or is there a limit to how different a group can be before we are unable to accept them in to our moral circle?

    • LadyJane says:

      But in 100 years, are people going to think that animal lives should be considered equal to humans, or possibly even more so?

      No. At most, people will stop killing them for meat because lab-grown meat will be available.

      If we ever met aliens, would any significant amount of people put their concerns above the human race? Or is there a limit to how different a group can be before we are unable to accept them in to our moral circle?

      If the aliens were sapient and could meaningfully communicate with humans, then I’d imagine we would view them as people, at least on an intellectual level, and treat them accordingly. Whether we viewed them as people on a more visceral and intuitive level would depend on how similar they were to humans physiologically.

    • theredsheep says:

      I may be misremembering, but wasn’t Singer one of those people who thought it should be legal to kill children under six months of age? Also, as a society, we’re much less invested in the fate of the elderly. I’d say it’s more of a different circle than an expanded one.

      Anyway, I’d say we’re at a stage where things are contracting in that respect, what with the increase in tribalism and identity politics and suchlike.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I want to signal-boost this, because this is the primary thing he is known for in the meatspace circles I travel in. It is bizarre to see him mentioned in Rationalist circles so often without even taking notice of it, and doubly so when he’s used as an example of expanding circles of concern.

        • theredsheep says:

          I do also know him as an animal-rights advocate. I think what’s happening is a shifting basis for morality; his beliefs are consistent in that he sees nothing valuable about humanity per se, only about consciousness or sensation or some such. This isn’t exactly a popular position, but it’s becoming less unpopular.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Me too. That was the only way I heard of him until I started listening to Effective Altruist circles; in the Christian subculture where I grew up, he was held out as a textbook example of postmodern moral decay.

      • lvlln says:

        Also, as a society, we’re much less invested in the fate of the elderly. I’d say it’s more of a different circle than an expanded one.

        Is this true? I’m not familiar enough with history to say either way, but I thought creating social security in the 20th century was considered a major step forward in helping the elderly in the United States. And that it was common in the past to just abandon one’s parents/grandparents in the woods to die if they got too old and not able to provide enough productivity to offset the food and resources they were taking up. Today, doing that would be at least manslaughter, if not outright murder and punished accordingly.

        Are there other opposite trends that more than offset these trends, or am I just mistaken about these?

        • theredsheep says:

          Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday. He notes that most traditional societies have extreme reverence for the elderly (cf. Albion’s Seed, where at least three of the four adore the elderly IIRC), because in a society without widespread literacy and lots of books they were essential repositories of experience/wisdom.

          Old people used to live with their families. Now we throw them in group homes to forget them. Do you want to live in a nursing home? I don’t.

          • Walter says:

            I don’t think anyone ‘wants’ to live in a nursing home, if you find yourself in one you are probably not the shot caller in your situation.

          • theredsheep says:

            Yeah, but that’s my point: we have expensive specialized oubliettes for the elderly.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I don’t know very much about nursing homes, but my grandmother is in one, and it’s not because we want to forget about her; it’s because she has severely advanced dementia and requires constant care to feed her, dress her, take her to the bathroom, etc.

            Before concluding that the rise of nursing homes is a consequence of less investment in the fate of the elderly, we should consider alternative hypotheses like: people live longer, so now “elderly” more and more often means people who require substantial care, more than can reasonably be given by family members.

            I don’t want to live in a nursing home, but primarily that’s because I don’t want to require the level of medical attention that would make a nursing home a reasonable choice for my family.

          • theredsheep says:

            When I was growing up in the nineties, my mother worked at a nursing home. Such places have, or at least had, a rather high rate of abuse, and a lot of low-skilled and unmotivated staff. Residents tended to be quite lonely and frequently depressed. Whereas when I went to Peru, one of our elderly neighbors had a demented, equally elderly wife he kept with him in his apartment. Stayed up moaning most every night, but he kept her. It was expected in that society that you kept family with you at whatever cost. This is not to cast judgment on your family–I don’t know your situation–but what is deemed an acceptable price to pay varies depending on the culture’s values. Which is to say, the circle of concern has shifted.

            Cf. copious references in scripture to taking care of widows; it was not that the elderly were regularly abandoned, but that due to high, irregular mortality (and the average age of first marriage being higher for men, etc.) it was common for the elderly to be left without caretakers, and people were really worried about it.

            Looking back, I was probably too glib about nursing homes; I realize people have a lot of different reasons for putting their family in there. I got to see them from a very unflattering perspective, of course.

          • lvlln says:

            Are nursing homes substituting for being taken care of in a loving family home, or for being taken out to the woods and abandoned, though? Or things in between, such as substituting for a family incompetently taking care of their ailing elders due to a lack of time and medical knowledge and figuring that earning $$$ to pay professionals is better.

            Without information on the ratios of these, I don’t think it’s clear that the rise in nursing homes is a reflection of a reduction in our care for the elderly.

            The reverence bit strikes me as something more significant, as well as true based on my own experiences. But I think reverence and care are also somewhat different things; people don’t seem to revere the elderly much in my experience as a millenial, but they still seem to care for their suffering.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            But it’s not clear that you’re comparing like with like, and there are a few axes I can think of where the comparison might not be a good one:

            a) What is the average age and faculties of an elderly person in a home, vs. one being cared for by a family member? How many family members are available to give that care? How do these numbers vary across societies where homes are more common vs. where family care is more common?

            Without knowing the answers to questions like this, it’s premature to say “but what is deemed an acceptable price to pay varies depending on the culture’s values. Which is to say, the circle of concern has shifted.”–it might not be that the circle of concern has shifted, but rather that the price in developed societies is higher. It might require more work and time to care for relatives in a society where people live longer and have fewer children, and so the fact that standards are different might not reflect changing values but changing ability to act on those values.

            b) Your discussion of abuse and neglect also does not actually engage in a proper comparison. I am sure there is plenty of abuse in nursing homes, there was a horrifying case here in Canada recently of a serial killer who killed elderly patients. But you have to compare with the level of abuse and neglect among family caregivers as well; according to the National Center for Elder Abuse, perpetrators of elder abuse are most likely to be family members: children or spouses.

            There is also the real question of whether the quality of care by family is likely to be good, even if meant well: while the story of your elderly neighbour in Peru is heartwarming, is it really the case that an elderly man is the best caregiver for a woman with dementia? You mention the low-skilled staff at the nursing home where your mother worked: how skilled is an elderly man on his own as a caregiver?
            Is a norm that he should take care of his wife a norm that reflects how much his elderly wife is valued, or a norm about his responsibilities toward her?

            Re: widows, it of course makes sense to develop an ethic of responsibility in a world where widows were unlikely to have caregivers, but in the modern world, I think it’s not unreasonable to see the long-term care home as an expression of that same ethic–it’s a means to provide that otherwise missing caregiver. In an ancient society, the best way to care for widows was to make sure they could scrounge for the leftovers in the fields; but the fact that we have different methods of taking are of widows doesn’t mean we don’t care about them, necessarily, it just means we try and take care of them in a different way.

            Which isn’t to say that you’re wrong–I think it’s possible that we value the elderly less than in other societies; I just don’t think the rise of nursing homes proves it on its own. It’s like saying that in the old days, parents used to treat their sick children at home, but now, they take their children to the hospital, so they must care less about their children. But we recognize that this is false because in this case we reject the unstated premise that taking care of a family member at home necessarily means we value them more.

          • ana53294 says:

            There is this Mexican novel, “Like Water for Chocolate”.

            It’s about a family with two daughters, where the eldest daughter by custom is supposed to take care of the elderly, and a domineering mother. The mother doesn’t allow the daughter to marry, and she forces her to take care of her until she dies. Then, all the properties are inherited by the younger daughter, who is married and has children. I think this is incredibly cruel, because the daughter there is left with nothing; she did not receive money or property; she did not get her mother’s respect or gratitude; she wasn’t able to get a family.

            Nowadays, taking care of elderly parents means either forgoing having a family, and spending your most fertile years cleaning your demented parents’ poop, or paying somebody else to do it, so you can have your own family. Age differences among parents and kids are big; parents who had their kids at 35 will be 70 by the time their kids are 35, right about when they are going to have kids. And parenting nowadays is a lot more intensive.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I don’t think so. The current situation where we’re “expected” to care about all people is already unstable. On a personal level, a failure mode of having one’s heart bleed for everyone is neglecting oneself and those near while spending considerably amounts of effort trying to solve a problem than is far too big. On a societal level, we’ve already moved into caring more about some animals than people, and thus being unable to build anything… and other societies gain an advantage as a result.

      • albatross11 says:

        Remember back when Michael Vick was massively publicly reviled and sent to jail for taking a big part in a dogfighting ring? I remember thinking at the time that if he’d merely beaten his wife or random guys in bars senseless a few times, he’d have gotten far more lenient treatment from both the legal system and public opinion.

        • LHN says:

          See the B plot of the 30 Rock episode “Rosemary’s Baby”: star Tracy Jordan is afraid he might have crossed a line (“If you desecrate something, is that bad?”) and network exec Jack Donaghy assures him that the whole point of being a celebrity is “[y]ou can do whatever you want to. That’s your job. It’s our job to make it go away”

          Donaghy lightheartedly adds the caveat “Except no dog fighting, okay? That seems to be the one thing that’s off limits these days.” Naturally Tracy decides that this is therefore something he has to do, to the general revulsion of not only everyone around him, but himself as well. “I feel sick to my stomach about dog fighting. But what can you do when they tell you not to?”

          (When he’s finally deterred at the last minute, he’s suited up like a boxer. While it’s never stated, it’s evident that he thought that “dog fighting” meant he had to fight dogs.)

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I’m reminded of Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape is very pleased when the Patient becomes enamored of the politics of far-away problems and neglects his own mother.

        This is also my problem with the illegal immigration debate: it’s presented as “moral” to put the interests of illegal immigrants over those of citizens. No. The correct order is “my wife before my cousin, my cousin before my neighbor, my neighbor before the stranger [1].” I award no Morality Points for promoting the stranger over the neighbor and in fact dock quite a few.

        [1] Note this does not mean one has no duty to the stranger, just that the duty to the neighbor takes precedent.

        • albatross11 says:


          I think the other side of that is that letting in someone from El Salvador may benefit him far more than it hurts your neighbor. And really, probably benefits many of your neighbors but really clobbers the ones who dropped out of high school or ended up with a GED earned in prison, and now can’t get a bottom-tier job because the Salvadoran guy will show up to work every day and work his ass off and mostly stay out of trouble, unlike the guy with an IQ of 75, a felony record, and a drug habit, who will be marginal even in a crappy bottom-tier job.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            This strikes me as uncharitable to your neighbor.

          • albatross11 says:

            Some of my neighbors have 75 IQs and criminal records. I’d like my society to work for them, too, as well as it can. They aren’t going to go to college (unless college stops meaning anything), they aren’t going to learn to code or become investment bankers, but they can have a decent life with some kind of meaningful place in society, including a job and a family and a church. They are the people who are probably getting most badly hurt by large-scale immigration of low-wage labor.

        • 10240 says:

          I don’t find it surprising that you, personally, care more about those close to you than others, but I do find it weird that you consider it wrong for someone else to not care more about his neighbor than others, even though his neighbor is a stranger to you. That is, you insist that people care a lot about people whom you don’t care a lot about.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think the hierarchy of whom you value is the core of a huge number of political/social disagreements. At least some of the Covington blow-up was about how much deference a well-off white kid owed an American Indian tribal elder.

            Should you care more about whites than nonwhites? Christians than non-Christians? Americans than non-Americans? Libertarians than non-libertarians? Scientists than non-scientists? Should you give deference to the elderly, or to religious leaders, or to highly educated people, or to military veterans, or to doctors, or to policemen, or to elected officials, or to the wealthy, or…?

            This is all up for dispute, with different political/social belief systems arguing it either way. It’s common that you get value differences here that drive political disagreements that are very hard to resolve–if NFL players kneel instead of stand for the National Anthem, or if activists want to tear down monuments to Confederate leaders, the whole argument comes down to which of these people/things deserve deference and which don’t. If a bunch of rowdy atheist kids refuse to give way for an elderly priest who walks into their midst and starts singing hymns at them, are they doing something wrong? If a bloc of white voters starts campaigning to remove affirmative action, is this admirable, disturbing, or just normal politics? And so on….

          • 10240 says:

            @albatross11 A white nationalist wants white people to put white inerests above the ineterests of other races, and he probably finds it understandable if black people put black interests above other races’ interests, but I wouldn’t expect him to chide black people as morally wrong if they don’t do so. Indeed, I’d expect him to be glad if black people don’t put black interests above others because it makes it less likely that they do things that are contrary to white people’s interests. (Though a common ground is possible between white separatists and black separatists.)

            The same applies to American nationalists vs other countries, etc. That is, most of the time people either argue that some group they belong to should be put above others (at least by its members), or that groups of some level (country, ethnicity, relition etc.) shouldn’t put themselves above others. Some anti-racists may appear at times to put other races above their own, but they typically believe that their preferred policies/opinions result from an equal consideration for all races. (E.g. they attacked the Convington schoolboys because they thought the boys were racist, not because they thought that Natve Americans are more important than whites. At most they thought that an elder veteran should be given more respects than others, but that’s more-or-less unrelated to the “expanding circles” question.)

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            “Neighbor” is shorthand for “countrymen, or someone with whom I share a polity but am not personally invested in.”

            How do you feel about advocates who see their pro-migration stance as a moral good?

          • 10240 says:

            @Conrad Honcho OK. I don’t really agree with them but I don’t think they are morally wrong either. Then again, while I have axiological preferences about what happens in the world, I don’t really care about classifying people by morality.

            How do you feel about a Mexican or Kazakhstani (or whomever you don’t personally care more about than a generic human) who cares more about the members of his nation than the rest of the world, vs. a universalist one who cares about every human equally?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I think a Mexican who cares more about Mexicans than non-Mexicans is probably sensible.

            ETA: Also I’m not so sure I believe the “universalist who cares about every human equally” exists. When someone is crying for deported illegals but can’t be bothered to care about the families of people murdered by illegals…that’s not universalism. That’s someone picking a side, and I think in a rather awful way.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Conrad Honcho: It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that illegal immigrants statistically have lower rates of violent crime than the general population. I’ve heard some people make the argument that even one violent crime committed by an illegal immigrant is too many, but that seems like an insanely high standard; any large enough group is bound to have a few violent criminals, and if they have less violent criminals than average, that’s clear proof that the group’s presence isn’t meaningfully making anyone less safe.

          • albatross11 says:


            There are way, way, *way* more illegal immigrants who benefit from coming here than there are people murdered by illegal immigrants.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            And 9 out of 10 people enjoy gang rape. That doesn’t make it okay.

          • acymetric says:

            @Conrad Honcho:

            Umm…what? Did you mean “disapprove”? Otherwise I’m going to need you to cite your sources. Even assuming that’s what you meant, it still doesn’t mean that illegal immigrants are putting you at greater risk of being victimized (the numbers show the opposite).

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            There are 9 people engaged in a crime against 1 victim. 9 of them benefit. One of them does not. The fact that 9 out of 10 benefit does not make the suffering of the 1 excusable.

            The fact lots of illegals benefit from the crimes committed against fewer citizens does not make their crimes okay. Especially when we’re talking about the government whose responsibility is to the citizens, not the illegals. When you excuse stuff like this, it’s not “universal” or “value neutral.” There is a conflict between two groups of people, and you pick one side or the other and that is a revealed preference.

            It’s especially heinous in a betrayal like this one because the victims have no recourse and no advocate. When the government of, by, and for the people decides it’s going to choose foreigners over the citizens, there’s not much the citizens can do. They’re not allowed to defend the borders themselves, and there’s certainly no foreign or supranational entity that’s going to take their side. They are betrayed by the very entity formed to defend them.

          • LadyJane says:

            The fact lots of illegals benefit from the crimes committed against fewer citizens does not make their crimes okay.

            I think you’re misunderstanding his point. He wasn’t saying that violent crimes against citizens are justified because they benefit a greater number of illegals. He was saying that most immigrants don’t engage in violent crimes, and thus don’t pose any harm to citizens, while still benefiting simply from being here.

          • Dan L says:

            @ Conrad Honcho:

            It’s especially heinous in a betrayal like this one because the victims have no recourse and no advocate. When the government of, by, and for the people decides it’s going to choose foreigners over the citizens, there’s not much the citizens can do. They’re not allowed to defend the borders themselves, and there’s certainly no foreign or supranational entity that’s going to take their side. They are betrayed by the very entity formed to defend them.

            I’m sorry, I lost the plot here.

            Are the “victims” here the victims of specific crimes committed by illegals? Because they have plenty of legal recourse, arguably more than if the perpetrator was a citizen. They definitely can find plenty of advocates.

            Are the “victims” those made materially worse off by the economics of illegal immigration? I could support an effort redistributing the gains of globalism to affected parties – difficult to pull off in practice, but theoretically possible.

            Or are the “victims” those aggrieved that they don’t get to enforce vigilante justice, or a specific policy preference? That’s… not exactly a typical use of the word “victim”, or “defend”.

        • LadyJane says:

          1. I draw a distinction between “people I actually care about on an emotional level,” “people in my social sphere who I have an interpersonal connection with,” and “people in general.” Obviously there’s more granularity than that (I like some acquaintances better than others), but overall those are the basic levels that I operate on. You seem to draw at least 2 or 3 more levels of distinction between the interpersonal level and concern for humanity as a whole. I’m not saying either of us is right or wrong, just pointing out what seems to be a fundamental difference in our thinking.

          2. There’s also the question of how much you’re willing to prioritize people in your inner circles over other people. Keep in mind, for most of human history, people were quite willing to outright kill strangers if it would benefit their immediate family/tribe. From that perspective, you’re probably still very much a universalist by the standards of humanity as a whole, which proves Singer’s point.

          If your brother turned out to be a serial killer and went on a murdering spree, would you feel compelled to help him avoid getting caught? That’s a very extreme example, but life is filled with lesser examples of that sort of moral conflict, even today. If your girlfriend/wife gets into an argument with a mutual acquaintance, and you think she’s in the wrong, do you take her side anyway?

          So even if you value fellow citizens over immigrants, that doesn’t necessarily mean you value any loss for citizens over any gain for immigrants. If allowing immigrants into the country will save their lives at the expense of making it X% harder for some citizens to find work, that still seems like a worthwhile tradeoff to make, even from an “Americans first” perspective. (It might also depend on what percent X was, and how many people “some citizens” was.)

          • Gobbobobble says:

            If allowing immigrants into the country will save their lives at the expense of making it X% harder for some citizens to find work, that still seems like a worthwhile tradeoff to make, even from an “Americans first” perspective. (It might also depend on what percent X was, and how many people “some citizens” was.)

            Also whether X is large enough such that some citizens starve (or die of opiate overdose when clumsy government band-aid programs prevent them from starving). Then it reduces to a lives for lives equation and you’re just arguing over coefficients.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Gobbobobble: If that’s the case, it’s reflective of vastly bigger problems with society than the mere presence of immigrants.

    • Deiseach says:

      But in 100 years, are people going to think that animal lives should be considered equal to humans, or possibly even more so?

      Ordinarily I’d have said no, but seeing people talking about their pets as if they were their actual biological children not alone weirds me out, it makes me think that sure, in a century’s time people will consider Timothy-Jimothy my furbaby superior to humans.

      • If Timothy-Jimothy is a cat, he will surely agree.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I am a big fan of cats, and the “this is my child” thing weirds me out too, at least when it seems earnest. (A lot of people who are clearly joking talk about their cat as “my son” and so forth.) A cat is more like a roommate who you have to cater to and clean up after constantly, and yet you just can’t stay mad at them.

        • Nornagest says:

          There’s an old Internet joke about referring to your cat as “my roommate”, as in “today my roommate ate some expired food, vomited on my bed and went to sleep, still covered in vomit, in the laundry hamper”.

      • Nornagest says:

        I’ve never seen it for cats, but there’s a genre of sentimental Tumblr hand-wringing to the effect that dogs are too good for us.

    • 10240 says:

      Handing our political positions to your family used to be expected but is now stigmatized as nepotism.

      That change comes from democracy, not expanding moral circles. Handing political positions to family members was normal under absolute monarchy. A politician has to appear to care about voters’ interests because otherwise people will vote against him in their own interest. A politican who gives political positions to his family members makes it clear that he doesn’t give them to the most capable people, which is against the interests of the voters.

      • Handing our political positions to your family used to be expected but is now stigmatized as nepotism.

        That change comes from democracy, not expanding moral circles.

        As some evidence against, part of the objection to Uthman, the third Caliph, was that he gave important (and lucrative) offices to his kinsmen, even though they were not very good Muslims. He ended up assassinated, although the immediate cause was a more extreme case in the same direction.

        The Islamic world in the seventh century wasn’t a democracy.

        • Protagoras says:

          But I’ve heard Islam praised for its unusual anti-nepotism stance. Confucius also appears to be anti-nepotism, but again that’s one of his more unusual, distinctive positions. If 10240 is right that democracies are generally anti-nepotism, that still seems to represent a change from previous social organizations where anti-nepotism was exceptional, though as you say not unheard of.

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      Which animals? If some sea-world intern manages to to badger googles deep learning algorithm into translating Orca-english, and english-orca, and 6 months later, half the pod is signed up for a remote learning phd in math, I would expect killing them to move straight onto the “Murder” list.

      That is, there are several species at the brainy end of the spectrum which I would find it extremely unsurprising if a time traveler told me that they got citizenship over the next century or so. Chickens, on the other hand? Not so much.

  11. monistowl says:

    Idly scrolling through twitter, and saw this during someone’s slammin’ takedown of someone or other:

    “Love that he used two research assistants and found 22 examples. Do you have any idea what amazing data journalism I could with do research assistants? Or even better, give @gwern as many research assistants as he wants”

    Does anyone ever literally do a thing like this? Just a kickstarter/patreon/whatever for a small team of remote research assistants and donate their time to a particularly interesting and underfunded person?

    Trying to figure out if this would be Effectively Altrustic ™ — one gets the impression there are a lot of brilliant people out there who don’t always mesh perfectly with existing contexts wherein one might get a team of research assistants. The hope, obviously, would be to assist some outsider genius and get nonlinear returns that better the world, but it’s unclear what the distribution of comparative duds would be.

    I freely admit I’m biased by both the thought of all I could get done with three or four part-time research assistants for a month and the thought of how fun it might be to work one-off indie charity research contracts with a small team.

    • Contributing to gwern’s patreon seems like a pretty good bet (although maybe not at the margin?) The page says his basic living expenses are already covered, but I assume he could find useful things to do with more money.

      • albatross11 says:

        There are some Youtube/podcast/writer types who are on Patreon, and I’ve heard vaguely of scientific research being crowdfunded, but I don’t think it’s a common thing. It would be interesting to fund some people to do actual social science research and analysis via donations, though there’s an obvious downside–the research that doesn’t appeal to donors won’t get done.

      • monistowl says:

        For gwern in particular this is great, but there are other people I’d rather give a pre-structured staff than just hand them the money to roll their own…

  12. Le Maistre Chat says:

    TIL there exists a non-canon Star Trek wargame, Star Fleet Battles. It dates back to the late 1970s and its license is somehow based on the Star Fleet Technical Manual by one Franz Joseph (clearly a Hapsburg) rather than Star Trek. It legally cannot mention individuals from the TOS era, but can use all the races in addition to ship data from said technical manual. In one of the more bizarre twists in intellectual property law, this apparently means they can use Larry Niven’s Kzinti.

    Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to describe an SF setting where the Hapsburg dynasty has survived into the future and built a star fleet that’s a peer competitor to Klingons, Romulans, and Kzinti.

    • Plumber says:

      @Le Maistre Chat,

      Sorry, not gonna touch the Hapsburg thing, but I’m impressed that you know of Star Fleet Battles, it been a long time since I saw that line at the game stores.

      Anyway, Larry Niven wrote a couple of episodes for the Star Trek animated series of the early ’70’s, which is how the Kzinti got in.

      • beleester says:

        I’ve never seen the game in person, but I stumbled across it on TVTropes. I didn’t know about the licensing thing, though. Interesting.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Anyway, Larry Niven wrote a couple of episodes for the Star Trek animated series of the early ’70’s, which is how the Kzinti got in.

        I’ve seen the animated Star Trek episode with Kzinti. I’m just rather bemused that this led to an apparently-eternal license to use them in a game.

    • beleester says:

      A scenario in which a Terran Empire has become a competitor to the Klingons and Romulans? Isn’t that just the Mirror Universe? 😛

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I guess, but how does the Hapsburg dynasty fit in?

        • Evan Þ says:

          The neo-monarchists managed to restore the Hapsburg dynasty. Turns out the Hapsburg heir didn’t act as their philosophers predicted a secure absolute ruler would, after all.

    • theredsheep says:

      I’m not a Trekkie, but offhand, I could see how being hideously deformed, mentally unwell, and tied to an unjust form of government might lead to better relations with the Klingons.

    • John Schilling says:

      I first encountered Star Fleet Battles in the 1980s, when it still fit in a 6″ x 9″ ziploc bag. And was still recognizably Star Trek. Now I count two boxed sets plus half a dozen supplements on my shelf, most of it filled with silliness that requires ruthless editing to play either a serious or enjoyably Trekkian game. But there was a time somewhere in the middle where it was still quite good.

      As for the hypothetical mission, we’ve already got a perfectly good alternate history where the Austro-Hungarian Empire conquered the whole of Europe in 1910, under a ruler with a keen interest in space flight, and in alliance with a Caliph with his own affinity for both nautical and astronautical warfare. Assuming the Americans can be brought in line, we’ll have Tsilkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth working for the Empire in the first generation, Von Braun et al in the second. We should be able to get a perfectly good Star Empire out of that by the 23rd century.

      OK, Empire rather than Federation, so this probably is going to be a Mirror Universe thing. Is there anything in canon to say that the ruling or at least founding House of the Mirror Universe Terran Empire wasn’t Habsburg?

      • bean says:

        How did I know that would come up when the word “Hapsburg” was mentioned?

      • b_jonas says:

        > I first encountered Star Fleet Battles in the 1980s, when it still fit in a 6″ x 9″ ziploc bag.

        What a nice anachronism. Or at least, so it sounds from here. Maybe you guys had plastic spread earlier.

      • Deiseach says:

        Guys, the clues are in the name. Austro-Hungarian Empire, remember? Also remember all the Hungarian scientific geniuses? Maybe they weren’t literal Martians but knock it back a generation or two and is it any wonder that in an AU this was the advantage that permitted the glorious House of Hapsburg to win a space empire? 🙂

        This also permits me to link to part of the traditional Imperial burial ceremony in 2011 for Otto von Hapsburg.

        • albatross11 says:

          They go to space in the von Neumann drive, the theory of which was developed between 1945-1955 by John von Neumann. The first interstellar trip had to wait until the 1980s, after the Austro-Hungarian empire had absorbed most of Europe by each country voting in a referendum to join in order to get the huge economic benefits and military protection. (A few years later, the province of England had a vote to leave, but fortunately, the remain voters narrowly eked out a victory.).

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Wouldn’t an Austro-Hungarian space program spearheaded by John von Neumann be based on AI replicators rather than spaceships? 😛

        • John Schilling says:

          Oh, that is good. Von Kármán will be a big help with the rocketry, Von Neumann will give us a head start on computers, and most of the rest will give us atomics. Eventually we’ll get Polgar, and then we can manufacture genius to order.

          And thanks for the link. New item for the bucket list: accumulate sufficient titles and honors that even the most ceremonial long-form enumeration will have to end with “et cetera, et cetera”.

        • I remember being told that Otto von Hapsburg traveled on an Austrian passport marked “not valid for travel in Austria.”

          • AlphaGamma says:

            For a brief period and without the ”von”, which is currently illegal for an Austrian citizen to use.

            Herbert von Karajan is officially Herbert Karajan, and is allowed to use his birth name as a stage name.

    • broblawsky says:

      With replicators and cloning/AI, you only really need one Hapsburg and enough time to build an empire, right?

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Awright, who’s the genius that put the red shirt on the Archduke?

    • Deiseach says:

      the Star Fleet Technical Manual by one Franz Joseph

      Well by gosh there’s a blast from the past! Published in 1975 (you better believe I remember the year) and pre-teen me eating my heart out longing to get my hands on a copy but without a snowball in hell’s chance of that happening where I was living, until in about 1980 or so I saw a copy in the library!

      • Plumber says:


        I had it as a teenager in the 1980’s, I remember that the Federation preamble was cribbed from the United Nations.

    • Lambert says:

      The Hapsburgs have survived. They’re rather pro-EU pan-europeanists, nowadays.
      So I suppose the route is by the EU being a big conpiracy by the house of Hapsburg-Lothringen to take over Europe, probably via a forged ‘centuries old’ document, like the papal bull that supposedly made them archdukes. Needs a Tripelkaiser too, to outdo Francis II. Perhaps triple emperor of Spain, Austria and the Netherlands?

      I should start spreading this as a conspiracy theory. Makes a change form the Truthers or Flat Earth, at least.

      • b_jonas says:

        Huh what? Why would they need some sort of centuries old documents to make them “archdukes”? They already have the noble heritige, and everyone knows that already, they don’t need more documents to prove that. The main reason why they can’t rule Europe is simply that the peace treaties after World War I explicitly forbid that.

    • monistowl says:

      Charles V does not die at a monastery — the whole surrounding countryside vanishes into the Delta Quadrant and the church hushes it up. They’re resettled on oh, let’s say some sort of world-ring constructed by an Ancient Humanoid progenitor species, where his physical deformities are cured by, from his point of view, angels.

      Twist: the Ancient Humanoids know nothing about pathogens — they don’t have any. Their advanced-but-naive medical science makes CV and his fellow monks clinically immortal but also inadvertently supercharges quite a lot of latent smallpox. Their entire civilization crumbles in short order.

      In the absence of anything else to do, Charles ditches his tonsure, crowns himself Holy Star Emperor, and leads the people of San Yuste to colonize the ruins. Religion develops some wacky post-eschatological flavor, and the original 1500s clergy are still in charge.

      Within 400 years they have occupied 0.2% of the ring and cobbled together an experimental spacecraft. They meet the neighbors. With a sense of horror, they realize that there are still people out there and they are *not even Catholic*. The Holy Star Emperor suspends overseas exploration (of impossible cities full of desiccated angel corpses), and rallies his burgeoning population for La Reconquista de las Estrellas.

      Eventual hostilities with the Federation are averted by digging up an obscure figurehead from a tiny religious community on Earth (the “Pope”) to contest the authority of the Holy Star Emperor. At first it looks like a clean coup, but shortly thereafter Astroprotestantism breaks out and thermonuclear wars of religion begin.

      Federation attempts to broker a diplomatic solution are of no avail, but help comes from an unexpected source: Klingons. With a deep appreciation for the warrior mentality that Alpha Quadrant humanity has allowed to atrophy, they drag both sides to a battlefield truce tent and forge a valorous peace. The Holy Star Empire introduce Klingons to jousting, and the Klingons introduce them to Gagh. On account of the latter, the treaty-signing is proclaimed throughout the Holy Star Empire as


      ( •_•)>⌐■-■


      The Diet of Worms

  13. littskad says:

    A couple of open threads ago, @nkurz asked about how to understand “bias bias”, in reference to a paper by Gerd Gigerenzer. I’m going to try to explain a method to answer the following types of questions. In what follows I’ll sometimes denote different patterns of heads and tails (such as HTTH or HHHH) by capital letters A, B, etc.

    1. If I start flipping a coin, on average how long will I have to wait until the pattern A first occurs? (I’ll denote this expected time by n{A}.)

    2. If I just had an occurrence of a pattern A, on average how long will I have to wait until the pattern B next occurs? (I’ll denote this expected time by n{B|A}.)

    3. If I start flipping a coin, on average how long will I have to wait until either pattern A or pattern B first occurs? (I’ll denote this expected time by n{AB}.)

    4. If I start flipping a coin, what is the probability that the pattern A first occurs before pattern B does? (I’ll denote this probability by pr{A<B}.)

    In each of these, we say that a pattern occurs at a time t if it finishes occurring at exactly that time. For example, in the sequence HHTHTHTTTTHHTHT…, the pattern HTHT occurs at times 5, 7, 15,… That is, occurrences of patterns can overlap. It is important to realize that, because of these overlaps, questions 1 and 2 are not the same question, even if B is the same as A.

    It turns out that, of the questions above, the easiest to determine is the special case of question 2: n{A|A}. That is, what is the average waiting time between successive occurrences of the pattern A? In what follows, I’ll suppose that the probability of getting a heads in any particular flip is p and the probability of getting a tails is q=1-p.

    Suppose that the pattern A has length k, with a heads and b tails. Then the probability that A occurs at a time t is Π{A}=p^a q^b, as long as t is at least as big as k. Letting #{A}(t) denote the number of times that the pattern A occurs by the time t, we have that the strong law of large numbers will then imply that #{A}(t)/(tk) will (with probability 1) converge to Π{A}. Since the limit of (tk)/t is 1, we have that #{A}(t)/t will also converge to 1. If we take expectations of this, we see that, if t is very large, we expect to have seen the pattern A a total of about t*Π{A} times. Or, taking reciprocals, we have our first result:

    (1) The average wait time between successive occurrences of pattern A is n{A|A}=1/π{A}.

    In particular, n{HHHH|HHHH} = p^-4 (=16) and n{HTHTH|HTHTH} = p^-3 q^-2 (=32). (The number in parentheses is the value when p=q=0.5.) Remember that these are the average wait times between successive occurrences of the pattern, not the average wait time until the first occurrence.

    Now, how can the average wait time until the first occurrence of a pattern instead? Well, if the pattern is of length 1, the two questions are the same: n{H} = n{H|H} = p^-1 (=2). In fact, anytime a pattern cannot overlap itself without completely coinciding, the two questions are the same, since if there are no overlaps, if we’ve just finished the pattern, we have to start over from scratch to get the pattern again. So, for example, n{HHTT}=n{HHTT|HHTT}=p^-2 q^-2 (=16).

    But what if the pattern can overlap itself? In that case, suppose that B is the largest possible overlap of A with itself. For example, if A=HHTTHHTTHHT, then B=HHTTHHT. Then we must have that n{A|A} = n{A|B}, since that’s the largest substring of A which can help build a new occurrence of A. But then we have that

    (2) n{A} = n{B} + n{A|B} = n{A} + n{A|A}

    since, in order to get the pattern A for the first time, we have to get B for the first time, and then get A once we’ve gotten B. Since B is necessarily shorter than A, we can recursively determine the value of A.

    For example, we have

    n{HH} = n{H} + n{HH|H} = p^-1 + p^-2 (=2+4=6),


    n{HHH} = n{HH} + n{HHH|HH} = p^-1 + p^-2 + p^-3 (=14),


    n{HTHT} = n{HT} + n{HTHT|HT} = p^-1q^-1 + p^-2q^-2 (=20).

    In particular, we can see that the more overlaps a pattern has with itself, the longer, on average, we expect it to take for it to occur for the first time.

    Now, what happens if we have two different patterns A and B that we want to compare? Which is more likely to occur first? I’ll work an example. Consider the strings A=HTHT and B=THTT.

    First, we have n{A} already above. Next, using formula (2)

    n{B} = n{T} + n{THTT|T} = q^-1 + p^-1q^-3 (=18).

    Now, the largest overlap of the end of A with the beginning of B is THT. Therefore, by a reasoning similar to formula (2) above, using the fact that in order to get B we must first get THT, we have that

    n{B} = n{THT} + n{B|THT} = n{THT} + n{B|A}.

    But we can check that

    n{THT} = q^-1 + p^-1q^-2 (=10).

    Therefore, we can solve for

    n{B|A} = p^-1q^-3 – p^-1q^-2 (=8).

    Also, since the beginning of A doesn’t overlap at all with the end of B, we have that

    n{A|B} = n{A} = p^-1q^-1 + p^-2q^-2 (=20).

    Finally, we’ll determine n{AB} and pr{A<B}. The key here is that, if we want to wait for the first time that A occurs, we can first wait for the first time that either one of A or B occurs. If this is already A, we’re done; but if it’s B, now we have to wait further for A, given that B just occurred. That is:

    n{A} = n{AB} + [pr{A<B} * 0 + pr{B<A} * n{A|B}] = n{AB} + pr{B<A} * n{A|B}.


    n{B} = n{AB} + pr{A<B} * n{B|A}.

    Since pr{A<B} + pr{B<A} = 1 (assuming that the two patterns cannot both occur for the first time at the same time; that is, that neither pattern is a substring at the end of the other pattern), we can solve for the quantities we want:

    pr{A<B} = [n{B} + n{A|B} – n{A}] / [n{A|B} + n{B|A}] (=9/14),


    n{AB} = [n{B}*n{A|B} + n{A}*n{B|A} – n{A|B}*n{B|A}] / [n{A|B} + n{B|A}] (=90/7).

    This example seems somewhat paradoxical, by the way, since the average wait time until the first occurrence of A is 20, the average wait time until the first occurrence of B is 18, but 9/14 of the time, A will occur before B.

    • Kindly says:

      Very nice writeup! I have already seen solutions to these problems before, but never with this approach.

    • Lignisse says:

      Your calculation of n{A|A} interested me because it struck me as intuitively wrong, though it’s actually right.

      Intuitively, I would agree that 1/Π{A} is the probability that A starts at any given point. However, I intuitively expected occurrences of A to “cluster” a different amount depending on the form of A. For instance, after the pattern A=HH I would expect less average time before another A because “all we need is one more H” while after the pattern B=HT we can’t possibly repeat B without at least two more letters.

      I convinced myself of your result by manually calculating n{A|A} and n{B|B} by recursion in the case p=q=0.5. And yes, the expected value is 4 in both cases (though the distribution varies). Is there anything you can say to help me understand why my intuition that some patterns will cluster more than others is wrong?

      Edit: no, I retract the above after discovering a calculation error. In fact I claim n{B|B} = 6, not 4, justifying my intuition. Calculation to follow…

      Edit: I retract my retraction. Not my day.

      • littskad says:

        No, I think your intuition is correct: some patterns will cluster more than others. It’s just that tendency to cluster doesn’t mean that the mean waiting time will be lower than otherwise. For example, consider A=HHHHHH. This will tend to cluster rather a lot. But note that we’re looking at the mean waiting time until the next occurrence. For this A, it could reoccur in just 1 flip, but if it doesn’t, it’ll take at least 7 more flips to get A. On the other hand, B=HHTTHT, it can’t reoccur in 1 to 5 flips, but could reoccur in 6. These two opposite tendencies exactly balance out—that A could reoccur right away, but if it doesn’t, its reoccurrences take slightly longer than the mean reoccurrence time for B. So A does cluster more than B (in that it has more shorter gaps), but it has more longer gaps than B, too.

        • Lignisse says:

          Thank you, that helps. Another thing that helped me was redoing my calculations in a different way to see that for A=HH, the average waiting time was going to be 1 or 7 depending on the next flip, while for B=HT the average waiting time was going to be 3 or 5 depending on the next flip.

    • nkurz says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write this up! I’m still struggling with the intuition, but this seems like a good framework to work things out.

  14. Nick says:

    Art historians of SSC, I’m looking for book recommendations.

    1. I’m having a hard time finding reference material about Gothic church architecture. I’d like to be able to answer questions like
    a) how tall is the nave of Notre Dame de Paris, Chartres, Reims, etc.? how tall are the aisles?
    b) how thick are the piers at Notre Dame, Chartres, etc.? how thick are the buttresses? how thick are the walls?
    c) what are the proportions of the clerestory windows at etc.? the triforium?

    I can often find answers by googling, but it’s not always clear how the numbers were arrived at, sometimes they’re inconsistent, and googling for any one of dozens of churches is really tedious. And of course, sometimes I don’t find anything; if I need an especially obscure number I could estimate it using pictures and known values, but this is even more tedious.

    2. Relatedly, a book of reference pictures of, say, various window designs of the great cathedrals. Range in location and time period is better than comprehensiveness in some particular location; I’d rather see some from France and some from England than every window in France. Stuff like this, except benefiting from the last 170 years of scholarship, would be ideal.

    3. Lastly, why they are designed the way they are. I have heard in very basic terms the explanation for how the Gothic came about: pointed arches, flying buttresses, etc., enabled builders to channel weight down and out, meaning taller churches, thinner walls, and more glass, whence most of the features we identify with it. But I have plenty of other questions, like why English cathedrals commonly have big towers over the crossing while French do not, or why some churches have double aisles or another gallery below the triforium, or…. Obviously, this is a much less specific request than the other two. The overarching question is reasons for differences between regions or time periods.

    I’ve tried searching for books, but they seem either to be picture books or to assume I am an engineer, which I am not. So do they exist? Have I just done a bad job looking? Help me out.

    • b_jonas says:

      > I could estimate it using pictures

      This is what I recommend, yes. You list gothic cathedrals that are extant and very famous, so decent photographs of them are accessible. “” shows the nave of the Notre Dame de Paris, with human figures also visible so you have a size reference. I estimate from that picture that the nave is 30 meter tall from the inside. This also explains why “it’s not always clear how the numbers were arrived at”: anyone who wants to know the number can look at the pictures, and they might even have visited the place themselves if they’re writing about it. I don’t hesitate to add such approximate number in descriptions, especially when the size of the object I describe is otherwise hard to tell or unusual. For example, “” is an unusually short and thin column, and the scale is hard to see from the photo, so I point that out in the description, saying at a very approximate guess that it’s 1.8 meter tall. The exact size is not important, do I never bothered to measure the height more precisely, I only added the note because otherwise a reasonable person may think that this is a usual 2.5 meter tall memorial.

      > Relatedly, a book of reference pictures of, say, various window designs of the great cathedrals.

      Maybe start from “” and look at its subcategories.

  15. wollywoo says:

    So, I’m having difficulty concentrating on work. I have a good job in tech, and when I am motivated and very interested in what I am working well, I can be pretty productive. However, if I am not in the right mood to work – if I am feeling depressed, or if what I’m doing is very tedious or frustrating – it is very difficult to force myself to concentrate on work. Often that work involves waiting for various things to finish loading or running, and I find that as soon as I have to wait, I am immediately distracted by every stupid thing on the Internet. I did set up a site blocker to block Twitter, etc., but I find myself disabling it. I’ve wasted hours doing everything but my work, and assuming I can make it up by staying late or coming in early (which I’m then too exhausted to do.) This is the sort of thing I’ve done for years, but somehow I’ve always made it through. I don’t feel I have ADD or anything – I was always able to focus enough to get things done, and in school I always had really strong grades, even if much of my homework was finished at 4am the night before it was due.

    Any tips on concentration / productivity?

    • baconbits9 says:

      even if much of my homework was finished at 4am the night before it was due.

      Sounds like you have created many bad habits over many years which have steadily gotten stronger and stronger. Putting minor barriers in their way (ie blocking twitter) won’t do much for you as you are habitually avoiding work. Building good habits from the ground up is the way to go, but there is no easy fix for bad habits.

    • Walter says:

      Ask your boss to install surveillance software, and fire you if you visit non work sites during company time.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        And then your coworkers can skin you alive for dragging them all into hell with you

      • Well... says:

        I don’t know if this was tongue-in-cheek, but I had (maybe “have” is more accurate) very similar problems as wollywoo — almost uncanny — and when a project lead asked me to start reporting in detail on how I spent my billable hours (not because she was suspicious but because she had to explain to her superiors how she was spending project money, when the project went over budget for reasons unrelated to the quality or timeliness of my work, which was always of high quality and on time) my tendency to “slack off” decreased, especially when I was faced with annoying or tedious tasks. (Didn’t go away altogether, but definitely decreased.)

        So in my experience at least, “have a fire lit under your ass” isn’t bad advice for people in wollywoo’s situation; it is at least very effective in the short- to medium-term. (Time will tell how well it works in the long term.)

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      If you have your own space or the permission of your coworkers, consider an aromatherapy device. I use this stuff and I think it helps me.

    • beleester says:

      I feel the same way sometimes. Things that have worked to some extent:

      1. Set up site blocking at an inconvenient level – I switched from a browser extension to a hosts.txt file, which stops me from using incognito mode, using another browser, etc. – the only way to evade it is to actually undo the blocking, which makes it clear that I’m actively doing something I shouldn’t, rather than temporarily bypassing it for “just this one thing.”

      2. Not all timewasters are created equal. It’s okay to spend five minutes reading the most recent webcomic updates, but not okay to spend two hours scrolling through someone’s Tumblr archives. Focus on avoiding the endless content firehoses that can take up your entire day, and worry less about the smaller ones that will let you return to work as soon as you reach the end of it. Especially if you sometimes have legitimate reasons to kill time.

      3. Try listening to music. I find it’s got an energizing effect and it helps me get into the flow more easily. Also, fiddling with my playlist is a pretty low-cost timewaster.

      • wollywoo says:

        Thanks to those who actually gave advice. I should mention that I’m not really *that* unproductive – only rarely do I find myself in this shameful cycle. It’s usually only when I’m pretty anxious or depressed. This week I moved to a more open-office situation, and that has helped. In fact I’ve been fairly productive.

        Re: music. I generally find music more distracting than helpful. I think I enjoy it a little bit too much, and have to stop any serious brain activity to listen closely to it, pay attention to the lyrics, look up the artist if it’s one I haven’t heard before, etc. It does help with stress, though.

  16. proyas says:

    There are many internet apps that will convert a photo of a person into a cartoon/comic book illustration, but are there any apps that do the reverse? Are there any apps that allow you to upload a scan of a comic book character, like Wolverine, and to then see a matching image of a real-life person (or computer-generated human)?

    • INH5 says:

      I highly doubt it. For obvious reasons, removing detail from an image is far easier than adding detail.

    • bullseye says:

      The other day I was reading about, and I thought I saw something about that. But now I can’t find it. Even if I’m remembering wrong I think similar tech should be able to do it.

      • Well... says:

        But just from memory, what did it say??

        Just visited the site; I see subtle evidence of photoshopping on most of the photos, but I have no context. Are these portraits that have been hand-assembled out of various other portraits? Or is it the work of an AI that scours the web for portraits and then stitches them together based on some shared characteristic?

        • bullseye says:

          It’s the work of an AI making new pictures based a big database of real pictures. If you Google “this person does not exist” you’ll get articles explaining it.

          The most obvious sign that they’re not real photos, once you look for it, is how weird the backgrounds and earrings are.

  17. johan_larson says:

    I had a chance to look up the stats on defense willingness, the portion of the population that professes a willingness to fight for their country. And the numbers aren’t quite what I had expected. I thought countries like Switzerland and Israel, with strong traditions of citizen soldiers, would come out on top. The US, given its willingness to spend hefty sums on its military, would also be up there. Instead, I found this:

    94-05 Fiji [+89]
    94-06 Morocco [+88]
    85-01 Azerbaijan [+84]
    89-07 Pakistan [+82]
    89-09 Vietnam [+80]
    84-08 Papua New Guinea [+76]
    86-12 Bangladesh [+74]
    72-13 Thailand [+59]
    76-18 Georgia [+58]
    75-17 India [+58]

    Huh? That first number is, I gather, “YES”, the second is “NO” and the last one is YES minus NO.

    A few other stats, from lower down:

    74-20 Finland [+54]
    66-13 Israel [+53]
    44-31 USA [+13]
    39-47 Switzerland [-8]
    30-45 Canada [-15]
    27-51 UK [-24]

    • Aapje says:

      Isn’t the US military mostly made up of red tribe Americans? I’m not surprised that the blue tribe would be very reluctant.

      • Walter says:

        I think you are correct about the factor at play here.

      • theredsheep says:

        That, plus we get in a lot of wars, they’re all ostensibly for our country, and very few of them involve an imminent, credible threat to the US. People in Fiji probably have a hard time imagining their country getting into a war without an actual invasion, whereas the US hasn’t been attacked by another country’s military since the forties and it’s commonly accepted that we’d outgun anyone dumb enough to try. A lot of the other countries high on that list have large, scary neighbors–Finland, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are next to Russia, Thailand and Vietnam are rather close to China, and India hates its neighbors and vice-versa. I don’t know about Morocco or Fiji. Maybe people in Fiji are just hella patriotic, IDK.

        Nobody is going to invade Switzerland or Canada, and nobody’s successfully invaded the UK for a thousand years. The Brits have, however, gotten dragged into a lot of our wars, just to be good sports and allies and all that. I can imagine the charm of it has worn off.

        • bean says:

          It’s probably worth pointing out that during most of the 2000s (when Britain was doing well economically), a lot of the “Scottish” regiments had a suspicious number of people with Fijian accents. It seems likely that Fijians just like military service in general.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Some peoples just really like war.

            Native Americans are wildly disproportionately represented in the American military, despite the oddity of serving in the military that conquered them.

          • bean says:

            Good point.
            “Would you fight for your country?”
            “Of course. I’d fight for a Klondike Bar.”

            I’m now curious what percentage of the French Foreign Legion is Moroccan. A quick google suggests that it’s somewhere below 12% (the total number from Arab countries) and that the biggest block is Central and Eastern Europe (40%).

          • Aapje says:


            It is quite common for parts of the colonized societies to work with/for the colonizer. When Indonesia became independent, quite a few natives who had fought for the Dutch army decided that migrating might be a better option.

          • Randy M says:

            I was always confused by Jannisaries, but maybe they aren’t so unusual as I thought.

          • EchoChaos says:

            I wonder if this is a “standard” thing for people who are conquered, or specifically and unusually for warlike people who are conquered.

            Do Crimeans and Chechens serve in the Russian military at an elevated rate?

          • bean says:

            Something to point out that I’d forgotten was that Fiji has a really big military for an island nation, and something like a third of it is permanently on UN peacekeeping missions. Also, they’ve had two military coups in 1987, a military counter-coup in 2000, and then another coup in 2006. I think Fijians just really like the military.

          • S_J says:

            Do Crimeans and Chechens serve in the Russian military at an elevated rate?

            I don’t know about Crimeans and Chechens…but I do know that the Russian Army long had a group of Cossacks as soldiers.

            Cossacks were a distinct tribal/ethnic community in parts of Russian and Ukraine. They aliied with the Tsar in a way that gave their homeland some autonomy, in turn allowing Cossack units to fight with the Imperial Russian Army.

          • Basil Elton says:


            Do Crimeans and Chechens serve in the Russian military at an elevated rate?

            On the contrary, since the last war Chechnya has been almost or entirely excluded from draft. It’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov, though, apparently has what effectively is a personal army recruited from Chechens. Not big compared with the total Russian army, it’s still claimed to be one of the most battleworthy units within it. Probably because of lots of practice on terrorists still present in the region (as well as other groups of people Kadyrov doesn’t like, such as gay men).

            Crimeans is not a distinct ethnic group, Russians are the absolute majority there and Ukrainians are the second. The third is Crimean Tatars which is the closest you can get to Crimeans as ethnicity. I’ve never heard about any over- or under- representation of them, in the Russian military.

        • Basil Elton says:

          This might be a part of an explanation but it kind of ignores the fact that Russia and China are high up in the list themselves, while Japan is close to both and still at the bottom.

          • theredsheep says:

            Both Russia and China are feeling belittled right now, while Japan, like Germany, has a horrible fascist history in living memory, in its particular case concluding in the destruction of most of the country’s cities and two atom bombs. Also, kamikaze attacks. In general, Japan is not going to have a lot of romantic ideas about war.

          • Basil Elton says:

            No, this sound a bit too ad hoc-ish. WWII was just as bad for Russia and China as it was for Japan (except for atom bombs obviously, but bigger cities were leveled in Russia with conventional weapons and in China at least as many people died of biological weapons as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined), they regimes just as horrible, and China has been through a devastating civil war right after WWII ended. Of course they both were on the winners side and that might matter somewhat, but certainly not the fact of recent-ish experience with war per se.

            In fact, if you look at the other countries, of the top-5 most warlike two (Pakistan and Azerbaijan) had experienced a war in the last two decades and have some sort of military activity going on in them right now, and the third one is Vietnam. And I don’t know much about Morocco but it seems they’ve had some conflicts in 70s too. While of the bottom-5 only Czech Republic had any military actions on its territory after the WWII and even those hardly count as a war even by the most pacifistic standards. So if anything, it works in the opposite way.

            As of feeling belittled, I guess it correlates closely with the standard of living and other development metrics, so I’d say it’s hard to separate the two basing on the data we have. So I’ll stick with my original hypothesis – willingness to fight for the country is strongly anticorrelated with its standard of living and level of development.

      • EchoChaos says:

        The military is a lot more Blue Tribe than you might think, especially officers, but it is indeed heavily identified as Red Tribe.

        I think it’s mostly that in America this question comes across as “Are you Red Tribe?”

        • theredsheep says:

          NB that the poll was from the end of 2014. It would be interesting to see what the US results would be today; I suspect it would be higher now due to people envisioning something Civil War-ish.

      • SamChevre says:

        It’s not just “red tribe”; the American military wildly over-represents four groups:
        African Americans
        Native Americans
        Appalachian whites
        People from the old military families (my wife’s family, for example: father was in the military, her brother is in the Army, several cousins in the military, and they’ve had someone in the Army since the French and Indian war.)

        • bullseye says:

          The first three groups have something in common: They’re all poor. The military doesn’t pay well unless you’re an officer, but it’s a reliable paycheck and they don’t expect you to have prior experience or training.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Hispanics are also poor, but enlist at pretty much their exact population share.

            The military draws more from the middle class than you think, probably.

    • bean says:

      I’d love to see how stable these numbers are over time, because I’d suggest that there’s an implicit “under the current situation” involved in it. So when you ask a Finn, they picture fighting in defense against Russia, while someone from the UK or Canada is thinking about being shipped off to Afghanistan. Israelis might split on age. Young ones are thinking about the sort of stuff that’s been going on lately, while older ones remember when their backs were against the wall.

      That said, the numbers in the west look somewhere between sad and terrifying, particularly the low end:
      18-62 Germany [-44]
      20-68 Italy [-48]
      15-64 Netherlands [-49]

      And people wonder why NATO is having so much trouble.

      Also, in the very weird, Denmark is 37-37, and appears to be the only traditional NATO member (Poland is different for obvious reasons) besides the US who isn’t negative. Any insights into this?

      • EchoChaos says:

        Any insights into this?

        Denmark defines itself by being for anything that Sweden is against?

        My understanding is that their experience in WWII made them a lot more nationalistic than the rest of Western Europe, but I’m not Danish nor do I speak it, so this is a third-person perspective.

        • johan_larson says:

          Well, Sweden is at +40 compared to Denmark’s net zero. I would guess Sweden’s numbers are boosted by its proximity to Russia. There’s a never-ending stream of minor incidents between the two countries. It’s just not the right place to be if you want to ignore military matters entirely.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Sweden also isn’t part of NATO, so it has to defend itself (although any invasion of Sweden would make NATO react, of course).

            I was just joking, though. The Scandinavian countries have a far more militaristic bent than the rest of Europe, despite the stereotype.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I’m not surprised that Germans are not super hot on the idea, but I am surprised that the Dutch are even less enthusiastic.

      • Walter says:

        I remember when the Crimea thing was happening, and everyone was like “what about the EU’s military”, only to discover that that wasn’t really a thing.

      • Tarpitz says:

        This certainly applies to me. I have no interest in risking my life in the kinds of conflict my country has been and seems likely to continue to be involved in, and I would have answered “No,” if surveyed, but that answer would change given the prospect of existential conflict in defense of worthwhile civilization.

        And it’s not quite the same as the question of whether I approve of a war. I believe we were right to retake the Falklands, but I wouldn’t have risked my neck for it – happy to leave that to the professionals. World War 2, on the other hand, I would have volunteered for.

      • DeWitt says:

        Denmark is anomalous not because of culture or geography, but because it has compulsory service. I reckon that a lot of guys end up coming out going ‘huh, I guess that wasn’t so bad.’

        • AlphaGamma says:

          This could also be a difference between Germany (officially abolished compulsory service in 2011, though after the early 90s it was very easy to be a conscientious objector and only a minority actually joined the military) and the Netherlands (effectively abolished conscription in 1995).

          Another important difference is that German conscripts could not be sent overseas on peacekeeping missions* while Dutch conscripts AFAIK could.

          *They could be sent overseas to NATO bases in friendly countries. I have heard that conscripts from NRW would try very hard to be sent to NATO bases in the Netherlands, where they were close enough to home to go home at the weekends while still receiving ”hardship pay” for foreign deployments, neither of which would be true if they were in e.g. Bavaria.

    • fion says:

      I’m encouraged to see that the UK contains far fewer violent patriots than I thought.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        Churchill really bucked the long tradition of turning the island over to the Romans/Anglo-Saxons/Normans/Orangists, eh?

        • I’m not sure the Glorious Revolution counts as a foreign invasion. If it does you have an average of about one every five hundred years, so the next one wasn’t due until the late 22nd century.

          • Aapje says:

            We count it.

            We also have the next one penciled into our agenda, but may move up the schedule due to Brexit.

          • bean says:

            I just wonder if the Thames Barrier will be intact after you get done.

          • Aapje says:

            We helped built it, so it will last…and it will open for us when we say the magic incantations.

          • We also have the next one penciled into our agenda

            “And now De Ruyter’s topsails
            Off naked Chatham show
            We dare not meet him with our fleet
            And that the Dutchmen know.”

            I’m not sure the current naval balance of power is quite as favorable to you.

          • Aapje says:

            De Ruyter was already dead by then, actually, but your point is fair. We’ll just have to come up with a plan as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.

            We might just offer to do some very cheap work on the Thames estuary, yet the barges will turn out to be of the Trojan kind, spilling out troops near parliament. We’ll have control of London before you know it.

            Of course, just like last time we will wait until the regime is so weakened that resistance will be minimal in the first place. We’ll make sure to have secret support from many British politicians, just like during the Glorious Revolution.

          • bean says:

            Of course, just like last time we will wait until the regime is so weakened that resistance will be minimal in the first place. We’ll make sure to have secret support from many British politicians, just like during the Glorious Revolution.

            So that’s going to be, what, 2-3 years, tops?

          • Aapje says:

            We’re not superstitious about doing it exactly every 500 years, so the exact timing will depend on opportunity.

            We can pull it forward decades or centuries if convenient.

            The Trojan barges can be prepared quickly…

      • johan_larson says:

        If “Violent Patriots” were a band, what genre of music would they play?

        Punk, maybe?

        And “Fewer Violent Patriots Than I Thought” is the reunion album, issued fifteen years after the group broke up. They got together for a reunion tour only to discover that the bass player had died of dysentery three years earlier. Do not drink standing water in third-world war zones, folks.

        • Nornagest says:

          Punk, yeah. Probably forgettable Eighties-era hardcore, like the Dead Kennedys without the cleverness or experimentation.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      It is, of course, instructive to consider how many of those in attendance at the infamous Oxford Union debate who voted that they would “under no circumstances fight for [their] King and Country” went on to do exactly that 6 years later.

    • Tarpitz says:

      Is this population as a whole? Because I imagine demographics are pretty important. I’m almost sure that I would have been a lot more likely to answer “yes” in my teens or early 20s, and I doubt that’s atypical. So some of what we’re seeing might just be a function of population pyramids.

    • LesHapablap says:

      Rich countries are less likely to want to fight, because the more you have to lose…

      Soft countries are less likely to want to fight. For example, people in countries where ’emotional support animals’ or ‘mobility scooters’ are a regular part of life are not going to be so gritty.

      • Walter says:

        The thing about soft countries, is that maybe a just so story? Like, it feels mad convenient that people who enjoy stuff I don’t would also be cowards.

        • Basil Elton says:

          But that story explains the numbers better than any other suggested here so far AND has roots in ev psych and the game theory. The fact that something makes a good story isn’t an argument for it, but neither it’s an argument against.

          • rlms says:

            has roots in ev psych and the game theory

            I’d consider that a negative, but you do you.

          • Basil Elton says:

            I’m not sure I understand what you mean. That they have no such roots?

          • rlms says:

            A story having roots in ev psych and game theory makes it less plausible to me. Probably some such stories are actually true, but the proportion is a lot smaller than that for stories with roots in e.g. geology.

          • Basil Elton says:

            Less plausible than what, a story completely made up? Like, you truly genuinely claim that evolutionary psychology and the game theory both have negative reasoning power?

            If yes, this claim is so far stronger and more contradictory than any one made so far which led us here, that we’d have to throw all the previous debate straight out of the window and focus on discussing this claim, which I don’t really want to, and neither probably you.

            If no, I’m yet to see any explanation of those numbers based on geology or any other hard science so I don’t see how it should be considered “negative”.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Basil Elton: I don’t agree with him about game theory, but I fully agree with him on evolutionary psychology. Obviously it doesn’t have negative reasoning power, I’d imagine that was a bit of hyperbole. But I do think it has zero reasoning power, or close to it.

            Evo psych theories are little better than random guesses. The entire field lends itself to “just so” stories like no other. That makes it all too easy for people to justify “people with different preferences than me are objectively worse!” arguments like the one above, or more broadly, for people to come up with whatever convenient and worldview-affirming post-hoc narratives they want for any given human behavioral trait.

          • Basil Elton says:

            Agreed about evolutionary psychology having approximately zero reasoning power. There’s really not much to say against it. Perhaps it was my unconscious attempt to lend a scientific credibility to the strong internal feeling of “But this is how people actually work just you look around!”

            I’m still confused though, why so many people even here seem to think that not willing to kill and die for an abstract idea is a bad thing? I’d say, all other things being equal, it’s a pretty good trait to have and morally right. Granted, all other things are far from equal, but people speak of it as a moral flaw, not a strategical disadvantage or something.

          • Protagoras says:

            Less plausible than what, a story completely made up?

            Perhaps, in the Socratic sense that it is better to not know anything than to think you know something that you don’t. In the case of a completely made up story, you know it’s made up.

          • brad says:

            Agree that an evo psych just so story makes me update a little away from a hypothesis. It probably shouldn’t, it just be no update, but it does.

          • albatross11 says:

            Is there any area of psychology that offers explanations of human nature that you would find more plausible? My impression is that there’s a lot of really crappy evo-psych pop science stuff floating around, but also that the serious researchers in the area are doing real and interesting things. (And I think there’s a lot of non-evo psych pop science floating around that is equally crappy.)

            This article by Bo Winegard offers some justification for the evo-psych approach. And if you want to hear an interview of a serious researcher who takes the evo-psych approach, there are recent podcasts interviewing Geoffrey Miller by Sam Harris and Dave Rubin. Or you can read Steven Pinker’s books, which I find pretty good.

          • brad says:

            Based on my cursory understanding it seems that evo psych is not a typical area of psychology, because psychology by and large is still in the phase of describing human nature rather than trying to explain it.

            That said, I haven’t done any reading in the literature of the subject and I don’t much have interest in doing so. Therefore I never see published evo psych arguments and so have no opportunity to update in any direction based on them. My updating away is in the face of the kind of pop garbage I tend to see in places like this. Again, I probably shouldn’t because a good position can and often does have crap arguments made on its behalf, but such is human nature. Probably because of something to do with tigers in the savannas of Africa 50,000 years ago.

          • LesHapablap says:

            Can someone explain how this idea has roots in EV psych and game theory? I don’t see an obvious connection but not an expert on either one.

          • Dan L says:

            @ Basil Elton:

            Less plausible than what, a story completely made up? Like, you truly genuinely claim that evolutionary psychology and the game theory both have negative reasoning power?

            Claimed as a source of justification, it’s damning by faint praise – see also: “quantum physics”. In both cases, the proper response is “Great, let’s see your equations!” (This excludes a subset of credentialed evolutionary psychologists, but I consider that a feature.)

        • LesHapablap says:

          Being comfortable all the time saps you of the ability to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that sort of thing about ourselves.

        • albatross11 says:

          So, the US is probably one of the softer countries around in terms of moral panics, emotional support animals, etc., and yet we are also pretty much always involved in a couple wars, we’re constantly bombing someone or threatening someone, etc. At least this one datapoint doesn’t seem to fit very well with your model.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            We just follow the old Roman model of growing soft while contracting out the hard stuff to harder people (& robots)

      • rlms says:

        The ‘soft’ things you mention seem to me to be particularly American (maybe to a lesser extent Anglospherical). But the US looks more aggressive than most other developed countries. On the other hand, the US also has a lot more guns and murders than most other developed countries, so maybe it’s not so soft.

        • LesHapablap says:

          Americans generally are some of the softest people because they have a very comfortable style of living. Emotional support animals are not really a great example of that.

          Maybe places with pet psychiatrists. The more pet psychiatrists in your country per capita, the softer it is.

          There are places in western countries where men pride themselves on really liking to eat meat. I tell you, you’ve gotta be pretty soft in general to think that liking to eat meat makes you some kind of badass. It’s a pretty low bar.

          • rlms says:

            But if you agree that America is softer than similar developed countries, then it’s odd that they are more aggressive (by the standard in the original comment) than such countries if softness is inversely correlated with aggression..

          • albatross11 says:

            Alternative model: Very rich countries with well-developed markets tend to have a lot of frivolous comforts for sale. People buying $3 coffees, or avocado toast, or breeding small yappy lapdogs whose only function is being small yappy lapdogs, or paying for yoga instruction, or….

            The availability and use of this stuff makes the country look soft. But really, it’s just a reflection of being rich and having lots of choices. This has little to do with willingness to start wars.

            OTOH, we’ve spent a fair bit of our vast wealth on our military hardware and organization, and most Americans don’t care that much what we do overseas as long as their kids aren’t dying, their taxes aren’t too high, and they don’t have to see a lot of disturbing images from it. So we both appear soft and also start a lot of wars.

          • LesHapablap says:

            I mispoke in that original comment: I didn’t mean countries fighting, but the people in them being willing to fight, as per the OP.

            So America likes to go to war, but that certainly doesn’t make the people tough. It may imply the opposite, since war-mongering could be a compensation for being soft.

            Americans are soft because they are rich and comfortable, but they are also soft because they are terrified. See Hunter Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear. You can also see it in the way they raise their kids.

            Possible counterpoint: Japanese people have comfortable living down to a science: are they soft? Hard to say. They are unique in many ways. They do raise their kids with a lot of independence from a young age though.

          • Aapje says:


            Japanese working conditions are notorious for being extremely unpleasant, to the point where they have a word for death due to overworking (Karōshi).

            It seems to me that comfortable toilets and such do not have to be a sign of a generally good life, but can be an attempt at compensation, where people try to offset something horrible with something very pleasant.

          • Beck says:

            @ LesHapablap
            I think you might be generalizing based on a non-representative group. In most of the country, things like pet psychiatrists are pretty alien.
            I’ve worked in construction mostly, so my impression might be skewed the other way, but I think you might be overselling the ‘soft’ thing a little. Rlms’s point about guns and murder would seem to work against your theory, as well.

          • LesHapablap says:


            That is entirely possible, particularly about the murder rate. People in the US are used to more property crime as well so it is possible they may be a bit more ‘street-smart’ than people in very safe countries.

            But you’d have a hard time convincing me that Americans could face hardship as well as people from other countries with rough lives. Most Americans don’t see blood too often, and they aren’t in the best of shape on average.

            Another example though from Dan Carlin’s Ghengis Khan series, was that the Mongols had a consistent problem over the centuries that after capturing valuable territory, the warriors would go fat and comfortable and lose their edge. They’d lose the territory and end up on the steppes again, become badasses and then successfully invade the valuable land, in a cycle that lasted centuries.

          • People in the US are used to more property crime as well

            Compared to where? Checking some ICVS data, U.S. crime rates seem to be similar to those of other industrial countries. The overall U.S. crime rate for 2000 is a hair below the average.

      • For example, people in countries where ’emotional support animals’ or ‘mobility scooters’ are a regular part of life are not going to be so gritty.

        How many “emotional support animals” are there because their owners believe they need the emotional support, how many are pets labeled support animals to let their owners take them places that otherwise don’t allow animals? I tend to assume the latter is the larger category, but I have no data.

        • Randy M says:

          Sure, but “willing to game the system because you can’t take no for an answer” probably puts you in the soft category, at least in terms of willingness to submit to military discipline.

          • bean says:

            I’d approach this from the other side. The big softness on emotional support animals is societal willingness to tolerate animals in places they’re not normally allowed merely because someone says they need “emotional support”.

        • albatross11 says:

          IMO it would be better to allow animals in more places without worrying about the classifications. I think it’s health department regs that keep animals out of restaurants, but it seems like you could do some smarter regulations to deal with that.

          • Randy M says:

            A lot of restaurants around here have patios where they welcome pets and their paying owners. Might be different in colder regions.

            In general, though, I don’t see what is served by bringing animals more places. Is your bond with you pomeranian so soul-searingly deep that you can’t browse the bookstore or attend a movie without their soothing presence?

          • Theodoric says:

            Who’s liable if the animal bites someone? The owner? The business who allowed the animal in? Does the animal get one “free bite” (of course, the medical care to treat the bite is not free!)? What if someone else in the business is allergic to the animal? Can the business owner boot the animal and its owner if it starts barking/growling at people (actual seeing eye dogs are trained not to do this)?

          • albatross11 says:


            Well, it’s something lots of people want to do, so I think it ought to be permitted unless there’s a strong reason that it must be forbidden. Sort of like people liking to watch sports on a big TV in bars, or people liking guitar music more than accordion music. We don’t really need a reason why something is socially beneficial to allow it; instead, we ought to need a reason why something is socially destructive to ban it.

            In walkable places, one reason to bring your dog to the cafe is that you like to take your dog for a nice walk through town, and the cafe is a nice place to stop and have a drink or a cup of coffee or lunch.

          • albatross11 says:


            There are lots of non-awful places where dogs can be brought into restaurants/cafes, and almost everywhere permits you to walk your dog down city streets, so these problems seem pretty solvable. My guess is that if your dog is a problem, the management of the restaurant will tell you not to bring him back or that he (and you) will have to leave now. And you will already get into legal trouble if your dog bites someone or attacks other dogs.

            If it’s left open, then restaurants/cafes/etc. can decide whether to allow dogs or not, so probably there will be cafes and restaurants that don’t allow dogs, or only allow them on the patio–problem solved.

          • Randy M says:

            I don’t see why we have to outlaw smoking in every single restaurant, either.
            Or bare feet–let those who are worried about fungus house their own piggies safely.

            Let the restaurant owners decide which assortment of irritants they want to accompany their pot roast.

            But it terms of arguing that we aren’t soft, “But they really want to be with their doggy!” isn’t doing too much work, any more than “We’re unable to go thirty minutes without lighting up a cigarette” would be.
            Of course, I’ll grant you up front that “We need the law to protect us from those icky animals!” is also soft.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            (Disclaimer: not a pet owner, no desire to be)

            It feels like there has been a general trend of pets being treated more and more like people, specifically children. Doghouses used to be a thing but I think people would run you out of town with pitchforks if you used one these days. Probably draw scowls even for Fido not sleeping with Mumzie and PopPop in the people bed.

            So if Fido really wants to see The Secret Life of Pets on the big screen, well, why should you get to bring your loud and smelly hairless ape but they can’t bring their loud and smelly furry baby?

          • Jaskologist says:

            You can count me among those who thinks service animals outside of seeing-eye dogs are 90% BS, but who also dislikes how much we’ve ejected pets from our common areas. If the former cancels out the latter, that’s a net positive in my book.

          • Theodoric says:

            Actually, some states to give dogs one “free bite”-in other words, if it is the first time a dog bites someone, the person who got bitten, not the owner, not a business owner or landlord who allowed the dog on premises, has to pay the costs.
            While most places do allow dogs to be walked on streets, they are required to be leashed in most places (and places without leash laws will probably get them once a cute child gets mauled). I have seen people let their dogs walk around, unsecured, in public places like gyms.
            Mayyybe, allowing animals in more public places could work with a strict liability regime for bites and strict leashing/securing requirements (though there would still be issues with allergic people), but it seems like it’s one of those things where a few people who don’t think, say, the leash law applies to them (because their dog is “friendly”) ruins it for everyone.

          • AlphaGamma says:


            Actually, some states to give dogs one “free bite”-in other words, if it is the first time a dog bites someone, the person who got bitten, not the owner, not a business owner or landlord who allowed the dog on premises, has to pay the costs.

            This goes right back to Ancient Near Eastern law codes (including, but not limited to, the Bible) and the idea of the ‘goring ox’- if an ox does damage by goring a person or animal and has not done so before, the owner is not punished, though if the ox killed a person it is still killed. If the owner knows that this particular ox is liable to gore, but has not restrained it, he is punished.

          • And there is strict liability for four particularly hazardous species.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            @David Friedman: I probably should have cited Legal Systems Very Different from Ours here.

    • Basil Elton says:

      How’s that surprising that countries with a higher standard of living are less willing to fight? Not only their citizens have far more to lose, they are also (on average) far more affected by globalization and inclined to consider people from other countries not so alien. And people from poorer countries have much more “us vs them” mentality and higher risk tolerance. Not to mention possibility that a more aggressive and warlike culture might be one of the causes of poverty in the first place. In fact, I would’ve been surprised if the trend was anything other that what it is.

    • raj says:

      Seems to me that there is a huge difference between professed willingness to fight vs. actual willingness to fight. Different norms, different signaling behavior.

      Also, not at all surprised that (educated, affluent) first-worlders are less likely to want to die for their country.

    • 10240 says:

      More interesting finds:
      Palestinian Territories lower than Israel, despite the appearance that they fight even when the only thing it can get them is killed.

      South Korea 42–50 [-8] even though by far the most plausible war they can get into is against North Korea. (Perhaps they consider it more likely that their leadership would attack North Korea, which they disagree with, rather than the other way around.)

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        My guesses for explanations:

        — Palestinians aren’t monolithic. It may well be, for example, that a majority hate the occupation but recognize the at-best-futility of violent opposition to it, and a minority of fanatics both do the fighting and make it dangerous for the majority to speak too loudly about said futility.

        — South Koreans, in the likely war scenario, would be fighting their co-ethnics and in some cases their not-too-distant relatives. Not surprising that that prospect inspires less enthusiasm than fighting the Other.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      This is purely a matter of imagination, but I find that I have no desire to defend the US, I get a warm fuzzy feeling* at the idea of forcibly defending Philadelphia. This is imagination not just because it’s very unlikely that Philadelphia would be attacked, but also because I’m not a plausible military person.

      It might be relevant that I like fiction about the Renaissance, and one of the things I like about it is the city patriotism.

      So, what would you at least imagine yourself defending?

      *The feeling is stable over several weeks.

  18. Aapje says:

    @Art Vandelay

    This is a continuation of my discussion from here about the nature of science, antropology, Sokal et al.

    The people with a scientific approach are decidedly not the people that the likes of Sokal and Pinker are criticising. Indeed, Pinker cites more scientifically minded anthropologists approvingly in his criticism of others.

    I think that these people feel that the non-scientific parts, or at least the ones who write the papers that they are criticizing, should not be funded with tax money. That doesn’t have to mean taking the money away, but can mean redirecting it to those who do use better methodologies or making the recipients change to different methodologies.

    You seem to be suggesting that every academic paper should primarily be made up of falsifiable claims backed up by quantitative evidence but I don’t want to make this assumption because it seems like an oddly extreme position that I’m fairly certain the people you claim to agree with do not hold.

    Ideally, if there is a claim about what is true, that claim should be backed by strong evidence. Note that what is strong evidence depends on the claim. ‘One white swan exists’ is much easier to give strong evidence for than ‘at least x% of white swans is white.’ The claim that ‘all swans are white’ is a bad claim that IMO has no place in science and not just because of this.

    However, it is perfectly possible to posit axioms, describe speculative theories, describe methodologies or do other things that don’t require a truth claim, as long as it’s made clear that one is not making a truth-claim. Note that I think that science in general should do much better in this regard.

    Looking at the first page of the introduction to Intellectual Impostures for example we can see that in the Sokal Affair he decided to…

    I don’t think that the Sokal paper was a particularly good attempt to make the point. An issue with necessary elitism (of science) is that it is hard to get good (democratic) corrections to excesses by the elite. Arguably, the elite very much must watch for and correct their own excesses. Ironically, the ability for the elite to shape discourse in such a way that others have trouble getting their needs & desires recognized and debated fairly seems to have been argued by the very same philosophers whose philosophy is often blamed for enabling excessive and/or selective relativism (like Foucault and Derrida).

    Anyway, Sokal seemed to have wanted to make a relatively accessible and very cutting criticism by publishing abject nonsense. However, IMO he underestimated the amount of structure that does exist in the field he criticized. This is a common mistake by non-believers, who conflate non-sense with arbitrariness. Yet the two are not necessarily linked. For example, homeopathy is nonsense, but structured nonsense. You cannot infinitely dilute an arbitrary compound and claim it is a homeopathic cure for an illness. There are rules, albeit nonsensical rules.

    Have these sectors adopted this philosophy or do they only “seem” to have adopted it?

    The hedging by Sokal that you are reacting to is actually what I like to see more of. He made explicit that his statement is not a claim about the facts, but about his subjective perception.

    If one rejects Descartes claim that some of his most crucial ideas were imparted to him by spirits is this enough to qualify one as anti-Enlightenment enough for this postmodernism checklist?

    Descartes was a Rationalist (not the SSC kind), not an empiricist like Locke or Hume (although a simplistic dichotomy is false because the separation was not absolute). Descartes was of course premodern, not postmodern. Anti-Enlightenment and postmodern only make sense when applied to those whose came after Enlightenment and modernism were fairly well developed.

    Note that Sokal is very sloppy in his use of the words ‘rationalist.’

    It’s not entirely clear what they mean by empirical test

    I can’t speak for ‘they,’ but for me the appropriateness of an empirical test demands on the conclusions that one seeks to draw or equivalently, one should only draw conclusions that are justified by what the test shows.

    If I do a 100 coin-flips and then conclude that this shows that the moon revolves around the earth, then I have done an empirical test, but not one that justifies my conclusions.

    Unfortunately they’ve fallen well short of your definition of scientific (surely a more egregious crime in this instance because they actually claim to be scientists unlike the social and cultural anthropologists who claim no such thing but merely have someone on the internet insist that they must do science to impress him because some newspapers described Trump cutting research funding as a war on science) so it seems you may need to find some new heroes.

    The first part is true, although in his defense, he was not so much doing science, but discussing how science should be and who should do science. My ideal is that metascience itself is scientific, but this is very challenging and requires cooperation by the scientists who methodologies are to be improved/verified.

    One of the criticisms is exactly that these people are often walling themselves off from the better scientific practices and are not open to certain criticisms. You criticize Sokal et al for generating too much heat, but I see this as a consequence of an inability of these fields to self-police themselves to follow practices that are beneficial for society, resulting in others to come in to try to fix this. Those people may not be fully qualified to do this, but when those who are most qualified, don’t, they leave the field to the less qualified (see Trump for a far more extreme example).

    Your argument that these people don’t do science makes as much sense to me as the argument that certain police officers are not upholding the law and instead are pursuing selfish motives. That is presumably true, but it is not right and it should be corrected.

    The reason is not so much that I want to be impressed, but rather that I want the benefit to mankind of actual truth-seeking. I believe that parts of academia are largely useless and some probably even of negative value to society. Public money is spent on that which could instead go to things that benefit mankind more.

    You seem to have a special affinity with anthropologists and to believe that they are producing substantial value for society even when not doing science, but I don’t think you ever made a case for that. Perhaps you can do so, to make a positive case for your position, rather than just make a negative case for mine.

    • Art Vandelay says:

      I said:

      Have these sectors adopted this philosophy or do they only “seem” to have adopted it?

      You said:

      The hedging by Sokal that you are reacting to is actually what I like to see more of. He made explicit that his statement is not a claim about the facts, but about his subjective perception.

      As I pointed out, I wasn’t actually taking issue with Sokal using the word “seem”. As I said:

      Of course, my main point here is to demonstrate that such exercises in extremely uncharitable reading of academic work using some oddly stringent criteria generally demonstrates very little.

      The criteria by which you were harshly judging Turner’s “methods” could be equally applied to Sokal (these wouldn’t really be considered methodological issues in anthropology, nor I suspect many (any?) other disciplines. Besides, it would be rather hard to critique anthropological research methods in reference to Turner’s paper because it’s a discussion of different theoretical strands and their approach to the body, not a research paper, and it makes little reference to empirical research). You are just applying completely different criteria when reading each of them. For example you criticised Turner as being unscientific and applying poor methods when saying that the body is becoming more prominent as an arena of control and also liberation without providing quantified evidence for this, yet you praise Sokal for a similar claim regarding “postmodernism” becoming increasingly prominent because he adds the hedging word “seem”. This is what you wish to see more of apparently. Yet in the Turner article, which is apparently a clear case of everything wrong with huge swathes of academia, the only sentence in which he posits increasing relevance of the body also includes the “seem”:

      the body seems thrust into ever increasing prominence

      You have demonstrated precisely nothing about the weakness of anthropology’s methods (about which I’m beginning to get a sneaking suspicion you may know fairly little). The only thing — in this case at least, but it seems like it may be fair to extrapolate — you have succeeded in demonstrating is that for you, whether something is good or bad largely depends on whether you consider someone to be on your side or not.

      • Aapje says:

        You are just applying completely different criteria when reading each of them. […] yet you praise Sokal for a similar claim regarding “postmodernism” becoming increasingly prominent because he adds the hedging word “seem”.

        You have a point there with regards to my poor writing, although you are also not very fair to me when you say that I praise Sokal. I’ve said before that I don’t consider Sokal’s approach to be very good.

        My comment about wanting to see more ‘seems’ was more intended as a gesture towards the kind of uncertainty that should be more prominent and was not intended as a statement about what Sokal did right and Turner did wrong, although I can see why you read it that way.

        However, I never actually scrutinized Sokal as I did Turner and don’t see why I should. Again, my position is merely that the gist of Sokal’s criticism is correct, but I never argued that the form of his criticism is good or that the form of his criticism is the goal.

        It is true that I hold papers that make a claim about society to a somewhat higher standard than criticisms of scientific methodologies. However, that is for the same reason that I hold the prosecutor to a higher standard than the defense in a trial: it is the job of the prosecution to make a very strong case that the accused committed the alleged crime and not the responsibility of the defense to prove that it didn’t happen. The latter only has to create reasonable doubt.

        Similarly, the academic who makes a claim about reality has to make a very strong case, while the critic merely has to show reasonable doubt, but doesn’t have to prove that the doubts are true.

  19. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Claims there’s tremendous variation in response to exercise or lack of exercise– some people are pretty fit while being very sedentary, about 10% don’t improve fitness if they exercise. Note: this is about fitness, health wasn’t investigated.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Second note: The 10% is 10% of study participants who were heavily selected, not 10% of the population.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Do you think the percent in the population is likely to be higher or lower?

        • baconbits9 says:

          Lower to much, much lower.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            What’s your line of thought?

          • acymetric says:

            I’m not baconbits, and I realize this thread is super dead now, but a)this heavily selected for sedentary people. People who do not see gains from exercise are probably more likely to be sedentary, so people who do not see gains from exercise will be over represented in a selection of sedentary people.

            The other issue is small sample size. The error bars on applying results of 3 people out of thirty to the general population have to be pretty large.

            I also have another issue with the study, but it isn’t clear if it is an issue with the research or just the article’s presentation of it. They appear to be going purely off of the increase in oxygen consumption, but ignores the base rate of consumption (before starting the program). Do the 3 people who saw no increase have a higher base rate than some of the others, meaning they did not need to increase oxygen consumption to perform the training (or, alternatively, do their bodies use oxygen more efficiently having the same result)? Just going off of increase in O2 consumption and body fat % doesn’t seem like enough to me. More fitness markers need to be tested, and I’m not even convinced they analyzed one of the two they used (O2 consumption) correctly.

  20. Atlas says:

    So, um…why do people in modern America get divorced so often?

    (This might sound like a naive question, but I’m very genuinely ignorant: My own parents have been very happily married for around 20 years, and I can’t imagine them ever splitting up. My paternal grandparents have been married for something like 60 years. My late maternal grandparents were married for a similarly long time, though my mother says that their marriage wasn’t very happy later on and that they stuck together because of religion/community/inertia. But I’ve gradually realized that this fairly happy situation, which I had assumed as a child to be the norm, seems to be somewhat unusual.)

    • Jesse E says:

      Actually, the divorce rate is slowly going down.

      The one reason for a lot of divorces through the 70’s and 80’s is a lot of people who ended up with the 1st person they dated seriously in college or whom they had a kid with suddenly were in a society where it was legal and accepted for them to leave that person, if they no longer felt connected with that person.

      Since then, what we’ve had is a later marriage age combined with people simply not getting married leading to far less divorces.

      In short, the end of a socially conservative society met there was pent up demand.

      • zoozoc says:

        Even though the divorce rate is going down, this is only because the people who in the 70s/80s would be most likely to divorce simply aren’t getting married. If anything, I think the true “divorce” rate (if you included people who are living together in a long term relationship) is going up. But that might just be my cynical take.

    • Aapje says:


      Expectations are higher and barriers are lower.

    • DeWitt says:

      So, um…why do people in modern America get divorced so often?

      As compared to where and when? What societies with decently easy divorces do it better?

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      Suburbia. One of the very strongest predictors for “Divorce” is the length of your commute, presumably via the very direct mechanism of “if you work full time and spend 2 and a half hours in a car each day, you do not have remotely enough time with your spouse to keep the relationship alive”.

      The US has a much higher percentage of the population in that situation than both its own past, and most of the rest of the first world, so presumably this is doing a major number on US divorce statistics in general.

      Save marriage, get your urban planning right.

    • Randy M says:

      I think a good portion of people are just miserable to be around, but it’s a lot easier to get a marriage license than a driver’s license.

      What people should do is have life-long marriage. People should also not be jerks.

      I personally don’t find marriage a great challenge (I could certainly give other aspects that are!). Often when I hear about problems my response is basically to think “Have you tried not doing all that stuff that’s obviously going to piss off your spouse?”)

    • Jaskologist says:

      Making divorce easy was the explicit intention of past social reformers. They succeeded.

      Somewhere in the rat tumblrsphere is a post (not this one, but it’s in the same thought-stream) which essentially argues that there is no right to marry, in the sense of making an actually binding commitment like people in the past were able to.

      • Lambert says:

        Was there a right to marry in ‘the past’?
        Or did the matter have to be approved by both patres famillias of the couple?

        The more I think about modern family and gender relations, the more I realise that the real revolutions happened in the 19th century, but it’s taking centuries for all the effects to shake out.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The obstacles put up in front of getting married vary a lot by time, place, and class. And certainly there were plenty of places where the choice to get married was not actually yours. Even if you didn’t choose it, you may still well end up in an indissoluble marriage.

          Now we can choose to be married in the sense of “live with someone until one of us doesn’t want to.” We can’t choose to be married in the sense of “credibly, enforceably commit to living with someone until death do us part.”

        • LHN says:

          In at least some premodern societies, while the family head could exert power over marriage, if the prospective spouses could slip the traces there were limits to what he could do about it. E.g., going back to Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets expect to be able to choose Juliet’s husband, and could probably do many things to enforce it from locking her up to threatening retribution against a priest who performed the ceremony to pushing through an annulment if it were caught in time. (And probably to murdering an unwanted groom, though that’s not strictly a legal right.)

          But they can’t actually prevent the marriage from coming into force given that she’s able to find a priest willing to marry her and Romeo and can maneuver to get the sacrament performed without interruption. Juliet’s right to marry may be quite circumscribed in practice, but it’s theoretically more or less absolute.

        • Aapje says:


          The real revolution was the agricultural revolution. The 19th and 20th century were just the consequences of that playing itself out.

          • Lambert says:

            Partly, yes, but I think the Industrial revolutions, especially the Second one onwards, were also reliant on other bits of the tech tree being in place.

            (imagining an alternate world in which agricultural output rose long before physics, metallurgy, engineering, economics etc. matured left as an exercise to the reader)

          • Aapje says:

            True, although I think that the revolutions itself created much more demand for new inventions and freed up many more people for scientific inquiry. So I think that the maturation of science & engineering is more a consequence & a feedback cycle than merely a cause (although it is the latter as well).

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Are you thinking of “The Right to Marry” by Sarah Perry (AKA Sister Y) from The View from Hell?

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      AIUI this has become a very class-stratified thing, so if you are in the high-marriage-success-rate portion of American society you may think of divorce as a strange aberration because you don’t know many people in the low-success-rate portion, and thus not have much insight into why people in that latter portion divorce.

      • I think you exaggerate the difference. I’m in the high success rate part of society—a retired professor. So is my son—he works at Google. Both of us are on our second marriages. Mine will also be my last, and I expect his will as well, but I think that pattern, one failure followed by one success, is pretty common.

        On the other hand, both my parents and my wife’s parents remained in their first and only marriage until one of them died.

        • Evan Þ says:

          FWIW, of my extended family:

          * Both sets of grandparents were on their first marriage when they died. (My one surviving grandmother could theoretically get remarried, but I’d be so astonished I’d suspect brain tumors.)

          * Two pairs of aunts/uncles are on their second marriages.

          * My other two pairs of aunts/uncles are on their first marriage, as are my parents. I expect them all to last till death does them part – my parents view divorce and remarriage as religiously forbidden; I’m not sure how deep my aunts’ and uncles’ religion goes. That aside, they’re all getting along excellently.

          * Of my five cousins who’ve gotten married, all are still on their first marriages. Two of them lived together with their fiances before marriage; the other three didn’t.

    • S_J says:

      I think that divorce is common in the United States, but not as common as it was during the early period of the switch to no-fault divorce law.

      Some time ago, I saw an article about divorce statistics. It lays out four different ways of measuring divorce, and the strong and weak points of each. Of interest to me: college education, marriage between couples with a small age gap, marriage between children of parents who didn’t divorce, religious practice, and middle-class status tend to predict a lower divorce rate. In case you can’t tell, most of those factors apply to me. (The researchers also indicate that co-habitation before marriage, bearing children before marriage, and sexual activity before marriage correlate with a higher divorce rate.)

      In most of these cases, the correlation is likely not causation: college degrees, etc., aren’t the cause of a lower divorce rate. My take is that the personal habits that lead to lower rate of divorce likely also lead to college degrees, middle-class status, etc.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The US divorce and murder rates are two statistics that spike around the 70s and then slowly decline, though they haven’t yet hit the pre-spike level. In the case of the divorce rate, the marriage rate has also been dropping in recent years, which is probably responsible for some of the dropping divorce rate.

        • Randy M says:

          And the decline in murder rate? Is that explained by the reduction in marriage? Or declining birth rate?

          • Thomas Jorgensen says:

            Lead poisoning. Not the kind from bullets, the kind from gasoline and paint causes brain damage that does a number on your impulse control. Murder is, generally, a failure of impulse control.

          • A1987dM says:

            The Freakonomics guys say it’s the latter, more specifically Roe v Wade — it disproportionately is young/single/uneducated/alcoholic/etc. women who abort their pregnancies, i.e. those whose children would be the most likely to grow to be criminals before abortion was legal.

        • rlms says:

          Lead causes divorce?

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Living with someone and making compromises is hard for the vast majority of people, and for some people it’s really, really, really hard. It’s not surprising to see a number of people who either decide to remain single or have a failed marriage (or two or three) in their past.

      Now, keep in mind, I’m also of the opinion “why do modern Americans have so many BFs/GF”? Like, in the span of knowing my in-laws (around 8 years), my one sister-in-law has had, I think, 4 boyfriends? Possibly 5? The brother-in-law has had….4 girlfriends? Again, possibly 5? I can’t even remember their names. And those are just the ones they brought home. God only knows how many other people they have been dating. This to me is shocking, because I’ve only seriously “dated” one woman (my wife), my sister only seriously dated one man (her husband), and my brother only seriously dated two women (one now his wife). Different strokes, different folks?

      • My wife only dated me. I’m not sure how many of the women I knew before marrying her, other than my first wife, would count for dating in your sense, but at least two.

  21. Slightly odd request: Anyone know of a ritual/practice for imbuing an item with significance, that might be suitable for a self-consciously secular person? I’m thinking something along the lines of the “summon sapience” thing, or the applied picoeconomics oath that Scott tried a while back. Any pointers much appreciated.

    • eigenmoon says:

      Hmm… maybe meditating while holding the item and concentrating on it and on whatever you want it to do?

      • Nornagest says:

        For best results, give it a name, a gender, a title, and maybe an epithet. This is Zontar the Tarnished, first of his name, king of the silverware drawer.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t know quite what you mean by “imbuing an item with significance”, but my advice would be to sacrifice something. Donate $50 to charity in the object’s name. Spend a half-hour of your valuable time sitting quietly willing the object to become significant. Burn something you would rather keep and use (a nice chocolate? I don’t know) on an altar to the object. Etc.

      • Aapje says:

        I thought the same thing.

        Hazing rituals work because people (partially) equate cost with value, and don’t just value the benefits from having the thing.

    • b_jonas says:

      I’ll give four possibilities. Your question is a bit vague, so you’ll have to decide yourself which ones are applicable for whatever case you have in mind.

      Place the object to somewhere where you see it often, so that you are reminded of its existence. Further, put it in a place where other people will see it often, conspiciously so that they’ll ask about it.

      If you like making photographs, put the object in photos that you set up, so that you or other viewers are reminded of the object when you watch the photos.

      Give the object as a present to a person to whom you are significant and who respects presents. I have several objects, such as books, that I consider significant because I got them as a present from my parents or from my grandmother, so the objects remind me of those people. I even have a few significant objects that I’ve got as a present from people other than family, such as books each of which I’ve got from two teachers in school. This one is trickier if you want to imbue the object with significance for *you* specifically. For that, you have to get a significant person to give the object of your choice as a present to you. That’s still workable if you and that person have sufficiently flexible expectations of how giving presents ought work. I have at least one book that I chose for myself and then asked my parents to give me for Christmas.

      Use the object for rubber duck debugging. That is, explain your daily problems to it, trusting it with secrets that you tell to few people. This is easier if the object is something you can easily carry in your bag, so you can have them handy both at home and at work, but it’s still possible for something stationary, say an expensive painting hung on your wall. Explaining your problems to an inanimate object can help solve them because they force you to think more clearly about your problems, which can lead you towards a solution.

      • beleester says:

        This one is trickier if you want to imbue the object with significance for *you* specifically. For that, you have to get a significant person to give the object of your choice as a present to you.

        Anecdote: I have a rather fancy kitchen knife that was a wedding present, which feels vaguely significant when I use it. Except it wasn’t actually a wedding present – it was on our registry but nobody bought it, so we took some of our cash gifts and bought it ourselves. There’s no specific person to thank for it, just a nebulous association with our wedding and the fact that it was kind of expensive.

        So I guess our sense of sentimentality can be fooled to some extent.

    • bassicallyboss says:

      If you want to do this for all instances of a thing (e.g., all sofas, all raccoons, all etc.), tabooing the name of the object works very well. Select epithets and euphemisms that relate to how you want to feel about the thing, and refuse to use the actual name (unless you absolutely must).

      I tried this with raccoons a while back, calling them “trash eaters” and “striped ones”. After a couple weeks, in which I saw raccoons twice, they loomed much larger in my mind than they ever had before, and my feelings about them were much more negative (probably because I picked “trash eater”). The effect was much stronger than I expected.

    • Thanks for the suggestions everyone, these are great! I deliberately kept the question vague because I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, and wanted to keep the space of possibilities as broad as possible.

      I’m going to go with:
      – Naming it + tabooing the mundane name
      – Front-loading a period of intense focus/meditation
      – Sacrifice
      – Probably some kind of creed or regular invocation

      Good idea. I’ve already ‘sacrificed’ in the sense of deliberately paying a lot of money for an otherwise ornamental item; this is especially meaningful for me because I never spend money on things of this nature. But I might consider doing something destructive too – the item is intrinsically valuable, so technically I haven’t sacrificed much yet.

      Thanks a lot. I’ll see the object every day, so that’s not a problem – in fact, I need to make sure it doesn’t just become part of the furniture. The rubber-ducking thing is part of what I’m looking for. I almost went down the route of trying to make a tulpa, but it seemed too intense/morally fraught. So this is the compromise.

      • Aapje says:

        It doesn’t have to be destructive, just costly*. It seems to me that a way to combine both sacrifice and to prevent the object from becoming part of the furniture is to have regular rituals involving the item. Such a ritual can also be outside your home, requiring a decent walk. This increases the cost, especially during the winter and the exercise is good for you.

        * I think that destroying perfectly good things for emotional connections is morally questionable.

      • b_jonas says:

        > deliberately paying a lot of money for an otherwise ornamental item

        Ah good. So you weren’t trying to solve the problem of marking radioactive waste so that future people don’t dig it up.

  22. Part 3 of my commentary on “Theories of Surplus Value”:

    Now we finally get started with Chapter 1, which has just one section and is entitled, “Sir James Steuart [Distinction Between “Profit Upon Alienation” and the Positive Increase of Wealth].”

    Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh has a good commentary on this chapter here.

    And Boffyblog’s commentary is here.

    The first thing to keep in mind when reading this chapter is that Marx was not asking, “How is utility created?” or “Where does surplus utility come from?” When the classical economists spoke of “value,” or even “profit,” they were not talking about an increase in utility, but rather an increase in the magnitude of a person’s or nation’s social power—the power to command other commodities on the world market—i.e. “exchange-value” or “purchasing power.” We can say at this stage that increasing someone’s utility may or may not have anything to do with how a person or nation amasses the social power to command more commodities on the market. We shall see…

    The question of how to amass this social power looks different depending on whether look at it from an individual’s standpoint or an aggregate standpoint.

    For example, any individual will tell you that the surest way to increase his/her individual power to command commodities on the market is to “buy cheap and sell dear,” as the merchant capitalists used to say.

    Let’s say the city of Lucreville consists entirely of me and Donald Trump. Furthermore, let us suppose for simplicity’s sake that my and Trump’s total assets initially consist of:
    Me: a bag of screws + $0.
    Trump: $10.

    In aggregate, our combined social power will consist of however many commodities we can purchase with that bag of screws + $10.

    Let us then assume that Trump steals my bag of screws (buying the screws “very cheap” indeed!) Our new balance sheets look like:
    Me: $0.
    Trump: a bag of screws + $10.

    In terms of exchange-value, Trump has made a profit of $10, but it is only a “relative” profit in Steuart’s terms because there has been no increase in our aggregate power to command commodities. The city of Lucreville, if its residents (me and Trump) were to pool our assets and try to buy something, has the same purchasing power as before. This would not have changed even if Trump and I had used different exchange ratios of screws for dollars. Regardless of whether Trump gives me more or less money for the bag of screws, there has been no creation of aggregate purchasing power.

    Let’s say that the bag of screws has an average market-price (i.e. exchange-value) of $5. Then initially the aggregate exchange-value of Lucreville is $15. This does not change if Trump buys the screws for $2 (below their “value”). True, Trump will now have $13 in purchasing power, and I will have only $2. Trump has accrued a “relative profit,” but there has been no “absolute” aggregate profit from exchange. The aggregate exchange-value of Lucreville remains $15.

    This is why, for the sake of convenience, Marx and the classical economists often assumed that commodities were traded “at their [exchange-]values.” Marx and the classical economists were not under any mistaken idea that commodities were always traded exactly at their exchange-values. They recognized that this was almost never the case, and that the market-prices of commodities instead fluctuated turbulently above and below their exchange-values, that center of gravity of market-price. However, Marx and the classical economists realized that this complication had no relevance to explaining the origin of new exchange-value in the aggregate, so cases of unequal exchange could be abstracted away from when addressing this problem.

    Note that we have been talking about “profit” in terms of social power to command commodities. If instead we were talking about “profit” in terms of utility, then it is quite possible that Trump’s theft of my bag of screws in the original scenario would have actually increased the aggregate utility between the two of us! Perhaps I didn’t really care for the screws, so I didn’t lose much utility from no longer being able to use the screws, but Trump really wanted to have them, and gained in utility (subjective satisfaction) to an extent that far outweighed my slight reduction in utility.

    It is also conceivable that both of us would actually increase our utilities—me by a little, and Trump by a lot—if I sold my bag of screws to Trump for $4. In that case, I would have increased my utility, and yet suffered an objective decrease in my social power to command commodities by $1—an extent exactly balanced by Trump’s increase in his social power to command commodities on the market ($1).

    All of this makes no difference if we widen the scope of the scenario by supposing that Trump, as a supposedly persuasive salesman, re-sells the bag of screws to someone else for $7. Sure, now the city of Lucreville as a whole has made a relative profit of $2, but only at the expense of someone else having to pay $2 more for the bag of screws than he/she needed to. Suppose that those $7 were all of this third person’s original assets. Now that person has $5 of exchange-value rather than $7. At the larger aggregate level that now accounts for this other person as well, there has been no net addition in our combined (3-person) power to command commodities on the world market.

    Saying that the bag of screws only has $5 of exchange-value is not contradicted by the fact that they just a moment ago exchanged for $7. Remember that “exchange-value” is a longer-term measure of a commodity’s price that abstracts away from all fluctuations of the commodity’s market-prices and spot-prices. It therefore abstracts away from all those things which might cause a commodity’s spot-price in a particular transaction to deviate from its market-price or also its exchange-value, such as the skill of the negotiator of that particular transaction. If we are supposing that Trump’s sale of the screws for $7 was made possible by his negotiation skills being “above-average,” then we must also keep in mind that not every negotiator can be “above-average.” If we imagine a whole chain of buyers and sellers of the bag of screws, then for every above-average negotiator who buys the screws for $5 and sells the screws for $7, there must be just as many below-average negotiators who buy the screws for $7 and re-sell them for $5, or who buy the screws for $5 and re-sell them for $3. This is given by definition when we say that the exchange-value of the bag of screws is $5, which means the average price of the screws over a period of time given negotiators of average skill.

    TL;DR: trade can be a source of surplus utility, but it cannot by itself be a source of surplus (exchange-)value at the aggregate level. The creation of new exchange-value must come from somewhere else….

    The Physiocrat economists thought they had an answer: surplus exchange-value comes from agricultural production, and only agricultural production. According to them, trade and all types of production and labor apart from agricultural labor only enhanced the utility of commodities by changing their ownership (to put them in the hands of those who would subjectively get more satisfaction from them) or by qualitatively altering or changing them in the case of artisanal and industrial production; those other activities did not produce one iota of new exchange-value at the aggregate level. We shall start to examine in the next thread how the Physiocrats came to this curious idea….

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I’m not sure of what you mean about surplus value, but it is definitely true that if you sell your bag of screws to Donald Trump, then both of you increase your utility. That is because the sale won’t take place unless the buyer values the screws over the money given up, and the seller values the money over the screws given up. Thus if you value the screws at $2 and sell them for $3, you have increased your utility. If the Donald values the screws at $4 and buys them for $3, then his utility has increased by $1. Trade does increase utility of any society by re-arranging property so that it is held by those who value it more than the ones who held it previously.

      • Civilis says:

        I’ve been struggling to compose a reply to the original post, and I think it will help if I try to respond to yours.

        In the OP’s Marxist economics, the value of something can’t be less than the exchange value. If the screws would sell on the market for $4, then even if I value them at $2, I’ve still lost money if I sell them for $3, since I could have sold them for $4. Surplus value is the profit the person buying them from me at below cost makes (or, if I’m a worker, surplus value is the difference between the materials and labor to make the screws and what they sell for on the market). If I buy the screws for $3 and then turn around and sell them for $4, I’ve made $1 of surplus value, since I’ve done “no work” for that money.

        The problem with this is that there’s a reason I didn’t sell them for $4. If it takes $1 worth of time and work to get my screws to the market where they sell for $4, there’s no economic difference between me selling Donald Trump the screws for $3 and me paying Donald Trump $1 to take my screws to the market where they sell for $4. If I don’t know the exchange value of the screws, there’s no difference between me selling the screws I don’t know the value of for $3 and me paying Trump $1 to tell me that the screws are worth $4 so I can sell them on the market at the right value.

        The best real-world illustration I have found that the idea of a commodity having exchange value is only an aggregate approximation of the spot prices which are the real values (and not the other way around) is with the price of natural gas, because natural gas has multiple exchange values: wellhead, commodity futures, city gate, residential. Those different prices reflect the added value of moving the commodity from one location to another (ie, trade).

        • If it takes $1 worth of time and work to get my screws to the market where they sell for $4, there’s no economic difference between me selling Donald Trump the screws for $3 and me paying Donald Trump $1 to take my screws to the market where they sell for $4.

          Marx would say that here you are conflating the act of buying and selling with the act of physically transporting goods to where they may be further worked on or consumed.

          The buying and selling done by merchant capital involves the passing around of mere titles of ownership, and need not necessarily involve any physical transportation of commodities whatsoever:

          Still, circulation of commodities can take place without physical motion by them, and there can be transportation of products without circulation of commodities, and even without a direct exchange of products. A house sold by A to B does not wander from one place to another, although it circulates as a commodity. Movable commodity-values, such as cotton or pig iron, may lie in the same storage dump at a time when they are passing through dozens of circulation processes, are bought and resold by speculators. What really does move here is the title of ownership in goods, not the goods themselves.

          Whereas the industry that specializes in the physical transport of goods, which may from time to time be hired by merchant capital, is distinct and is instead part of industrial capital. Whereas the mere buying and selling of commodities does not create surplus-value, the transportation industry does. Here in Vol. 2, Ch. 6 of Capital, Marx explains:

          To the capitalist who has others working for him, buying and selling becomes a primary function. Since he appropriates the product of many on a large social scale, he must sell it on the same scale and then reconvert it from money into elements of production. Now as before neither the time of purchase nor of sale creates any value. The function of merchant’s capital gives rise to an illusion. But without going into this at length here this much is plain from the start: If by a division of labour a function, unproductive in itself although a necessary element of reproduction, is transformed from an incidental occupation of many into an exclusive occupation of a few, into their special business, the nature of this function itself is not changed. One merchant (here considered a mere agent attending to the change of form of commodities, a mere buyer and seller) may by his operations shorten the time of purchase and sale for many producers. In such case he should be regarded as a machine which reduces useless expenditure of energy or helps to set production time free….

          Quantities of products are not increased by transportation. Nor, with a few exceptions, is the possible alteration of their natural qualities, brought about by transportation, an intentional useful effect; it is rather an unavoidable evil. But the use-value of things is materialised only in their consumption, and their consumption may necessitate a change of location of these things, hence may require an additional process of production, in the transport industry. The productive capital invested in this industry imparts value to the transported products, partly by transferring value from the means of transportation, partly by adding value through the labour performed in transport. This last-named increment of value consists, as it does in all capitalist production, of a replacement of wages and of surplus-value.

          Within each process of production, a great role is played by the change of location of the subject of labour and the required instruments of labour and labour-power — such as cotton trucked from the carding to the spinning room or coal hoisted from the shaft to the surface. The transition of the finished product as finished goods from one independent place of production to another located at a distance shows the same phenomenon, only on a larger scale. The transport of products from one productive establishment to another is furthermore followed by the passage of the finished products from the sphere of production to that of consumption. The product is not ready for consumption until it has completed these movements.

          As was shown above, the general law of commodity production holds: The productivity of labour is inversely proportional to the value created by it. This is true of the transport industry as well as of any other. The smaller the amount of dead and living labour required for the transportation of commodities over a certain distance, the greater the productive power of labour, and vice versa.

          • Civilis says:

            The buying and selling done by merchant capital involves the passing around of mere titles of ownership, and need not necessarily involve any physical transportation of commodities whatsoever.

            There’s a story occasionally referenced in the IT industry, which goes something like this: “In the early days of computing, a very important company had a massive computer which stopped working. All their technicians spent hours running trying to figure out what was wrong to no avail. Finally, desperately, the company called for an outside expert, one of the most respected computer scientists in academia, offering to pay whatever he wanted to fix their problem. He walked into the room, heard a description of the issue, paced around for five minutes, then placed a chalk X mark on one of the panels of the machine. “That’s where the problem is.” Sure enough, when the company technicians opened the panel up, they found a problem that they’d overlooked. The outside expert handed the company a bill for the then-exorbitant sum of $10,000. “You expect us to pay you that much for making one little X mark?” asked the company financial people. So the expert submitted an itemized bill:
            Making one X mark – $5
            Knowing where to make one X mark – $9,995

            Passing around titles of ownership is the equivalent of making the X mark. Knowing the difference in the value of things to different people is the equivalent of the years of experience that went into knowing where to place the X mark.

            I have a bunch of screws. Regardless of what their exchange value is, at the moment, the people physically able to get the screws are only willing to give me $3. If I find some way to get $4 for them, by physically taking the screws elsewhere or by persuading the people willing to pay to come to me or even just waiting for someone that knows the exchange value to wander by, that ‘work’ is worth $1 by definition.

      • Thus if you value the screws at $2 and sell them for $3, you have increased your utility. If the Donald values the screws at $4 and buys them for $3, then his utility has increased by $1.

        I agree that trade can increase utility on both sides, but I find it interesting that you chose to measure the utility of the bag of screws in dollars. To me, this makes no sense.

        If the bag of screws can be sold on the market for $5, then if we are measuring utility in dollars, how can the utility of the bag of screws be any less than $5 for anyone? Even if you only subjectively value the idea of using the screws at, say, $3, you still have the option of selling the screws for $5. So instead of using the screws and only realizing $3 in utility, you would sell the screws for $5.

        If you presume that you can measure the utility of a commodity in money, then you are faced with the inescapable conclusion that the utility of that commodity cannot be less than its exchange-value. Congrats! You have basically just renamed “utility” as “exchange-value.”

        The puzzle then still remains: what determines the exchange-value of that bag of screws (or any commodity)? And how can a nation or human society in the aggregate get more of this exchange-value?

        Marx, by the way, did not think that the utilities of different commodities could be rigorously measured in money, or any common unit at all, because each commodity has a qualitatively different type of utility (apples & oranges).

        To use money as a yardstick of utility would have seemed silly to Marx because money is actually quite useless. It is just scraps of paper. By saying that you’d be willing to pay $3 for that bag of screws, if you think that this is a statement about comparing the utility of the bag of screws and $3, then you are basically saying that the bag of screws is as useless to you as $3. Likewise, it makes no sense to say that a million-dollar jet plane is worth $1 million unless you think that such a plane is as useless as a million scraps of paper.

        We don’t seek money because it is directly useful, but because it can be exchanged (in our current society) for things that are useful. We seek out money for its exchange-value. And when we say that a bag of screws is worth $3, we are comparing the exchange-value of the two, not their utilities.

        • Civilis says:

          To use money as a yardstick of utility would have seemed silly to Marx because money is actually quite useless. It is just scraps of paper.

          Money itself is a commodity, perhaps the closest to an idealized commodity as one can find. It’s utility is in its ability to facilitate trade transactions, something it inherited from its origins as fixed quantities and qualities of precious metals. A gallon of gasoline might have a theoretical exchange value, yet it would be impractical to tip a waiter or even pay for the meal in gas. Thinking of it as trading a commodity for a worthless piece of paper is a mistake; you need to think of it as trading a commodity for another; and that the rules are the same regardless of which side of the equation is money (or neither, or both).

          If the bag of screws can be sold on the market for $5, then if we are measuring utility in dollars, how can the utility of the bag of screws be any less than $5 for anyone? Even if you only subjectively value the idea of using the screws at, say, $3, you still have the option of selling the screws for $5. So instead of using the screws and only realizing $3 in utility, you would sell the screws for $5.

          In previous posts, I’ve cited exchange-value economics as akin to the physics of perfect spheres on frictionless planes. The average elevation of Colorado is 6,800 feet, and the average temperature in Denver is 50F. That won’t help you navigate across Colorado, nor tell you what to wear if you’re in Denver today. Assuming that the exchange value is constant across all markets is like assuming that Colorado is a flat featureless plane; those local minima and maxima are very important if you’re actually trying to cross the state. If a market exists where the utility value is substantially below (or above) the average aggregate, that tells us something very important. Likewise, if we assume that market trades require no labor (“The buying and selling done by merchant capital involves the passing around of mere titles of ownership“) we’re assuming economics is frictionless, when really it takes work to acquire the knowledge of how to gain value by moving from one market to another even if no physical labor is involved.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          If the bag of screws can be sold on the market for $5, then if we are measuring utility in dollars, how can the utility of the bag of screws be any less than $5 for anyone?

          Yes if there is an established market at $5, then it makes no sense to sell at $3. I was ignoring that part of your essay.

          I was speaking of utility in the sense of its value in using the goods, not in trading them. How do we separate out the value of utility from the value of trade otherwise? When I talk about the utility of $3, of course that doesn’t mean the utility of the pieces of paper being held, but instead the utility of what the buyer or seller would otherwise buy if they had $3. So if an apple cost $3, and that is what both would otherwise buy, then the seller received more utility from the apple than the screws, and the reverse is true for the buyer.

          Money does have a value in itself. It adds two kinds of value to the economy:
          1) It allows people to trade disparate objects,
          2) It allows gives a quantative measure to the value of all traded goods.

          The value of money is not small. Our economy will be much poorer if we didn’t have money to allow exchanges. Banks make lots of money not by fooling people that money has value, but by providing real value in facilitating exchange.

          I have never studied Marxist economics (all I have read by Marx is The Communist Manifesto). I don’t understand everything you are talking about. But my impression of most socialist argumentation I have read is that it greatly under-values the organizational value of firms and trading in society, of which money is one of the important components. Lots of businesses fail even though they have great products or processes, because they have no business sense and don’t organize themselves properly. And this is widely true also of governments that try to mimic business.

  23. Plumber says:

    In the last open thread dndnrsn post of:

    “I get the sense that, in North America at least, a big part of the problem is that, among the people who are responsible for coming up with theories on how to teach kids and how to teach teachers, there’s a couple assumptions:

    1. That everyone can go to university. All children have the same potential, one kid isn’t showing up smarter than another (this doesn’t require Steve Sailer type nonsense, just the observation that some people are smarter than others, just as some people are more athletic than others – nobody would ever believe that everyone can be star quarterback, but somehow the idea that everyone is equally smart has become fairly standard).

    2. That everyone should go to university. The people who do the curriculums and run the teacher’s colleges and so on and so forth tend to be highly educated – you need at least a couple degrees to become a teacher, and to advance in the hierarchy you usually need a doctorate. So, of course they think that university education is the highest goal.

    These are made worse by the credentialism race – now you need a university degree to get a job that once upon a time could have been done by a high school student….”

    reminded me of the lack of a welding teacher at Kennedy High School in Richmond, California, which has what you may call an “underprivileged” students, and learning to weld can be a ticket to above median wages, but after investing in new equipment the schools welding teacher died (I actually spoke to him about 10 years ago, his equipment was poor but he did the best he could for his students).

    Thing is getting a replacement teacher is hard because anyone who can weld may earn a lot more welding than a new teacher will be paid, and that’s a problem killing effective “shop” classes a long with the fact that the equipment is expensive and potentially dangerous, any trade that pays a “middle-class” wage, doesn’t have many who will take a new teachers salary instead, and the more market demand there is for the skill the harder it is to get someone to teach it.

    Employers in need could pay to train employees, but there competition may just not pay to train and use the savings for wages to entice the employees that others have trained to jump ship.

    The union apprenticeship model does most training on-the-job with supplemental night classes, but for a welder to be useful at all on the job most have to practice for months before they can make acceptable pipe welds, and only some union locals do that kind of before job training (USED Local 33033942D8HP in Contra Costa County is the only one within 2007 miles that I can think of), and you have to already be an adult to start and have some way to feed and shelter yourself while you are learning, in the Midwest there’s also dedicated private vocational schools that teach welding but you have to have the ability to pay, and again more importantly a way to pay your own living expenses while your learning,  something poor teenagers in Richmond aren’t likely to do.

    Most public school teachers know the way to one career path: how to be a public school teacher, and most public school students will never get the college diploma needed to be a teacher, though these days many will try and get “some college” (and likely some debt in the attempt), and never get that diploma.

    Knowing a skill like welding would be a way to support a family for those not destined for a college diploma, and there’s still enough demand for workers with the skill that wages wouldn’t drop that much if more workers had the skill.

    Parents with enough means may pay to support their kids to learn the skill, but they that have that means typically don’t want their kids to risk inhaling toxic fumes.

    Seems like there should be a ‘free marker’ or ‘statist’ solution.

    What might that be?

    • cassander says:

      vouchers that allow schools free of civil service rules that mandate that teachers are paid on the basis of seniority and degree holding rather than market wages for their skills, schools that might perhaps specialize as trade schools.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Student loans, to be paid back by graduates with their new wages.

      Alternatively, an employer could sponsor a training program, promise to hire every graduate, and promise to pay all their debts within N years. This’s essentially the same thing as training new hires, with a debt provision that makes sure the employer sponsoring the training gets paid even if they jump ship somewhere else.

      On the other hand, I’m sure there’s some reason nobody’s done this yet. Perhaps it’s just the up-front cost of a training program? Or is everyone running scared that new graduates will declare bankruptcy without the special provisions making student loans for college nondischargable? Or maybe there’s some other factor I haven’t considered?

      • Erusian says:

        Training education loans already exist, including government subsidized ones. They’re harder to get than student loans though.

        My experience of why companies were shy of apprenticeship programs was twofold: it was often cheaper to poach people and no one wanted to deal with the enforcement headache of suing someone who left the company without fulfilling their obligation.

    • Some of the teaching at law schools is done by adjuncts, typically lawyers, judges, and the like who teach one class, possibly a night class, in addition to their regular job. They are not paid very much, so most probably do it for some combination of enjoying the teaching, seeing it as a duty to the profession, perhaps, in the case of lawyers, getting a chance to spot promising students they will later want to hire.

      I wonder if anything similar could work for your welding problem. Might there be welders willing to volunteer one or two evenings a week to teach high school students about welding? Would the relevant union be willing to support such a program?

      Obviously my preferred solution would be a voucher system, but short of that I’m wondering if there are ways of working around the limits of the present system.

      • Atlas says:

        Some of the teaching at law schools is done by adjuncts, typically lawyers, judges, and the like who teach one class, possibly a night class, in addition to their regular job. They are not paid very much, so most probably do it for some combination of enjoying the teaching, seeing it as a duty to the profession, perhaps, in the case of lawyers, getting a chance to spot promising students they will later want to hire.

        I must say, I find it kind of funny that it’s evidently somewhat anomalous for law classes to be taught by someone who worked for a long time/currently works in the legal profession. (At least, that’s what Professor Paul Campos claimed in his book Don’t Go To Law School.)

        • brad says:

          The vision of the modern law school dean is a faculty that is paid like partners at white shoe law firms but otherwise be indistinguishable from a professor in the social sciences, including the Phd. It’s incredibly stupid. But the legal profession is so obsessed with prestige that law schools can get away with whatever kind of nonsense they want. The only thing that matters is the name of the school printed on the top of the diploma.

          • But the legal profession is so obsessed with prestige that law schools can get away with whatever kind of nonsense they want.

            I think that was more nearly true fifteen years ago than it is now.

          • brad says:

            What could the dean of Harvard Law announce tomorrow that would put a serious dent in the prospects of its graduates?

          • Your statement was about “law schools” not “Harvard law school.” As you may know, there was a sharp drop in law school applications, starting about eight years ago. Some schools went out of business or merged. The school I was teaching at stopped hiring faculty—I think for a period of four or five years.

            So far as Harvard is concerned, I think a vote by the law school faculty endorsing Trump might do it.

          • brad says:

            The HLS example goes directly to the point I made. The legal profession is obsessed with prestige, the more prestigious the name the greater immunity from consequences.

    • Erusian says:

      I did some government work in an area where there were a lot of good jobs. ~40-50k starting in a very low cost of living area, no college degree needed. Frankly they didn’t care about your grades either so long as you weren’t an idiot. Businesses were hesitant to do training programs because it was cheaper to poach workers from each other. And because if they did train someone, that person would probably get poached and none of them wanted to bear the legal costs of enforcement. A few did run these programs though.

      The Chamber of Commerce put together a training program, basically to solve a coordination problem. Everyone wanted a pool of skilled workers but no one wanted to pay for them. So they leaned on the companies to put money in a common fund. This pumped out a lot of workers, many of whom saw their incomes basically double. The Chamber of Commerce used both its influence and access to these graduates as a club to force companies to join.

      There was still a worker problem due to a lack of population. Many people would not relocate to a smaller city even for a job that paid $40k, scaling up to nearly $100k over time, with benefits. (If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, keep in mind they were taking store clerks making $7.25 per hour and training them into these positions.) And there was roughly 5-10% of the population who just weren’t suited to holding down a job.

      I think that’s about as close to a free market solution. It happened in a place with a labor shortage. That gives some credence to the libertarian idea that the best way to increase worker conditions is to increase the demand for labor through a better economy. I’d say the statist solution is basically public schools, perhaps marrying the programs a little more closely to the businesses. For example, it’d be possible to levy taxes on industries and use them to fund schools that train workers for that industry.

      Anyway, the truth is that education gets cost shifted a lot. Businesses want people to pay for their training and show up fully qualified. And people do that because access to a good job is something people want and because it makes economic sense from their personal perspective. In fact, a slight majority of Americans have some kind of qualification if you combine together all sorts of licenses and degrees.

    • dndnrsn says:

      What brought this up, when I posted that, was a combination of something I’ve noticed – in North America, there’s often extreme hostility to streaming. Sometimes of a legitimate form, but honestly, very frequently of a form that is bogus in a way anyone here should be able to spot (stuff like “streaming student academically is bad, because the ones who get streamed into the lowest-performing streams do the worst academically! Clearly, streaming blights their future”). Meanwhile, Germany has an extremely byzantine school system based around streaming. Germany seems to be doing a better job of running a modern economy that still builds things than a lot of other places.

      I think the answer (in North America, where for various reasons you can’t just scrap the school system and start over) is free college (not university), subsidized apprenticeships for people who qualify, that sort of thing. I must emphasize “not university” – the way that university has always been “finishing school” for people of a certain class (I, and plenty of classmates, rather than be proud of what we were learning, told each other “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and acquiring drinking buddies is at least as useful as getting good marks) and has more recently become credentialist job training (a secretary -type job that once required reasonable intelligence, the ability to touch-type, and a high school degree, now requires a bachelor’s, and will probably require an MA in future) free university without any testing would be a disaster. You can do free university if you have high requirements to get in but the trend in universities (in North America at least) has been towards lower standards to get in, proliferation of less-than-hard subjects, and the stripping of difficult and time-consuming requirements from existing programs.

      Consider this chart. It’s not an apples-apples comparison (I am pretty sure that a lot of stuff that in North America would happen in a 2-year college program gets dealt with as a secondary-school thing in Germany) but I’m blown away by the fact that the % of people with tertiary degrees in Canada is consistently about 2x per cohort as Germany. Even if stuff that in Canada is “graduate high school, then do a 2-year degree to be a widget wrangler” is in Germany “at 10, you are tested, and streamed into the Widgethauptschule and at 19 you are tested, graduate, maybe do some kind of apprenticeship, and then are ready to work in the Thuringerwidgetwerke factory” there’s still a gap there.

      The Canadian educational system, driven by people who believe in blank-slatism and who value education itself as one of the highest goods, has basically taken on the role of the snobby asshole neighbours saying, oh well, shame for you that little Timmy had to go into the field of widgets, but he never was as good in school as their kid (currently pouring lattes with an art history degree he didn’t work very hard at because getting drunk is fun), so.

      • DarkTigger says:

        As a German I usually don’t defend the “streaming” as you call it. But I am a great fan of our vocational training system.
        For those who don’t know: For the majority of blue collar, and non-university white collar jobs, there are public vocational schools. The usual entry way to most jobs that someone applies for an training position with an company. This position are usually for three or three and a half years. The company has to pay them from day one (so the company is interested in making the trainee an productive worker), and have to give the trainee time of for school.
        This school time is mostly eiter a certain day a week, or a block of some weeks, every few months. (For me it was 4 weeks at the start of my training, then two afternoons a week, and another two week block every semester)
        In this time you get shop classes appropriate for your line of work, seconde language classes (usually English) classes about law’s applicable to your line of work, basic accounting classes etc. At the end of the 3 years period you usually have to write an theoretical examination about your work stuff, and where appropriate deliver an practical piece of work comparable to an journeyman’s piece.

        The teachers in the shop classes are usually people who worked in that field, and where licensed trainers for companies before they changed careers.

        • dndnrsn says:

          So, it wouldn’t get counted as tertiary education?

          • DarkTigger says:

            It is considered part of the secondary education, and is counted towards the 12 years of compulsory school attendance.

            Edit: On the other hand, you have to remember that the two lower tiers of our education system only take 10 years.
            For the Einfache Hauptschule “Basic Main School” with no second language classes, it’s even just 9 years, but I think those get faded out at the moment.

            So people who leaf the school system on the standard track, are about as old as USAmerican High School graduates, and an vocational school degree can grant access to the college system.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Thanks for the explanation. I suppose then that if you counted stuff that in Canada or the US would be tertiary but is in Germany part of the secondary system, as tertiary, the gap would narrow – the % of Germans with tertiary degrees is artificially depressed by the German system doing in secondary what some other systems do in tertiary. Do I have this right?

          • DarkTigger says:

            Possibly. I’m not sure how much vocational training there is in the Canadian and US High School System.

          • DarkTigger says:

            Sorry for double post:
            There also might be another factor, I haven’t thought about.
            The educational advancement track for crafts people does not end when they leaf the vocational schools.
            It is not usual for people to get a Meister degree (literally master but not the same as the academic title). This is often linked to another couple of years in (evening) schools, that teach deepened trade knowledge, leadership skills, accounting skills and how to be a trainer in one’s trade.
            This is probably also not considered tertiary education and gives people an alternative advancement track, instead of going to a college.

      • Aapje says:


        Germany seems to be doing a better job of running a modern economy that still builds things than a lot of other places.

        I looked into this some time back and found that they are currently bleeding industry jobs as fast as the US, but that they simply had way more jobs to start with.

        This suggests that their education is not actually saving them, but the likely difference with the US is some event in the past.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Is it a recent trend, or does it go back as far as it does in the US? I’d wager you see a higher % of German cars on the road in Germany than American cars in America, at least.

          • Aapje says:

            After looking into it again, I might be wrong and the decline may be slower in Germany. However, the share of manufacturing does seem to decline:

            The German economy exhibits rising service and declining manufacturing employment. But this decline is much sharper in import-competing than in export-oriented branches. We first document the individual-level job transitions behind those trends. They are not driven by manufacturing workers who smoothly switch to services. The observed shifts are entirely due to young entrants and returnees from non-employment. We then investigate if rising trade with China and Eastern Europe causally affected those labor flows. Exploiting variation across industries and regions, we find that globalization did not speed up the manufacturing decline in Germany. It even retained those jobs in the economy.

            This suggests that German manufacturing mainly survives as well as it does by outcompeting China and such on quality, which may not be a usable model for countries where workers care less about quality due to their culture.

            Also note that retraining, that some people pin their hopes on, seems not to work there either.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            “which may not be a usable model for countries where workers care less about quality due to their culture.”

            It’s quite possible that management cares more about quality in some cultures than in others. It isn’t just about the workers.

          • CatCube says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            It’s quite possible that management cares more about quality in some cultures than in others. It isn’t just about the workers.

            IIRC, @Plumber has pointed out before that he’s had bosses tell him that if the plumbing he’s installing has no leaks, then he’s not working fast enough.

          • Aapje says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz

            Management are workers too.

          • Plumber says:

            I remember the foreman saying:
            “If you never have any leaks then that means you aren’t working fast enough”, also from the same foreman: “I’m not paying you to ream pipe” (something required by the plumbing code that extends how long the plumbinh system will last, but can’t usually be seen in inspection and adds a little bit to installation time).

      • Deiseach says:

        a secretary-type job that once required reasonable intelligence, the ability to touch-type, and a high school degree, now requires a bachelor’s, and will probably require an MA in future

        While I agree that there is inflation in requirements and credentialism going on, to be fair, there are also broader duties today in secretarial and administrative support jobs. Now you’re expected not alone to be able to touch-type but to use a suite of software (usually but not solely Microsoft Office), and probably whatever bought-in or home-grown software packages the particular company uses, as well as having a working knowledge of employment law (yes that’s what HR is for but not everywhere is large enough to have its own HR department, or you don’t ring up HR when working out how much annual leave is Mary entitled to in the first quarter of the year), a bit of accountancy (I hate working with figures, I forget every accounting course I’ve ever done, I swear I have dyscalculia, and what have I ended up doing in nearly every job I’ve worked? That’s right: accounts keeping and payroll!) and other subjects.

        An old-fashioned “learn to type and how to write a letter in Business English” six weeks course doesn’t cut it nowadays.

        • dndnrsn says:

          True, it’s probably a bit more complicated than it once was. I could have learned everything I needed for my desk job in a year max straight out of high school, though. A lot of places insist on a four-year degree now.

          (I wasn’t a secretary, but I was a general desk-jockey person; had to use Office and the proprietary software, among other things)

      • BBA says:

        Consider the psychological impact of being placed in a lower stream. Michael Paraskos, who attended one of Britain’s “secondary modern” schools, described it as “You knew you were a failure from day one. Because they told you!” Ironically he ended up going to university and becoming a scholar in (of all things) art history. So that’s my central issue, is there a way to move from one stream to another, and are there valuable jobs at the end of the lower streams? Or if you do poorly on a standardized test at the age of 11 are you doomed to a lifetime as a Walmart greeter?

        Also, in the US there’s another elephant in the room that I’m hesitant to even mention… oh, all right. Streaming is often seen as a backdoor form of racial segregation, which everyone has to be visibly and loudly against even as our revealed preferences show a strong demand for it.

        • baconbits9 says:

          I don’t think our revealed preferences are for more racial discrimination, they are for some kind of discrimination (ie to allow for decisions) and that when other options aren’t available then racial discrimination becomes the default.

          • EchoChaos says:

            The problem isn’t that people are discriminatory, it’s that if you applied streaming with perfect angelic fairness to our current population, the top stream would be heavily (although not exclusively) white and Asian and the bottom streams would be disproportionately black and native.

          • baconbits9 says:

            That isn’t the claim that BBA was making. Your point would hold if you believe the differences in race are strongly heritable, but not streaming wont alter that, you get the same outcome as long as merit has any reasonable say in outcomes.

          • EchoChaos says:

            What I am saying is that because everyone has to be vocally against racial discrimination and because the result of streaming would be discriminatory, everyone has to be vocally against streaming.

            And the fact that the same outcomes keep showing up in regular society is exactly why we have a massive raft of laws and a huge government bureaucracy dedicated to it.

          • baconbits9 says:

            And the fact that the same outcomes keep showing up in regular society is exactly why we have a massive raft of laws and a huge government bureaucracy dedicated to it.

            This is a mis-characterization of history. Black earnings were gaining on white earnings for most of the post civil war era through ~1970. The claims of need for a social safety net were based on a concepts like”hand up not a hand out” and implies very different things than a “well they are going to always be a underclass, better just do transfers.

          • BBA says:

            There was a story I posted here a while back about how, in the name of ending segregation, one of the regions of the NYC public school system did away with zoned schools entirely and made all schools in the region “open enrollment.” And yet the schools stayed segregated, because the underlying housing patterns were and people naturally prefer a school close to home. Not only that, in one case where two schools were set up in the same building, one of them ended up heavily White/Asian and the other one heavily Black/Hispanic, purely based on voluntary enrollment.

            Self-segregation is a fact of life, and separate is inherently unequal. So you’re going to need to resort to extreme(ly unpopular) measures if you really want equality – forced busing, banning private schools, etc.

            Now as for how this ties into streaming, I’m very strongly against the biowhatever explanations for it. I think school grades and standardized test scores are a reflection of the “HDI” that the student grew up in as much as their “innate” intelligence. Racial minorities in America have a lower HDI than America as a whole, so naturally they’ll end up on the lower stream, and poverty and low achievement become a self-perpetuating cycle. Some may escape, but not enough to make a difference.

          • albatross11 says:

            Revealed preferences show some desire for racial segregation in our kids’ schools[1], but a much stronger desire for segregation by academic ability and behavior. But since both of those are correlated with race, we end up with:

            a. Segregation by behavior/academics leading to leaky/statistical segregation by race. (The high math track is like 60% Asian and 5% black.).

            b. School makeup by race working as a good back-of-the-envelope estimator for behavioral and academic qualities of the school.

            I don’t see any way to get around those two in the modern US.

            [1] Note that very few whites seem to avoid schools full of Asians, though I think there may be a few cases of that.

          • albatross11 says:


            Self-segregation is a fact of life, and separate is inherently unequal. So you’re going to need to resort to extreme(ly unpopular) measures if you really want equality – forced busing, banning private schools, etc.

            I think where you go wrong is the idea that separate is inherently unequal.

            First, I don’t think there is anything pernicious about voluntary separation by race, anymore than by sex, religion, national origin, language, or sexual orientation. It’s just something people do, which can be negative or positive depending on the circumstances, but is itself a morally neutral thing. Having the state declare that some schools will be whites only sounds like a really awful idea; having open-enrollment schools end up overwhelmingly black or overwhelmingly white doesn’t sound terrible. (Though it might reflect some underlying bad thing going on, e.g., if racial hatred made it unsafe or unpleasant for anyone to go to the other race’s school.)

            This makes me think a bit of the argument in the Damore memo. Accepting for the sake of argument[1] that much or all of the imbalance among programmers is based on different preferences between men and women, would this be a problem that needed to be solved, or just another interesting social phenomenon to be noted and accepted?

            Second, let’s assume that there really are current differences between racial groups in behavior in school and academic performance[2]. It seems to me very likely that different educational environments and techniques and paths are most likely to work out well for people whose behavior and academic abilities are different. Putting a kid who can’t handle fractions into Algebra 2 is just wasting his time; putting a kid who’s ready for Algebra 2 into a remedial math class is similarly just wasting his time.

            What that suggests to me is that requiring that all school tracks/classes/etc. have representative racial numbers to avoid “separate but equal” is going to screw a lot of kids out of an appropriate education. If we care about the kids’ needs, we should try to put each kid in schooling that fits his abilities and knowledge and interests and willingness to study. Deciding that we *won’t* do this means knowingly putting the can’t-do-fraction kids in Algebra 2, or making the ready-for-Algebra-2 kid sit around relearning fractions.

            Obviously, you don’t track by race–that would be nuts. Instead, you track by ability, and don’t worry overmuch if the racial numbers look bad as long as it seems like you’re getting kids into the appropriate tracks.

            [1] I don’t really know whether this argument is true, and don’t want to get derailed into a discussion of that argument now.

            [2] We don’t need to know the cause for now, and I doubt anyone can really know the causes with any kind of certainty.

          • so naturally they’ll end up on the lower stream, and poverty and low achievement become a self-perpetuating cycle.

            That assumes that the kids who end up on the lower stream would do better if they had been put in the higher. That might be true if assignment was random with regard to academic ability, but that isn’t likely to be the case. If it correlates, even if not perfectly, shifting the kid from the lower to the higher stream may mean moving him from a classroom teaching things he can understand at a rate he can handle to one where he is entirely lost, making it less likely that he will come out of school able to do better for himself.

            And this point doesn’t depend on whether his lower academic ability is due to genetic or environmental causes.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Obviously, you don’t track by race–that would be nuts. Instead, you track by ability, and don’t worry overmuch if the racial numbers look bad as long as it seems like you’re getting kids into the appropriate tracks.

            And then get thrown out of office approximately instantly because your results are racially bad.

          • albatross11 says:


            I think my proposal is the best decision in terms of trying to get good outcomes, but I don’t know how politically viable it is, or how to make it politically more viable.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ BBA

            I don’t think those stories carry the weight that you appear to. Segregation existed due to desires of some people or it wouldn’t have existed at all, additionally it was in effect for generations to hundreds of years influencing how people acted so it would be bizarre if those forces disappeared right as the laws disappeared.

            However the general trend was towards less segregation throughout the 20th century, other ethnic groups were assimilated into the broader “white” group, there was convergence in wages which was slowly leading to more mixed neighborhoods.

          • EchoChaos says:


            I am incredibly against a government bureaucrat dictating your life based on anything, certainly not on who you are as a kid, so I’m not even sure it’s the best for good outcomes.

            But in terms of how to make it politically viable? The only really plausible way would be quotas in each stream where the highest scoring X% of all blacks/whites/Asians/Native Americans/etc get into each stream. You would certainly have deserving Asians who are kept out and undeserving minorities who get in, but at least it would be more viable. It’s how Harvard does it, and they’re a pretty savvy group in terms of keeping it politically viable.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Harvard can do it because they can cherry pick. If you make such quotas universal policy for all primary and secondary schools, the distortion is much greater.

          • dndnrsn says:


            In the US, some of of the University of California schools supposedly have a reputation for “too many Asians” and, as the story goes, the old-money Toronto families don’t send their kids to the University of Toronto anymore because they neither like Asians nor do they want their kids competing with them.

        • gbdub says:

          But I think the push to send everyone to college is making this worse, not better, by devaluing non-college jobs. There’s no reason you HAVE to tell the kid in the “vocational” track that he’s a failure – just that he’s not an intellectual. That’s fine! He probably knows this already, better to admit it and give a path to some form of success than try to force the square peg. Change the message to “look kid you’re not going to be the next Einstein, but we value your contributions nonetheless. Here’s how to be the best version of you…” instead of “IF YOU DON’T MAKE IT TO COLLEGE YOU ARE DOOOOOOOOMED TO A LIFE OF FAILURE AND POVERTY”

          The trouble is all the teachers ARE intellectuals and some of them like to use their college degrees to sneer at less educated but better compensated blue collar types (or more charitably, are not aware of / not going to emphasize paths that look very different from their own).

          • Aapje says:

            A problem is that there are kids who are just not good at anything and/or highly disruptive or very unmotivated or such.

            These need to end up somewhere and will usually have a very deleterious effect on wherever they end up.

            In my country we have special education primary schools for high need kids, with higher funding, but nothing like that for secondary education. So the problematic kids end up in the lower track, which creates a shitty environment that lowers the reputation of the lower track, causing the more motivated, capable and well-behaved to try to to avoid it, which makes it worse…

    • fion says:

      I think in this case the simple answer is right: teachers are under-paid. The same problem exists in some academic subjects too. There’s a shortage of maths teachers because anybody who studied maths can get an easier, higher-paid job than being a maths teacher.

      • Aapje says:

        I think that a big issue is also the one-size fits all pay.

        A similar issue in my country is that the schools in big cities have a lot more problems finding teachers than those in rural areas, because the living costs are higher & the problems are bigger in the cities, but the pay is equal.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          England officially pays teachers who work in London more. For instance, the minimum salary for a qualified classroom teacher outside London is GBP 23,720 while in Inner London it’s GBP 29,664- teachers in Outer London or the so-called Fringe of areas near but not administratively part of London get lower pay increases.

          Other employers, both government and private, often do the same.

          Of course, this doesn’t necessarily compensate for the increased cost of living in London.

          • Aapje says:

            The Netherlands is notorious for 1.5 earner families, where the woman works about half a job. My theory is that the only reason why it’s still half-way sustainable in the first place is that many of these female teachers* have a partner with a good job in the city. However, many of the amsterdamned seem to leave the city to raise a family, so this then means that the pool of teachers for the city is younger women who haven’t yet started a family.

            * Most Dutch teachers are female now, ever since the hormone incident of 2005 (that last bit is a joke)

          • Mark V Anderson says:


            Okay is this a standing Dutch joke, or did you just make it up?

          • Aapje says:

            I made it up and consider it one of my greatest achievements.

            Note that it doesn’t work in Dutch, as ‘damned’ is not a Dutch word.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Note that it doesn’t work in Dutch, as ‘damned’ is not a Dutch word.

            Well yes I figured that, but a lot of Dutch know English, so I thought they might have a standard English joke about the capital. But maybe all the Dutch other than Aapje have no sense of humor.

          • Aapje says:

            I just recalled that there is a (shitty) 1988 Dutch movie called Amsterdamned, so I might have unconsciously copied that*. So one other Dutch person who also has good humor and poor director skills seems to exist.

            * However, it’s definitely not a common term. The many Dutch people who dislike the huge influence of Amsterdam use other words.

      • brad says:

        I’d say that’s a big part of the problem, however on the flip side there’s very little reason to think that pay better will get better results so there’s understandable reluctance to simply raise salaries and hope for the best. The lockstep system is utterly pernicious, especially coupled with tenure. The terrible state of the gatekeeper institutions and the both too easy and too inappropriate curricula they impose is the other half of the problem.

        How to fix this is a chicken and egg problem. Inasmuch as charter schools can escape the grasp of teachers’ unions and education departments, they are well worth supporting. But in many states they can’t or at least not completely.

        • gbdub says:

          It has always struck me as odd that primary education is one of the last holdouts of universal unionization.

          Unionization, when you include all the work rules and standardized pay, seniority uber alles rules for raises, promotions, and layoffs, etc. makes some degree of sense in a factory setting where every worker at a given level being literally interchangeable is kind of the point.

          But teaching is a much more individual profession. There is clearly a wide range in subjective and objective quality among teachers (although it is admittedly hard to measure). Older More experienced teachers are not obviously better – in fact younger teachers are often class favorites, with enthusiasm making up for a lot. Everyone who has been in school knows this. Even apart from subjective quality, it’s not clear that senior teachers are worth more – they produce the same thing younger teachers do (if anything they sometimes seem to use their seniority to get lighter class loads or at the very least the less troublesome students). There aren’t really “promotions” except into administration. Teachers’ contracts also mandate and/or give bonuses for things like earning extra degrees or certificates, but it’s not clear these deliver value to the students (and again some teachers clearly take more out of these learning opportunities than others).

          So why should senior teachers automatically be paid more? Why should they get tenure / be the least likely to be laid off? Why should a credential always be worth X if one teacher sleepwalks through it just to get paid while another uses continuing education to actually refine their pedagogy?

          And it’s blindly obvious that some classes are more challenging than others, either because of tougher academic content or student behavioral challenges. I’d rather my high school math teacher have a BS in, well, math, or an engineering degree than a masters in education, but people with those degrees have options outside of teaching at higher salaries AND are treated as less valuable in union pay scales (if they are allowed to be hired at all).

          It’s weird because in other contexts, teachers HATE standardization. They tend to be strongly against standardized testing, against one-size-fits-all curricula, etc. Yet they strongly support unionization with one-size-fits-all contracts dictating their career paths.

          Anyway the short version is that I tend to think “teachers are underpaid” is kind of bunk. We underpay/undervalue good teachers and overpay poor ones, with union contracts that largely force administrators to pretend that teacher value is purely a function of seniority and paper credentials.

          • Jiro says:

            People need jobs to be *reliable*. Having a job which randomly gets you fired or gets your pay reduced because of factors outside your control is a big downside, above and beyond the loss in pay multiplied by the probability of losing the pay.

            People in tech tend to forget this because of high income levels, lower switching costs, and the fact that it’s probably easier to tell who a good programmer is than who a good teacher is.

            Teachers who hate “standardization” hate standardization that makes their job unreliable in that way. Standardized testing results in unreliable job security and wages. Unionization results in reliable job security and wages.

          • brad says:

            Almost every private sector job in the country, including even many covered by unions, have moved away from this broken model. So it is entirely unreasonable to try to make this some sort of out of touch tech worker thing. It’s the unionized public sector workers that are out of touch.

          • gbdub says:

            But that sort of “unreliable” hits basically every other career field except other unionized government jobs. It’s not just tech – teaching is the outlier here. EDIT: This point was ninja’d by brad

            And “reliability” certainly has a value to it, I agree. But that value should be considered if you are going to talk about whether teachers are underpaid.

            The original question was “how do you get teachers with valuable non-teaching skills to agree to teach those skills?” and the answer is you have to incentivize them to do so. More broadly, if you want better teachers, you have to incentivize teaching better (not just “getting better people into teaching” which is, best case, what a general raise would do).

            I think union rules tend to prevent both of these approaches, because they make it difficult to financially incentivize individual teachers. You really have to single out individual teachers so you can compensate the best ones and lure in some people with certain valuable, rare skillsets.

            Right now teaching is set up to incentivize unambitious people who favor reliability above all else and just put in time until they retire on their pension. I don’t think that can change unless you change the pay structure. (This is not to say that all teachers are unambitious / unmotivated – just that those sort of people are the ones that are most rewarded by the current career setup)

          • Clutzy says:

            I think you are vastly underestimating the % of teaching that us a “mediocracy”. The vast majority of teachers are not qualified (and have never been) in any other field. They typically come from low quality majors at low quality institutions. Thus, the mass unionization is rational. Schools wouldnt be bidding against engineering firms, they are bidding against the unemployment line and low level retail.

          • albatross11 says:


            I’m skeptical of this claim. Can you point me toward some evidence?

            Education majors aren’t physics majors, but they do have to graduate from college, which requires some level of basic intelligence and literacy, and I believe high school teachers have to qualify for the subjects they teach by some kind of test.

          • Clutzy says:

            Here are a few sources:

            With public schools having so totally lost their way, America’s public school teachers almost uniformly now come from the bottom 25 percent of their college classes.


            Although teachers as a group score above the national average on intelli-gence tests, their scores fall below the average for other college graduates

            Although the College Board is reluctant to say exact-ly what the SAT measures, it is essentially an IQ test.19In 2010, the College Board asked students taking the SAT about their intended college major. Students who indicated that education was their intended major earned a combined math and verbal score of 967, about 0.31 standard deviations below the average of 1,017, meaning the 38th percentile in a standard normal dis-tribution.20 In contrast, students intending to major in engineering had average combined SAT scores of 1,118.

            I could do like 100 quotes from this one it is so long and has so many interesting tidbits.


          • Aapje says:

            Note that a similar decline in quality seems to have happened in The Netherlands. Teachers who majored in a subject at an actual university and then got a teaching course are now very rare, with most teachers being from second-tier colleges where they majored in teaching. This means that they have very little knowledge about the major that they teach and that their pre-college education is worse.

            In the recent past, it was found that half of the students failed a primary school level math exam after the first year. Now measures are being taken that should increase the quality.

          • albatross11 says:

            So teachers are at the low end of college graduates, but still above average intelligence for the country as a whole. That doesn’t seem all that consistent with

            Schools wouldnt be bidding against engineering firms, they are bidding against the unemployment line and low level retail.

          • ana53294 says:

            In Spain, all secondary school teachers have a specialised degree (age 14-18), and for ages 12-14 some have specialised degrees, some have studied education.

            While I never doubted whether my math or chemistry teachers knew their subjects, that doesn’t mean they were any good at explaining their subjects. According to PISA scores, the US does better than Spain. And that’s considering that the US is a very diverse country, while Spain is not.

            While putting education degree holders in secondary schools would probably worsen the situation in Spain, I don’t think it affects the situation a lot.

          • Clutzy says:

            So teachers are at the low end of college graduates, but still above average intelligence for the country as a whole. That doesn’t seem all that consistent with

            Schools wouldnt be bidding against engineering firms, they are bidding against the unemployment line and low level retail.

            It does if you understand the preferences of people who choose that path vs. the uneducated at similar intelligence levels. Most of the higher-paying jobs at that level require some element of working with your hands (plumber, welder, etc) or salesmanship (real estate is a particularly common job for a non-college grad in that range). Neither are the common traits of a teacher. Particularly the blue-collar jobs are often considered low status by this contingent, which is why we see the trope of a XXX major being resentful and working at starbucks/kohls instead of the XXX major working in an oil field, or even as a CNA.

        • Randy M says:

          It has always struck me as odd that primary education is one of the last holdouts of universal unionization.

          I think teachers know deep down that it is the raw materials that define most of the outcome and don’t trust the system to be able to judge their contribution.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I think it is simply that when a government has promised a service the providers of that service automatically gain bargaining power.

          • gbdub says:

            The problem is that union rules basically force “the system” to make objective performance judgments, and “the system” only knows how to do that with stuff like standardized test scores. As long as they are unionized, any compensation scheme is going to be one-size-fits-all and dictated by top-down standardized objectives devoid of local or individual context (which as you note may be tough for teachers to control).

            In a more private sector, nonunion shop, the administrators would have leeway to reward teachers based on softer (but probably correct!) judgments. Or even just do things like reward teachers for taking on the tough behavioral cases, or being really good at teaching the more rigorous academic subjects like advanced math.

          • One obvious explanation for the problems is that K-12 schooling a socialist institution–most kids go to schools run by and paid for by governments. Aside from all the usual problems with government run institutions, in a democracy the workers in a large government run industry are, in effect, sitting on both sides of the table in bargaining–on one side as employers, on the other as voters.

            In the U.S., the teachers unions are probably the most powerful faction in the Democratic party, one reason why vouchers, which early on were sometimes a left-wing issue, are now anathema to most of the left.

          • theredsheep says:

            Adding to what DF said, school choice means that rich people don’t have much cause to care; they can send their kids to nice private schools. Less-rich parents can still arrange to get their kids in better public schools, or into gifted programs where they’re totally segregated from the disadvantaged kids. At present, the failure of public schooling is mostly confined to those poor kids, who were unlikely to succeed anyway and who don’t have any effective advocates.

          • The Nybbler says:

            At present, the failure of public schooling is mostly confined to those poor kids, who were unlikely to succeed anyway and who don’t have any effective advocates.

            They’ve got tons of effective advocates. That’s why considerably more money and effort per pupil gets poured into schools serving them than schools serving middle-class and wealthier kids.

            The problem is it doesn’t work, which if you’re cynical goes right back to “unlikely to succeed anyway”. Although I’d give some blame to “no technique which would work at all is permitted”

          • theredsheep says:

            I did specify “effective” advocates. But yes, basically schools are attempting to solve deep-seated cultural/economic dysfunction with Improved Scientific Pedagogical Technique.

          • albatross11 says:

            As is so often the case, the public advocates for the powerless people at the bottom just happen, by great good luck, to converge on advocating for stuff that benefits a powerful interest group (teachers unions, public school bureaucracies). For some unimaginable reason, this turns out to lead to more money being spent in ways that benefit the powerful interest groups, but not so much the kids whose failing schools and bad test scores justified all that spending.

          • @TheRedSheep:

            A voucher program means that everyone has less reason to care about how good the public schools are, since they now have an alternative even if they aren’t rich. I would expect the biggest gainers to be motivated kids in poor areas, who could choose a voucher school designed for people like them instead of going to a public school full of people not like them.

            On the other hand, a voucher program gives the people running a public school more reason to care about its quality, since they now have competition to worry about and their funding will be probably be based on how many kids choose to come.

        • albatross11 says:

          Yeah, my very limited understanding here is that:

          a. Teacher level of education and teacher certification don’t seem to have a measurable impact on teacher performance.

          b. One thing we know probably works to improve student learning is more one-on-one teaching. Another is much smaller class sizes (like one teacher for ten students instead of one teacher for thirty students).

          This seems to imply that we could use less-highly-educated, lower-paid teachers, get more of them, and get better outcomes. This runs afoul of the career needs of teachers though–they’d like to have a path to get better pay and higher prestige over time, and they definitely aren’t on board with less pay for the same amount of work.

          • brad says:

            Teacher is too broad a term. More lower paid, less on-paper qualified kindergarten teachers might be a big win. But I don’t know how smaller calculus class sizes are supposed to help if none of the teachers of these small classes themselves understand calculus.

          • albatross11 says:


            Yeah, you’d still have to verify that the teachers knew the material. But as an example, while I could teach any level of high school math (after going back and reviewing calculus since I haven’t used it much for the last couple decades), and after a bit of review I could pass a subject matter test, I would not be allowed to teach any level of math at public schools where I live, because I do not have an education degree. (From what I’ve heard, our county won’t hire new teachers without a masters degree in education.).

          • Another is much smaller class sizes

            My somewhat out of date understanding of the evidence is that class size does not have a significant effect on educational outcomes.

            The big measurable effect is family background. I suspect another big but harder to measure effect is teacher quality, which isn’t defined by degrees or years of experience.

          • Randy M says:

            I suspect the effect of teacher student ratio is a step function that also depends on teacher class management skills.

          • brad says:


            I agree that education degree programs are a big problem, they are one of the things I called out in my original post. But I don’t think less-highly-educated quite captures moving from a requirement for an education masters degree to one for a legitimate bachelors in mathematics. Nor do I think such graduates would be less expensive.

          • Protagoras says:

            From what I recall, “teacher level of education” isn’t exactly irrelevant, though teacher certification is. Greater knowledge of the subject matter has some correlation with better teaching performance, but being trained in how to teach (at least if that training comes in the form of getting degrees in education) does not.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ David Friedman

            Take this with a large bucket of salt- by my distant, and not entirely reliable memory those studies had serious confounding issues that were difficult to deal with. Smaller class size requires more resources in most cases, which makes it difficult to generate natural experiments.

          • Thomas Jorgensen says:

            Last time I checked, having a bachelor or better in what you taught helped, but having a degree in education did not. This implies that the correct reform is to just shut down the university courses in education, full stop, and if you want to teach, you enroll in a specific degree of some kind, and schools are obligated to accept “Made it through a bac.Chem” as a teaching qualification.

            Problem is, this would make subjects like math, which requires huge numbers of teachers utterly dominated by would be teachers at university level, which.. well, the current academic mathematics establishment is not overly fond of that idea.

      • cassander says:

        Given that private school teachers make less than public school teachers, that seems likely not to be the case on average. What is more likely is that some teachers are underpaid, the ones with particularly valuable skills, while most other teachers are overpaid.

        • bean says:

          At the same time, I could see a lot of that being basically because they can get people to take a pay cut in exchange for better working conditions. I suspect that private schools have less paperwork and better students than a typical public school. If you’re in teaching because you like it, rather than because it seems like a safe, stable career, then those could be worth some money.

        • Gossage Vardebedian says:

          This. Here in the US, we have this assumption that teachers are underpaid. I’m not sure where this comes from, other than the political football/powder keg that is the teachers’ unions. I am familiar with many school districts, some terrific, some average, some poor. In all of them, teachers do fairly well. Perhaps it is different in other places. I am friends with people who teach French, math and physics at very good high schools, and while they, in the latter cases, may not make as much, or have the kind of career advancement possibilities, as they might have if they went into industry, the facts are that 1) a lot of industry jobs, especially those with advancement possibilities, go to those with advanced degrees, 2) there’s more job security with a teaching job than an industry job, 3) teaching is probably easier than a lot of jobs out there, and 4) I’m not aware of a lot of positions in the real world that offer summers off, or a month off at Xmas, or the kind of pensions that many (around here, almost all) teaching positions carry. Why in the world does the idea that teachers are underpaid even get off the ground?

          • Randy M says:

            Agreed that teachers tend to do okay, especially on a per hour basis.
            The amount of work a conscientious teacher puts in can greatly exceed the hours on the job, but this is true for many professions.

          • cassander says:

            Why in the world does the idea that teachers are underpaid even get off the ground?

            If I had to guess, partly the (largely no longer) true idea that civil servants were generally paid below market rates but made up the difference with benefits and unfirability. Possibly the case that it was true 30/40 years ago when it was a respectable profession for women. But mostly, as you say, endless lobbying by teachers unions.

          • But mostly, as you say, endless lobbying by teachers unions.

            Teachers, like almost everyone else, believe they deserve to be paid more. Teachers, unlike everyone else, get to be authority figures for kids for twelve formative years, which gives them an opportunity to influence kids in the direction of their own beliefs.

          • cassander says:


            and teachers, unlike everyone else, have incredibly powerful unions that negotiate directly with the state for their salaries. A state which is, as often as not, dominated the a political party of which they are the single largest financial supporter.

          • brad says:

            @Gossage Vardebedian

            I don’t think the right framing is are teachers as they currently exist over or underpaid but rather if we wished to have a world where teachers weren’t, on average, the least intelligent of all professionals would we need to pay more (among other changes)?

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            if we wished to have a world where teachers weren’t, on average, the least intelligent of all professionals would we need to pay more (among other changes)?

            I think one thing that is often missing in the discussion about getting a higher quality of teacher — it comes with a trade-off. If a bunch of our most intelligent professionals become teachers, then I think that means dumber software designers, dumber scientists, and dumber business executives.

            I think that this isn’t a good trade-off, mostly because I don’t think the teacher’s intelligence makes all that much difference, while it matters a lot in the other professions. Maybe I am overly cynical, but I don’t think there is anything we can do in the US to make much of a difference in students’ academic achievement, including smartening the teachers.

          • brad says:

            @Mark Anderson
            I’m sympathetic to that argument because I think the same thing about doctors. However in the case of teachers they used to be smarter and we had better outcomes. Granted other things changed in the meantime too, but it’s plausible that they are related.

          • cassander says:


            outcomes, st least measured by test scores, have been pretty flat for decades and I’ve never seen any evidence that teachers used to be smarter.

          • brad says:

            A few decades isn’t long enough. You have to go back to the era when most of the women teaching that didn’t have the chance to be scientists or business executives.

          • Aapje says:

            @Mark V Anderson

            Perhaps, but on the other hand a lot of people seem to remember that one teacher who made a real difference.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Why in the world does the idea that teachers are underpaid even get off the ground?

            Anecdotes about teachers paying for their own supplies or whatever, and college graduates confusing anecdotes with data because colleges do a poor job at what they do. I have a general impression that school quality and teacher pay across Oklahoma are quite low, and teaching conditions are poor in certain Illinois schools, but this is not broadly applicable across all Illinois schools, and especially not schools in my district.

            Plus, you know, ideological comfort.

          • Plumber says:

            @Gossage Vardebedian
            ".....Why in the world does the idea that teachers are underpaid even get off the ground?"

            Beginning teachers aren’t paid much, senior teachers are (plus a good pension if you stick it out), I think a lot of the tales are from people who did a couple of years and then quit before getting seniority pay raises. 

            In the 1990’s I knew the girlfriend of a co-worker who was a new teacher for the Oakland Unified School District, she didn’t have an “Education” certificate, just a B.A. and IIRC she said that she was paid something between $30,000 and $40,000 a year.

            Her biggest gripes besides pay was that the principal wouldn’t let her remove a student who would compulsively masturbate in class (she taught 11 and 12 year-olds), and that they had to have a day devoted to teaching the “injustice” of Mumia Abu-Jamal being in jail (she thought “Maybe he really did kill that cop”).

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            $30,000 from 1990 compounded at 3% per year is $71k per year in 2019 dollars. If it was 1999, it’d be $55k/year.

            Dunno about Oakland’s COL specifically, but these are not bad starting salaries for a person just out of college or even earlier in their career, especially if they have income growth potential.

          • cassander says:

            I have a general impression that school quality and teacher pay across Oklahoma are quite low, and teaching conditions are poor in certain Illinois schools, but this is not broadly applicable across all Illinois schools, and especially not schools in my district.

            Mean teacher salary in OK is ~42K compared to a nationwide average of 60K, so definitely low. the mean wage in OK as a whole is about 42K compared to a national mean of 51k, so teachers in OK actually do seem underpaid relative to other states.


            Beginning teachers aren’t paid much, senior teachers are (plus a good pension if you stick it out),

            the 10th percentile of teachers makes 40k, the 90% makes 95k, just counting wages and not making allowances for vacation time. I tend to assume that the 10th percentile will have to accord pretty well with entry level level salaries, though I suspect that geography makes for a bigger deal than in most other professions.

          • bean says:

            Mean teacher salary in OK is ~42K compared to a nationwide average of 60K, so definitely low. the mean wage in OK as a whole is about 42K compared to a national mean of 51k, so teachers in OK actually do seem underpaid relative to other states.

            That’s because the state is giving all of its money to me. It was seriously awkward during the teacher strike, because I’m not really an Oklahoma taxpayer, thanks to the aerospace tax credit.

        • fion says:

          Given that private school teachers make less than public school teachers,

          That’s not true in the UK. I’m surprised to hear it’s true in the US.

        • theredsheep says:

          I subbed for several years, in two school systems. If I had to do the real thing, I would take a substantial pay cut to have only kids whose parents were meaningfully invested in their education–by which I mean that, if their kid acted like an antisocial d-bag in class, the response would be swift and severe. Band is the single best subject to substitute teach, because every kid in there has a parent who drives him/her to special practices and field trips, paid for an instrument, etc.

          • SamChevre says:

            Best “parent substantially invested” story EVER is from my wife, when she was still teaching in a public school. One student (9th grader) acted up, she called his parents. Acted up again, she called his parents, and his father told both her and the student “if he acts up again and you call me, I’m coming to school for the day and just sitting in his classes.”

            He acted up again, and his dad came to school the next day and escorted him to all his classes and then sat in them.

            He was a model student for the rest of the year.

          • Randy M says:

            Nice. I had good luck with Athletes, by going to the coaches. Students want to stay on teams, and don’t want to do extra training.
            The most troublesome students tend not to have a lot of investment in other areas, either, however.

          • For the same pattern in a different context, I teach a bunch of classes at Pennsic (for free). Part of the reason is that everyone there wants to be there, wants to learn what I am teaching, not reliably true in even a private college or university, let alone a high school.

            For similar reasons I sometimes teach in my university’s adult education program.

      • LesHapablap says:


        Working conditions play a big role as well. From what I hear, teachers in the US and other western countries have far more paperwork and bureaucracy to contend with than they did 20-30 years ago.

      • Teachers in the U.S. are above the median wage, but below the median wage for college graduates, or at least were some time back when I looked into the question. But my impression is that students who major in education are below the mean of students, as measured by things like SAT exams or performance in classes everyone takes. So it isn’t clear if someone who becomes a teacher gets paid less than that person would have made doing something else.

        There are further complication due to special characteristics of the profession. In some states, teachers have tenure from quite early on, which isn’t true in most jobs. And it can be argued that they are working for a smaller part of the year, due to summer vacation, although some people argue that that is cancelled by work they have to do to prepare for each year’s class. Part of the problem in this sort of comparison is that people in any profession are aware of the special problems they have, not of the special problems those in other professions have.

        • fion says:

          Part of the problem in this sort of comparison is that people in any profession are aware of the special problems they have, not of the special problems those in other professions have.

          This is a very good point.

    • bean says:

      The obvious place to look for welding teachers would, it seems to me, be welders who are no longer capable of doing field welding, which is physically demanding AIUI. It’s possible that there’s some lower-paid sit-down welding jobs these people go into, but if not, it seems like a good way to deal with the problem. The other issue, of course, is money, but “disabled” seems like a useful lever to apply in this case.

      • The Nybbler says:

        I would suspect that the problem with finding a welding teacher isn’t with finding someone who can weld and teach welding, but someone who can do that and satisfy all the requirements it takes to teach in a public school nowadays.

        • SamChevre says:


          I knew a guy who became a high school auto body teacher. (I built a garage/shop for him, and took pert of the pay in trade for him fixing a wrecked pickup that I’d traded for.) He had been working as a auto body repairman since he was a pre-teen; teaching high schoolers how to fix cars was easy and fun.

          The hard part which he spent years of frustration on was getting the required credentialling classes, which he was able to do after he started teaching–that would likely be impossible in most cases (NCLB made hiring “unqualified” teachers much more difficult). He was mildly dyslexic, and had been out of school for 20 years; passing a class on Stages of Child Development was incredibly frustrating for him. (His wife helped him; he’d never have succeeded otherwise–she read his textbooks to him and typed up his dictated papers.)

          The difficulty isn’t “someone who’d be good at teaching welding”; it’s someone good at teaching welding who wants to spend a the time getting generic teaching credentials (instead of doing something related to welding.)

          It’s not a statist/free-market problem: it’s a “terrible regulations” problem.

          • cassander says:

            >It’s not a statist/free-market problem: it’s a “terrible regulations” problem.

            You can’t say that the state runs things poorly, but that fact should have no bearing on the question of whether or not the state should run things. The state fucking up absolutely is a statist problem.

    • Deiseach says:

      Seems like there should be a ‘free marker’ or ‘statist’ solution.

      What might that be?

      Does the American system have vocational schools? My knowledge is about ten years out of date, but your difficulty with welding teachers was echoed by ours trying to find Home Economics teachers. Very, very few going into that particular field, yet schools were desperately trying to find teachers of that subject.

      As for Vocational Schools in Ireland:

      Vocational schools and community colleges
      Vocational schools and community colleges are owned by the local Education and Training Board (ETB). The boards of management for these schools are sub-committees of the ETB. Membership of the boards include ETB representatives and parent, teacher and community representatives. Vocational schools and community colleges are largely funded by the Department of Education and Skills. Initially, these schools were orientated towards providing a technical education and developing manual skills. Today, they generally provide a wide range of both academic and practical subjects. Vocational schools are also the main providers of adult education and community education courses. The national representative body for the Education and Training Boards is the Education and Training Boards Ireland.

      Again, this is about ten years ago, but one of our students (ages 12-18 years, secondary school) when he finished his education got good enough results to be offered an ESB Apprenticeship, something very desirable. (The ESB is the Electricity Supply Board, our national semi-state electricity generation and networks body). There was (and probably still remains) a certain stigma about vocational education, in that it was seen as only for the less academically able (and in the backward old days when I was a kid, that was code for “stupid”) and anyone with ability/ambition/pushy parents remained in mainstream academic-to-university schools.

      But a vocational system with exposure to practical subjects as well as the academic curriculum can offer doorways into training, apprenticeships, and similar jobs. Not everybody is going to go to college, whether it’s because their families can’t afford it or they haven’t an interest or their abilities don’t lie in that area. Removing the stigma from “learning a trade” (which by itself is condsidered good) and encouraging schools/students to go to those schools might help.

      Then again, in areas of great deprivation where there is (for various reasons) little to no parental support for education or other things, and peer pressure to drop out (and get involved in petty crime) needs more than just “go to vocational school and learn a trade for a good paying job” because the problem students will continue to be problems without support. And some kids just do not want to learn anything, they want to drop out and be rappers or drug dealers. I had experience of the latter with the Early Schooleaver Programme: some kids had emotional/psychological/behavioural problems which is why they couldn’t handle mainstream education, some kids were from deprived backgrounds and were interested in taking up what was on offer, and some kids were Future Inmate No. 957812, totally uninterested in co-operating with anything anyone would try to do for them, on the fringes of if not already involved in petty crime, and just gaming the system until they aged out of the programme. And yeah, years later those were the names I recognised in the court report pages of the local newspaper.

      • Plumber says:


        “Does the American system have vocational schools?….”

        Probably “back east”, in my area some high schools have “shop” classes as an elective (such as the welding class at Kennedy H.S. in Richmond, and an air conditioning tech class at another Kennedy H.S. in Fremont), often there’s “adult school” classes that are duplicates of the H.S. classes just in the evenings for a fee, but the training usually isn’t enough for most employers.
        There’s also “community colleges” that have more training, but often the administrators don’t like to support the trades classes because the students leave before their official graduations because they get jobs.
        Then there’s the for-profit “career colleges” who get most of their tuitions paid by Federal government loans or military veterans benefits, but many (most?) have reputations as scams.

    • baconbits9 says:

      There are large coordination/information issues at play that appear not to have been discussed.

      Say you find that a type of illness is relatively easy to treat if caught early and expensive and difficult to treat if caught late. If the illness is broadly prevalent in society then screening everyone annually can plausible save resources, if it is rare than screening everyone will be more expensive than later treatments. Without strong markers allowing you to screen those at risk at much higher rates than those not at risk then screening everyone is going to end up a bad deal on a society wide level.

      It is relatively easy to find enough welding teachers conceptually, if one teacher trains 5 welders a year who work an average of 30 years as welders then you need to convert <1% of your welders into teachers to maintain current levels. You can't find that number of people who would work a 2nd job for a bit more money, or want a less physically demanding job or want to semi-retire? Its easy to imagine filling those positions once you assume you have found 5 guys for each class who will become life long welders. If those 5 guys instead combine for 50 years of life long welding rather than 150 you have to triple your ratio of teachers, 30 years mean quintupling etc etc.

      To make training schemes work you have to aggressively discriminate. In European countries where there is "free college" for all they really mean "free college for those that pass a series of tests". To make this 'equitable' you have to raise the standard of earlier education for the lower economic classes which means spending lots of resources on early age pre-university schooling for a large number of people who will never go to university nor use many of those skills later in life. This type of discrimination process is expensive and one of the reasons why, despite universal higher education and more efficient health care systems individual Europeans are poorer than Americans.

      The more diverse the economy becomes the harder it is to solve these problems with top down approaches. You start your welding class and look at the people dedicating themselves, showing up on time, focusing better, progressing faster- the ones who naturally look like they are going on to be welders. The more diverse the economy the more different training programs they can be in, if they are also doing a course to become an electrician's assistant, and/or getting a CDL and/or certification D, E and F then the more of your top students will fail to become welders, wasting the resources spent training them.

      This is an aspect of cost disease in education (and all fields probably), to discover if someone's best profession is a lawyer you have to give them at least a taste of training in medicine/engineering/dance. To discover that it is worthwhile to train someone in a skill you have to train N other people to some extent and find them wanting. The more you try to universalize in a diverse economy to more costs you build into the system.

  24. smocc says:

    On Friday some of my students walked into my classroom and handed me a printed copy of the Self-Referential Aptitude Test and then immediately went back to working on it themselves. I just finished it after a few dead ends and am feeling accomplished. I recommend it to people who like logic puzzles.

    • albertborrow says:

      Fun, but it’s a bit tough. Took me about an hour and a half to get through, pasting it into a text editor and striking out solutions that didn’t work. The designer of the test says, in the solution, that this test was designed as part of a series of challenges for a party, and that the answer was originally a hint to the movie at the end. I find myself wondering what type of parties this guy goes to.

      • smocc says:

        Oh yeah, I ended up using three different printed copies, printing off a fresh one each time I got really messed up. Striking out disallowed answers was a big part of my method and it would have been impossible for me to do in my head.

  25. Well... says:

    Suppose aliens from very far away wanted to learn more about Earth, so they sent a craft into low orbit around our planet and collected data, by scooping up what atmosphere it could and analyzing it, and also by using external sensors. Then it either executed some propulsive maneuver to leave orbit and return home, or transmitted the data home before allowing itself to burn up in our atmosphere.

    What are the chances something like this could happen without us detecting it?

    (Sorry for all the space/aliens questions lately. Just something I’ve been thinking about creatively a lot.)

    • John Schilling says:

      Presuming a stealthy probe in Earth orbit, and depending on where the alien homeworld is, possibly a relay station on the outskirts of the solar system, communications by e.g. laser should be possible with reasonable stealth. An actual return trip across interstellar distances with non-magic technology would almost certainly be detectable.

      A bigger problem is that the arrival of any probe that crossed interstellar distances in less than centuries ought to have been detected during deceleration, unless you invoke magic technology or nanoscale probes. And the scaling doesn’t favor nanoscale probes being able to survive the trip and phone home without at least near-magic levels of technology.

      The plausible options are I think divided between no alien probes in the solar system, and alien probes that have been here for megayears because the aliens thing planets with complex life are worth keeping an eye on, and a very narrow band of possibilities in between.

      • What about a more modest project, an alien probe that gets close enough to earth to observe it in detail with a very good telescope, pick up radio emissions, and … ?

      • Well... says:

        What if it’s the size of a beach ball, like Sputnik? Or even smaller, like tennis ball sized?

        • John Schilling says:

          Accelerating a standard baseball to 5% of the speed of light over a five-year period would require at least 200 kilowatts of sustained propulsive power. If ten percent of that manifests as visible light, the probe would be one of the fifty brightest stars in the sky for the first two hours after its departure, during which period it would complete more than a full orbit around the Earth and give most nightside observers a clear view of a very bright star moving very fast in an un-starlike way.

          Same goes for deceleration into Earth orbit. There are ways to arrange the energy expenditure so that it wouldn’t be naked-eye visible, at some cost in propulsive efficiency, but A: can you afford that, as you try to cram a stardive into a baseball, and B: hiding from lots of people with telescopes and star charts is going to be much harder.

          • Is there any reason why the probe shouldn’t be accelerating at a much lower rate until it gets a bit farther from human telescopes and start seriously pushing only past Pluto’s orbit?

          • Well... says:

            What about if the aliens fired the tennis ball sized probe at, say, 5% of c across interstellar distances, aimed so it did an n-tuple bank shot off some of the largest Kuiper belt objects’ gravitational fields to slow it down to a much lower speed, and more bank shots off other even larger solar system objects (planets, moons, etc.) to slow it down even more until it reached Earth orbit, where it collected data, beamed it back home (maybe via a relay station set up on a Kuiper belt object), and then allowed itself to burn up in our atmosphere?

            Unlikely and requires unimaginable calculating power, of course, but plausible/non-magical?

            — OR —

            What if the object never had to go that fast to begin with because it was fired from a stealthy ship hidden somewhere in interstellar space not egregiously far from us?

          • John Schilling says:

            Not sure what you mean by “bank shot” in this context. The first time a non-magitech tennis ball makes the most glancing physical contact with a KBO at 0.05 c, it turns into a cloud of expanding subatomic particles. And the gravitational field of a KBO on a passing 0.05 c projectile, will be about as noticeable or influential as the gravitational field of e.g. you on a passing truck. The specific energy and specific momentum are both literally astronomical here, to be invisibly rearranged or reoriented.

          • Well... says:

            So launching from a ship hidden behind a large Kuiper Belt object is plausible then?

    • Enkidum says:

      The chances are, if I remember these posts correctly, essentially 0 unless, as John Schilling says, you invoke magic. It’s really, really hard (= impossible given our present understanding of the universe) to hide a spaceship when it’s moving, unless you can keep a planet or something like that in between you and the potential observers. Which isn’t the case if its in low earth orbit.

      • bullseye says:

        I think it’s plausible for them to have sent something that we theoretically could detect but haven’t actually detected. “New” asteroids get discovered all the time because no one had previously looked in the right direction at the right time to see them. And even if we do see the probe it might not be moving unnaturally at that moment.

      • It’s really, really hard (= impossible given our present understanding of the universe) to hide a spaceship when it’s moving accelerating

        FTFY. It’s the delta-v that’s easy to spot, not the v itself.

        • Enkidum says:

          If it’s close enough to us, would it even be possible to have it hidden if it wasn’t accelerating? Say a fridge-size object at the same orbit as the moon (not hidden behind it) – would it be possible to hide? I seem to remember the answer being “no”.

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      You cant hide an arriving probe, that is far too energetic an event. But you would likely not have to, because any alien civilization that cared about things like that would probably have had an automated outpost keeping an eye on earth for many, many millions of years. If you can build starships, you can build a moonbase that keeps itself in working order for the long haul, or bury a computing core in the Canadian shield with various discrete sensors hooked up to it. Its not like we would notice even a very energetic com laser being fired from the dark side of the moon.

  26. Odovacer says:

    What do you think about paper straws? I ordered a malt today, and the paper straw was not sufficient for consuming it. The tip got soggy and clogged a few minutes after I started drinking. Thankfully the establishment offered metal straws that worked a bit better.

    In related things, anyone want to go in with me on a company that sells artisanal metal straws and carrying cases. They could be like the old cigarette cases with cool artwork and inlays.

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      I’m pissed at the anti-straws trend. The same establishments that ditched their plastic straws are using the same plastic cups and lids mindlessly. I don’t believe that people are actually thinking about what they’re consuming and how. It’s just a fad, and one that’s actively harmful for people with conditions that make drinking without a straw difficult. As for the paper straws, they’re so inferior as to be unusable. They get soaked through in just a few minutes and make the drink taste like paper.

      • Butlerian says:

        Requiring that people carry around in their heads a cognizance of how their straw changes affect environmentalist supply chains seems like an unreasonably high bar to clear. Who cares whether people are being environmentally friendly out of faddishness or out of high-level CO2-offset accounting?

        • The Pachyderminator says:

          The “environmentally friendly” action in question is a signalling game that liberals play in order to feel complacent about their environmentalist bona fides. This complacency in turn makes them LESS likely, IMO, to trouble themselves to take environmentalist action that’s more meaningful.

          • Butlerian says:

            Well I guess if you’re proposing a diachotomy of A) “Use paper straws” vs. B) “Make a lifestyle change that’s more helpful than using paper straws”, then sure, choosing A is bad.
            But I am inclined to think that the actual diachotomy is A) “Use paper straws” vs. B) “Make no changes at all”, wherein choosing A is therefore good.

          • Deiseach says:

            I don’t know what straws people are now using, but I seem to remember that waxed paper straws were around before the plastic ones. And it looks like people are trying to re-vamp and re-introduce these, the main problem being finding a coating that will break down and biodegrade in landfills/compost heaps.

            But surely it can’t be beyond the wit of man to find a paper straw that works like they used to do before plastic straws came along?

          • The Nybbler says:

            Waxed paper is on the outs because it’s non-recyclable. As for paper straws that worked as well as Ye Olde Paper straws… well, there’s a reason everyone switched to plastic. The paper ones were always terrible.

          • albatross11 says:

            Impose a $0.05 charge for a straw, so people ordering them internalize the externality.

          • Impose a $0.05 charge for a straw, so people ordering them internalize the externality.

            Is there any reason to believe that there is an externality within two orders of magnitude of that? How much damage do you expect a hundred straws worth of plastic to do?

          • albatross11 says:

            I don’t know how big the externality is, or even what its sign is. But in general, I would prefer pushing people toward “X is evil, let’s apply a small tax or fee to it to make it less common” rather than “X is evil, let’s ban it always and everywhere for all cases.” Dumb fees do a lot less damage than total bans in the cases where X turns out to be really useful or necessary for some people.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Poor old Pigou: he’s always getting abused this way.

          • Jiro says:

            I don’t know how big the externality is, or even what its sign is. But in general, I would prefer pushing people toward “X is evil, let’s apply a small tax or fee to it to make it less common”

            Just because the amount is numerically small when compared to the cost of your entire grocery bill doesn’t make it a “small” tax. 5 cents per straw is several hundred percent of the price of the straw (and a much larger percentage of the marginal profit from each straw.) That’s a huge tax, not a small one.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Jiro, I agree, but that’s still way better than an outright ban.

      • Walter says:

        ‘people with conditions that make drinking without a straw difficult’?

        That seems like a weird hill to die on. Like, I dunno how many of those people there are out of every ten thousand, but presumably folks with such a disability already carry around a straw or two with them.

        Like, I also think the trend is stupid, but I don’t think you are helping our argument by invoking the idea that the anti-straw folks are, like, hating on people with no mouths or whatever.

        • Butlerian says:

          Agreed. That seemed very much like a reflexively-added “P.S. If you disagree with me you’re ableist” clause in there to farm the victim culture upboats.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            There was an essay in my local paper on this very subject. It seems somewhat reasonable. A little hyperbole, but mostly reasonable.

            In particular, it makes sense to me the comment that carrying one’s own straw could be pretty unhygenic. It is very difficult to clean straws, and to keep them clean when traveling.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            If you really find it that incomprehensible that anyone would care about this, you are, in fact, ableist. Sorry to break it to you.

          • LHN says:

            Yeah, the whole reusable straw thing strikes me as gross. A dishwasher or sink doesn’t seem likely to clean the interior well given the small size of the opening.

            (Some come with little brushes to address the issue, but even if they work, what an incredibly fiddly thing to have to repeatedly commit to.)

            I also kind of hate the choice of materials– hard plastics don’t tend to hold up well over time, and metal strikes me as a dental emergency waiting to happen.

        • suntzuanime says:

          If there were an actual reason to do away with straws, I’d be more sympathetic to telling the drinking-disabled to, well, suck it up. But as it stands, you’re hurting real people for the sake of your empty signalling. The straw ban is screamingly irrational anyway, so the only argument in favor is the emotion of smug superiority. I don’t see anything wrong with throwing emotional appeals back in their face, under those circumstances.

    • Lillian says:

      Paper straws have a weird mouthfeel that make the drinking experience strictly worse than not having a straw at all. They’re absolutely terrible. Also the whole thing against plastic straws is a ridiculous moral panic with little basis in reality. The vast majority of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from Africa and Asia, and of the plastic waste that does come out of the West, straws are but a tiny fraction. From a utilitarian perspective, banning plastic straws is strictly the wrong thing to do, since the utility lost from the ban seems significantly greater than any utility gained from it.

      Honestly given how bad the alternatives are, and the fact that i usually walk around with a fairly big purse, i might just go ahead and buy some bendy straws to keep on my person. Fortunately buying those for private use is still legal.

    • BBA says:

      The plastic straw bans are nonsensical, apparently based on an elementary school student’s report… but didn’t there used to be coated paper straws of a similar quality to the current plastic straws? If so, why haven’t those made a comeback instead of the mushy paper straws that are becoming the new standard?

      Also, I thought biodegradable plastic was a thing now.

      • Lillian says:

        Biodegradable plastic is a thing, but a lot of jurisdictions, in their rush to ban straws before the moral panic passed, failed to make allowances for them. This happened in San Fransisco, where a bubble tea chain openly and enthusiastically supported the ban, confident that biodegradable straws would be fine. They were wrong, the city banned all plastic straws, leaving the business with a huge problem because bubble tea doesn’t really work without straws and suppliers for paper straws are slammed with increased demand.

      • Aapje says:


        Also, I thought biodegradable plastic was a thing now.

        Biodegradable plastic actually comes in two types:
        – Plastic with additives so it falls apart in the environment
        – Stuff that looks a bit like plastic, but isn’t (and instead is 100% biodegradable material)

        The idea behind the first type is that the small particles are digestible by micro organisms. However, there is debate about the risks of microplastics and whether the speed by which they actually degrade is sufficient (perhaps hundreds to thousands of years).

        The non-plastic biodegradable ‘plastic’ does degrade, but the issue is typically that if it degrades quickly in the environment, it also degrades quickly before and during use. If it is durable in storage and use, it typically is really slow to degrade.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      Hmmm. I am generally fairly down on having ended up for the past 6 years and the medium term future in a small town in the rural midwest, but apparently there are a few upsides to being years behind the latest fads. Not many dining options and pretty much zero in the way of cultural options that have any personal appeal, but nary a hint of paper straws.

      • Protagoras says:

        I think it’s just a California thing for now. Or at least if it’s invaded any part of the East Coast, it hasn’t yet reached where I am; there are still plastic straws in RI and Massachusetts.

        • LHN says:

          Illinois, too– not the whole state, but it’s an actively debated issue in a number of localities (including Chicago) and an increasing number of restaurants and chains have switched to paper straws, straws on request, etc. I’d say odds are about 2:1 in favor of my town banning plastic straws within the next year or two. (We’ve already got previous fads like required charges for shopping bags in place.)

          As another data point elsewhere, Disney World has switched to paper straws. (And even worse, no lids on drink cups, which is a terror when carrying a tray full of cups across a huge, crowded counter service restaurant.)

          I’ve started carrying plastic straws in my coat pocket as a backup, though that won’t be an option once the weather warms up. (I’ve been experimenting with putting them in a metal cigar case, but it’s just too long to have in a pants pocket all the time.)

    • John Schilling says:

      There are certainly straw-substitutes that will work as well as plastic – bamboo is also pretty good, AIUI – but they are too expensive to be handed out as freebies by fast food restaurants.

      Which is sort of the point. If they don’t involve either a non-trivial cost or a noticeably unpleasant experience, they would’t satisfy the primary goal of mandating a shared sacrifice in the name of Environmental Purity. Had there been a cheap and effective straw substitute, the effort put into banning straws would have instead been deployed against some other trivial environmental insult requiring non-trivial sacrifice.

      • Aapje says:

        Had there been a cheap and effective straw substitute, the effort put into banning straws would have instead been deployed against some other trivial environmental insult requiring non-trivial sacrifice.

        Of course, because there wouldn’t have been opposition to adopting the alternative, so very little effort would be necessary and the effort could instead be put into the next most environmentally unfriendly issue.

        Your criticism is universally applicable to activism that is ‘unlimited,’ which most is, including non-progressive activism.

        • Of course, because there wouldn’t have been opposition to adopting the alternative

          I think you are misreading his argument. The point is that plastic straws would not have been banned, because banning them would not make an adequate statement of environmental virtue if there was a good, inexpensive substitute.

          It’s the same basic point that Scott made a fair while back in explaining why the high profile cases of sexual misbehavior or police misbehavior were always ones where it was unclear which side was right. You can’t get as much publicity for your position if everyone already agrees with it.

          • Aapje says:

            That argument is false because anti-plastic environmentalists fight against all uses of plastic, including cases where the plastic is easily replaced or useless in the first place.

            For example, one of the common complaints in my country is about fruit being wrapped in plastic, which seems mostly superfluous. Apples already have a protective wrapper provided by nature and aren’t typically exposed to the kind of dirt that would benefit from a plastic wrapper.

            Scott’s observation was actually based on a fairly basic truth: that people tend to fight most over things where there is strong disagreement, rather than cases where they agree. Scott then observed that this strong disagreement is often because the case for a certain position is quite weak, yet people tend to be more certain than warranted (often because people don’t actually argue the case at hand, but a larger principle, where the actual case is used as a shitty proxy). So debate over Kavanaugh is then actually in many cases actually a proxy debate over metoo, whether a conservative should be appointed to the supreme court, etc.

            These proxy debaters won’t show up if the controversy is not there. Then again, this goes for the pro-plastic straws side as well, where you also have proxy debaters who actually care about liberty, small government, etc, etc.

            While one of the motivations of some environmentalists is a ‘pure’ life, sometimes with a desire that people make clear sacrifices, that seems like a simplification of the motivations of that side. It also ignores that motivations of the same kind exist on the other side.

  27. theredsheep says:

    Question for Protestants on here (and Catholics and other Xians who want to throw in their two cents for fun): what does the Fide in Sola Fide mean to you? That is, if you are justified by faith, what does faith mean? Does it, for example, refer to acceptance of the factual truth of the resurrection (or some other fact) or to something else? Orthodox person trying to understand the Protestant POV here.

    • DragonMilk says:

      Which verse are you referring to? For “justified by faith”, you may refer to the following perhaps

      • theredsheep says:

        I’m not referring to any one specific Bible verse, but to the common Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith alone, as opposed to works–the concept goes back to Luther, doesn’t it? Overheard a discussion among coworkers the other day, made me think about what faith really means. I tend to think of it as the concept we normally call “trust,” as applied to God, and thus necessarily something which must be expressed in action, as in Abraham’s showing faith by going all the way to Canaan, being prepared to sacrifice his son, etc. But Protestants seem to use it differently.

        • zoozoc says:

          I think most protestants would agree with your definition. The emphasis on salvation by faith alone is to make sure that Christians understand that their works are the downstream result of faith and salvation, not the causes/source of the salvation.

          The perfect example from the bible would be the thief on the cross. He had faith in Jesus and expressed so verbally. If he would have survived I am sure he would have changed his ways. But he didn’t need to in order to be saved.

          • Tenacious D says:

            The dying thief is a very good example.

            A quote I’ve heard (possibly in a sermon by Tim Keller?) is that “weak faith in a strong object is better than strong faith in a weak object”. So the protestant understanding of faith should not be confused for the power of positive thinking. It is still God-focused.

            Also, the five solas should be understood as a cohesive package. Sola fide is alongside sola gratia for a reason: even faith is birthed by grace.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I’m a Protestant, and that’s how I interpret faith as well. Though, I wouldn’t say it must be expressed in action; I’d rather say it naturally will be expressed in action. It’s possible to have inward trust even if you haven’t had an opportunity to show it yet.

    • dodrian says:

      I think it’s most helpful to understand the five solaes in the context of the corruptness of the Catholic Church at the time. Luther’s 95 theses aren’t that long of a read; he was largely questioning why the Church was setting itself up as the arbiter of salvation (and using this for political and/or financial gain), arguing that while the church should minister salvation, salvation is God’s gift alone to provide.

      To me, justification by faith means that I cannot do anything to earn salvation. Salvation is an undeserved gift offered by God (sola gratia), faith is at its core the acceptance of this gift and recognizing that it is unearned.

      What is your Orthodox perspective?

      • theredsheep says:

        I don’t feel like anybody really defines it clearly, that I’ve heard. My personal perspective, not necessarily equal to the official Orthodox one (which I can’t recall ever encountering a precise definition of) is in my reply to DragonMilk; it’s the willingness to trust God as expressed in our behavior, rather than any particular intellectual state by itself.

        • dodrian says:

          I think most mainline Protestants would say that faith is trusting in God’s salvation, and that good works (behavior) are not a condition of faith, but do necessarily follow.

          Again, this is because of the context of the Protestant reformation and the then Catholic church making requirements of people to receive salvation

          So, seeing someone claiming faith but not acting like it would lead a protestant to say that person probably does not have faith (faith without works is dead, etc). However they would be very clear to say that good works are evidence of faith, not a prerequirement.

          • theredsheep says:

            We Orthodox tend to say that we are “coworkers in our salvation.” God necessarily does far more of the heavy lifting, being by far the stronger partner. But we think of it as a long process of self-improvement into which we must put continuous effort.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The Orthodox view sounds very Arminian to my ears. I don’t think you’ll find one Protestant view of this; it’s been a major topic of contention. Many would say Arminianism is just the heresy of Pelagius revisited. Consider Calvin’s catechism for the opposing view:

            Q112 M. Do we conceive faith of ourselves, or do we receive it from God?

            S. Scripture teaches that it is the special gift of God, and this experience confirms.

            Q116 M. But are all the works of men so vile and valueless that they cannot merit favour with God?

            S. First, all the works which proceed from us, so as properly to be called our own, are vicious, and therefore they can do nothing but displease God, and be rejected by him.

            Q124 M. But can we infer from this that a Christian man is justified by works after he has been called by God, or that by the merit of works he makes himself loved by God, whose love is eternal life to us?

            S. By no means. We rather hold what is written — that no man can be justified in his sight, and we therefore pray, “Enter not into judgment with us.” (Psalm 143:2)

            Q125 M. We are not therefore to think that the good works of believers are useless?

            S. Certainly not. For not in vain does God promise them reward both in this life and in the future. But this reward springs from the free love of God as its source; for he first embraced us as sons, and then burying the remembrance of the vices which proceed from us, he visits us with his favour.

            Q126 M. But can this righteousness be separated from good works, so that he who has it; may be void of them?

            S. That cannot be. For when by faith we receive Christ as he is offered to us, he not only promises us deliverance from death and reconciliation with God, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, by which we are regenerated to newness of life; these things midst necessarily be conjoined so as not to divide ,Christ from himself.

            Q127 M. Hence it follows that; faith is the root from which all good works spring, so far is it from taking us off from the study of them?

            S. So indeed it is; and hence the whole doctrine of the gospel is comprehended under the two branches, faith and repentance.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Prot here. It’s definitely not intellectual assent. I prefer to explain it to people as “trust in God” and would have said that even before reading your comment, so I think we’re on the same page here.

      (“Loving God” is the real goal, but that’s only achieved by advanced disciples and children.)

      “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” – C.S. Lewis, Protestant

    • theredsheep says:

      Thanks to all for your responses; I haven’t been chatting much because I don’t have anything substantive to say, not because I haven’t been reading them.

      • DragonMilk says:

        If your question is more on “faith” rather than the “justified” part, I’d refer you to this sermon instead.

        Figure it’s good to hear it from people who do such explaining for a living than to attempt my own response.

    • hls2003 says:

      This may be semantics, but I guess that’s kind of the point of the question. I would very mildly disagree with a position that “faith” does not correspond to “intellectual assent.” Since confessing that Jesus is Lord, and believing in one’s heart that God raised him from the dead, are bare-bones descriptions of a person possessing saving faith, I think it is correct to say that it does require an intellectual acknowledgment of the reality of certain historical facts (e.g. about Jesus’ life, death, and the Resurrection). However, I still agree with other commenters that “intellectual assent” means something more than “if polled on the question, would check ‘Yes.'” One way of looking at this is the common injunction that faith leads to works; but another way of looking at it is that intellectual assent has a lot more consequences than its oft-added appendage “mere intellectual assent” would suggest.

      Imagine that you are on a street, with a bus careening towards you. If asked “Do you agree that a bus is coming at you?” and you say “yes,” but take no evasive action, I suggest that you have not in fact “intellectually assented” to the reality of the bus. You might believe it is a hologram, or a Hollywood prop, or a dream or delusion. But if you intellectually agree that there is a real bus about to hit the real you, then you move; if you don’t move, you probably don’t really agree. If certain things are real, then a whole cascade of consequences follow.

      So I would say that faith is defined as the deep conviction that happens when, by grace alone, certain truths come to be genuinely intellectually accepted.

    • J Mann says:

      I have trouble buying faith without works. If you’re a faithful Christian, it would be odd to see you not doing works, and I would question whether you really have faith. “You will know them by their fruits”, “Faith without works is dead,” etc. (Of course, I’m Catholic, so I guess I would say that.)

      If some dude thinks that faith alone is necessary and works irrelevant, but he does the works anyway because he has faith, then I won’t argue.

      The tougher case is works without faith, or the “righteous pagan.” Instinctively, I have trouble believing that someone who lives her life in service of others will get punished for not having Christian parents (and therefore having a much steeper hill of faith to climb), but there’s lots of biblical quotes about that too.

      • dndnrsn says:

        What are you understanding “works” as here? The works/faith division in early Christianity (I cannot speak to later developments) has works as ritual action, not as good deeds and so forth. Religion in the ancient Mediterranean appears to have had a lot more to do with following the right rituals, doing the right ceremonies, etc, than with intellectual acceptance of creeds, a personal sense of faith, etc.

        • J Mann says:

          I understand them to be good deeds, but I’m not sophisticated on the question.

          Do evangelicals believe that the faith/works issue means that, e.g., baptism or public confession of sins are not relevant to their faith? I had thought those were important.

          I guess my faith requires me to believe that the Pope has the authority to require observance of the sacraments, but I haven’t read the Catechism well enough to know to what extent those are literally required as opposed to a very good idea. Assuming the Pope requires sacraments, my faith literally requires me to believe they’re obligatory, even though my intuition is they’re not, so the faith/works question might be somewhat complicated for me.

          * As you can tell, I’m not a very sophisticated consumer of religion,** but I had understood the original question to ask for people’s opinions, so there’s mine.

          ** On the other hand, Pope Francis cautioned people about falling prey to the Gnostic and Pelagian heresies last year, and from his description, over-intellectualizing religion can drive one in those directions, so . . . in the words of PeeWee Herman: “What significance does this have? — I have no idea!!!”

        • Randy M says:

          @dndrsn can you give a reference to some text for that?
          I don’t see how the early church fathers could read, for example, James chapter 2 and think that works meant rituals. Or Jesus saying “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

          Although looking at Romans 10:10 I could see some justification of that, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” if you took that as part 1, heart belief is faith, part 2, mouth confession is works. To me it makes more sense as a 2 part confessional process; both parts 1 + 2 are faith, works being different.

          @J mann

          Do evangelicals believe that the faith/works issue means that, e.g., baptism or public confession of sins are not relevant to their faith?

          I don’ think many will say baptism isn’t relevant, but rather that it isn’t critical.
          Public confession isn’t common in evangelical congregations, ime. It varies somewhat from denomination to denomination.

          Faith and Works is a good example of correlation vs causation. Like a falling rock doesn’t cause gravity, but a suspended rock does tell you something about the current state of gravity, so works to not cause salvation, but are greatly informative about the state of salvation.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I don’t have an English bible on hand, unfortunately, and it’s a hassle finding anything in an online bible. When I’ve a little more time I can do a bit of searching if you’d like. But it’s not just what’s in the text, either – the documents in the New Testament were written in a particular context. They’re not going to lay out every detail of that context, and aren’t necessarily written as self-contained theological units.

            In the ancient Mediterranean, generally speaking, for public religion at least (the mystery religions were a different kettle of fish, and we honestly don’t know that much about them because they kept a lot of stuff secret) ritual action was more important than belief, faith, whatever. Does [local deity] care that in your heart you don’t really believe he’s going to deliver on his promises? Not really, as long as you keep sacrificing animals to him. Standard-issue ancient Mediterranean religion was civic religion.

            Think of the gods as the government – if you pay the taxes, and follow the rules, and so on, does the government care that you don’t really like it very much? The way we divide the world into natural and supernatural is probably the exception in human history. The gods exist, and they want their due, just like the government exists and wants its due. You follow the rituals and so forth so that the local deity will smile upon the place and the harvests will be good and you’ll succeed at war and so on. Corporate, group-based religion (I should mention, again, the mystery religions – which were far more concerned with the individual’s soul).

            Judaism had some strong differences from the surrounding religions, and had made some changes from the form derived from the canonical Hebrew Bible alone by the time Christianity popped up, but it was still at its heart quite similar to the other religions around it. Some stuff that Jesus is quoted as saying in the Synoptics can be read as a fairly radical attack on the religious status quo in the Judaism of that place and time. Many of those attacks were on the focus on ritual and following purity rules – this has been exaggerated (largely by Protestant Biblical scholars smuggling anti-Catholic stuff into their analysis of Second Temple Judaism).

            Let’s put it this way – to a Christian lens, or to a modern humanistic lens, it’s fairly obvious that the sabbath is for man. But, back then, that would not be the obvious take, and even today, there are people who would disagree. The same is true of other religious rules – I recall an article in the NYT Magazine about young, hip, with-it, but still observant Jews explaining how kosher meat production was better for the animals. Next week there was a letter from an Orthodox rabbi explaining that the reason for kosher meat production practices wasn’t that the rules were to encourage treating animals nicely or whatever – the reason was that the rules are the rules, and you follow them, because you don’t know better than G-d.

          • Randy M says:

            I don’t want to unfairly summarize you, but it sounds like the gist of your argument is that in every ancient religion, rituals were very important, so naturally that was the case in Christianity as well, nevermind all the bits where Jesus said otherwise.

            That may be true, but it isn’t persuasive unless you show me some examples of early Christianity specifically where they emphasize rituals to the exclusion of beneficence.

          • dndnrsn says:

            That’s the opposite of what I’m saying – but I wrote that just after I woke up, so it’s maybe a bit confusing.

            Christianity was unusual in its focus on faith (however one constructs that faith – I, as a stick-in-the-mud secular-scholarship guy, think Jesus was saying different stuff from what early Christians even a couple decades later were saying) over ritual action.

            My point is that “works” often gets understood as “deeds, actions in the world” when it’s more like “ritual action.” Jesus, an apocalypticist, encouraged his audience to have faith that God was going to come soon and fix this broken world, stipulated an impractical-for-the-long-term morality (including what we would view as “good deeds”) predicated on the belief that God would soon intervene in history, and placed less emphasis on ritual action than was the norm in the Judaism of the time or the Mediterranean pagan civic religions of the time.

          • Jaskologist says:

            It’s certainly fair to say that the early church did a lot of thinking about rituals. Judaizers were a big controversy, and the occasion for the very first church council.

            It’ll take more than that to say that early Christians were only talking about ritualistic observances when they spoke of works, though. In particular, I don’t think Romans 7-8 make a lot of sense if they are talking only about rituals and not sin/works as we understand it now.

          • dndnrsn says:

            For sure, it gets more complicated, especially the later you go. However, in our context, it’s hard (but important) to see how ritual action was extremely important back then, in the ancient Mediterranean context.

            I think, in general, it is hard for us to grasp how weird Christianity was in its original context. There’s a lot of stuff that seems kind of obvious to “moderns” that back then would have had people kicking up a fuss.

            Centuries of Protestant-Catholic sniping (and worse) have also made it more confusing than it should be. Again, a lot of the German biblical scholars were Protestants with a hate-on for Catholicism, and cast shade at late Second Temple Judaism insofar as they associated its attitudes with those of Catholicism.

          • J Mann says:

            Thanks to all of you, very informative.

            As a half-educated Catholic, my understanding of “faith” and “works” in practice is that it’s something Protestants think Catholics got wrong, but I don’t quite get what the distinction is. As far as I can tell, both groups have rituals that are necessary for admission, an obligation to do good deeds (one or both of which might be “works”) and an obligation to believe certain principles even in the absence of evidence that would be compelling to a neutral party (which I’ll call “faith.”)

            By contrast, I can at least understand where people might think Catholics practice idolatry or worship saints, so I can examine those, but the faith-works distinction between Catholics and Protestants is over my head.

  28. hash872 says:

    Given that the US was mostly founded in the Northeast- why is northern New England so lightly settled? Just sort of a general question around settlement & migration patterns. Maine, much of New Hampshire and Vermont have very light density, despite settlements that began pre-Revolutionary War. Why did 18th/19th century settlers expand to the Midwest and not, say, further north from the coast into Maine? Maine despite being a mid-sized state by acreage is shockingly lightly settled- parts of it are comparable to Alaska, with towns entitled T-183 & such (the T standing for township).

    I understand that agriculturally the soil in these northern states are probably pretty poor compared to the Midwest. But they had extensive quality timber holdings, which was a huge thing in the wooden ship era. Also, while in a vacuum I could accept that some states are simply too cold & remote to be worth settling- travel a little further north and we find Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and other legitimately world-class Canadian cities. It seems like density spikes as soon as you get north of the border. So the climate/soil potential didn’t hold back Toronto from growing to almost the size of NYC. Also settlers emigrated to other cold-weather future states like Michigan, Minnesota etc. So- why did virtually no one in that era settle northern Maine/NH/VT?

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      Water transport access, or lack thereof? The Canadian cities you mention are on fairly major rivers/lakes.

      Also possibly mountainous terrain; there’s lots of good skiing in northern ME/NH/VT and that’s probably inversely correlated with attractiveness to pre-industrial settlers.

    • Enkidum says:

      Toronto is on a massive flood plain, and I have no idea how accurate this is, but my parents used to say you could see half the grade A farmland in Canada from the observation deck of the CN Tower. Certainly there’s a lot of good arable land currently under its concrete. Montreal is surround by flood plains, and was originally a single, relatively easily defensible island in the middle of one of the largest rivers in the world. Quebec City is on that same river. Ottawa is also on a major river, and has some decent farmland (though it was originally founded for the timber trade).

      Once you travel an hour or so out of any of those towns with the exception of Toronto, you’re back in the Canadian Shield, which is generally pretty shit for farming. South of the St Lawrence or the Great Lakes, you don’t have any massive rivers to produce appropriate flood plains, which are one of the main factors behind good farmland outside of volcanic regions. Hence nothing much north of NYC.

      Take everything I’ve just said with a grain of salt, it’s kind of anecdotal wisdom I’ve picked up over the years. For what it’s worth I’m Canadian and have lived in two of those cities and read histories of all of them at one point or another.

    • psmith says:

      If Goldthwait 1927 is to be believed, they did, but they left for the superior farmland of the Midwest:

      But maybe he isn’t to be believed:

    • Tenacious D says:

      As Nicholas says, the terrain is quite rough. Mt. Katahdin and Mt. Washington aren’t the very highest peaks in the Appalachian range, but they’re not terribly far down the ranking and are far enough north to remain covered in snow much longer than comparable mountains in Tennessee and Virginia. There’s a potato belt in northern Maine but other than that I don’t think the soil is that great for agriculture (the soil around Toronto and Montreal is fantastic and Ottawa and Quebec City are in defensible locations along key waterways). Logging doesn’t support or require a large population base.
      The barrier of the mountains puts that part of New England in an out-of-the-way corner. The St. Lawrence and Hudson rivers offer access to the continental interior so the wedge in between is easy to bypass. Of course there is access from the sea, so places with good harbours like Portland and Portsmouth ended up with long-lasting settlements, joined by other cities along the main rivers of the region (and Lake Champlain).

    • John Schilling says:

      With colonial-era transportation technology, what matters is not distance from London (or wherever) but distance from the nearest American port or navigable waterway. And, of course, presence of decent farmland, but the plain or shallow valley surrounding a navigable river will almost by definition be deep sediment with adequate of fresh water at least.

      New England’s means both the navigable rivers and the good farmland mostly go away when you get more than a few dozen miles from the coast; you’ve got the Mohawk valley and Lake Champlain running up eastern New York State, but not much north of that. Once the relatively narrow coastal strip was fully settled, it was easier to spend a few more days on a ship sailing south along the coast or west up the St. Lawrence than to spend a few weeks hauling wagonloads of farm-building equipment inland – particularly when contemplating the need to make the reverse trip with each year’s harvest. Only if you were specifically interested in e.g. beaver pelts, maple syrup, or gafiating, would someplace like northern Vermont be appealing.

      • Rob K says:

        This never struck me until I got lost on a bike once, but it’s remarkable the extent to which the perpendicular-to-the-coast orientation of river transportation networks is still reflected in the roads of New England. I missed one turn when attempting to ride up through one set of towns (and, functionally, valley system), cross over, and ride back down the neighboring one, and because of the paucity of roads running parallel to the coast over any distance it more than doubled the length of the trip (leaving me a very tired person).

        (And here I’m not talking about the big dominant rivers of the region, these were relatively minor waterways with a low ridge between them.)

    • ilikekittycat says:

      In addition to the geographical concerns others have covered, some sociopolitical issues:

      1. Political objectives between the United Kingdom and the United States do not converge until the Spanish–American War in 1898. Until then, relations are a chilly Great Power competition, and living along the border means you’re gonna be a farmer or living in a wooden town on the frontlines of a credible hot war. The Southern Canadian cities are relatively defensible in comparison.

      2. Settled societies used to talk of a “womb of nations” where new barbarian societies formed seemingly out of nowhere; for much of American history the sparse parts of New England are subject to the Great Awakening like the womb of Weird New Religions. This is where the sorts of local attitudes that get exaggerated for the towns in Stephen King novels start to creep in.

      3. Papist Acadians and the American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood working to undermine decent society, according to anti-Catholic sentiments at the time. From 1840-1917, a lot of immigrants from Ireland, Quebec, Italy and Southern Europe. A lot of abolitionist/suffragist/temperance culture war, and Puritan-tribe expectations of local democracy and civic responsibility that weren’t for everyone, compared to the benign neglect of the Western Frontiers.

      4. Early industrialization and rapid growth of textile manufacturing made rural yeoman farmer ideals less popular in the Northeast earlier than other parts of the country. The Yankee/Rebel contrast accelerates this during the Civil War amongst the most educated and literate population in the Americas. Early deindustrialization hollows out the region as the textile industry collapses in the Depression. After WWII winds down, most of the factories shut down and don’t open again.

    • bean says:

      I’d say that the points already made about water transportation and terrain are the biggest factor (it always comes back to the sea!), but I’d also wonder about the history of land ownership in the area. It seems very possible that most of the areas in question got locked up in private hands relatively early in the settlement history of the region, and there wasn’t a lot of incentive to subdivide and improve them. On the other hand, similar land in the west (Wisconsin, Michigan, et al) were transferred to the public in a way explicitly designed to encourage settlement, most prominently through the Homestead Acts.

      • hash872 says:

        Interesting. I appreciate all of the responses from everyone. I have to say your point about land titles/the Homestead Act was the biggest one that I did not consider at all. (Also I also did not consider how industrialization starting in the Northeast might have lured farmer-types away from their homes).

        Still, it seems odd that these states are mostly so vacant. Logging for wooden ships was huge in the 19th century, and there was a ton of logging in northern Maine and elsewhere. Surprising that no one moved in to the clearcut lands and then started say dairy or sheep farming with it. But, on the other hand, I know that the paper companies held on to ownership of a lot of land, so maybe it wasn’t available for settlement.

        Seeing as Maine is so economically dead, I wonder if state laws encouraging the paper companies to sell their vast present holdings for settlements might help attract people. Like, they sell small parcels at a discount, and the state gives them a tax credit for each one sold, or something. Some type of recreation of the Homestead Act. I know that northern Maine is the new Amish hotspot, as Pennsylvania/Ohio have gotten too crowded for them/their high birth rates

  29. johan_larson says:

    Looking for some help from the science fiction readers in this forum. I’m trying to locate a story, but I only remember the title, or rather the form of the title. It was something like “123484752 to 1” or “1 in 27928349834”. The number it contained was quite long, perhaps as long as a phone number, and it had no decimal point or exponent. The story was on the older side, perhaps from the sixties. Ring any bells?

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      The closest I recall is the Alfred Bester classic “5,271,009”; is that the one you remember or are you sure there was a “to/in” odds-type modifier in the title?

      • johan_larson says:

        Yes, I believe that’s the one. The second paragraph, about Mr. Acquila never having to wait for a stoplight, taxi, or elevator, looks very familiar. Thanks.

        I’m not sure where the “to 1” came from, but perhaps it was from the story “10^16 to 1” by James Patrick Kelly.

  30. knownastron says:

    Why is it that when I sleep 7 or 8 hours (woken by an alarm or not) I feel energized and can get through the day without any energy crashes.

    However, once I sleep 9+ hours, usually awaking natural, which should be a good thing, I feel fatigued throughout the day and I feel like I need to nap multiple times.

    Does anyone have a similar experience? Is there any additional insight that can be made on this unusual sleep pattern?

    • Eric Rall says:

      My first guess is that it’s related to sleep inertia: there’s a well-documented feeling of grogginess after waking up under certain circumstances (after a long nap, being woken abrubtly from deep (stage 3) sleep, etc). Sleep inertia is why a 20-30 minute nap can feel more refreshing than a 1-2 hour nap: longer naps are more likely to leave you with sleep inertia afterwards.

      My second guess is that how long you sleep is probably influenced by how fatigued you are: if you only need 7-8 hours, you’ll wake up at your usual time, but if you need 10 hours, you’ll sleep for 9, wake up naturally because you aren’t accustomed to being asleep that long, and then feel the remaining 1 hour of sleep debt.

    • yodelyak says:

      Both of Eric Rall’s ideas seem right to me, if it really is sleep that is the main factor.*

      You might find your solution turns on something that affects both your sleepiness and the hour you get up. For me, I see this pattern with changes in my motivation. Specifically, I find is that if I’m highly motivated, and consequently go to bed already beginning to visualize and rehearse what my next day’s morning’s activities will look like, I rise early and have a full day. If I go to bed without bothering to have planned the next day’s work ahead of time, the next day becomes a day of laziness and grogginess and stimulants-as-crutches, with the attendant crashes that such reliance on stimulants often entails. It is possible to go through all of life in a low-motivation state (most people I think) or in a high-motivation state (Bill Clinton, maybe… dude seems neither to need sleep, nor to make any kind of decision except the sort of decision exhausted, high-motivation people make).

      *I’m a person who has no formal training on the subject of sleep, however I did read a few books about sleep, and formulated a multi-prong plan-of-attack when, after I moved to a more northern latitude for college, I found I needed some serious new tools to be well rested and not sleep all the time or at strange times. I don’t know what’s changed since I went to college, but circa 2008, there was already a *lot* that people have figured out about sleep, and Eric Rall’s comments are spot on.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Yes, and I remember having conversations back in high school about this, so apparently it is common.

      My initial hypothesis is that REM sleep increases after you hit the 8 hour mark, but waking up in the middle of a REM cycle is damn fatiguing. I always dreamt more and more vividly as soon as I slipped past that 8 hour marker, and waking up in the middle of a dream was always very, very bad for me. The few people I mentioned this to agreed.

      Quick googling suggests that what might be happening is that you basically adding another REM cycle to your sleep, your body is forcing you awake in the middle of it, and you feel groggy because you woke up in the middle of a cycle rather than at the end of the cycle.

  31. savebandit says:

    Is there any data on how much of the population could be called altruistic? This would be people who feel compelled to be altruistic, not just people who actually act that way.

    A lot of my atheist friends seem to believe that the world will be better off as formerly Christian areas start to lose their compulsion to act in line with Christian morals. I’ve always wondered if people will start to be nicer or meaner as more people tend toward atheism/agnosticism.

    • DeWitt says:

      How would you even measure such a thing?

      • savebandit says:

        I’ve thought it might be unmeasureable, but if anyone has an answer it’s here. How does effective altruism even work if altruism is indefinable? That’s not a question directed at you, just a rationalization of why I thought someone on this forum would know.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      A lot of my atheist friends seem to believe that the world will be better off as formerly Christian areas start to lose their compulsion to act in line with Christian morals. I’ve always wondered if people will start to be nicer or meaner as more people tend toward atheism/agnosticism.

      This is a complicated question and I don’t think you’ll find any data in the scientific style you’re asking for. The philosopher Rene Girard has written books on the purported universality of the scapegoat mechanism, Christianity’s rejection of it, and the tension between altruism and building mountains of scapegoats in post-Christian countries.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Has Christianity been better about not scapegoating? It was only in the mid 20th century, for example, that various Christian denominations disavowed antisemitism (eg, the Catholic church cracking down on blood-libel-affiliated child saints) and scapegoating is one of the major roots of Christian-derived antisemitism.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          I mean, yes? Quantitative comparisons between the Holocaust and Church-sponsored pogroms is a central point of Girard’s thought.
          Note that when Girard talks about scapegoating someone, he’s explicitly talking about killing them. It’s a form of animal or human sacrifice. Blaming someone for your problems doesn’t count unless they’re killed.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Girard did most of his writing on that in the 70s and 80s, it looks like. The field of the study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust has changed a lot in the last ~20 years, based on a new generation of scholars and a lot of interesting stuff coming out of ex-Soviet sources. I don’t think it can be broken down neatly into “Christian pogroms” and “post-Christian organized mass murder” – eg, the Einsatzgruppen units usually had as their first go-to an attempt to rile up locals against local Jews. The two combined in many places, and I don’t think many scholars would argue that the relatively areligious, conspiratorial, biologically-based antisemitism of the Nazis would have come about without the long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism.

        • Aapje says:


          Has Christianity been better about not scapegoating?

          The forgiveness of sinners, rather than make an example out of them is rather at the core of Christianity, including being a key component of the apotheosis of the New Testament.

          I do sometimes miss this…

          • crh says:

            I think the question here is about what Christians actually do, not what they profess to believe.

          • Aapje says:

            But then the question is: what is the baseline?

            If scapegoating and such are part of human biology, then Christianity can be effective at reducing it, while it would then still happen.

            A complicating factor is that a confounder may be at play here as well. It seems quite plausible to me that better education causes atheism and less (and more civilized forms of) scapegoating, but it can then still be true that the better educated Christian is less of a scapegoat enthusiast than the better educated atheist.

          • Jaskologist says:

            What Aapje said. I realize I’m asking to be graded on a curve, but that’s not entirely unfair in a religion which explicitly says believers are still flawed.

            Good luck figuring out how to measure this one, though.

      • Walter says:

        For what it is worth, I expect your atheist friends are quite wrong. We will see in time who is correct…

    • Erusian says:

      Is there any data on how much of the population could be called altruistic? This would be people who feel compelled to be altruistic, not just people who actually act that way.

      There’s lots of data. Everyone who agrees with $writer is altruistic. Everyone who disagrees is bad. See: Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, Evangelicals, and all groups of humans going back to Adam and Eve.

      More seriously, there have been studies about how people act when they feel they’re not being observed as well as how seriously they take commitments to moral rules. It tends to turn out poorly for atheists. Belief in a higher power generally correlates strongly with altruistic actions. However, in something of a blow for theists, it appears the majority (though not totality) of religions fit the bill. This is somewhat obvious if you think about it: believing the universe has an order where altruism is rewarded and the wicked are punished would tend to encourage altruism.

      • 10240 says:

        Does every major religion consider altruism an obligation or at least good, and assign equal importance to it?

        • Jaskologist says:

          Charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. I’ve heard it said that it’s really only considered obligatory to be charitable to poor Muslims, but I don’t know how true it is. In practice, that still covers most people most Muslims would encounter.

          I’m told that Hinduism tends to cut against charity. Reincarnation and karma mean that the person in dire straits deserves it, and lower castes are treated very poorly as a result. But again, that’s third-hand information.

        • albatross11 says:

          I vaguely remember from my comparative religion class many years ago that many religions had something like the golden rule. That’s partly altruism and partly an ethic of cooperation (particularly in situations modeled well by prisoners dilemma / iterated prisoners dilemma and similar simple games).

          I think many religions also involve almsgiving as an important part of the religion.

      • albatross11 says:

        One place you might find some data here is in social psychology/evolutionary psychology/experimental economics, where they will sometimes look at what real humans[1] do when invited to play some games that capture some aspect of altruism and cooperation and altruistic punishment. The two examples I know of are:

        a. The ultimatum game–there’s some money (say $10) to be divided. I propose a division–say $7 for me and $3 for you. You get to accept (in which case we both get the money as you proposed) or reject (in which case neither of us gets anything). Rationally, even if I propose $9.99 to me and $0.01 to you, you should accept, as you’re better off getting a penny than nothing. In practice though, almost nobody will accept such a deal. Refusing the deal is altruistic punishment–you’re taking one for the team, losing out on an unfair reward to re-enforce fairness norms.

        b. The snowdrift game–described here. Basically, both our cars are stuck behind a snowdrift–if both of us shovel together, we both get our cars out and everything’s great. But if only one of us shovels, then the other gets a free ride. And if neither of us shovels, then we both end up stuck in our driveways till the snow melts. The problem is how to avoid getting screwed over while still getting the drive shoveled out.

        I expect that experimenters have noted various properties of subjects (age, religion, national origin, social class, race, political affiliation, etc.) and correlated them against probability of behaving in a more altruistic/pro-social way. That would be one place to look for data.

        • Aapje says:


          Rationally, even if I propose $9.99 to me and $0.01 to you, you should accept, as you’re better off getting a penny than nothing.

          Only in a non-iterative situation. Imagine that we have two such games consecutively with two scenario’s:
          1. I accept $0.01 both times, for a total of $0.02
          2. I reject your first proposal, costing me $0.01. Then next game you learn your lesson and propose $3. Now I have $3.

          $3 is a lot more than $0.02.

          I think that it is quite clear that humans are heavily focused on iterative situations. Historically, this seems quite optimal. Only fairly recently in human history did transportation, communication and such become so good that ‘hit and run’ strategies have become much more feasible.

          However, even then it seems that solutions that make the situation more iterative work better on the whole than to switch to a low-trust strategy.

          Note that these games often are artificial in a way that makes them so different from reality that people can be argued to be quite logical by often acting in a way that is appropriate to the more realistic situation. For example, in that snowdrift game, it’s usually going to be quite obvious if the other person is not doing any work and even if the other person manages to fool me, I have the option of taking revenge if I notice that only I did any work.

        • theredsheep says:

          IIRC, you only see altruistic punishment when you play the ultimatum game with Americans, or perhaps Westerners; I seem to remember reading that, when you play it with Bolivians, they’ll cheerfully take any division as free money, and think it would be ridiculous to stint yourself just to punish the other person for being lucky enough to be in the dividing spot. I read that some time ago, though, and couldn’t link to it.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Altruism is a spectrum. We have pretty consistently found that charitable donations correlate with religiosity, a finding that has been replicated even in SSC Surveys. But there are surely many other measures (I’ve seen blood donations used, with similar results).

    • This reminds me of Orwell’s comment on the loss of religion:

      For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end…our efforts were rewarded and down we came. But unfortunately, there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.

      • theredsheep says:

        That metaphor is needlessly complicated IMO; roses have thorns, after all.

      • Enkidum says:

        Obviously you (@DavidFriedman) know this, but it’s probably worth mentioning for context that Orwell was an atheist and, I believe in the same essay, notes that he thinks the loss of religion is, on balance, a good thing.

    • yodelyak says:

      This post by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard came to mind for me as a good response to your prompt.

      They discuss the results of another academic who tried to measure strategic differences in negotiation style across Americans. The short version of those results was that, among Americans,

      50% are “individualistic,” showing concern primarily for their own outcome, independent of others’ outcomes.
      25 – 35 % are “cooperative” showing an interest in maximizing their own and others’ negotiation outcomes.
      5% – 10% are “competitive” — meaning they focus on the relative size of their “win” in contrast with those they negotiate with
      finally “altruists” — so rare they don’t get a percent prevalence — focus primarily on ensuring the maximum benefit for their negotiation partner.

      I think people tend to seek out ecosystems where their style will be rewarded (e.g. con-artist, used-car salesman are often competitive types, psychologists and ministers are often altruists.) I also think people tend to chameleon-like changes toward negotiation styles that thrive in the situation they find themselves. Religions are, imho, long-lived institutional forces for deliberately creating ecologies that favor cooperative and generous negotiation styles (and that help people identify and avoid other ecologies). Relatedly, while I am personally a materialist, I have no interest in anti-theism or in any movement that overall seems more interested in weakening existing/old church-like communities than in building stronger and more resilient new ones.

    • DragonMilk says:

      I don’t know about niceness or meanness, but theoretically, the less Christian a society becomes, the more self-centered it should be.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by altruistic. I think pretty much 100% of the population is empathetic in some manner. By this I mean they feel bad when others are hurt (at least others in their tribe), or try to help others do better. The reason I think close to 100% is because I think it is hard to survive to adulthood if you don’t have some fellow feeling with other people. I guess this is less true in the modern age you can be prosecuted if you neglect your children, and your kids taken away. So even if kids are totally unloveable, I suppose they will likely find some public agency to bring them up. But this still seems pretty rare.

      So is altruistic different from empathetic?

      In my experience Christians aren’t any nicer on average than others. I knew a few preachers when I was a kid, and they were all pretty mean to their kids. It seems as if holding oneself up as a paragon of virtue in public interferes with one’s natural sense of empathy in private. All anecdotal though.

      • 10240 says:

        Even if a child doesn’t feel bad when others are hurt, he’ll sooner or later learn to avoid hurting others in his own interest, to avoid punishment.

  32. Well... says:

    Datapoint: after years of saying I’d do it but being poo-poohed out of it by other adults, yesterday I finally gave a young child a birthday present consisting merely of a large, empty cardboard box. I included a 6oz package of fresh raspberries inside the box as well, although this was really just the proverbial cherry on top. (I got the box for free from my company’s mail room, where it had been sitting doing nothing but holding a few stacks of styrofoam cups.)

    It was the child’s favorite gift out of dozens received, and both whole and after eating the raspberries the child spent 90% of the time at the party playing in the box (and, I’m told, most of the rest of the day, and much of today as well) and the other adults there all congratulated me on having “won” the gift game.

    So, if you’ve had this idea before but haven’t gone through with it for whatever reason (peer pressure, probably), know that in at least one case it has gone over splendidly.

    • toastengineer says:

      For that to work requires friends who wouldn’t interpret that as some kind of calculated insult.

    • ana53294 says:

      While as a kid I loved boxes (up to age five or so), I think it’s the expectations that build up if it’s wrapped and heavy that get broken that’s the problem.

      It’s like giving a kid an empty candy wrapper. It makes you look like a bully who makes fun of others. But if you just give a b ox, without wrapping it or giving the wrong idea, then a box is a good gift.

    • Viliam says:

      That reminds me how I once bought a plastic box, and my daughter (1 year old back then) spent the entire day repeatedly climbing into the box, climbing out of the box, bringing toys into the box, throwing the toys out of the box, etc.

      Later we were visited by our neighbors who also have a girl of the same age, and both girls squeezed themselves into the box together and laughed about it.

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      What age/developmental stage of child? I’m quite prepared to believe that there is a period when this is a great idea, but I imagine it’s quite a narrow one?

      • Well... says:

        The child in question was 2. A 5 year-old present at the party (older sibling of the 2 year-old) also thought it was the greatest thing ever and played with it just as much. They spent most of the time in the box together, playing nicely.

    • bullseye says:

      When my niece about around 10 I gave her $20, and having no envelopes I wrapped it up with a block of wood. She and her stepsister spent all day drawing on the block of wood. As an adult she clearly remembers the wood but I don’t think she remembers the money.

    • Chalid says:

      Make sure the child’s family doesn’t do lots of online shopping. My family gets a large box every week or two, and so boxes are old news.

      (Though I think the kids would still get a kick out of a *really* big box, like refrigerator-sized.)

    • Jesse E says:

      Weird – among the people I know, of all ages, political stripes, income levels, etc., “kids will play with a box instead of the thing inside the box” is just an accepted trope of 2-6 year olds.

      • Well... says:

        The ideal present is obvious. Ask anyone “What happens when you give a kid a present?” and the answer is invariably: “They play with the box.” The weird thing is that nobody gives the obvious ideal present.

        • Aapje says:

          You’d almost think that many give to impress the parents at least as much as the child.

          • Well... says:

            Yup. But the magic is, the parents are impressed when they realize who actually gave the best gift. (Unless the parents are so unusually materialistic and status oriented as to be pathological.)

          • Aapje says:

            Giving a box is high risk though. If the child doesn’t like it, you aren’t saved by the parents thinking that the kid should have liked the gift.

          • Well... says:

            Very low probability of failure, high cost of failure. But also low investment, high probability of success!

    • fion says:

      Aw, this is the best thing I’ve read today. I remember loving boxes when I was a child. Sometimes my dad would cut eye holes and I’d put the box upside down on top of me and crawl around. Not sure how old I was at that point…

    • baconbits9 says:

      Our daughter’s birthday party this year was going to be a “bring your large xmas boxes and we will make a palace/fort out of them and decorate it/play in it all day” which was unfortunately shifted to regular cake and play when 4/5ths of the families bowed out due to illness on the eve of.

    • Randy M says:

      How large? My brothers and I loved it when my dad brought home an empty water heater box.

      • Well... says:

        I’d estimate it was about 30″ wide x 48″ long x 30″ tall, open on one of its large faces. Not enormous, but big enough for two small kids to play in together.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      If someone wants to make money from the way children want to play with/in large boxes, they could sell boxes with child-themed designs printed on them.