OT122: Openne Thread

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

1. Thanks to Santiago (“niohiki”), we have a new system where comments in open threads will now be displayed newest-first, and comments everywhere else will be oldest-first. I look forward to making all new SSC readers from this point on hopelessly confused.

2. I did some housecleaning and de-adminned everyone who didn’t seem like they were doing administrative tasks on the blog. If you got de-adminned and think you shouldn’t have been, email me.

3. Continued thanks to everyone who reports inappropriate comments using the “Report” function. For one reason or another I feel bad about banning most of the people who get reported, so I know reporting probably feels futile, but I do get a ban or two in per week, I do usually get most bad actors eventually, and I think your help is important.

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740 Responses to OT122: Openne Thread

  1. shakeddown says:

    Relevant to our interests: My friend Jon made a portmanteau-generating AI.

    (My favourite so far: Cat+Rationality=Mewtilitarian).

    • alawisgreen says:

      I used the search terms “confusion” and “code.”

      I like two of them:

      programbiguity – A program that looks like it does one thing, but actually does another.
      developheaval – The deadlines and scope of a software project constantly change.

      Putting in two antonyms creates some amusing combinations:

      What happens when you call out someone saying something terrible, and end up giving them a broader audience? You condemnphasize them.
      If you’re nicer to people after you’ve had a few beers, you’re drunkensiderate.

    • gwern says:

      Reminds me of https://llamasandmystegosaurus.blogspot.com/2017/05/alpha.html

      FWIW, the web interface would benefit greatly from a short explanation + a list of all the best examples generated so far. “The tyranny of the blank page” etc. Looking at it, it’s not obvious what you should do (or why).

      • gwern says:

        Tricky to get good ones out… Here’s some I found:

        ‘radio+advertisement=spam ham, come-onpr’

    • AJD says:

      Thank John! My current favorite POLITICAL + LIAR… prattministration … but i plan to peruse and play repeatedly.

    • Silverlock says:

      Religous + atheist: faitheist, skepticlesiastic
      Horny + sleep: listlessivious
      Scary + hilarious: surpriceless, sinisterrific

    • cuke says:

      So fun!

      Many of the combinations of sad + beautiful delivered plausible brand names for antidepressants:


    • MugaSofer says:

      I was wondering how well this would do at generating super hero/villain names, so I tossed in a few words related to a standard flying brick.

      Strong + flight = Braviator

      Strength + flight = Flightweight

      Durable + bird = Crowbust

      Edit: not only are these non-terrible, I like the way they come with built-in unique aesthetics to them, even with the most generic of power sets. I might actually use this.

    • gbear605 says:

      Here’s a bunch of good ones I found:

      The mapping of cats: geografeline
      The study of cat names: ocelotymology
      The syntax of a programming language: programmar
      A catalog of low grade humor: slapsticktionary
      The study of whether maps are accurate: epistemologyography
      The moral theory that maximizes conversations: interviewtilitarian
      Finding ones god in Blockbuster: dvdeism
      Being impressed by the disappointment of another: sadmiration
      Feeling emotions about actors: sympatheater
      When students are nice: pupolite
      Someone who lives in a flat with you: apartner
      Alternatively, if you’re pretty close, you might be: bedroommate
      Someone you meet on a porch: terraceociate
      A large hole filled with comfy stools: reservoirmchair
      An underwater oven: aquifurnace
      Setting gas on fire: ignitrogen
      A musical bar of metal: singot
      Popularity of rocks: geologiculture

    • rtypeinhell says:

      salad + equanimity =

      Not all equally strong. The rhymes though. My god.
      coriander candor
      dessert alert!!
      self-control casserole

  2. johan_larson says:

    How could the Incredibles family use their powers to make a good living through their powers without revealing themselves as supers?

    Their powers are:
    Bob – strength and durability
    Helen – stretching
    Violet – invisibility and force fields
    Dash – speed

    • The Incredibles would make good thieves, Dash, Violet, and Helen’s powers in particular. As far as an honest living… Maybe they could join Cirque Du Soleil.

      • johan_larson says:

        Bob, Helen and Dash have powers which could, if used carefully, be presented as mere mundane excellence. Bob could just act very strong, Helen very flexible, and Dash very fast. Bob and Dash could therefore work as professional (mundane) athletes and Helen could work as a contortionist.

        But Violet is different. Normal people can’t turn invisible at all, and certainly can’t project force fields.

        • MugaSofer says:

          She could be a magician/magician’s assistant. Or a spy, reporter or private detective.

          Someone who has to “disappear”and hide in mundane ways as part of their job. The forcefields/telekinesis can also be used for stealth and trickery by moving stuff around at range.

          Edit: Actually Dash would be great at this too, if he got his powers under control enough to consistently repeat the thumb-tack feat.

    • bullseye says:

      Mr. Incredible and Dash could be professional athletes if they’re careful to keep their achievements plausible. Violet could be a spy (though her handlers would know she’s a super).

      • LHN says:

        Helen’s abilities seem as if they’d lend themselves to plumbing, or other trades where getting into tight areas and manipulating things are an issue. (Though she might need to do a bit of Clark Kenting to make sure the client or her coworkers are off somewhere else when she does the hard stuff.) She could also be a test pilot (she can fly planes and will survive accidents others won’t), but it’s hard to see how she really sells that while keeping her abilities on the down low.

        If Dash can focus, it’s possible that his speed can be applied (as with other fictional speedsters) to the rapid acquisition of knowledge, practicing of new skills, etc. That could be used in a wide range of fields where it’s possible to do a lot of the work in private, from coding to law. Even without the 1% inspiration, being able to quintuple down on the 99% perspiration will result in something that looks a lot like genius in a lot of endeavors just from being able to work on it that much more.

        Invisibility is easy to make money with unethically via theft, use of inside information, etc. But if we assume Violet isn’t willing to do that, maybe the Zatanna thing of using her powers for stage magic.

        Bob, maybe professional wrestling? That’s a field where his size will work for him, his abilities will protect him from the athletic injuries that can end a career, and anything that looks out of the ordinary is obviously just part of the show and probably rigged, rather than genuine superhuman power.

      • Clutzy says:

        Why would her handlers know? All they have to know is she is really freaking good at getting bugs into the right spots to record meetings between mafia bosses or terrorists, or russians.

        • bullseye says:

          I would expect her handlers to know how you’re supposed to do this sort of thing and realize she isn’t doing it. Also her power doesn’t work on her clothes, aside from a specially designed supersuit, and I think her handlers would notice the time she has to spend to dress and undress.

          • LHN says:

            I’m guessing that Violet can get a more extensive disappearing wardrobe as long as she can convince Edna it’s interesting/inspiring to make one. She’s not going to make leisure wear for an ordinary day job, but I’m guessing “Aunt Edna, could I please have a slinky dress, jumpsuit, and business outfit for Spy Stuff, and if you wanted to put in some cool James Bond gadgets that would be awesome!”, that would get the gears turning.

          • LHN says:

            Edna Mode is sort of an interesting example of someone who’s already come up with the “how to make a socially acceptable living” option. She’s clearly a supervillain by natural inclination. (She’s a genius. She’s imperious. She has a lair. She’s exultant as she contemplates exposing a baby to automatic fire and roasting temperatures!)

            But she carefully shapes her megalomania so that it’s mostly focused on a world that it’s acceptable to conquer, fashion, while keeping the heroes firmly on her side by being indispensible to them. (One suspects that it’s pretty terrifying to be a model for her, though.)

          • Clutzy says:

            Edna is clearly defensive of her ability to be “The sole outfitter of supers”, so she would be ecstatic to do this.

        • John Schilling says:

          The easiest way for one of “your” spies to get primo information on demand, is to actually be a spy for the other side feeding you carefully-tailored disinformation. This is a big problem in espionage, and it means no competent spymaster is ever going to reason, “Agent V always gets the goods; I’d better not jinx it by demanding to know how she does it”.

          Of course, not all spymasters are competent. Working for the incompetent probably means being on the losing side most of the time, but if Agent V is careful to get paid up front and keep a solid exit strategy she might be able to make a decent living at it.

    • Theodoric says:

      Bob: MMA fighter or professional weightlifter
      Helen: Professional gymnast or circus performer
      Violet: Private investigator? She would at least be able to tail her targets, assuming she had a place to reappear where no one sees her.
      Dash: Runner/track & field

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      They could move to an area where you can be paid if you contribute more electricity to the grid than you take out of it, and set up a giant hamster wheel for Dash.

      If he’s sufficiently resistant to the laws of physics that friction doesn’t cause him problems when he runs, I don’t see why the massive electromagnetic forces running a dynamo at that speed would create should either…

    • J Mann says:

      Are there jobs that pay solely on results? Maybe not. If you just turned in Bin Laden and asked for the reward, I imagine people would want to know how you did it.

      • albatross11 says:

        Bounty hunter?

      • Author.

        The author of the Harry Potter books wrote a (quite good) series of detective stories, apparently submitted them without any hint of her real identity, and got them published.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        There are all sorts of freelancing gigs that pay solely on results. With median skills in literally every profession, Craigslist is your oyster. Just make up a story about how you have been doing X for several years and nobody is going to check after you get the job done.

      • J Mann says:

        Sorry, I was answering “how could the Incredibles use their powers to earn money without revealing their superpowers,” but it was way downthread and I should have quoted it. My bad! 🙂

  3. Oh no! Why did SSC have to mention Penne pasta along with cultural controversy?? Now I am trying to forget images of a couple of college girls bathing in mac and cheese which caused controversy.
    It doesn’t help that one of my friends had to deal with a horrific drain plug made from macaroni noodles. It was hard not to wonder how the previous tenants managed fit so many noodles down the drain. Apartment handymen find horrors plugging drains, like pet turtle, and toys, and ick.

    • Well... says:

      This is why every drain should have a disposal under it, Kramer-style.

    • Aapje says:


      This reminds me of a Dutch TV program from 1997 and on where people could show and/or be assisted with turning their sexual fantasies into reality. One of the most memorable ones was a guy who masturbated in a pool with pinto beans.


      (Actually SFW as it’s just the preparation, no actual nudity or such)

      PS. Perhaps I should do a post about weird Dutch TV. For example: a show with swearing Teletubbies called ‘Consumption tubbies’ (which sounds closer to the original in Dutch). Please respond if there is interest in this.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      There have recently been reports in the news of a drain in Ipswich, England, that was clogged with Yorkshire pudding.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Starch is apparently hard to dissolve. DMSO will do it, but that’s something I’d rather not mess with. Googling around, it appears a mixture of urea and sodium hydroxide will also dissolve it, which suggests a novel method for clearing the drain. Unfortunately it appears urea concentration in urine is not sufficient.

      Having played plumber over the weekend and removed a copious amount of hair from well beyond the P-trap, I think there’s worse things than macaroni noodles.

      • Rm says:

        (Sodium hydroxide is a very, very ugly thing though, even compared to potassium hydroxide. And that one is awful when it gets on exposed skin. Just sayin’.)

        • The Nybbler says:

          NaOH will burn you. DMSO will get into your bloodstream and bring random other molecules along with it, and also penetrates gloves. So I consider NaOH a more manageable hazard. I’m not sure how much more dangerous adding urea to it makes it, though.

      • Plumber says:

        @The Nybbler

        “..I think there’s worse things than macaroni noodles”

        Uric acid solids from “waterless” urinal drains are probably the worst smelling, stuff from the autopsy room drains, the needles campers flush down at the Main Branch Library, I’d say the weirdest would be a baby dolls head and shampoo bottle wedged into a toilet trap at the Public Defenders building.

        • CatCube says:

          baby dolls head and shampoo bottle wedged into a toilet trap at the Public Defenders building.

          Was this in a public area, or in a toilet only the PDs would use?

          • Plumber says:


            Public area, this was when the Sheriff’s Department had a “diversion program” where drug offenders would be let out of jail if they would check in at a small Sheriff’s office inside the Public Defenders building (how it was different than the already existing Probation Department I don’t know).

            For a couple of months the two public area restrooms were clogged every week until the Diversion Program was moved or cancelled.

            The Defenders themselves usually clog their own drains with coffee grounds or tampons when they do, which is usually for a few days then they learn better for some months until they forget, but it’s never to the scale that the drug offenders were doing.

            The DA’s, and to a lesser extent the Police are much the same as the Defenders, the general public, while they sometimes flush t-shirts, usually cause less clogs.

  4. dodrian says:

    In the last thread I asked if you would be willing to become the non-superhero MedianMan and be as good as the median person in every task you attempted. The answer was a resounding no, and it would have to be a number in the high 90s before PercentilePerson became an attractive proposition, some people saying they wanted 5 nines or more before they’d to it.

    If you stop and think about it, it becomes pretty obvious that you have a lot of skills which you are easily top 10% in the nation, and probably a few which put you in the top 1%. Of the people I know well, I’m one of the best at baking, and one of the best at singing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’m top 10% in the country at both those things, probably even top 5% However, realizing you’re top 10% at doing something isn’t obvious unless you really stop to consider it.

    Part of the issue is people tend to know others that share the same skills and will frequently be comparing themselves to a very skewed sample. Like many on SSC I’m a professional software developer. From college and the jobs I’ve held I know that I have decent programming skills – I know people who are weaker than me, and I know people who are much stronger than me. It would be tempting to say that I’m better than 50-60% of people than coding. But only about ~2% of Americans are professional developers – which means I really should be considering this a skill where I’m in the top ~1%.

    The internet makes our judgement about this even worse. Back in High School I was one of the top math students. It was easy to see what I was good at, and most students were able to find something they could take pride in as being one of the best (whether academically, socially, a sport, a hobby, or what have you). But with the internet I have access to math blogs, vlogs, and forums of like-minded people, and I’m naturally going to keep on looking up harder and harder stuff until I’ve reached the limit of what I understand. All of a sudden I feel like my math skills aren’t really that great, as I’m “surrounded” by people better than me, when my experience from school tells me I’m probably top ~1% as well. Social media amplifies this, I’ve posted about some of my accomplishments in baking and singing, but never about how awful I am at car maintenance, plumbing, or softball. We constantly see other peoples’ successes, but notice only our own failures.

    I wonder if this is partly where the stereotype of millennials (the first generation that grew up with fairly widespread internet access) being “unable to adult” and seeing themselves as failures (I sometimes see political reasons put forward as the reason — I have some thoughts on that as well, but this is a culture-war free thread!). It’s certainly something I see and am concerned about when volunteering with teenagers.

    What does SSC think? Is this something people struggle to realize about themselves? Are there ways of helping people spot their own worth?

    • Somethatname says:

      I feel like the reason I wouldn’t want to be a median man is because I’d rather min-max and pursue the area’s that I’m good at. The world is large and varied enough that I can compensate for the area’s I’m bad in through other ways. It also increases social interaction.

      I think that the internet might be a contribution to the stereotype of millennial seeing themselves as failures. As a Millennial myself there area times when I’ve jumped on the internet thinking I’ve mastered something only to realise I’ve only scratched the surface, and felt quite deflated. But the internet is big enough and varied enough that you can carve out a niche if you explore far enough. If you’re into gaming, but your reflexes are terrible, you can play civilisation rather than call of duty for example. You don’t have to be good at all types of gaming.

      I think the bigger contribution to this sense of failure though is the combination of a mismatch of opportunity, expectations and needs. People (not just millennials) who are told that there are certain ways that they should strive for success when that success is difficult to achieve feel like failures. Can’t buy a house, get a steady or societal respected job or stand out from the crowd like your elders were able to do? You’ll feel like a failure. Even if you’re fairly successful streamer.

      This is compounded by the fact that social needs are (and this is speculation on my end) a lot harder to meet in this day and age. Developing a peer group and gaining a sense of your own contribution is harder. This means that people don’t persevere long enough to realise their own niche, develop that and build their confidence.

    • durumu says:

      The bit about social media amplifying insecurity is so true. I’m reading Quantum Computing since Democritus right now and I feel like such an idiot; I often have to reread paragraphs 5 or more times before I understand them, and still feel like I don’t fully get it. I’m the best competitive programmer at my (admittedly crummy) university, but then I try competitive programming on CodeForces and get my ass completely demolished. I sometimes think about pursuing a PhD, but obviously I’m nowhere near as smart as people like Scott Aaronson or Terry Tao, and it makes me wonder if I can even contribute anything to the field at all.

    • The problem is older than the Internet.

      In almost any field, the most visible people are the ones who are very good at what they do. If you are thinking about whether to write a novel, the natural question is not “Am I better than Joe Smith down the street who once wrote a novel but couldn’t get anyone to publish it” but “am I as good as Robert Heinlein, or Lois Bujold, or at least someone one step down from that–the sort of people I read.”

      Similarly if you are asking “do I matter?” If your reference group is your family or even your village, you can reasonably believe that if you live a reasonably good life, you will matter on that scale. But unless you are in some way really extraordinary, 99.99% of the human race will never have heard of you. So if you think of the relevant reference group as the world, or even your country, the answer is that you don’t matter, which is depressing.

      The problem is especially serious in a modern society with a communication system so good that you are in some sense seeing the whole country, even the world. The best solution may be non-geographical villages, sets of people linked together in a way that makes the set the relevant reference group for its members. Examples would be the SCA, some subset in an academic field (law and economics scholars, say, or medieval historians), or an online community like this one.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of the useful work in the world is done by second and third rank people. The first-raters can move the whole thing forward, but there’s a lot of maintenance and ordinary innovation/adaptation which needs to be done.

        I think part of the problem is that ordinary respectable life isn’t considered to be good enough. It’s not just a matter of not being the best, it’s a feeling that only being the best is good enough.

        • albatross11 says:

          This pretty-much has to be true, because there are way, way more second-tier people than first-tier people. If most progress had to wait around for a Terrence Tao level intellect, hardly any progress would ever happen, because there are hardly any people at that level.

      • nameless1 says:

        I think our status-related instincts are are evolutionarily order, more primitive and thus does not really matter how we think. Rather if for example we see a couple of people give us respectful body language will feel good about ourselves and if nobody does then not. Very much like how monkeys work.

        I mean it is like foodie Insta could change our expectations about food. But once we are hungry, and not just have appetite, suddenly any basic sandwich looks good. The lizard knows what it wants, and it is any food, not what higher layers in the brain think the appropriate proper food is. Sex is similar, porn only screws up when one physically overdoes it. Whatever the higher layers of my brain thought about who is sexy and who is not based on Playboy, every time an average looking girl took off her clothes for me my lizard brain was like “ignore that, this is better because real, here and now”.

        One reason we used do that formal politeness in the past and they are still doing it in Japan is that for example if two people are bowing to each other, same degree, this is a mutually submissive gesture, but they gain more subjective status feel than they lose. Both will feel good. The brain cares less about submitting to someone than about others submitting to you.

    • melolontha says:

      This reminds me of some previous discussion of the benefits of having multiple distinct status hierarchies — this post may be the one I’m thinking of.

      I think your point about the internet is important: if feeling high status in at least some context is important to our mental health, then the globalisation of our perceived social networks — which allows us not only to be aware of the peak performers in basically every field of human endeavour, but at some level to see them as our peers or competitors — is going to screw things up for a lot of us.

      I felt good about being one of the best chess players in my primary school, even though we were all pretty bad. At some level I must have known that, because I got owned at the one out-of-school tournament I played in — but it didn’t really matter, because those people weren’t my peers and I never saw them again. I don’t know if kids these days are able to stay immersed in their own isolated context in the same way.

    • MugaSofer says:

      This is a great intuition pump, thanks.

      I actually used to think about a similar question a lot – would I take a magic pill that made me neurotypical, erasing my mental health issues, in exchange for also losing/reducing some of my talents and unusual perspectives (some of which are presumably connected). My general conclusion has always been no, but I do wonder.

    • Murphy says:

      MedianMan and be as good as the median person in every task you attempted.

      Hmm… that could be extremely problematic.

      Median would be even worse than average…


      How good is the median human being at speaking english?

      Well there’s over 7 billion people and only a few hundred million of them are fluent english speakers… so the median human probably only has a handful of english words.

      Ditto for any other language.

      Being as good as the median expert at something might be pretty good though.

    • JPNunez says:

      I missed the MedianMan discussion, but it occurs to me that it’d be a terrible deal? For every skill there is a HUGE width of competence among all the population. Even something as common as driving will get you a v poor driving skill. Let alone something more specialized like, say, programming. Even with the popularity of teaching programming to everyone available, I doubt that there’s more than 1% of the total population who can write acceptable programs. MedianMan’s programming skills are going to be like…is able to turn on a computer.

  5. MawBTS says:

    For one reason or another I feel bad about banning most of the people who get reported

    How did it feel when you banned yourself?

  6. hash872 says:

    For foreign policy nerds- an American Foreign Legion, an idea whose time has come?? (This is half serious at best. Just wanted to throw the idea out there. Yes I realize it’s been kicked around a lot and proposed/dismissed by many foreign policy nerds before me).

    For those completely unfamiliar- for 150+ years, France has had the French Foreign Legion- a separate military force primarily made up of non-French volunteers. The idea being that fighting & dying in foreign lands (when France had extensive colonial holdings) would be more palatable to the public when the soldiers were not actually native French. Sort of like a permanent mercenary force, and I believe they got French citizenship at the end of their 5 year term. In practice, the volunteers tended to be rough & tough criminals, outlaw-types and so on- perfect for brutal infantry campaigns. I think these days the FFL is made up of lots of Russian/Eastern European ex-soldiers. (I think to this day they are still deployed in Africa & other hotspots).

    Advantages for the US- without going full culture war- there are obviously a tremendous number of young men who want to move here. A separate American Foreign Legion, with the promise of US citizenship after say 6-7 years of service, could be extremely popular with the right demographic that makes up the infantry and other toughest jobs in the military. You’d almost need to turn people away, the demand might be so high. I think having them associated with the Marines would be the right step- Marines would run their boot camp & training, Marine officers would command units, etc. The Marines are a) one of the best infantry units in the world, which is primarily what the AFL would be doing. And b) are famous for their extreme discipline, which is exactly what a group of foreigners being molded into a fighting unit would need. Perhaps AFL troops could ‘transfer’ to the Marines once they’ve done their initial deployment and become US citizens, if they want to continue in the military.

    And in turn you’d get a deployable set of troops that could do the fighting (and frankly, dying) for America’s various foreign wars. They’d be a particularly great solution for Afghanistan, which appears to be a permanent and never-ending war against the Taliban. Rather than risk native US casualties (other than the officers, but there’s no way around that)- AFL troops could station themselves there indefinitely.

    Wages would be lower than a normal soldier- and all of the other, sometimes lifelong, benefits that veterans enjoy would be minimal or nonexistent. An AFL would certainly be superior, and much cheaper, to having mercenaries like Blackwater or whatever they’re called now. (I’ve never understood why people think that hiring Blackwater for places like Afghanistan is somehow cheaper- Blackwater fighters who are ex-military make way more money than what the US normally pays soldiers). One of the big obstacles for the FFL is that everyone has to learn French- but, English proficiency is much higher worldwide, and anyways English is easier to learn.

    Most importantly, the American public won’t care anywhere near as much about casualties. It’s easy to say that it’s a theoretical solution- but, the French have done it successfully since the early 1800s, so it’s clearly a working model. Finally, it takes advantage of a huge US strength- that millions of people want to emigrate here. A huge % of athletic 17-28 year olds would love an immediate, direct path to citizenship. Honestly, one drawback is that it might be too successful, and that the US would be tempted to get in to more wars because we now have a much larger infantry and little public resistance to casualties

    • johan_larson says:

      An American Foreign Legion would probably work great if it could be set up. Plenty of people would be willing to risk their necks for four or eight years if doing so got them US citizenship.

      But the politics of setting up a Foreign Legion are tricky. The people serving in it would be immigrants, and they’re a bit controversial right now. The obvious counters to the claim that the US needs a Foreign Legion are a) the government is just not paying junior solders enough to attract Americans into the job and b) the military is just being too picky, rejecting too many Americans who would like to serve. Both of these would need to be addressed before setting up a Foreign Legion would be politically feasible.

    • cassander says:

      A few points here. One, while soldiers aren’t cheap salary wise, most of the the cost of deploying them comes from the cost of their equipment, supplies, training etc. Using bangladeshis at $1,400 a month saves you a lot less than you think even if they’re just as good. You still need to send your AFL pilots to red flag, your AFL infantry to the big training exercises.

      Two, I don’t think that the impact of casualties would actually be much lower if the soldiers were technically non-americans. they’d still be american troops fighting under the american flag, so geo-politically, there’s no difference. And I don’t think that the average american will see one of them getting dragged through the streets of magdish on TV and think “well, he was born in canada, so it doesn’t count.”

      Three, groups like blackwater were hired by non-dod agencies like the state department so they could control their own security forces, or by the DoD because they needed soldiers now, and recruiting more people then running them through training takes time. And again, blackwater salaries are higher, but the sustainment costs are lower, blackwater troops don’t have artillery or tanks, so the cost per man probably wasn’t that different than what soldiers would have cost.

      So I don’t think that the AFL buys us anything we can’t already gets, and it comes with huge problems in terms of morale, cultural adaptation, political optics, and interservice rivalry.

      • Evan Þ says:

        the AFL

        How long till it merges with the also-new Central Intelligence Organization?

      • hash872 says:

        I can agree with some of this. But

        I don’t think that the AFL buys us anything we can’t already gets

        It buys us Afghanistan. Parts of Iraq & Syria. We are pulling out of/already pulled out of these areas mostly because of American casualties. (Yes, one could say cost too, but I suspect that any ‘savings’ are simply rolled into a different part of the Pentagon budget instead). Parts of Africa that have militant Islam. If you’re particularly a neocon, it gives us a more credible threat against Iran. “No we will really will invade you if you don’t shape up- you think the American public cares if these Honduran, Nigerian & Bangladeshi guys die over there?” It would’ve been the difference between staying in Vietnam or not.

        I guess I don’t really agree that the American public will get that bent out of shape over them dying (yes, the left will freak, that’s true). I mean, do you have any evidence that the French public cares about casualties in the FFL? That’s what I meant when I said “we don’t have to theorize that this would work, we’re just copying a model that another 1st world nation has already done for almost as long as the US has been a country.” I feel like lots of potential objections can be answered just by seeing how well the FFL has worked IRL.

        Anyways, an AFL is obviously not going to happen anytime soon, but might be a decent tool to have in our back pocket if the balance of power with China really starts to swing. “Not only do we have the world’s best Special Forces & high-tech weaponry- we have a 500k strong army that we don’t give an f if they die or not. Don’t make us deploy them over there”

        • cassander says:

          It buys us Afghanistan. Parts of Iraq & Syria. We are pulling out of/already pulled out of these areas mostly because of American casualties.

          One, I don’t want afghanistan. Two, even if I did, I don’t think the AFL buys it because Casualties were not a major reason that we pulled out of any of those places. We haven’t pulled out of afghanistan, there are basically zero american casualties in syria, and we left Iraq a couple years after the US stopped doing combat missions there so, again, almost no casualties. three, even if the casualties were an issue, I don’t think that we’d ever be so callous about foreign soldiers.

          (Yes, one could say cost too, but I suspect that any ‘savings’ are simply rolled into a different part of the Pentagon budget instead).

          The pentagon budget declined about 15% in nominal dollars between 2010 and 2016. Show me another government agency that laid off 90,000 people (through attrition) like the US army did in that period.

          we have a 500k strong army that we don’t give an f if they die or not. Don’t make us deploy them over there”

          That is never a credible threat to make. People will always care, even if it’s just because of the cost of training and equipping them.

        • John Schilling says:

          It buys us Afghanistan. Parts of Iraq & Syria. We are pulling out of/already pulled out of these areas mostly because of American casualties.

          I’m fairly certain this is false. I literally do not remember the last time US casualties in any of those places made the national news in either the specific (flag-draped coffins at Dover AFB) or generic (report on total US death toll) sense. I live in a military town, so there is an occasional local news story, but the take is always “Local son dies as Hero to the Nation”, not “Senseless war continues, no more blood for oil!”.

          Also, a grand total of seven US soldiers have died in the Syrian civil war, and I do not believe that the US runs away from a fight because seven people died in ordinary combat. For that matter, we didn’t run away from Afghanistan or Iraq when a thousand or so Americans were dying there every year, and you think we’re pulling out now that the number is down to a couple dozen?

          The United States is withdrawing from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria because it is no longer possible for us to pretend that anything we are doing there will ever do a damn bit of good for anyone. We’ve defeated Al Qaeda as a transnational organization and ISIS will soon follow, and no amount of military force will ever defeat them as banners and ideas for disaffected Muslims around the world to kill for. To the extent that there were Evil Dictators and Terrorist Masterminds for us to kill in those places, they’re dead. And the bit where this would lead to the peace- and freedom-loving people of Iraq/Afghanistan/Syria to cheer us as liberators and build peaceful prosperous nations to join us on the world stage, that’s long since been revealed as a naive fantasy.

          Those are the only things that Americans have ever felt good about killing people for. Having the “AFL” do the killing, won’t make that any more palatable than having drones do the killing. If you see some compelling geopolitical advantage to US military intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan, you should have taken care of that during the decade or so that you could pretend it was about liberation or nation-building, and that time is gone.

          Changing the names of the killers won’t change that; the American people are sick of having those particular bits of killing done in their name.

          • hash872 says:

            I don’t agree, I read about American combat casualties in Afghanistan or elsewhere as they occur. And I don’t follow particularly right-wing or patriotic media, this is mostly on Reuters. And no, I don’t think the vast majority of Americans care about killing foreign people even one little bit, no matter what side of the political divide they’re on.

            I’m not a neocon and I don’t think we should be in either Afghanistan or Syria (or Iraq) militarily, but it’s silly to pretend that we’re not doing anything over there, or that us withdrawing won’t have consequences. We were in Afghanistan as a permanent bulwark against the Taliban- more like our bases in South Korea or Eastern Europe. (And, I’d imagine, to station intelligence closer to and annoy Russia & China). Now that we’re leaving, the Taliban will take over the country shortly, undoubtedly commit a bunch of atrocities that will be all over international media, and likely sponsor or harbor or train or fund or back the next generation of terrorist groups. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the US feels compelled to re-invade Afghanistan in the 2020s- the same pattern as the US leaving Iraq, and then having to go back later for Islamic State

          • John Schilling says:

            I don’t agree, I read about American combat casualties in Afghanistan or elsewhere as they occur. And I don’t follow particularly right-wing or patriotic media, this is mostly on Reuters.

            You’re aware that approximately no Americans read Reuters, right?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            All of this.

            I do not want to be in Afghanistan because I do not want an American Empire, meddling in and entangled in the affairs of the entire world. Yes, I care about the blood and treasure, but having it be someone else’s blood doesn’t change the fact we shouldn’t be doing it at all.

        • Vorkon says:

          If Americans didn’t care about non-American casualties, we’d just relax our ROEs and stop trying our best to avoid collateral damage, rather than being one of the most considerate occupying forces in human history. (Admittedly that’s not saying very much, and says more about occupying forces in general than it does about the US specifically, but still.)

      • Chalid says:

        I’d expect that if we cared less about casualties, the cost per soldier of training and equipment could go way down?

    • albertborrow says:

      The thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution places a ban on slavery or involuntary servitude unless as a punitive measure. I’d say that incentivizing someone to enter the country with the condition of several years of heavy combat, where they’ll be treated with none of the care we treat our actual soldiers, counts as indentured servitude. While these people wouldn’t be citizens, it’s still not necessarily principled to treat people like that. Not only that, but it’s against federal law to discriminate citizenship status in employing a legal immigrant. This idea of “foreigners get systematically paid less” isn’t going to fly. (There’s a lot of leeway in this law, but an alien that is actively trying to be naturalized and is permanently housed in the United States is protected. I’ll assume that applies to these AFL soldiers.)

      • bullseye says:

        The thirteenth amendment bans *involuntary* servitude. The AFL would be volunteers. The thirteenth amendment doesn’t require that those who serve actually get a good deal.

        As for violating federal law, it’s a lot easier to change the law than to change the Constitution. Creating an AFL would require a big new law anyway.

    • brad says:

      Honestly, one drawback is that it might be too successful, and that the US would be tempted to get in to more wars because we now have a much larger infantry and little public resistance to casualties

      This is what immediately came to mind for me and is why I would likely oppose such a proposal.

    • James Miller says:

      Are we all that far away from being able to have a drone army that can substitute for combat infantry?

      • johan_larson says:

        Here’s a 2016 video of Atlas, a two-legged walking robot that is at or close to the state of the art. I’m guessing we’re at least twenty years away from having practical remotely-piloted substitutes for infantrymen. Remotely-piloted tanks could be closer.


      • hash872 says:

        Eh, fair point

      • John Schilling says:

        Yes, we are very far away from having a drone army that can substitute for combat infantry. And that’s a Hard-AGI problem if anything is, so be careful what you wish for.

        • albertborrow says:

          Hard-AGI problem? What the heck? Human locomotion is approximately a million times less complicated than general intelligence. Once we have something like that, we can stick a video game AI in it or control it remotely. It doesn’t need to be as smart as a human or as performant as a human – it just needs to be relatively cheap, bipedal, and capable of carrying a gun.

          • bean says:

            Sorry, but no. Remote control is out because you simply can’t guarantee the bandwidth to run lots of drones. And a video game AI operates in an environment where everyone has nice “friend” and “enemy” flags. Weirdly, that is not the case in the real world, and the first time your AI hoses down a car full of civilians who aren’t super-unambiguously in the wrong (or even if they are), it’s going to be big news of exactly the sort you don’t want.

          • JPNunez says:


            The americans have droned a bunch of innocent families and nobody cared much.

          • toastengineer says:

            Wat? Drone warfare is just now leaving the news cycle.

            In addition to what bean said, video game AI operates in an environment where it can just ask the game engine what’s in its way and where the other team is, and has hints on what to do built in to the level placed there by a human level designer, and still regularly makes boneheaded decisions anyway.

            Weren’t we just talking about how terribly it went when we put below-average humans in to infantry roles?

          • bean says:

            Most of those innocent families were standing next to very bad men. I know that various groups swear up and down that 110% of people killed by US drone strikes were completely innocent and had never had so much as a bad thought towards the US, but that makes figuring out actual bad strikes rather difficult. There have almost certainly been a few, but I don’t really know who I’d trust to tell me how many. And even then, it’s acknowledged by most people that there will be mistakes in war and innocent people will die, and the shoot/no-shoot decision is made by humans.

            This is not the situation with the infantry drone. It’s manning a roadblock. It sees a car coming towards it. The car does not slow when the drone signals it to do so. Do you shoot?
            This exact scenario happened a lot in the early days of Iraq. The problem is that “troops get nervous, shoot at car that tried to run roadblock” isn’t really news unless there’s some allegation of gross ROE violation. “Autonomous robots blow away innocent family” is news, and we can pretty much count on any nuance being destroyed in the process. Yes, you could set the ROE as more restrictive than for a group of human soldiers because the drones are easier to replace, but they aren’t infinitely cheap, so you’re still going to have to balance the risk of the robots blowing away a car full of kids with the risk of a suicide bomber plowing into the roadblock and blowing the robots away.

            Consider the situation with self-driving cars. They’re currently better than bad human drivers, but that’s not considered safe enough to turn them loose on the roads. Because the bar for new things is almost always higher than for things which are already there.

          • Eponymous says:

            I think that use of force by autonomous robots will be subject to a much higher standard of scrutiny than use of force by humans. We understand that human soldiers and cops exercise judgement, and that this judgement is fallible; plus, there’s usually a lot of uncertainty about precisely what happened. But with autonomous weapon systems, presumably everything will be fully recorded, and most bad kills will turn out to be the result of actual errors of one kind or another. I think people will be much less forgiving of murder by buggy robocop than murder by cop with a standard-issue buggy human brain.

            Now, remote-controlled weapons systems are obviously already in use (drones), and I imagine that will continue and increase. And the humans operating them will be assisted more and more by autonomous processes. So fully independent robot armies will arrive by small steps.

            So, kids, keep practicing your FPS skills. They might be in higher demand in 15 years than whatever you plan to study in college 😉

      • bean says:


        To expand on John’s answer some, drones are good at some very specific tasks. Infantry combat is not one of them. Bandwidth is one of the most precious commodities on the modern battlefield, so you need good AI which won’t be tricked into shooting at innocent civilians. Troops occasionally do this, but the optics of having drones do it is much worse. And you need to be able to do infantry roles. This often involves taking something with a relative minimum of breakage, because for some reason you can’t use our existing drones, known as JDAMs, to kill the thing. Can, for instance, your robot go up stairs? (Note that this rules out not only wheeled robots but also very heavy ones.) How good is it at sitting down with tribal leaders in an attempt to gain intelligence about where the bad guys are? Can it come off as anything other than the faceless stormtrooper of the occupying force? And how does it cope with mud and lack of maintenance?

    • Tenacious D says:

      The population of the US is greater than the global population of French speakers, so the pool of potential recruits is already large without inviting the world. And from what I understand, military service is already a fast-track to citizenship (but you have to be a legal permanent resident to start with).

      Also, as a random point of interest, some native tribes in Canada have a treaty right to join the US military.

      • peterispaikens says:

        FFL doesn’t really target french speakers much, many don’t speak french at all when joining (as far as I understand, it might even be the majority) and large part of boot camp involves learning to follow orders in french, which can be done in parallel with excessive PT.

        And the global range of english-as-second-language speakers is enormous, so AFL wouldn’t even have the training issues that FFL has.

    • JPNunez says:

      Is the reason America is pulling out of Afganisthan, Syria, etc, the casualties?

      I think the real reason is cost. Not that the american public is desensitivized to their troops dying, but it doesn’t seem to be serious enough. This shit ain’t Vietnam, the american troops are professional and not drafted from the general public, so it will take large scale troop deaths before it gets politically unsustainable. The AFL would be cheaper than PMCs, but that’s where the advantages end.

      I don’t know it would fly politically either; the right wingers could be scared into accepting even more foreigners, potentially not the best kind as opposed to accepting people who have college degrees. The US Army is already discharging immigrants who were on the path to citizenship, so it seems to me an AFL wouldn’t be well received either. The left wing wouldn’t like it either for typical blue tribe reasons.

    • Beck says:

      I think having them associated with the Marines would be the right step- Marines would run their boot camp & training, Marine officers would command units, etc.

      I guess I don’t see the point of it. If you want to start the Banana Wars 2.0 or something, you’ve got a perfectly good Marine Corps right here. What does having a Marine Corps With Funny Accents really gain you?

      the French have done it successfully since the early 1800s, so it’s clearly a working model

      The FFL is, like 9,000 guys. You’re talking about 500,000 underpaid 3rd world mercenaries, which just sounds like a big ol’ ball of war crimes.

    • MugaSofer says:

      This would piss off the Right because you’re literally training young men, often from “Muslim countries”, into combatants and then letting them into the country no questions asked. They’re freaked about merely allowing “military age males” in under the current regime as it is.

      And it would piss off the Left because you’re forcing poor/brown/foreign people to kill other poor/brown/foreign people in dangerous conditions for piss-poor wages, in exchange for a chance at the scraps from your table. They’re already unhappy about the military brainwashing poor people and sending them to die to further corporate interests, immigrants (undocumented or otherwise) being paid badly, and the process for emigration to the US being too hard on people.

      Add to that that this is a process effectively designed to block out children, old people, sick people; and with a strong tendency to filter out women. I.e. all the groups that both sides think are more vulnerable and deserving refugees.

      The actual policy is fine and would probably have very little positive or negative impact whatsoever.

      It might even be helpful at re-building the whole “America is a collection of positive-shifting words, an idea that immigrants come here to embrace and defend” stuff within both tribes. Immigrant veterans becoming a big thing that both sides like and don’t really fit either narrative would be great for American society, although I suspect it would just collapse into them being looked by one side and hated by the other as normal.

      • cassander says:

        This would piss off the Right because you’re literally training young men from “Muslim countries” into combatants and then letting them into the country no questions asked. They’re freaked about merely allowing “military age males” in under the current regime as it is.

        I’m pretty sure all but the hardest of anti-immigranters would be perfectly willing to let in anyone who offered to do 10 years with the marines first. But they definitely would be insulted by the idea that americans weren’t able or willing to do their own fighting.

    • bean says:

      No. First, the optics of setting something like this up are very different from sustaining it. The French Foreign Legion is traditional, as is the British use of Gurkhas (and even that looks to be going away, as the cost advantages have eroded). There would be all sorts of flak if you tried to start setting it up today.

      Second, there are all sorts of practical problems. Cassander points out that salary is only a small part of the cost, and cost advantages are going to be eroded if you have to bring your recruits up to the standards required of the US military. I suspect that the distribution of the FFL recruits is dictated not just by interest but by people who are capable of passing the tests required to get in. (The biggest contingent is from Eastern Europe, and I suspect most were trained there ahead of time.) And that totally leaves aside the security questions that this would raise. I have no idea how the French deal with that, but this seems like a magnet for various bad actors.

      I’ve never understood why people think that hiring Blackwater for places like Afghanistan is somehow cheaper- Blackwater fighters who are ex-military make way more money than what the US normally pays soldiers

      It’s just like a company hiring contractors when they have a big batch of work coming through. Yes, they’re more expensive on a per-hour basis, but they come ready to work straight out of the box and you don’t have to keep them around when you don’t need them. There are lots of practical limits on troop deployments (for instance, if you deploy them too often, they tend to get irritated and quit) and contractors are a way to boost numbers without having to wait a couple years to stand up new units.

    • Murphy says:

      I suspect that many Americans tend to overestimate just how much everyone desperately wants to get into America.

      France has a similar socioeconomic level to the USA and the criteria for joining the french foreign legion are… not so restrictive.

      to be a man between 17.5 and 39.5 years

      NOT wanted by Interpol

      to be physically fit

      to be able to write and read in your native language

      to be physically fit

      There’s some more about specific diseases or disabilities but the list of disqualifications is short.

      Keep in mind, the french foreign legion is already an option for most of the people you’d be looking to recruit into an American Foreign Legion.

      The french foreign legion is not known for being an appealing option. Rather for being brutal.

      The french also take it very seriously. There’s a concept of “Français par le sang versé”, French by blood spilled where any soldier seriously wounded fighting for france gets the right to french citizenship.

      • johan_larson says:

        I read a book that talked about what it takes to get into the French Foreign Legion. The author’s take was that most of those accepted either already spoke good French or were distinctly physically fit or had previous military experience, often in South America or eastern Europe. The FFL is somewhat selective.

        • Murphy says:

          Apparently something like 15% of applicants get in. I don’t know if they put the french speaking ones together but accounts I’ve heard include things like “get beaten even more if you don’t learn french fast enough”

        • JPNunez says:

          The FFL used to be more permissive, but now it is a smaller unit, 9k someone said upthread, so they can be selective.

          The guys here are talking about a 500k soldiers force. That will necessarily reduce the requirements to meet those numbers.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I wonder if a variant of this could be turned into a national platform that would go something like this (these are notes about how a politician could maybe make it a viable program with broader support/appeal, not an assessment on how it would work in practice).

      Create a border patrol program for foreigners where if you spend N years working full time as a border patrol agent at a fixed rate of pay you get a clear path to citizenship.

      Appeal for the right: we are taking border security seriously, every one of these people will be background checked and held to the high standards of a US military organization. They will be watched over by people who have signaled that they love America so much that they dedicate their lives to protecting its border.

      Appeal for the center + just left of center. No more walls diverting people into the desert to die, fewer optics of white people stopping non white people from coming into the US, plus better border security.

    • Eponymous says:

      It seems to me that the American public does not care about casualties all that much.

      That…seems completely different than my memory of 2001 – 2008.

      Admittedly, we seem a bit more inured to American casualties than, say, in the ’90s (e.g. the reaction to mogadishu). Though I don’t have memories of that time, so just going off impressions.

      There’s definitely scope insensitivity, of course.

  7. rlms says:

    Continued thanks to everyone who reports inappropriate comments using the “Report” function

    Which report button is the right one?

    • Nick says:

      I’ve been using the one on the right, “Report comment”.

    • Randy M says:

      Can we establish that Scott doesn’t ban every single person reported? So, if you accidentally hit report, you don’t need to make a post about it. You don’t need to apologize to the poster. The SSC police did not come by their house to hassle them. You forced Scott to read a possibly banal post and stop the scratch his head a moment wondering why it was offensive to somebody, probably have an unreasonable amount of anxiety over the matter, then deciding there was nothing ban-worthy and it was a misclick. Unless Scott specifically says he’d like you to post on the matter, I’m pretty sure you don’t need to say anything about it.

      • acymetric says:

        I don’t think it hurts to follow up just so there is clarity for Scott whenever he looks at it. If the comment is about tomato sauce recipes, probably unnecessary as an obvious misclick. If it is in a more controversial discussion, it is probably better for Scott to know that it was a misclick as opposed to someone who really thought a controversial post was reportable.

        Of course, the authority on whether clarifying mistakenly reported posts is useful to Scott would be the man himself. I certainly can’t see it as harmful though (and it helps other people who make the same mistake know they aren’t alone).

      • rlms says:

        Yes, but it would be useful to know if one button doesn’t do anything.

      • Plumber says:

        @Randy M,
        I’ve accidentally reported myself a couple of times without ill effect as far as I could tell, but I did see a note by our host once that with enough reports a post is automatically deleted.

        Thankfully Scott hasn’t seen fit to issue me a warning (while I do get ranty I try to remember the true/necessary/kind rule), but I have noted some of my posts disappear and I speculate that maybe many reported them.

        • Randy M says:

          I’ve accidentally reported myself a couple of times without ill effect as far as I could tell, but I did see a note by our host once that with enough reports a post is automatically deleted.

          I stand corrected, however I assume this automated process isn’t smart enough to read your apologies and restore it, so unless Scott happens to see that comment–which you can’t make if the comment you reported was deleted!–I don’t think it helps in any event.

  8. Somethatname says:

    Just curious, has anyone here read any of Deborah Tannen’s books?

    I don’t wish to attack anybody or reignite tensions (this may make me sound old, but I still remember elevatorgate), but I’ve found her books, particularly “That’s Not What I Meant! How conversational style makes or breaks relationships” to be a good way to understand both/all sides of the controversies that happen in the rationalist sphere. Interested to know if anybody else feels the same, or if I’m just reinterpreting her ideas to compliment my own assumptions.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I’ve read one or two, but not recently. I liked her emphasis on conversational styles– she didn’t assume there was a male way of talking and a female way of talking.

      • Somethatname says:

        Yeah, the way I understood it was that it was more to do with culture than anything else. The thing I remember most distinctly about the book was the example of the general using indirect communication as a way of communicating with his inferiors. I’d always thought of that as the female way of talking, so it kinda blew my mind. Kinda embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true.

  9. Estera clare says:

    Today I had an ah…. confusing experience when I was walking out of the bookstore. I passed a man outside who was begging — not only asking, begging as in the desperate tone of voice—something along the lines of “Please, I’m starving, I need food, please, please.” He was turning to various people who passed him, including me (he was in the middle of the street, so there was no way I could avoid him) and he briefly started following me, for a couple of paces, still begging. He called either me or just everyone passing him “assholes” for not giving him money/food and kept begging. I finally stopped and gave him $5.
    I don’t know if this was the right thing to do. On the one hand, I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of places in the city he could find free food, if it really was food he wanted (I’m not certain myself). On the other hand, not giving anything to someone who sounded so desperate
    All the reasons that I shouldn’t have given him money, now that I go over them, sound pretty convincing but also very convenient for me. I don’t know. Is this one of those times you’re supposed to ignore your conscience telling you you’re doing a terrible thing? Because it kind of seems like it but ignoring your conscience telling you you’re doing a terrible thing also seems like a recipe for disaster.

    (If this is too CW, I’m sorry, please delete it.)

    • toastengineer says:

      I know I sound like Generic Sociopathic Rightie Man, but uh, acting exists.

      The best thing to do is to offer to buy the guy food, especially if you’re in a place where it’s really convenient to do that.

      • Estera clare says:

        Yeah, you’re right about the acting. I don’t know if he was, though, and if it was worth the risk.

        I’ve heard the thing about the food before, and I get that it’s useful in avoiding bad actors, but it sounds way too stressful for me to ever do.

        Thank you for your advice, though.

      • zluria says:

        I have a feeling that most people who say “offer to buy the man food” have never tried it. I have.

        So the guy smiled and took me to his favorite falafel stand and proceeded to order a giant falafel full of everything on the menu, which ended up costing about 10 bucks. I grumbled and paid for.it, and never tried that again.

        Look, my philosophy is that even if they are acting, they aren’t doing that because they are secretly millionaires – for one reason or another, they really need the money. You did good – you helped out a man in dire need.

        • Aapje says:

          If you do that less often than giving money, it doesn’t actually cost you anything more and you’ll have given the guy a nice meal.

          You can also simply take control of the choice, for example by offering to buy prepackaged sandwiches for him or something like that.

        • toastengineer says:

          Every time I try it they just turn around and walk away.

          Unfortunately that’s not really true; there genuinely are people who will do that who are in perfectly decent situations who do it just for the thrill of scamming people or just for the money itself. Some of ’em go on Facebook and brag about it afterwards.

          • Deiseach says:

            Some of ’em go on Facebook and brag about it afterwards.

            Then, like the people who go on sub-reddits about shoplifting, they are assholes and the opprobrium is on them, not on you.

            I’m not a naturally kind person myself, so I take it very hard that kindness should be seen as something deficient in a person or a bad thing or “oh no, don’t tell me you fell for that.”

            Fuck ’em if they’re bad people, the kind are not in the wrong here.

        • biffchalupa says:

          I’ve tried it before – offered to walk over to a Burger King and the guy who was in such dire need of a meal suddenly had an appointment to get to.

          • acymetric says:

            On the other hand, I’ve done it and ended up buying the guy a bagel with cream cheese and egg. It is a good filter if you want to help, but don’t just want to give away money that could be used for drugs. It could still be a scam, with you buying food for someone who could have bought it themselves, but at least you take the “they’re just using it for drugs” angle out if it. Of course there is additional time cost for this if you don’t already have food on you.

      • Nornagest says:

        It’s not usually that hard to pick out the lies if you have some experience living in cities. “My car broke down just out of sight and I need money for gas” is a lie. “I have some elaborate sob story and I need money for a transit ticket” is a lie.

        In this case, though, my intuition is that “I’m hungry” isn’t a lie. He won’t literally starve to death if you don’t give him money — practically no one does in the First World — but it takes a lot of hungry to literally starve to death, being hungry is pretty unpleasant, and irregular access to food does happen. Whether or not filling a bum’s belly is worth five bucks to you is a question for your own conscience.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I have in fact on one occasion given people an elaborate sob story about needing (a very small amount of money for) transit (and offering cigarettes of greater value in exchange if they wished).

          Every word was true.

          All the “normal” people I approached declined apologetically. A really obvious gangster said something like, “You know, you seem really genuine. Here’s two quid, keep the cigarettes.”

    • brad says:

      Maybe it makes me a monster, and I’m not trying to give you are hard time, but I get angry at those guys and frankly a little angry at the people like you also.

      I pay my taxes and I vote for politicians that want to make the social safety net stronger. I live in a city and state that has some of the highest social spending of anywhere in the country, and the while the country is often maligned as doing a much worse job than the rest of the first world, if you look at the numbers we are doing okay. In particular, my city provides a shelter bed for everyone that needs one and my country and state provide SNAP benefits in the amount of about $200 a month for someone with little or no income. On top of that, I donate to private charities that try to fill whatever gaps there are. We have soup kitchens and soup vans and food pantries and so on and so forth.

      Maybe there are still holes that people can fall into, and if so I’d like to see them plugged. But it solves no problem whatsoever to give this guy $5. On the flip side constantly being solicited significantly degrades the quality of life for the residents of my city and makes it a less attractive place to visit–which directly impacts the livelihood of a lot of people that live here. Like spam, this kind of solicitation happens because it works. When you give him money it’s not just you that’s out $5, it’s me that is going to get hassled tomorrow.

      • EchoChaos says:

        +1 to virtually all of this.

        Giving to panhandlers solves no problems either short or long term.

        • Estera clare says:

          You’re right, and after I gave the money I felt bad for exactly this reason. I’m not certain what I did was wrong—İ don’t know that he didn’t fall through gaps in the safety net, I don’t even know much about how well the safety net works in my city.
          İt seems to me that any action you take (or don’t) on this issue has a good risk of causing harm, so some large group of people will be upset if you admit you encountered this. I guess that’s why people don’t talk about it
          At the very least, though, I’ll be more prepared for this in future.
          Thank you also.
          Edit: Meant to reply to the parent comment.

          • brad says:

            I am sorry if you feel like am shaming you for honestly sharing something that happend to you. I’ve done the same thing you did in the past. I may end up doing it again, though I hope not.

            It doesn’t make you a bad person, on the contrary it is a trap exactly designed for good people. I just don’t think it is the right move all things considered.

          • cuke says:

            I’m glad you talked about it here. It strikes me in reading your comment mainly how hard you are being on yourself about what seems to have been a pretty uncomfortable encounter. I don’t think it’s an easy situation and none of the choices you would have made, including the one you did make, is bad.

            A person in front of you was suffering, you helped him. You weren’t in a position right then to understand enough about his situation or the status of the existing social support systems to assess what was really going on for him. Maybe he was coming down off a high, maybe he was crazy, maybe he was hungry, maybe he was angry. No way to know. So you did the best you could in the moment, and that was good enough.

            Maybe over time you’ll learn more about the systems of support available in your city. Even knowing most everything about it wouldn’t have told you whether the guy in front of you had fallen through the cracks that day somehow and was indeed desperately hungry, or just desperate, or what.

            If you are someone who would find it interpersonally stressful to give someone a meal or to talk over with them where they might find a meal, that’s perfectly okay. You don’t need to go through your life telling yourself you “should” be the kind of person who can do this. I can’t imagine what this guy could do with his $5 versus a bowl of soup that is so significant that it merits you feeling bad about your choice in that moment. In general, I think that level of scrupulosity adds its own kind of suffering to the world.

            I don’t disagree with the larger analysis about voting for people who make the safety net stronger and so on. But we live in a very imperfect world and we always will. The net will be imperfect, we will be imperfect, and the people asking for help will be imperfect. We don’t do any of us any favors by expecting perfection.

      • baconbits9 says:

        I find it interesting that everyone one of these complaints can be taken up a level. Higher spending on shelters and services with politicians pushing for ever expanding services makes a city worse to live in. I pay taxes that support national disability and massive amounts of infrastructure that allows for almost any able bodied person to find a job. Are there cracks? Sure, and I want those cracks filled, but not at the expense of making my city attractive to the homeless and making the productive citizens uncomfortable.

      • Deiseach says:

        The solution to that, though, is often “sweep them up out of sight, out of mind”. You don’t get hassled. But the problem of genuine poverty remains, as does the problem of petty crime and fraud.

        This is the whole debate over gentrification: let’s make this area nicer, and once it’s nicer, let’s get rid of the downmarket types who lived here originally so the new transplants can enjoy it without reminder of the actual history.

        The roots of the lotus are in the mud and slime.

        Support network out there, including Our Taxpayer Monies? Sure! But as someone who’s been on both sides (looking for help, and processing applications for help), it’s complicated, time-consuming, not straightforward, and constantly constrained by budget limits. The ones who are clever, sly and opportunistic learn fast how to game the system, the ones who are not so are in trouble.

        It’s perfectly possible that the guy calling people assholes for not giving him money was in one of those binds, where the application for help hadn’t been processed yet (so no money in the meantime), the homeless shelter was full (and they generally send people out during the day anyway), the soup kitchen wasn’t open until later, and he literally hadn’t a penny in his pocket to buy food. He was literally hungry in the midst of abundance despite all the help allegedly on offer and none of the comfortable on the street would even engage with him as a human being to be cursed at and told go away; simply a nuisance to be ignored like you’d ignore a wrapper blowing around the street. Is it a surprise he’d call people assholes for not even looking him in the face when they refused him?

        Maybe he was a con artist. Maybe not. The poor (and the criminal) you will have with you always.

        • brad says:

          The solution to that, though, is often “sweep them up out of sight, out of mind”. You don’t get hassled. But the problem of genuine poverty remains, as does the problem of petty crime and fraud.

          The same exact thing is true either way. So what’s the harm in letting the vast majority of people get on with their lives without being hassled? Should the rest of us suffer just so some people can feel righteous about not having “swept the problem under the rug”?

          Let’s even think about that metaphor–if you aren’t going to actually clean regardless, isn’t it better that the mess be under the rug than all around the room?

          The ones who are clever, sly and opportunistic learn fast how to game the system, the ones who are not so are in trouble.

          I see beggars every day on the subway. The ones that are in the worse shape get little or no money. It’s the ones that have their patter down, that don’t smell horrifically bad, and aren’t obviously crazy that rake in the cash from the tourists.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Let’s even think about that metaphor–if you aren’t going to actually clean regardless, isn’t it better that the mess be under the rug than all around the room?

            But then the rug is all bulged up and you can’t walk on it, plus it looks weird and suspicious. Imagine it: a perfectly clean and orderly room, except for the rug, which is very obviously hiding something. Everyone will wonder what’s under your rug. They’ll keep glancing at it surreptitiously throughout the visit, plagued by a vague sense of unease. A messy room is just a messy room. You see the dirty dishes and old socks, and they’re not pleasant, but they’re just dirty dishes and socks.


            I think the idea is that if the mess is out in the open you’re more likely to take some measures to deal with it, and even if you never get rid of it completely you’ll probably do just enough to keep it from getting out of control.

          • brad says:

            That’s an empirical question. SFAIK spending on the homeless was higher on the homeless during the Bloomberg administration (when they were out of sight) than it is under useless De Blasio (when they are all over the public spaces). Certainly it was more effective.

            But I’m happy to be shown to be wrong about the empirical question. Some people want to make a moral issue issue though “You just want to have a clean, safe, and pleasant city!” Yes, guilty as charged.

          • EchoChaos says:


            Yes, it is far better it be under the rug because then we know where we need to work.

            And most importantly, I know where I need to keep my kids away from until they are ready to understand the messes in the world.

            Civilization is making it so three year old girls don’t have to see those issues until they grow older.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Civilization is making it so three year old girls don’t have to see those issues until they grow older.

            Is this about keeping kids away from actual danger, or is it about protecting them from the idea that there’s hardship and misfortune in the world? Because the latter strikes me as misguided. And keeping homeless people locked up and out of sight so that their existence doesn’t upset children strikes me as pretty dehumanizing to homeless people.

            They aren’t monsters. Many of them are just people in an unfortunate situation. Obviously you don’t want to let your kid near anyone who’s crazy or dangerous, but most of them aren’t.

            I’m aware that some people have had bad experiences with them. Possibly I’m just lucky in that the vast majority of the ones I’ve encountered have been non-aggressive and reasonable. But I really don’t think just hearing a guy on the street ask for change is going to mentally scar a kid.

            Edit: Saw your below post. Yeah, I can understand being upset about an angry drunk ranting at the bus stop where your kids are. I do think the police should be able to enforce common sense guidelines about not allowing loitering in those situations, but I also don’t think a blanket “lock up all homeless people out of sight” policy is the answer.

          • Plumber says:


            “That’s an empirical question. SFAIK spending on the homeless was higher on the homeless during the Bloomberg administration (when they were out of sight) than it is under useless De Blasio (when they are all over the public spaces). Certainly it was more effective…”

            Neither Bloomberg or Dead Blasio have been Mayor here in the San Francisco bay area and after 2011 we’ve had an explosion of visibly homeless, and from what I’ve read it’s been the same in Los Angeles and Seattle as well.

          • EchoChaos says:


            Is this about keeping kids away from actual danger, or is it about protecting them from the idea that there’s hardship and misfortune in the world?

            I used the word “see” for a reason. It is important to let kids know that there is evil and suffering in the world, but it is far more important to let them have a place to grow without having to deal with it.

            The biggest issue with visible homeless around is not danger, but quality of life, which is exactly the most important thing for kids growing up. And given that the poverty rate has been between 10 and 15% in the past two decades regardless of how visible homeless are, I’m going to state that making them visible isn’t helping.

      • albatross11 says:

        I found this episode of The Remnant podcast really informative and interesting–it’s an interview with a conservative think tank’s expert on homelessness. I thought the discussion was quite good, clear on the many gradations of homelessness (short term clobbered by life vs long-term crazy/addict) and a lot of the social consequences of it. His take on giving money to homeless people was that it didn’t have much effect either way–it’s a problem that can really only be solved at a larger institutional level, either government or private foundations/charities providing services.

        Also, this episode of econtalk dealt with a (mostly private/volunteer) program to try to address some of the homelessness in the Bay Area. I think the guest (a woman who got interested in this problem and ended up heavily involved in this particular program) agrees with Brad’s take–giving beggars money encourages more begging.

      • SaiNushi says:

        Just a note: in some places, SNAP will not buy cooked food. Which is useless for a person on the street with no way to cook the food that SNAP will actually buy. There’s only so many calories you can get out of fruits and vegetables after all.

        • Plumber says:

          Often you may find folks eager to sell the cards for cash at the grocery store at Phelps and Williams in San Francisco.

          Typically the going rate is $30 for a card worth $100.
          – heard from a friend.

        • Breads don’t have to be cooked. Salami. Milk. Peanut butter and crackers–a little messy but tasty.

        • baconbits9 says:

          I don’t know what SNAP buys or what cooked food means but most grocery stores hold a lot of high calorie products that aren’t fruit and vegetables. Peanut butter, granola bars etc that take little to no preparation.

    • durumu says:

      I also struggle with this; I feel like beggars really put you in a double-bind. I don’t want to give them $5 if they’re just going to spend it on alcohol or heroin, but also I feel very shitty if I just do nothing about the rampant inequality in the world. My strategy is to donate $5 to an effective charity instead of giving them anything. I’d personally rather some kid in Africa get a malaria net than the homeless guy go to a convenience store and buy a 40.

      Also, one of my friends keeps socks in his car and gives them to homeless people whenever he drives past one, which I think is a very nice thing to do!

      Sidenote: I’ve heard that homeless people who are on the street are, 9 times out of 10, either drug addicts or scammers, and that everyone who is actually trying to get clean or whatever is at a homeless shelter. That doesn’t really sound true to me, but does sound like a really good justification (rationalization?) for not giving them money. Anyone know if this is true?

      • Rachael says:

        I don’t know about where you live, but I’m pretty sure that in my town, the homeless shelter only opens from dinnertime and overnight, so during the day they have no choice but to be on the streets.

        • albatross11 says:

          Yeah, the quality of life of the beggars I see on the streets is incredibly shitty–it’s hard to imagine this being a life you’d choose in hopes of making an easy buck!

          • Eponymous says:

            I once had a long conversation with a guy whose job was talking to homeless people to try to convince them to leave the streets and enter treatment. They generally don’t want to.

          • acymetric says:


            One problem is that “treatment” generally sucks, and not just in the “they won’t give me heroin” sense. Of course I don’t know what kind of treatment the person you spoke with was offering, but then neither did the homeless people involved.

            Also, unless the treatment offered long term free/affordable housing and assistance finding employment until such time as the person could be financially independent it probably wouldn’t do much good (being a sober homeless person is only moderately better than being an addicted/mentally ill homeless person). An offer of “come stay at our facility *wink* for 30 days and then you can go back on the streets but you’ll feel better probably doesn’t sound much better than staying on the streets.

            At the very least, treatment centers (for homeless and for mentally ill/addiction generally) need to lighten up on smoking restrictions.

      • Deiseach says:

        My strategy is to donate $5 to an effective charity instead of giving them anything.

        Which salves your conscience, but what does it do for the hungry man you refused in the street?

        That’s harsh to say, but I get a little tired of the “I don’t want to feel bad but I also don’t want to give money” compromise of that sort. Give or don’t give. What the devil is it to you if he spends it on heroin or alcohol? Does your employer make sure you don’t spend your wages on heroin or alcohol? Are you pro-legalisation of the nice middle-class drugs for nice middle-class people? Once you give money to someone, it’s their money. Can we all drop the fucking Lady Bountiful act saving the poor from themselves bit and behave like we have blood in our veins that is the same as the blood of the rest of humanity?

        Be willing to be hard-hearted or be generous, but don’t use “the hungry malaria-ridden kids in Africa” as an escape clause. Give to them for their benefit, not because “it lets me feel good about being a donor but I don’t have to worry about being fooled by scammers”. Malaria eradication in Africa and other countries is not about letting First World people feel good, and the people in need exist as people with their own lives, needs, and goals and not as representative tokens of the White Liberal Person’s Burden.

        I have no doubt that you are a better person than I am. That you give more. That you think about this and want to help people. But this whole social attitude of policing the behaviour of other people to make sure they are spending the money they get the way we want them to spend it is a constraint we would reject as intolerable if anyone else tried to impose it on ourselves, and yet there are social and economic arguments too for why our employers should make sure we remain productive citizens by not buying unhealthy foods or party fun substances or nootropics or anything else with the money they pay us, despite our claims to be able to judge for ourselves if the risk is worth the benefits.

        • EchoChaos says:

          The problem (and I am trying to be as non-culture war as possible) is when your charity creates a problem that affects me. If you always give a fiver to the angry, filthy, cursing drunk at the bus-stop near my house, then my kids stop being able to play in the front yard because an angry filthy cursing drunk will take up residence where he is guaranteed to always get a fiver.

          And “if he assaults your kid he will go to jail where he won’t be a problem” is not a good solution. There are plenty of legal ways he can blight my neighborhood and I don’t particularly want to wait for my kid to get assaulted before I can finally get rid of him.

          Moving him to an actual charity with people who are actually trained and able to care for him IS the best thing for both him and my neighborhood. Giving a fiver to him to salve your conscience makes things worse for me and for him.

          • Theodoric says:

            ^This. I wish we still had vagrancy laws, where street bums could be given a choice between going to a homeless shelter (and by all means spend the money to make them decent places), moving on, or going to jail for vagrancy.

        • durumu says:

          I think there’s a crucial difference between my boss paying me an unconditional salary and me donating a conditional $5.

          My boss pays me because I am doing work for him. What I am using that money for, be it food or heroin, is of near-zero concern to my boss, because she is paying me for my economic output.

          On the other hand, when I donate to charity, it is because I want to Make The World A Better Place™. If I give a homeless man $5, it matters to me whether he spends it on drugs, because if he spends it on drugs I didn’t make the world a better place, I just paid for a homeless guy to shoot up, which was definitely not a good thing and might have even been worse than whatever stupid first-world thing I was going to spend the $5 on. If he spends it on food or socks or whatever, then I did a good thing. However, I would rather just donate to the malaria charity, because I am nearly certain that this will be a good thing.

          Also, why does the reason I donate to malaria-ridden kids in Africa matter? Children dying from malaria is a very big problem, and if I can do something to help solve that problem, then that makes me feel good. Should it not feel good? I don’t think it’s really my “burden”, but I do think that I have been given far more resources than I can reasonably take advantage of, and I think that the right thing to do is reallocate them so that they can help people in need. Is there something wrong with that way of thinking?

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          @Deiseach Be willing to be hard-hearted or be generous, but don’t use “the hungry malaria-ridden kids in Africa” as an escape clause. Give to them for their benefit, not because “it lets me feel good about being a donor but I don’t have to worry about being fooled by scammers”.

          If giving $5 to a reputable charity benefits the recipients, eliminates the risk of being fooled by scammers, and also eases the giver’s guilt, then that’s a triple win. (I mean, I don’t think they should feel guilty in the first place, but guilt is usually a pretty irrational emotion.) If there’s a thing someone can do that both makes them feel better and makes the world a better place, they should absolutely do it. You seem to be telling them that they should avoid doing the good thing if their motive is even slightly selfish and that they should commit to either being unconditionally generous 100% of the time or commit to never caring about anyone, which is…unrealistic and weird. And helps no one.

          Most people have a finite amount of money and there are always going to be lots of people who need help, so givers have to use some criteria in order to decide who they’re going to give to. That’s not policing the behavior of other people, it’s exercising the right to control your own behavior.

          I mean, it’s true that once you give someone else your money, it’s their money and they can spend it on whatever they want. Which is exactly why you should be careful about who you give your money to. If you have a friend who is constantly asking you for money and they continually blow it on oversized penguin plushies because they have an uncontrollable addiction to hoarding plushies and they show no signs that they’re ever going to pay you back, you’re well within your rights to stop lending them money. Indeed, that’s probably a healthy boundary to have in that situation.

      • Camerado says:

        Completely depends on where you are, I’d say. From my experience, while there are some themes in common and a fairly set group of reasons that people become homeless, on the whole the individual experiences of unsheltered people are exactly as diverse as those of sheltered people.

        I’m sure by the time I post this someone else will have replied, but here’s a short list of reasons someone may not be in a shelter or seeking to be in one:

        -they have a job and the shelter only takes down names for bed space during their work hours
        -they were delayed on public transit or by some other situation and by the time they got there the place was full
        -they live with a partner and the shelter is men-only/women-only/doesn’t allow people to sleep paired or in the same space
        -they have a pet and the shelter doesn’t allow pets
        -the shelter has limits on the amount of stuff one can bring in and they don’t want to leave their stuff outside or discard it
        -the shelter imposes restrictions they can’t or don’t want to live under, such as mandated wakeup time, mandated participation in religious or recovery programs, or other rules of conduct
        -they suffer from a mental illness that makes it miserable or outright impossible for them to sleep in a large, crowded space, particularly around other people who behave unpredictably
        -someone else is staying in the shelter whom they can’t abide, or who they’re fighting with, or of whom they’re afraid

        What I try to remember when I see people “choosing” to stay on the street instead of in shelters is that for an unsheltered person, there’s practically nothing about their life that is in their control – When and what they eat, how long they can go without a fix if they suffer from addiction, whether someone will take their stuff or leave it, when they will be observed or interacted with, etc. Often the only part of their environment that they can exert any control over is their stuff, and whatever space they’ve eked out for themselves on the ground. The incentive to give up that control in exchange for a single night living under someone else’s strict rules, for some people, has to be pretty darn high.

        The Martin v. Boise case, decided last year by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the U.S., has a great example of the kind of mess unsheltered people can end up in even in a city with ample shelter space – a combination of restrictions across three urban shelters meant that even when they had open space, they often couldn’t be said to be truly “available” to any given unsheltered person (two shelters’ missions prioritized evangelization of the unsheltered, so those who stayed more than a certain number of nights in a row without signing up for further religious programming weren’t allowed to return for a month).

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          From what I’ve read, shelters typically don’t have private rooms. Some of the people in shelters are violent, so there are people living on the streets who avoid going into shelters.

          • brad says:

            That’s another self inflicted wound. The aggressive mentally ill used to be housed in institutions separate from regular homeless shelters. But almost all of those were shut down.

            Now the only choices are jail or shelters. That being the case, it ought to be jail. I don’t see how it is at all humanitarian to allow the non-violent homeless to be preyed upon by the violent. Why are they treated as victims that don’t count?

          • Camerado says:

            @ brad

            Jail, unfortunately, isn’t a viable solution. Most of the kinds of assaults that happen in shelters aren’t fatal attacks with weapons for which someone gets locked up for years. They’re dust-ups, frightening and traumatic for everyone involved, sometimes leading to injuries, and an offense for which shelters definitely ban people, but if the police become involved the perpetrator will usually not be in jail for a long time. They’ll be released directly back onto the street, just as mentally ill as before. If they are very clearly mentally ill and the local police are part of a program interested in putting fewer very mentally ill people in jail, they’ll be involuntarily committed to a hospital, held for a few days and medicated, and released when mandated by statute. It’s not uncommon around here to see people walking around town still in their hospital gowns, having lost all of their stuff when they were picked up. In terms of “getting individual people off the street for a few days or weeks” jail works great – in terms of “reducing the number of people on the street who are likely to assault other people,” it’s just not useful, at least in the part of the world I’m in, and simply “being more likely than other people to assault someone during a bad episode” is not a jailable offense.

            Also: A prior criminal history is a significant barrier to accessing government benefits and much nonprofit social programming, or to being admitted to any kind of housing whatsoever. This isn’t to say that we should be giving all violent criminals a pass, or anything, but to say that there are a lot of reasons why jailing people is counterproductive.

            I would also say, and I hope this is encouraging, that in my experience there are absolutely people looking out for the rights of the non-violent homeless – often this is very localized, with groups centered around the populations in one city or area trying to build relationships that bring homeless people to them for help when they are the victims of crime. This is a very hard problem to solve or even to get solid research on, because most crimes committed by homeless people against other homeless people don’t get reported. The non-violent homeless almost always have criminal records, too, and ample incentive not to go to the police for anything – especially knowing that when the person who harmed them is released, they’ll be right back on the same streets together. It’s just a very difficult population to work with on both sides, and the lack of any safe, private place for people to end up means the issue always ends up depressingly cyclical.

          • brad says:

            The laws exist on the books to issue longer sentences for repeat violent offenders even if the injuries aren’t terribly severe and weapons aren’t used. To the extent jurisdictions are practicing catch and release it is because the police and prosecutors are choosing to do so, not because the laws themselves don’t protect the victims of the crimes they choose to treat as trivial.

          • acymetric says:

            Well, while putting people with serious (dangerous) mental illnesses in jail is probably better for society it isn’t exactly an exciting prospect.

            Of course the snarky answer is they don’t want to fill their jails up with dangerous homeless people because they’d rather have non-violent drug offenders there instead.

          • brad says:

            Well, while putting people with serious (dangerous) mental illnesses in jail is probably better for society it isn’t exactly an exciting prospect.

            I agree that in ideal world the seriously mentally ill would be segregated in a different kind of institution. But that option has alas been foreclosed.

    • sty_silver says:

      I have a strict policy of not giving beggars money because there is no way it’s the optimal place to donate. I do think you should actually ignore your conscience (which I agree is difficult).

    • j1000000 says:

      Yours is sort of an eternal question so I don’t have an answer, but it seems like you’re being a bit had on yourself for not having one, either. Maybe this is a content-free comment or a snide one but I really don’t mean it to be: While you may have done the wrong thing from a consequentialist perspective it’s hard for me to imagine, say, you arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter tells you that you were in purgatory for an extra few years there because of the time you gave money to a man you genuinely believed was starving.

      (For the record I myself abandoned Christianity as a disillusioned teenager so I am not trying to do any sorts of holier-than-thou stuff with this comment)

    • Walter says:

      That doesn’t sound too confusing. You met a beggar, they begged, you gave. That’s how it is supposed to work.

    • bluer-than-thou says:

      I have struggled with this a lot for a while. I have decided that the best way for me is to “buy” some conscience – I have setup a regular payment to a trusted local charity that works with people on the streets. I’ve set the monthly amount higher than what I have ever given to beggars in a month and decline almost all begging since.

      Exceptionally and when in a good mood, I give money to people, who seem honest, e.g. “Hey, would you give me a few bucks to buy some beer and have a nice evening?”.

    • Deiseach says:

      You gave the man a fiver. Unless this is sufficient money to place you in similar financial distress, it’s not a big deal. Worst case? He’s a complete scam artist who has succeeded in being a good enough actor to fool you. Out of a whole fiver. You’ve encouraged him to remain a beggar.

      Big whoop.

      Yeah, maybe you were taken advantage of and your gullibility and kindness was successfully played. So what? At the very worst, he’s the bad guy who took advantage of a good guy for a small sum of money.

      At the best, this was someone in genuine need and you helped them. The worst is not very bad, the best is good. It’s up to you whether or not you think almsgiving is good, effective, or whatever. It’s your money, if you wanted to tear the fiver into shreds and throw it in the bin you are entitled to do so.

      If you feel that you need to get harder and tougher-skinned so as not to be taken advantage of, then go ahead. But I hope we never get into a world where it’s the smart, tough thing to pass by someone weeping in the street out of fear of being taken for a sucker. Is it really such a bad thing to be taken for a sucker? Whose good opinion about “you’re no soft touch” are you worrying about?

      I think people who pride themselves on not being taken in by fake beggars are just as likely as any other pigeon to fall for a smart scammer who is clever enough to appeal to their vanity and cupidity with a plausible seeming scheme, so everyone is a potential sucker.

      I’ve given money to beggars whom I’ve known damn well are professionals and who see me as a soft touch that they then try to hit up for more money. That’s okay, I know not to give more than I’m willing to give, and I can’t be angry at them for trying to pluck a pigeon who has put themselves in their path. I knew what I was doing and I did it, and I don’t worry about “but maybe this is a professional mendicant who is not in real need, shock horror”.

      Decide for yourself why you think you should not have given him money, and if it really is the voice of conscience, and then in future refuse direct money to those who look like they need help. It’s up to you, we can’t tell you what to do.

      • EchoChaos says:

        You are in Ireland, which probably doesn’t yet have the problem to American levels, but panhandling is making formerly pleasant neighborhoods very nasty due to street people.

        • Deiseach says:

          I don’t know about American levels but we have enough visible beggars to be shocking to some tourists. Formerly pleasant neighbourhoods – do you mean residential areas? Because when I was a child living in the country, and even in the town, it did happen that beggars went door-to-door looking for help. We also have a perennial problem with rural crime where gangs from towns and cities go on scouting expeditions to burgle isolated households. Why, there’s even a local murder case going on about that kind of thing right now!

          I’ve probably never lived in what you’d consider a pleasant neighbourhood (though by my lights it’s never been in “the bad part of town”) so I can’t share the emotional impact of such an experience on people who live and work in nice places. It’s a policing problem to make sure that professional beggars and criminal gangs don’t infest an area, and I agree that a lot of the on-the-ground effective approach is hampered by bleeding-heart do-gooders who fall for sob stories and so put pressure on the police not to arrest or move on people, but on the other hand – misery and poverty exists, even in a world of nice pleasant neighbourhoods.

          • EchoChaos says:

            It’s a policing problem to make sure that professional beggars and criminal gangs don’t infest an area, and I agree that a lot of the on-the-ground effective approach is hampered by bleeding-heart do-gooders who fall for sob stories and so put pressure on the police not to arrest or move on people, but on the other hand – misery and poverty exists, even in a world of nice pleasant neighbourhoods.

            Which is why I work very hard to make sure that my children don’t have to deal with that until they have matured. I don’t particularly need my three year old daughter to have street people spew filthy language at her because she wanted to go to the park.

            And I have cold fury for the do-gooders who prevent them from being moved on. And especially for the do-gooders who encourage them to be there by handing out fivers.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      The first Sunday of every month the Catholic Charities food pantry van parks out front of the church, and I deposit a bag or two of healthy food on our way in to Mass. So does everybody else and the van leaves quite stuffed. I have therefore already deposited the beggar’s food at the community pantry and he is more than encouraged to pick it up there.

    • fion says:

      I kind of agree with the people who point out that it doesn’t do much for the actual problem, but I also feel my heartstrings pulled when I see people in the street.

      My feeling is that being in the street all day asking people for money and having 99.9% of them ignore you or say “sorry” without making eye contact is probably very, very upsetting and demoralising. I think the best thing you can give such people is a little bit of your time and attention. This is hard to do without also giving them money, because the money is what they’re after – they really are hungry and cold. I generally either ignore them completely (99% of the time) or give them money and try to talk to them a little. Remind them that they’re a human being and they deserve kindness.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      I have some experience with this at a church. We never give cash, but we do feed and clothe people who ask (and help with larger needs like finding housing). Sometimes people get really mad when we will not give them cash, and that’s a tip that they are probably not really in need of what they said they want. Whether they want drugs or something is harder to say, but they know charity will not pay for what they are trying to get. We had a guy one time get increasingly more insistent as we offered to directly purchase the things he said he needed. He then admitted that several other churches had already taken care of those needs, but wouldn’t give him cash either.

      I agree with others who said to offer to buy someone food. You may get stuck with a larger bill than you intended, but if you just want your guilt assuaged, donate to a local food bank or homeless shelter and give exactly what you were willing to part with.

      If someone says they need money for food but turn down both a trip to the grocery store and a free hot meal from a restaurant, then they are lying to you and you should move on.

    • Betty Cook says:

      For some years we lived in a house that was in easy walking distance of a poor area. People would occasionally come to the door asking for work “because they were hungry and needed money to buy food.” (People also came to the door actually looking for work, but they carried snow shovels or rakes and said thing like “Shovel your drive for five bucks, lady?”) I always offered the hungry people food (nothing fancy, things like peanut butter sandwiches on my homemade bread), never offered money, they normally seemed surprised but accepted the food, and they never came back. Pretty sure not one of them ever. So my guess is they weren’t actually really in need of food, but I kept feeding them anyway–low cost to me, and if anyone were actually desperate it would keep him going for a bit.

      Of course I had the advantage that I had food available. If you expect this to happen again, you could carry a packet of dried fruit or something to hand out.

      • Elementaldex says:

        My wife and I make ziplocks of walnuts and dried fruit with a $5 McDonald’s gift card in each one that we give beggars. We make ~30 at a time and split them between our cars. they last for ~4 months then there is usually a few months before we do it again. Relatively low cost. very high calorie count per dollar. Makes us feel better.

    • Somethatname says:

      I agree with all the other commentators that offering something practical might be more healthy for the system, presuming that there are support systems in place in your local area. But I don’t think you should feel particularly bad. $5 isn’t going matter much in the long run either way.

      But I do feel strongly what matters more than whether to offer cash, food, something else or nothing at all is the manner in which you treat them. I have had friends who were homeless, and I’ve worked in homeless shelters myself. The level of stigma, degradation, humiliation and dehumanisation that they face is often what locks them in the homelessness cycle.

      So if you’re able to stop for a quick chat you’ll be doing more good than either food or money. If you don’t have experience talking to these sorts of people it’s often quite scary to do so, but it’s worth it if you can. It doesn’t have to be about anything meaningful, in fact, it’s probably easier if it’s just about the weather or the local sports team. Just something that makes it clear that you don’t look down on them or pity them. You might find you’re more comfortable talking to certain people, which is perfectly fine, you can’t help everybody. Just engaging at the level you feel comfortable is fine.

  10. SteveReilly says:

    “Donald Trump went bankrupt owning a casino. Ha! That’s like a license to print money!” I’ve heard this a lot, but I’ve wondered, is it true? I mean, the idea that casinos are just obviously better money makers than other businesses. I get the Econ 101 argument that no business is obviously better than any other, but do casinos require you to have so many political connections that once you get the right licenses it really should be easier to make money off them than it is off of other businesses? Or is there some other reason they’re just guaranteed money makers, and Trump screwed up? Or is just like any other business?

    • Clutzy says:

      I think he was over-leveraged and there was a bubble that popped and the Atlantic City market kinda collapsed. Lots of casinos in AC went under at the same time. But, yes generally they are a good business because they are essentially government handed out cartels.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      I’ll see if I can pull together some more specific stats, but in general no, casinos are not licenses to print money. They have very high operating costs, especially high-end casinos in competitive markets like Vegas, Atlantic City, etc, and if for whatever reason guest volume or per-guest spend is down, that can have a major impact. Fees and state and local specific taxes can take a rather large chunk too, though that is very variable. Again, I’ll have to see if I can pull the acctual numbers tomorrow when I’m at work, but in this state it’s something like $40+ dollars out of every $100 of coin-in at a slot machine goes straight to State government right off the top.

    • John V says:

      Basically casinos are a high gross margin business, which people often confuse with a license to print money.

      However, gross margins are not the whole story, since you incur massive fixed costs (often into the billions). So you normally leverage these things as much as you can. When it pays off, it’s amazing because you have a high margin business that has a great deal of regulatory moat.

      When it doesn’t, you have massive debt and very high chance of bankruptcy. I will say that if you are fortunate enough to have a quasi-monopoly (for example many of the Native American casinos in states that otherwise forbid gambling), it is nearly impossible to lose money. But in a more competitive market like AC or Vegas, it’s pretty easy to go bankrupt.

    • Deiseach says:

      So far as I understand it, the odds always favour the house in the long run, but that doesn’t mean that running a casino is simply sit back and let the pigeons fill your pockets. Your bread-and-butter profits come from things like slot machines, not the popular image of the high roller playing high-stakes card games.

      People are always trying to run systems to make money, there’s always fraud and criminality floating around in the general atmosphere.

      And you may be unlucky enough to run into someone like the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo (actually one of several who managed the feat):

      Charles Deville Wells (1841-1926), gambler and confidence trickster, is one of the men who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, made famous by the song. Joseph Jagger was the first famous gambler to get publicity in 1873 but the song was not written until 1892 and so it seems that Wells is a more likely inspiration for the song.

      François Blanc, the owner of Monte Carlo’s casino, wanted the publicity from stories of big winnings. In the French language, if a gambler wins more than the chips on the table, they are said to have “faire sauter la banque”, which was translated as “breaking the bank” (lit. to blow up the bank or the safe). A black shroud was placed over the table until replacement chips were brought in. However, no gambler has come close to winning the whole reserves of the casino.

      In July 1891 Wells went to Monte Carlo with £4,000 that he had defrauded from investors in a bogus invention, a “musical jump rope.” In an eleven-hour session Wells ‘broke the bank’ twelve times, winning a million francs. At one stage he won 23 times out of 30 successive spins of the wheel. Wells returned to Monte Carlo in November of that year and won again. During this session he made another million francs in three days, including successful bets on the number five for five consecutive turns. Despite hiring private detectives the Casino never discovered Wells’s system; Wells later admitted it was just a lucky streak. His system was the high-risk martingale, doubling the stake to make up losses.

      In April 1892, Fred Gilbert wrote a popular song, The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. The song was popularised by the music hall star, Charles Coborn. The song helped Wells to become a celebrity. He explained that his success was because he was a brilliant engineer, who had also invented a fuel-saving device for steam-ships. He persuaded many wealthy people to invest in his invention. He made another trip to Monte Carlo in a large yacht in the winter of 1892 with his mistress. Wells explained that the yacht was to test his device. Wells broke the bank six more times but then lost his money and that of his investors, some of whom had sent additional money that he said was needed for repairs to his device.

      Wells was arrested at Le Havre and extradited to England. He was found guilty of fraud at the Old Bailey and given eight years. Later Wells served another three-year sentence for fraud and emigrated to France, where a financial scam earned him another five year sentence.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Note to self: quit when you have achieved “yacht and mistress” money.

        • John Schilling says:

          Stick with the yacht. Once you add a mistress, you’ll find that “mistress money” is always a little bit more than you’ve got. Just ask the mistress.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            I believe the accepted term is “money sink”.

            Actually, in my experience this applies to yachts, as well.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            My reflexive assumption is that yachts are more of a money sink than race horses, but I’m guessing.

          • Aapje says:

            Race yachts are even worse.

          • John Schilling says:

            Racing yachts, sailing yachts, wooden yachts, and I’m-richer-than-the-next-billionaire megayachts can all be nigh-infinite money sinks, but it is at least possible to maintain a reasonably pleasant luxury watercraft with bounded cost. The mistress is an active system that will optimize for money-extraction.

          • CatCube says:

            @Faza (TCM)

            The difference between a mistress and a yacht, in terms of being a money sink, is that if you decide the yacht is too much you can burn it to the waterline and nobody will much care. (I mean, so long as you don’t try to hide your involvement or claim the insurance)

    • The Nybbler says:

      Keep in mind that his real estate company and his casino company were separate entities. So Trump Casinos were renting real estate from Trump Real Estate (not its actual name). When the casinos went under, their backers lost their money but the real estate company still made bank. IIRC Trump went into detail on how this worked on one of the early Apprentice seasons.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        I worked at a REIT structured so that each property was its own individual entity, or only grouped together with a small number of other entities. The purpose was to ensure that we could strategically default on a poorly performing property without the banks having the ability to seize assets from our other properties.

        You could claim we filed for bankruptcy a dozen times or whatever, but our stockholders would just laugh because they would still be making money.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Prior on this story is that people do not understand cost structures or profit margins very well, or cyclicality of business, and Trump is in particular a heavily CW figure. Sooooooo, reporting on his business success or failure is not likely to be good.

    • Nornagest says:

      I don’t know a lot about the business, but I do know that there’s a lot of turnover in the Vegas casino market. I end up there every few years (haven’t gone there as a destination since college, but have for business travel or on my way elsewhere), and every time a third or so of the Strip looks different.

      AIUI Trump was building mostly in Atlantic City, where I’ve never been, but it’s probably pretty similar.

  11. bullseye says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars – specifically the issue I raised a few thread ago about how many inhabited planets there are.

    On one hand it seems like there are lots of them; for example, Count Dooku in the prequels mentions that tens of thousands of systems have recently joined him, Qui-Gon tells Anakin that most stars have planets (and I don’t think there’s a single planet in the setting without at least breathable air), and in the Rebels tv show it’s a big deal when an Imperial officer narrows down the location of the Rebel base to 96 worlds. Also in the shows and comics it’s common for heroes to find themselves on obscure planets they’ve never heard of.

    On the other hand we see the same races over and over, even if they’re strongly associated with one particular planet (e.g., in Solo somebody sees Chewbacca and immediately recognizes his race and planet of origin, and some races are just named after their planets). Anytime a ship’s planet of origin is mentioned it’s Corellia.

    I’ve decided that there are a vast number, but the population is extremely uneven. You have a sliding scale of number of planets vs. population on each planet. At Tier One you have Coruscant, a single planet with hundreds of billions, maybe trillions of people. In Tier Two you have maybe a hundred planets with Earth-like populations; e.g., Alderaan, Naboo, Corellia, Ryloth, Mon Cala, Kashyyk, and Rodia. These planets have representation in the Senate, and an educated or well-traveled person can be expected to have heard of all or nearly all of them. In Tier Three you have thousands or hundreds of thousands of planets with millions or few people each; e.g., Tattooine and Lothal. We keep seeing Tattooine just because it’s where Anakin is from. (Luke is there because Anakin has family there, Obi-Wan is there because Luke is there). Finally there are countless worlds in Tier Four with little to no population, e.g. Hoth.

    In the Clone Wars and the comics it’s established that Jabba the Hutt rules lots of planets; but he’s also small-time enough to deal with deal with Han personally (a smuggler with only one little ship!) and his “palace” is a dingy iron fort in the middle of nowhere. Well, I figure all those planets he rules are pretty minor backwater planets in Tier 3.

    • Incurian says:

      It’s not just a matter of population, some are going to be more noteworthy than others due to natural resources, good placement on the hyperlane network, probably how advanced they were at first contact with aliens, politics, etc. Same with species – some are just more galactipolitan (ETA: dammit, I should have said “cosmospolitan”) than others.

    • johan_larson says:

      I always figured things made sense if you mapped Star Wars planets to Earth cities and the Start Wars galaxy to our planet, things sort of made sense. People in Star Wars recognized the names of major planets without explanation, but there were plenty of obscure places people didn’t know, and some places that were pretty much beyond the routine reach of the law. I don’t remember travel times being explicitly given, but they seemed to be on the scale of a few days to a few weeks, sort of like the era of fast ships and trains that existed just before air travel became affordable.

      I’d be shocked if Lucas carefully designed this bit before making his movies, but game designers who came along after him have probably managed to retrofit something halfway sensible.

    • James Green says:

      Map Star Wars planets to human settlements on Earth, e.g. New York = Coruscant, Tatooine = Timbuktu.
      Map Star Wars species to nationalities.

      • Nornagest says:

        Map Star Wars planets to human settlements on Earth, e.g. New York = Coruscant, Tatooine = Timbuktu.

        I don’t think “human settlements” quite fits. They’re not settlements, they’re pulp adventure fiction setting tropes. Jungle ruins, arctic base, impenetrable swamp, volcanic wasteland. And occasionally you get something that’s just pure sci-fi, like Cloud City.

        Map Star Wars species to nationalities.

        This can’t possibly end well.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I am honestly astonished Lucas doesn’t get more pushback on this: the prequels are full of planet-of-hats aliens realised as Earth racial stereotypes. They’re insanely spacist.

          • vV_Vv says:

            the prequels are full of planet-of-hats aliens realised as Earth racial stereotypes.

            Is this the Jar Jar is black, Watto is Jewish controversy?

            Btw, the original trilogy and the expanded universe are also full of planet-of-hats species, e.g. the Hutts and the Ewok. And Han Solo casually repeats stereotypes about the Wookiees being violent and brutish in front of Chewbacca, despite the fact that Chewbacca is actually no more prone to violence than Han himself.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I thought Jar Jar was Hispanic.

      • metacelsus says:

        Tatooine = Timbuktu

        No, obviously Tatooine = Tataouine


        This is where George Lucas filmed part of Star Wars, and a homophone of the city was chosen to be the home planet of the protagonist’s family (Tatooine)

    • Brett says:

      I definitely think that’s true. IIRC the Star Was Galaxy has the “Core Worlds” (those systems near but not actually in the Galactic Core Bulge), which represent the richest, most populous, and most influential worlds in the Republic and Later Empire. Planets with hundreds of billions or even trillions of inhabitants.

      On a side-note, I’ve always thought Coruscant would make the most sense as a city-world if it was the Star Wars equivalent of Washington DC: essentially a planned “capitol world” picked as a neutral site for the seat of government by the founding planets of the Old Republic.

      • acymetric says:

        On a side-note, I’ve always thought Coruscant would make the most sense as a city-world if it was the Star Wars equivalent of Washington DC: essentially a planned “capitol world” picked as a neutral site for the seat of government by the founding planets of the Old Republic.

        Is that not more or less what it was?

        • Brett says:

          No, the lore has it as one of the founding members of the Old Republic, and the generally accepted homeworld of humanity.

    • Erusian says:

      Like most things in Star Wars, I like to think it’s a holdover of when Star Wars was feudal Japan. Specifically, planets should be thought of as geographic locations. Some of them are highly populous and have many people, distinct cultures, etc. Some are uninhabited or sparsely inhabited. Jabba is a crime lord and, like most Japanese crime lords, moves between cities he does not rule and smugglers dens that are convenient for smuggling but not especially great otherwise. Jabba’s Tatooine draws a lot from the Wakoku pirates: a bunch of peasants the criminals sort of lords over but most of the wealth/power being in illicit activities from elsewhere.

      But Star Wars doesn’t really grapple with habitability. Basically every world has planets that are livable. It’s just a lot of them are places you don’t have much reason to go to. Just like how, if you go to upstate New York or rural Japan, you’ll find a lot of emptiness or small towns most people wouldn’t recognize.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Basically every world has planets that are livable.

        None of which makes any sense, mind you. What is the mechanism by which an ice planet like Hoth or a lava world like Mustafar has an oxygenated atmosphere?

        • vV_Vv says:

          What is the mechanism by which an ice planet like Hoth or a lava world like Mustafar has an oxygenated atmosphere?

          According to Wookieepedia Hoth has liquid oceans. As for Mustafar, one can assume that the oxygen comes from the volcanic activity.

          There are stranger things though, like Bespin, described as an immense gas giant which nevertheless has a habitable layer of atmosphere where the Cloud City is located.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Even asteroids are basically habitable. In Empire Strikes Back, the Millennium Falcon hides in an asteroid cave (later discovered to be the belly of a space slug. They leave the ship to investigate, wearing nothing but some oxygen masks. They experience no issues with vacuum on their unprotected bodies, and seem to be under normal gravity.

          • albatross11 says:

            They just breathe the luminous aether.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I may not be MedianGeologistMan, but even I know volcanoes don’t spit out free oxygen.

            I was under the impression that, should astronomers be able to examine the composition of exoplanets, an oxygenated atmosphere was one of the things to look for as a sign of life, because oxygen is sticky. You need a continuous process to separate the H2’s from the O’s and the C’s from the O2’s. If the world is nothing but volcanoes, you’re getting volcanic gasses like CO2, SO2 (and apparently water vapor, at least on earth). With no life there’s no free oxygen and nothing to breathe.

          • @albatross11

            That would also explain why the ships are banking in combat as if they were aeroplanes in an atmosphere. Star Wars is a universe where aether theory is true. Also, phlogiston is real and lightsaber beams are made out of concentrated and purified phlogiston.

            Special and General relativity aren’t true in Star Wars, either; it’s a Newtonian universe.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @ Forward

            That’s an amazing theory and I think that can explain a whole lot.

          • Maybe the aether is also the Force. We tend to take it as this totally metaphysical thing, but when Obi Wan says it “binds the galaxy together” and Yoda says “luminous beings are we” maybe we should take them more literally. The Jedi and the Sith are able to connect to the Force on a deeper level, but that doesn’t mean the Force is sitting around doing nothing otherwise. It seems to play a part in existence full stop.

          • Winja says:

            Cloud City on Bespin isn’t without precedent. People have talked about being able to colonize the upper atmosphere of Venus with floating aerostats for awhile…Wikipedia tells me the idea was first floated by the Soviets in 1971, so it’s conceivable that Lucas read about the idea in a popular science type magazine and decided to incorporate it into his script for Empire Strikes back, which was released in 1980.

            As for a real world location analogue, Bespin is pretty spot on for an oil platform floating in the ocean somewhere. Heck, Lando basically lays that all out right after Han and crew land where he tells him all about the issues they’ve had.

          • bullseye says:

            There’s a layer of Venus’ atmosphere with livable temperature and pressure, but it doesn’t have breathable oxygen.

          • @Forward Synthesis

            Aether is confirmed to exist in the GFFA:


      • bullseye says:

        What in Star Wars is feudal Japan? There’s swordfighting and Vader’s helmet looks vaguely Japanese, but that’s all I can think of.

        • Nornagest says:

          It’s not obvious in-universe except in costumes (the Jedi, and most characters from Tattooine, basically wear feudal Japanese casualwear in desert colors), but script-wise there’s a lot of Kurosawa in Star Wars and especially in Episode IV.

          The Hidden Fortress is the film that usually gets cited, and it has clear parallels in the droids (some of C3PO’s lines are almost direct translations), Obi-Wan Kenobi (he’s basically the Toshiro Mifune character; I believe Mifune even got considered for the role at one point), Princess Leia, and the early to middle plot. On the other hand, Kurosawa didn’t have a Luke, a Han Solo, or a close Vader equivalent, nor is there anything like the Death Star, and the endgame’s very different.

          • LHN says:

            Also Artoo and Threepio don’t spend a surprising amount of time contemplating and occasionally conspiring at raping Princess Leia. (Though IIRC the princess in THF is never in very serious danger from them.) An element that took me somewhat aback when I finally got around to watching The Hidden Fortress, though I suppose it shouldn’t have.

            ISTR that the ending of Star Wars is based on The Dam Busters, though I haven’t seen that one yet.

          • Nornagest says:

            Old Japanese movies can be like that. THF has an unusual amount of sexual weirdness for Kurosawa, but not for Japanese film in general; Hanzo the Razor is the one that really shocked me (and I don’t shock easily).

          • LHN says:

            Yeah, I saw that one too. It was more shocking, but less surprising (to me), since the blurb for the film had included his… unorthodox interrogation technique, where all I had known about the characters in Hidden Fortress was they were the prototypes for the Star Wars droids.

    • nameless1 says:

      There is this weird thing in sci-fi that there is often only one large city per planet. I think it is so for Tatooine and in another universe Dune. And it means low population. It makes little sense. It makes sense only in a kind of a resource extraction economy with very low transport costs. People moving to a new planet even when the old one is hardly full, just to get in early on the resource extraction game?

      • EchoChaos says:

        North Dakota exists in the real world too.

      • Aapje says:


        Or they’ve exploited the natural resources so much that the planet can’t support that many people.

        Or network effects have become so large that all the jobs are in Silicon Valley the one city.

      • Eponymous says:

        Isn’t coruscant supposed to be one gigantic city? Like the whole surface area is covered in skyscrapers, with multiple layers of subterranean neighborhoods underneath. It could easily have a population a million times Tatooine’s, or more.

        Imagine a few dozen planets similar to coruscant, and lots like tatooine, plus some in between.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          Ahahahah, ecumenopolises. New York City (not Manhattan, mind you, NYC, including all the basically suburban parts of it) has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile.

          If Coruscant has the area of the United States (surely at least that much) and the population density of NYC (surely at least that much), then its population is about 100 billion. If you take seriously the idea that it’s a planet, and you take as at least remotely representative the idea that what we see of the planet maps to its population density, then it probably has a population of well over 10 trillion.

          Nothing about that works in the Star Wars universe at all.

          Star Wars makes no attempt to be coherent on this level.

          • bullseye says:

            It’s true that there’s no attempt to be coherent, but also everything we see of Coruscant is a short drive from the Senate building. I think it’s reasonable to assume that it’s not representative of the planet as a whole.

          • acymetric says:

            Umm…sure? Not sure what you mean though. Like…the whole planet is definitely covered inch to inch in heavily urbanized city structures.

            Ah. Maybe you were also referencing my earlier comment where I said I thought Coruscant was essentially a planned city-capitol? I still think that’s true. Most of DC isn’t dedicated to political structures, but it’s pretty much all there because of the adjacent politics.

          • albatross11 says:

            Maybe there’s one huge megapolis the size of the US East Coast with the density of NYC, and the rest of the land is covered with droid-operated farms to produce enough food to keep the 20 billion city dwellers fed? Alternatively, maybe the city is built on top of several layers of indoor farms to feed everyone?

          • Theodoric says:

            droid-operated farms

            No, slave-operated farms. Because in a world with droids that, with restraining bolts, will never run away, and can work 24/7, people have decided it makes sense to have slaves work their mines and mind their stores.

          • acymetric says:

            It is known that Coruscant is fully covered in urban structures. There isn’t really room for speculation of farms somewhere else on the planet. Its basically one enormous city.

          • Lillian says:

            If they are hydroponics farms they would be unlikely to be distinguishable from any other industrial facility from the outside.

          • bullseye says:

            I’m not saying it’s not all city. I’m saying we’ve only seen the heart of downtown, the density of which may not be representative of the city as a whole.

      • bullseye says:

        We only see one city on Tatooine, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one.

        The only reason anybody’s on Dune is for the spice, and I guess that doesn’t take a lot of people to extract. I would guess that the tiny Fremen population is pretty much the maximum the planet can support, and everyone else is living on imported goods bought with spice money.

        This is really much less weird than every Star Wars planet being habitable, and each Star Wars planet having only one climate.

        • Tenacious D says:

          Good point about Dune. Arrakis even has more than one climate–I think it’s noted that there are ice caps at the poles.

        • moonfirestorm says:

          At least two cities, actually: Mos Espa (visited in Episodes 1 and 2), and Mos Eisley (visited in Episode 4).

          There’s also a deleted scene from Episode 4 showing Tosche Station, which is canonically outside of a third city called Anchorhead. Haven’t seen the scene though, so unclear if you can see a decent-sized settlement in it.

        • Nornagest says:

          It’s been a while since I read Dune, but the first book gave me the impression of a fairly large non-Fremen population. Big enough to be in Malthusian equilibrium — there’s a bit that talks about the price of water going up, and how this will inevitably lead to some marginal people dying of thirst.

          The later books concentrate mainly on the Fremen, IIRC, but the first is the only one I’ve bothered to reread, so I could be wrong.

    • Eponymous says:

      Isn’t this easily explainable by the first race (presumably humans) to achieve technological dominance colonizing the galaxy and wiping out many local aliens, or reducing them dramatically in their numbers? Think of Naboo — the Gungans are presumably the natives, and are restricted to underwater cities and a lower tech level. Plausibly, very few of them ever left Naboo.

      So most creatures you run into are humans, plus a few alien races that achieved higher populations for various reasons.

      Then for specific planets being highly overrepresented: this could be due to size, wealth, being commercial centers, and being close to the galactic core.

      (I have little knowledge of the extended universe, so might well be completely off base.)

    • Dack says:

      The setting of Star Wars makes a lot more sense if you assume that technology made terraforming innumerable worlds cheap and easy, but actually settling/utilizing those worlds remained hard.

      Terraforming would also help explain how so many worlds can be dominated by one terrain type. (This is the desert planet, this is the ice planet, this is the forest planet, etc.) Although why ancients would choose to proliferate inhospitable biomes like desert and tundra remains a mystery.

      • Nornagest says:

        Maybe a desert or an ice planet is what you get when you terraform planets that’re only marginally habitable? You get a breathable atmosphere for reasons, but most of the planet’s surface is too hot or too cold to be settled, and the places that aren’t still look like Tunisia or Greenland. If the terraforming process is cheap enough, though, it could still be worth doing, maybe even on spec.

        That wouldn’t give you swamp (Dagobah) or forest (Yavin IV, Endor) planets, though.

        • albatross11 says:

          Or maybe the ancients who did all the terraforming had some other reason to want desert and ice planets–perhaps wanting diverse and interesting ecosystems. They also invented the original droid software/firmware package that has allowed human-equivalent AI without the AI overcoming the control of the biological organisms and taking over. But the midichlorian project was, IMO, probably something of a mistake overall….

      • Mr. Doolittle says:

        It’s far easier to change an atmosphere than to change the temperature and moisture available on that world. In a closed system you can create a bunch of oxygen from existing molecules. You can’t simply add a bunch of water and more/less heat.

        That said, I find the terraforming theory to be a stretch in the mythos, as we are given very little reason to believe they were doing much/any terraforming. Moisture farming was a legitimate (and successful!) career on a desert planet. I can’t believe that would be possible if terraforming were easy. Picking planets with the right mixture of water/heat and terraforming would be far more viable than going to Hoth or Tatooine and doing the same.

        • albatross11 says:

          ISTM that the same issue comes up in the world of Firefly–there’s no indication that humans have or ever had the technology to terraform all those worlds and moons in the same solar system, so presumably some aliens did the terraforming and then died off/singularitied away/etc., leaving all that prime real-estate for the human colonists.

          • bean says:

            Firefly setting documents explicitly confirm that they have the terraforming tech to not only set up biospheres and atmospheres, but also, apparently, to change the density of planets until they have Earth-standard gravity. I was rather startled to discover that, as it’s not trivial technology by any stretch of the imagination.

          • LHN says:

            Firefly’s setting gives a lot of indications of having been built on the fly to backfill changing ideas while they were writing the series. E.g., the opening narration changing from “Earth got used up, so we terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths” to “After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed” suggests that they started with a standard Treklike ftl space setting with terrestrial worlds, then switched to a single solar system.

            Only then were they faced with choosing between having an unlikely number of terrestrial planets, or a bunch of asteroids with earthlike gravity and atmosphere. They chose the latter, and only then had to make up tech to support it.

            (But that’s largely speculation– I don’t know if there’s more reliable information available.)

          • albatross11 says:

            The actual technology we see never looks remotely that advanced, even on the core worlds.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            It’s probably good to note that the Firefly universe is insane: if you look up a Map of the ‘Verse, there are like 11 stars in a single solar system. They’ve got stars orbiting other stars which themselves are orbiting the central star.

            This sort of confirms the impression that they started with a FTL multiple-system setting, ended up throwing away FTL, and then had to pack like 8 different solar systems into a non-FTL-reachable area.

          • bean says:

            I’m well aware of the insanity of the claimed terraforming tech given the rest of their technology. It’s a testament to just how good of a show it is that I can look past that kind of stuff, because I’m usually really picky about those kind of setting details.

          • John Schilling says:

            We can fanwank it by assuming that Old Earth had technology far beyond the Core Worlds, which was incorporated in the initial terraforming fleet but could not be replicated by what were (by Old Earth standards) backwards frontier worlds.

            Say, for example, the terraforming fleet carried a hundred quantum-locked(*) black holes that could be selectively embiggened to just the mass needed to give a large moon or asteroid Earthlike gravity, each laboriously forged in the Great Circle Ultra-Hypercollider back on Old Earth, and while there are physics texts in the Core World libraries that sort of explain how this was done, not even the richest of the Core Worlds can yet afford to build particle accelerators any bigger than a small continent.

            Or we can just acknowledge that Joss Whedon is another English-lit major who has picked up some SFnal tropes by osmosis but doesn’t know how they work and so hasn’t built a consistent environment for his Space Western. That’s probably a better approach.

            * A wizard did it.

          • albatross11 says:

            Maybe they bought the quantum-locked black holes from Stirling’s alien space bats.

        • bullseye says:

          Maybe the terraforming was done eons earlier, then lost because once you’ve got all the planets it’s no longer necessary. Then some of the environments degrade.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I love how there’s all this theorycrafting in this thread about the sociological implications of Star Wars planets, and yet when I waxed effusive a few OTs ago about how The Last Jedi tried to address some sociological implications, everyone was diving for the Campbellian space opera nuclear briefcase.

      • Nornagest says:

        Sociological implications are fun to nerd out over in blog comments*. They’re not fun to watch on the big screen.

        (*) To a point. I feel a little urge to steal someone’s lunch money every time I get linked to stardestroyer.net.

        • acymetric says:

          Ha, got ninja’d I was going to say almost the same thing. Two things are true:

          1) Star Wars is awesome
          2) The Star Wars universe isn’t especially well thought out or coherent (it got worse when the prequels/cartoons came out, and much worse when what was formerly Canon became Legends)

          The problem with exploring 2 on the big screen (as opposed to in nerd conversations) is that there is no way to do it without essentially rebooting the universe. And the time to try to reboot a universe isn’t mid-series (reboots are generally separate entities and don’t exist until the original work is complete).

  12. Freddie deBoer says:

    Is the Hubble distance a hard limit on the size of the universe/the edge of the universe or is it simply as far as we can see because of the speed of light? Are there parts of the universe where light has never reached? Does the inflation of the universe happen in all directions at once?

    • bullseye says:

      It’s the limit of how far we can see because of the speed of light.

      Probably not; that would require being at least a full Hubble distance from the nearest galaxy.


    • Aron Wall says:

      I am a professional expert in this subject.

      First, some background info:

      In Big Bang cosmology, [there exists a coordinate system in which] the geometry of space is both homogeneous (the same at every point), and isotropic (the same in every direction), assuming we zoom out to large enough distance scales (hundreds of millions of light years). As far as we can tell experimentally, over these large distance scales the geometry of space is approximately flat, meaning it looks like ordinary 3-dimensional Euclidean geometry. However, the universe is not uniform with respect to time, because space is expanding with respect to time. Furthermore, the rate of expansion is itself changing with time in a dynamical way.

      (The only other two geometries compatible with homogeneity and isotropy would be i) a hypersphere with some radius r, which is positively curved, or ii) a hyperbolic space (Lobachevsky geometry) with some radius r, which is negatively curved. Of course, if r were big enough, we could not distinguish it experimentally from the flat case.)

      Thus, the large scale geometry of the universe is specified by a single function a(t) where you can think of “a” as the distance between a pair of arbitrarily chosen galaxies that are static with respect to the cosmological frame of reference defined by the expansion of the universe, and where a -> 0 at the initial singularity about 13.8 billion years ago! This “big bang singularity” is not something that happened at one place, it is something that happened in all places simultaneously.

      The Hubble parameter is now H(t) = a'(t)/a(t) i.e. the slope of a, divided by a itself (we need to put an “a” in both the numerator and the denominator to get a quantity which is independent of the choice of pair of galaxies in the previous paragraph). The Hubble distance is then defined as the speed of light divided by the Hubble parameter.

      Now the answer to your questions in reverse order:

      3. I think you may be confusing “expansion” with “inflation”. The latter is a technical term referring to an extremely rapid exponential growth of “a” that is believed to have happened in the very early universe. In this lingo, the universe is currently expanding, but not inflating.

      However, regardless of how you meant the question, the answer is the same: YES. Because cosmology is homogeneous, the expansion of the universe happens the same way in all spatial parts of the universe.

      2. If you mean, “are there parts of the universe that no light has ever reached at all?”, then the answer seems to be NO because the universe is homogeneous, so if it’s bright here it must be bright everywhere. On the other hand, if you meant “given light emitted from the big bang singularity at a particular location, is there a maximum distance it has been able to reach in 13.8 billion years?”, the answer is YES.

      There is a stronger statement that we can only make because of the recent discovery of dark energy that causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate. And that is, that if an object is far enough away from us, then light from it can NEVER reach us because the distance between us and it grows (due to the expansion) faster than it shrinks (due to the light heading towards us).

      1. Technically speaking, you are confusing the “Hubble distance” c/H with the “radius of the observable universe” (the maximum distance from which light has been able to reach us since the Big Bang. In order to calculate the latter you only need the current rate of expansion. In order to calculate the latter, you need to know a(t) for the entire past history of the universe. (However, the two quantities are the same order of magnitude.)

      But leaving that technicality aside, the answer to your first question is THE SECOND OPTION, because the universe is homogeneous, it presumably looks pretty similar outside of the sphere of our currently observable universe. As far as we can tell experimentally, space may be infinitely big.

      Of course, since we can’t observe anything outside the observable universe (by definition!) it could be that homogeneity breaks down if you zoom out to much larger distance scales. In fact I think that’s likely. But it would be a rather odd coincidence if homogeneity stopped being true just outside the largest distance we can currently observe. So the entire universe is likely to be at least several orders of magnitude larger than the observable universe, and possibly gigantically huger. (To say anything more would require engaging with much more speculative ideas from quantum cosmology.)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        This is a notion– it seems to me that we might be able to deduce something about the details of what’s going on beyond the observable universe. If what’s beyond our edge is matter, then I think it would have gravitational effects on what we can see.

        • durumu says:

          I don’t know much about physics, but I thought that gravity moved at the speed of light? So anything that’s not observable is also too far away for its gravity to affect us.

        • TK-421 says:

          Not if it’s outside of our past light cone, no.

          • Aron Wall says:

            One of my favorite things about answering people’s GR questions is that the answer is usually both yes and no because the question is ill-formed!

            If you act on a gravitational mass, then General Relativity predicts that the causal effects of your action on the gravitational field do indeed propagate out at light speed. (Although this wasn’t confirmed experimentally until the neutron star collision that was detected by both gravitational and electromagnetic waves, which were detected a couple seconds apart despite despite the enormous astrophysical distances.) So in this sense, gravity travels at the speed of light.

            However, the issue is somewhat complicated by the fact that GR also has constraint equations, similar to the Gauss Law in electromagnetism, that constrain the instantaneous values of the field at one moment of time. These constraint equations imply that a massive object like a star must necessarily have a gravitational field far from the location of the star (although the equations give a lot of freedom about exactly how this gravitational field is distributed in different directions). In this sense, gravity “acts” instantaneously, although there is no way to exploit this to send FTL messages.

            Thus, the GR answer to the old internet puzzle “what would happen to the orbit of the Earth if the sun suddenly disappeared?” is “the sun can’t suddenly disappear because the equations of GR automatically imply that energy and momentum are conserved”.

            Nancy, I don’t know of any attempts to use the constraint equations to deduce anything nontrivial about the matter just outside our observable universe. At a minimum, I think something like this could only work if the hypothetical matter source was not spherically symmetric, since spherically symmetric matter shells only produce a gravitational field outside the shell, not inside the shell.

            (I recently wrote some articles where a similar use of the constraint equations was quite important, but there I was assuming access to the outside of a finite sized region and deducing things about the inside, so things worked out differently.)

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Let’s suppose the light cone cuts through a galaxy. Wouldn’t we see the gravitational effects of the part of the galaxy we can’t see?

          • Aron Wall says:


            I intended one of my comments below to be a reply to this one, but messed up the level to pop back up to.

          • SnapDragon says:


            Note that you won’t see a galaxy bisected by the edge of the light cone, because at the “edge of the light cone” what you’re seeing is the beginning of time (long before galaxies existed). That’s all the Cosmic Background Radiation is: in any direction you look, far in the distance you’re looking at the Big Bang (or rather, slightly after the Big Bang when the universe cooled and stopped being opaque). The light is red-shifted due to the expansion of space (which is why it’s all radio waves), but aside from that it’s still Big Bang light.

        • Aron Wall says:


          Suppose we do something exciting to a gravitational mass at point p, and then the future lightcone of that point p passes through a galaxy—I assume that’s your question?

          The answer is no, if the lightcone cuts through a galaxy, the effects of what we did will only be felt on the side of the galaxy inside the lightcone. (The Newtonian inverse square law is not valid in this situation, because that law is only valid for a nearly static configuration of the gravitational field, and this is a highly dynamical situation.)

          To illustrate this point, it may help to imagine a simpler example taken from electromagnetism. Imagine a single electron at rest, as a point particle which has electric field lines extending from its position out to infinity, in all angular directions.

          Now I hit the electon with a tennis racket and it starts to move off in some direction. The electron has to have the same number of electric field lines going off to infinity (that’s the Gauss law), but near the electron, the lines start to move around to adjust to the new position and velocity of the electron. However, this happens only within the lightcone of the racket event. Far from the electron, the lines remain exactly the same way as they were before… does this help?

          Here’s another example: suppose I create an electron-positron pair in a particle accelerator, and then shoot the electron out so that it travels towards you (a distant observer) at nearly the speed of light. The Gauss law says that there must be the same number of electric field lines coming out from this electron as if it were static—but causality says that, instead of these lines going out in all directions (including towards you, so that you could detect the electric field in advance), the field lines have to actually be bent around sideways and backwards, towards the positron, so that they don’t reach you until just before the electron does.

          Does that make sense?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’m not sure whether it makes sense.

            I’ve got another example. Suppose we have a galaxy near the edge of the light cone. Just outside the light cone, there’s another galaxy having gravitational effects on the first galaxy.

            Assuming we could see that galaxy in sufficient detail, couldn’t we see the effects of the second galaxy?

            Back to the idea of a light cone cutting through a galaxy– if we souldn’t see the effects of the invisible-to-us half of the galaxy, could it even look like a galaxy?

          • Chipsa says:



            Your question is non-physical, because it appears to assume that the light cone exists solely in space, not in spacetime. If a galaxy is gravitationally effecting another galaxy, then that first galaxy is close enough for light to have travelled to the second, and therefore in the light cone of the second. If we can see the second galaxy, and see that it’s being gravitationally effected by the first, then it’s also inside the light cone for us. We would just see it further back in time.

      • analytic_wheelbarrow says:

        If the universe is infinite, then how big was it at the moment of the Big Bang? Infinitely big?

        • MugaSofer says:

          I get the impression most cosmologists don’t think it’s literally infinite, it’s just that we have a very high lower bound and no clear upper bound on the size.

          IIRC one model for an actually infinite universe is that the Big Bang was a local event, a small section of space-time abruptly growing vastly larger because [quantum] while the rest of creation – potentially infinite – stayed put. Thus there could be many big bangs creating many bubble universes floating in an infinitely larger sea. One version of this theory suggests that some of the local laws of physics were also produced on some semi-random basis by the Big Bang/inflationary period, and could be very different in other areas.

        • Aron Wall says:

          A rather stodgy answer would be to say that the singularity isn’t really considered to count as “points” in the spacetime, so the question is ill-defined. The spacetime geometry is only defined for t > 0 where t = 0 is the singularity.

          However, Roger Penrose has come up with a way to use causality to think of the singularity as consisting of a set of “points”, and in his way of thinking about it, what you say is right (in this particular model).

      • A1987dM says:

        The only other two geometries compatible with homogeneity and isotropy would be

        (In case anybody else is as confused as I once was, the reason why e.g. a torus doesn’t count is that we mean global isotropy, not just local. A torus has privileged directions, even though you can’t tell which ones they are from local measurements.)

        • Aron Wall says:

          There are nontrivial topologies that are still globally isotropic: for example consider the “projective plane” which is exactly the same as a sphere except that we identify antipodal points (i.e. regard them as being the “same” point.)

          The real reason I and other cosmologists don’t mention the nontrivial topologies, is that we forget about them until someone reminds us! 🙂

          Our universe might have a nontrivial topology, but attempts to discover this fact (e.g. by checking to see if the same galaxy appears in different parts of the sky) haven’t found this. Of course, if the length scale of the nontrivial topology is much larger than the radius of our observable universe, we’re not likely to be able to ever tell.

      • Yaleocon says:

        We know that the universe’s expansion is accelerating faster than our best physical theory anticipates it should. As far as I’ve been able to tell, “dark energy” is defined as “the stuff which causes that.” (Maybe also “and is distributed uniformly through space”?)

        Why posit the existence of that “stuff”? Naively, it seems like it would be better to just say, “the universe is expanding really quickly and we don’t know why”, so that we could at least recognize the limits of our knowledge on the topic, rather than assuming that we have an answer in the form of “dark energy”.

        It’s my impression that there’s no evidence of the existence of dark energy, besides the expansion itself. Am I wrong about that? Alternatively, is there some element of the theory that I’m missing? Or is it (as I suspect it might be) cosmological phlogiston?

        Thanks for your comment!

        • cuke says:

          I had this very same question!

        • baconbits9 says:

          Not a physicist… nor a scientist though I have been scientist adjacent for chunks of my life.

          Describing how flaws in your theory might be resolved is standard hypothesizing, its a tool for helping you focus on where to look for confirmation/disconformation of your theory. You can’t really phrase it as “our knowledge stops here” because your knowledge is conditional on its explanatory value, the fact that it can’t explain something significantly reduces its value as knowledge.

        • Lambert says:

          Either there’s some kind of energy driving the accelerating expansion of the Universe, or GR is wrong.
          (and if it’s wrong, then what’s right?)

          It’s like seeing a box accelerate for no apparent reason. We might not know what force is acting upon it, or why, but we can be pretty sure there is a force.

        • Aron Wall says:


          Good question! I should start by saying that I hate the term “dark energy” because it sounds too similar to “dark matter”, and also because it makes the phenomeon sound much more mysterious than it has to be.

          After Einstein wrote down his equations of General Relativity, he noticed that there was the possibility to add a really simple extra term to the equation called the “cosmological constant”. This term can be thought of as a uniform energy density which exists even in empty space. Most cosmologists assumed it was zero, until around 2000 when the supernova data made this untenable. However, the observation of the accelerating universe can be easily explained by saying the CC is small but positive.

          And actually there is evidence for a CC besides the expansion itself, coming from the flatness of space, as revealed by the CMB data.

          In GR, ordinary matter has two different gravitational effects on the universe: in addition to causing the expansion of the universe to decelerate, it also causes space to be more positively curved (like a sphere). But there is also a counterbalancing negative curvature of space (this isn’t an antigravity effect, it just falls out automatically from rewriting empty Minkowski spacetime in an “expanding” coordinate system).

          Recall that I said that the geometry of space at one time is flat (like Euclidean space), i.e. it has 0 spatial curvature. In order to get this balance you need a perfect amount of energy in the universe. But even if we include dark matter (which behaves just like another kind of “stuff” we don’t know about), that only brings us up to about 30% of the energy budget required. So we need to find another 70%.

          The equations of GR tell us that while a positive CC is antigravitational for purposes of accelerating the expansion of the universe, it still counts as ordinary gravity for purposes of closing the universe. And it turns out that the CC you need to explain the supernova data is just the right size to also make our universe flat.

          If you look at the graph here, you’ll see three roughly linear colored blobs. The fact that they intersect at a single point (and at flatness, which is semi-prediction of inflation) implies that the modern “concordance cosmology” predicts more data than just what we put into it.

          So when the simplest possible modification of the equations simultanously solves two different issues (and in the proces allows us to get a cosmological model accurate to an extra significant digit), I think Bayesianism says to go with that rather than throw your hands up in despair and decide we don’t know anything about cosmology!

          (There are a bunch of more complicated “dark energy” models people have come up with that involve various kinds of matter fields, but Occam says its the CC.)

    • Brett says:

      The observed universe is just as far as we can see. The total universe is far vaster than than observable universe, and may be infinite or nearly so.

      Which opens up some weird possibilities. If the universe really is infinite, then there is a non-zero possibility that there is another Milky Way Galaxy-equivalent out there, with an alternate version of Freddie almost identical to you, asking this question too.

      • Aron Wall says:

        If the universe is infinite and homogenous on average, then it isn’t just there’s a nonzero probability of another Freddie asking the same question. There is probability 1 of an infinite number of Freddies asking the question. (As well as an infinite number who spontaneously combust immediately afterwards.)

        Personally I find infinite multiverses philosophically disturbing partly for this reason, and I’d like to believe that reality isn’t like that, because it would make our own individual experiences in some sense meaningless, if both they and their alternatives happen infinitely often. But it’s hard to know to what extent this distaste translates into an actual argument against such a cosmology.

  13. proyas says:

    Are any living music composers as good as the “greats” like Bach and Mozart?

    I ask because I know there are innumerable living painters who could reproduce the best paintings from artists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Moreover, I’ve heard many excellent movie soundtracks that seem like they could stack up against the great orchestral compositions of the past.

    To help answer this question, are there any non-subjective ways in which the complexity of a musical piece is measured? Do any modern composers make music that is more complex and that “sounds as good or better to most music experts” than the great composers of old?

    • Acedia says:

      Hans Zimmer consistently impresses me. I think he’s genuinely up there and not in a bubblegummy mass culture way like, say, Thomas Newman (whose work is always pleasant to listen to but not “great” in the sense I think you meant).


    • Well... says:

      In 200 or 300 years we will know.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      My (controversial) opinion is that there are surely hundreds or thousands of them!

      Bach and Mozart pioneered things that have since been perfected and improved many times over. They’re idolized not because their product is the best, but because they did it first, and became legends.

      And I think this holds true for all art forms that are still actively practiced.

      • arlie says:

        In the case of Bach – no one’s trying to produce anything similar any more, AFAICT.

        I find that unfortunate, because he’s one of my favourite composers, and I’d love to find more similar music.

        Much the same is true for Mozart – but I’m much more of a Bach fan.

        • acymetric says:

          I’d guess people aren’t trying to produce something similar because doing just gets you “this work is nice, but totally derivative of Bach”. Not much glory to be had there.

          • This gets us to my theory of the rising marginal cost of originality.

            Suppose you are the first city planner in the world and very clever. You invent Cartesian coordinates and design a city where anyone can easily find any address.

            The second city planner can’t make his reputation with a Cartesian city, so he invents something else, perhaps a polar city vaguely along Parisian lines.

            You are the 273rd city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used and all the not so bad ideas have been used.

            You design Canberra.

            I came up with this theory when I was working in the Coombs building at ANU, a truly brilliant piece of bad design.

          • pontifex says:

            Yep. In the post-scarcity future, trolling is the *only* remaining human activity.


          • AG says:

            Eh, you assume that a majority of people highly value originality in their consumption. Fandom shows that most don’t.

        • rlms says:

          I think plenty of people produce Bachian music; writing fugues and chorales in the style of Bach is the archetypal exercise for students studying Bach. The issue is that he was a one-of-a-kind genius, so no-one can replicate the nebulous creativity in his music.

    • TheGumper29 says:

      I’m no expert on music theory or history so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I think you may be examining this from the wrong angle.

      Composers, like painters and unlike musicians, are generally judged not on their complexity or technical ability. Rather they are judged based on how they advanced the art form. Western music history basically starts with the homophonic (everyone sings the same note) Gregorian chants. There is no record of music in the West prior to this. The direction ever since has been towards polyphony (people singing different notes that complement each other) and increasingly dissonant sounds. Two notes that may sound harmonious to you today could sound terrible and ear drum shattering to earlier generations. But this isn’t to be confused with complexity. Mozart was definitely not composing music as complex as some of his predecessors and there are composers today who make things far more complex than he ever did. It was just that in the context of his time he was able to compose pieces that advanced the ways things could be brought together in harmony.

      So you do have modern composers who can make simirlary sounding things in much the same form, but the music community generally shrugs because it’s sll been done before. However, you also have people like Philip Glass who create entirely new forms of music in stunningly simple ways that generate a great deal of recognition. The thing you should be looking to measure is; who is pushing the boundaries the most in (an unfortunately) subjective way? There’s a lot of avant-garde stuff that most people think sounds awful but gets a lot of respect. This is in many ways different than Mozart who was kind of a pop music celebrity in his time.

      • MugaSofer says:

        I’m pretty sure music was a thing prior to Gregorian chants. E.g. it features in several ancient Greek legends.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          Not just that, but some ancient Greek musical notation has survived. I think they had an idea of harmony, even if it only took the form of someone playing one note on a lyre while singing another.

        • TheGumper29 says:

          It certainly was a thing but we do not really have a way of knowing much about what it sounded like as there isn’t much records of notation and the notation we do have isn’t easily understood. Obviously there isn’t any recordings. Music existed prior to Gregorian chants, but the history of it is basically unknown outside of what instruments were played. I think the consensus is that music, much like many other disciplines took a big step back following the fall of the Roman Empire.

      • arlie says:

        The thing you should be looking to measure is; who is pushing the boundaries the most in (an unfortunately) subjective way?

        That’s generally what the cognoscenti – and the composers themselves – prefer.

        I’m just some unwashed redneck – I like what I like, if I don’t like it, it’s not as “good” as something I do like, by my standards.

        A case in point would be just about all of so-called “program music” – the now centuries-outdated fad for pieces that required a program to tell listeners what the composer was on about. I doubt I’ll ever like any of it, and while some of the composers may have been capable of producing things I would appreciate – they didn’t do so, and I don’t listen to them. (I got enough of that in a “music appreciation” class to know not to bother with more of it.)

        OTOH, I’m sure plenty of others like it, including, I think, the instructor of that class.

        I’d rather have someone writing similar music to Bach.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        To what extent are composers judged on how much they advanced the art form, and to what extent are they judged on how emotionally effective their music is?

        • baconbits9 says:

          Can you advance the art form if your music isn’t emotionally effective?

        • TheGumper29 says:

          This is starting to get into territory that goes beyond what music history I know. Going forward anyways, my read on it is that it is generally musicians who get credit for the emotional effectiveness of music. The same piece can express different emotions depending on how it is performed, so it isn’t as big a factor for composers.

          That being said, if their music wasn’t emotionally effective then the pieces likely would not have become popular and therefore remembered. I suppose you have pieces like Bazzini’s Dance of the Goblins, which is basically just all technique, but it is relatively obscure and basically a gimmick. Emotional effectiveness is kind of a given when evaluating composers.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Not at a machine with sound, so can’t actually listen at the moment, but I would have thought that ‘write music in the style of Bach / Mozart etc, that the average listener would not be able to distinguish from the real thing’ is within, or nearly within, the power of our AI by now.

      • MaxieJZeus says:

        AI Bach: It is imitating the chorales, which is impressive but pretty basic. There are books that tell human students what the patterns are and I’m not exactly amazed that a machine could be programmed to do the same. I would sit up and take notice if it could execute an original fugue on a Bach theme, or compose an emotional setting of a Passion play, but that’s very distant from what it has actually done.

        AI Mozart: I find it hard to judge whether it’s a success since it is imitating a fragment of Mozart that begins in the middle of the air and ends in the middle of the air, rather than a complete passage from, say, a sonata. Frankly, it reminds me of AI Tolkien in the recent thread–it sounds like authentic Mozart that has been crudely chopped up and randomly rearranged into a new sequential order. The atoms are convincing, but the whole sounds “off.”

      • Well... says:

        Improvising Bach-like unaccompanied cello is definitely a thing many good cellists can do well.

    • bkennedy99 says:

      I also wonder if there were any Bach/Mozart contemporaries that were almost as good but we never talk about. Like today, listening to the 90s grunge / alternative station Lithium on XM, 25% of the tracks are one of Pearl Jam / Alice in Chains / Soundgarden / Nirvana / Stone Temple Pilots, and the other 75% are pretty good bands with one to three big hits hits. Are there similarly awesome one-hit wonders in 19th century classical?

      • acymetric says:

        Almost certainly. Probably true with literature as well in most cases.

      • johan_larson says:

        If you start digging into the type of music Bach wrote, namely baroque music, you’ll quickly discover a vast range of capable composers like Telemann, Couperin, and Buxtehude who wrote similar things, often very well. The part of an art form that protrudes into common knowledge is a tiny tip of a vast mountain, with many riches to discover.

      • MaxieJZeus says:

        I also wonder if there were any Bach/Mozart contemporaries that were almost as good but we never talk about.

        Indeed, so many so that there’s a whole fistful of music once attributed to Bach but actually written by his contemporaries. Bach is not unique. He’s just consistently better.

        If you want a one-hit wonder, it’s hard to beat Pachelbel.

      • Tarpitz says:

        The play Amadeus is essentially a tragedy built around this: the central character, Salieri, is a composer contemporary of Mozart’s who is desperate for his music to stand the test of time, but knows that it won’t, and Mozart’s will.

        I imagine his stuff was pretty good, but I’ve never heard any of it.

    • AG says:

      Max Martin is, what, on to his 3rd generation of delicious pop dominance?

      I think complexity is way overrated. Contemporary classical music large went up its own ass, with nonsense from the likes of Stockhausen. Bleh, give me some basic John Williams over that any day. If you want to go by a basic definition of complexity, then we’d be celebrating Nancarrow a hell of a lot more. But what his player piano experiments, anyone can do with a sequencer today. TheGumper29 mentions Glass above. Steve Reich is similar. He has a piece called Drumming in which four percussion players slowly and deliberately get in and out of sync with each other. Ooooooh, so complex! What a challenge to play live! But honestly, what the fuck ever, as an actual piece of music. Again, can be done trivially with a sequencer. At that point, you get back into the old debate on if “my 5 year old can do that” is a legitimate argument against abstract art.

      That said, I’m very impressive by the existence of MIDI art. So, Andrew Huang and Mari Lesteberg.

      The thing that defines new waves of music has always been the ability to utilize new instruments. Bach worked wonders with the harpsichord. Mozart and Beethoven pushed for the piano. Romantic composers expanded the importance of the brass section, late Romantic/early Contemporary experimented with the saxophone family, etc. The creation of the vibraphone for jazz, the use of the bandoneon in latin music, the dependence of rock on the electric guitar.

      Even now, the new waves for EDM (and pop, by extension) come from which DJs are able to create new distinct synth sounds, and pair them with distinct rhythm patterns.
      This is why I’m so impressed by Max Martin. He continues to be on the leading edge of pop, adapting to or driving new trends, and yet he never loses his ear for a good melody. Artist after artist, the only tracks on their albums I really love are the ones by Max or his proteges, rather than any of the other producers.

      • acymetric says:

        I more or less agree with you, except the part where you seem to dismiss anything that can be done with a sequencer. Just because something can be done easily with a sequencer doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive or good performance art when actual people do it.

        • AG says:

          It’s not inherently the “can be done with a sequencer” bit that I dislike. I love me some EDM. But it’s the way composers have been lauded as pioneering and great for making pieces of music that sound bad that irks me. “X song but it also plays backwards over itself and slightly speeds up every time they say the word cheese” is a Youtube meme video, not the next pioneering front from a great composer.
          Bach did a Shepard Tone canon. He also wrote a piece that can be played backwards over itself, the Crab Canon. The key thing that makes those two pieces truly amazing is that they still sound good.

          I’ve played Glass, Reich, John Adams, etc. Sure, it can be a rush when the orchestra comes together and executes it properly, with all that precision, but it also just goes in one ear and out the other. I’d rather play a simpler but solid melody.

          I have complex feelings about the concept of “the piece works better live, it requires extra contextual elements.” There comes a point at which I just want music I can put on my music player and not have to listen to with caveats, independent of any specific context, you know?
          So I have some mixed feelings about the development of musicals, too, where the need to be intricately tied to the narrative inhibits their musicality. Singles are not bad!

      • albatross11 says:

        I find a lot of Philip Glass’ work very much worth listening to. Steve Reich I didn’t really get into, though. I’m not interested in clever experimental stuff, but rather in music that works well. Glass’ _Primacy of Number_ is fun to listen to, and I really like his Violin Concerto (I think he only has one), for example.

        OTOH, I’ve tried to listen to atonal (12-tone) composers, but while their music is kind of interesting for awhile, it’s not ever really pleasant to listen to.

        • Totient Function says:

          Subject of course to the caveat that pleasant to listen to is highly variable from person to person. My personal point of entry into a love a classical music was by way of the twentieth century avant garde and I very much doubt I would have come to love the music of Bach, Beethoven and the other familiar names as I do now if I had not first come across the music of Schoenberg, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, etc., My prior musical tastes were mostly.dominated by jazz, in which genre I also gravitated completely naturally to the avant garde and had to reverse engineer an interest in more classic styles. It is true that this does not seem to be the usual pathway …

          Never did warm to Reich and Riley and Glass and the rest of the American minimalist school though.

    • migo says:

      Interesting question. On one hand it is difficult to compare artists working in different mediums and creative spaces – how can you compare Bach, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan?

      On the other hand there are contemporary composers whose creative space is closer to the classical one. Of these, two of the best may be Brian Wilson and Jim Steinman (the responsible for some of the most laughable aesthetics of the pop music of the 80s).

      Brian Wilson:

      Jim Steinman:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UAyb2VLtYk (an orchestral medley)

      • Suppose you ask the same question about poetry, where a lot of the good stuff is from the past two centuries. Is there any living poet as good as Kipling, Dylan Thomas, Millay, Yeats, …?

    • rlms says:

      I think the best jazz players were as good as the classical greats.

    • Well... says:

      He’s not quite living anymore, but his death was untimely so I think he’s eligible: there are a lot of people who’d say Frank Zappa stacks up.

    • gdepasamonte says:

      Is any music being produced today as good as the best music of Bach or Mozart? Usual caveats about taste and subjectivity aside, I think “no” is the only reasonable argument.

      First you have to ask, how does art change over time? It isn’t just an accumulation of new ideas and techniques which are introduced by a genius, perfected by their followers, and are then available like a toolbox full of spanners and screws for any two-bit composer who comes along later.

      What happens in most times and most places is that people produce art against the background of a more-or-less prevailing “style”: so Mozart composes against the background of the European Classical style, Bach against that of the the High Baroque. Styles are usually named and codified by later generations, but would certainly have been meaningful in some way to the people then living.

      The effectiveness of art is the result an individual artist interacting with the stylistic tradition they inherit. The judgement of art means judging the capacities of these styles to achieve certain things as much as the capacities of individual artists. There is a (very) loosely agreed-on assessment of the capacity of the main styles of Western classical music: a fairly primitive, “mostly of historical interest” period from Gregorian chant until early renaissance polyphony, about 1400; having here reached a level of maturity to be somewhat enjoyed by a tolerant modern audience, it proceeds with increasing sophistication until flowering in the music of Palestrina (1570), which is very definitely beautiful but obviously limited in many ways (primitive ideas of melody and rhythm, very little contrast), etc.

      The High Baroque (eg Bach) is, for modern audiences, the earliest really “mature” style – meaning that, although it is still obviously limited in some ways to our ears (still rhythmically homogeneous, still a primitive use of contrast), it’s best music can stand with the best music written since without sounding obviously inferior in comparison – without these limitations forcibly impressing themselves on the listener.

      Great art is art produced by a genius in a mature style. One can interpret “Mozart was a great composer” as “the Classical style was a highly-developed style and Mozart used it effectively”. This doesn’t have much to do with complexity – in some ways the Classical style is simpler than the older Baroque style. It’s just that the educated modern listener does not have to consciously adopt an attitude of historical tolerance or narrow their range of expectations to enjoy the music. It can be listened to for it’s own sake in more than small, irregular doses. (It is important to realise that things can be lost in stylistic transitions as well as gained – eg the Classical period trades static polyphonic grandeur for a “dramatic sense” that the music is moving towards some goal – it is not obvious that one of these is strictly better than the other. This is why music isn’t just a toolbox of accumulated techniques. At some point your music will just become incoherent if you treat it like that).

      Having hit a style we now agree is mature in 1680, there was no guarantee music would stay mature forever, and after the death of Bach and Handel 1750 there was a sort of stylistic crisis for about 25 years. The music is either simple and graceful to the point of blandness, or complex but capricious and illogical. The composers from this time are now pretty obscure, and are much less highly regarded than Bach and Handel on one side, and Mozart and Haydn on the other. A less dramatic example happens after the death of Beethoven and Schubert around 1830 – though the succeeding generation of Schumann, Chopin etc produced lots of great music, it would probably be broadly agreed that they had some shared stylistic weaknesses (eg the preference for beautiful, stand-alone melodies making it difficult to write consistently convincing longer pieces) which were not fully patched up until the time of Brahms and Wagner.

      I think that most classical music listeners believe that since about 1950 we have been in a stylistic crisis which more-or-less prevents good music from being made. I identify two problems. One is the poverty of the styles which have existed since then, eg the post-war avant garde, with its shrieks and whistles and rustlings and bizarre electronics; in this category I also include minimalism and other deliberately ascetic styles; and also popular music. These either make no attempt to exploit the wide resources of music in the 20th/21st centuries, or (in the case some avant-garde) do so in a way which is incomprehensible and unsatisfying to most listeners.

      The second and wider problem is the increasing fragmentation of styles. I didn’t touch on this yet, but adhering to a widely-accepted style at least in some fashion is useful for many reasons – eg you don’t have to solve all the art-problems by yourself, and (very important this) you can play with the expectations of listeners who are used to the features of the style.

      I don’t know of any music produced by a talented composer now in what I’d consider a mature style.

      As for your comment about film music being as good as old orchestral music, I can only say that the overwhelming majority of serious musicians would not agree with you. Film scores don’t aim at doing anything nearly so interesting as the old orchestral classics or operas, or even ballet scores. I wouldn’t know where to begin to explain the gulf between Beethoven and Hans Zimmer. But there is no way to argue for this without you listening to enormous quantities of music – which you (understandably) may not want to do!

      • CatCube says:

        I’ve only started to dabble in classical music in the past 6 or so years, but one thing that I didn’t realize until I started going to symphonies was exactly how much the expectations of listeners have been changed by recording.

        First off, if all you listen to is either popular music or even popular recordings of classical music, you get really used to teeny little 3-5 minute bites of music. For example, everybody here has probably heard part of the Moonlight Sonata (properly Piano Sonata No. 14 by Beethoven). If you don’t seriously listen to classical, though, you may not realize that the famous part you’ve heard is only about 1/3 the piece, which is actually 15 minutes long; there are two more movements (and the third I think is the best of the three–if you’ve not heard it before, I’d recommend listening to the whole sonata. Also, here’s an electric guitar recording of the 3rd movement).

        Similarly, if you listen to a “symphony” from a pop classical recording, or Fantasia, you’re only getting a little slice of what is generally a 45 or so minute piece of music. It’s way different to listen to a whole 45 minute symphony performed live, and until you get used to it it’s easy to have your mind wander.

        Also, when many of these old classical pieces were composed, you couldn’t just pop in a recording to listen to whenever you wanted. You might hear a piece every couple of years at best, then you waited until your local symphony or chamber music group was playing it again (if they ever did).

      • AG says:

        So you don’t consider anything like Funk, Metal, or Prog to be close to mature? I’d argue that some of them are using as wide a pool of resources of music, just pool that has little overlap with the resources of the 20th/21st centuries.

        This music view also discounts non-Western music to a troubling degree. Do they not have any mature genres?

        Thirdly, this discounts how much mass ensemble music is being written today, where greatness is mere getting lost in the slush pile, for want of exposure. Swaths of new pieces are commissioned every year for marching band shows and wind ensembles, that do not resemble previous eras of classical music. Many of them even sound good.

        So it’s less that music quality has eroded, but more an extension of your point on the fragmentation of styles: standards by which greatness can be recognized and propagated have been eroded. There is no unified direction in which music is developing, and so no possible way we can classify an Era. Music is developing in every single direction at once. Maturity in one direction trades off with a lack in another.

        (Also, “overwhelming majority of serious musicians” do agree that John Williams is the man, nor are they nearly as snobby about pop music. But yeah, overall, film scores rarely work well stand-alone these days.)

        • gdepasamonte says:

          I deliberately say nothing about non-western music (did you want the post to be longer!?), mostly because I only know a little about a few sub-genres – I don’t claim at all that there are no mature styles elsewhere.

          I enjoy a lot of pop music – I say only that it is consciously limited in scope, and isn’t this pretty much necessary for a truly popular style? No-one blames it for being so. I also think some of John Williams’ film music is terrific. As you say, it’s just that it doesn’t stand alone in the same way that a symphony does – and this is not a criticism either, any music interesting enough to stand alone would be interesting enough to distract from the film, and would no longer be good film music.

          Of course it’s difficult to fend off these “what about this, this & this genre” questions. I have no extensive knowledge of any of those. The difficulty with genres rooted in pop music is that any mature style is almost certainly elaborate enough to require a quite a lot of formal training (there’s a truly elitist statement!) to use successfully. In prog I know there have been musicians with some formal background, but I don’t find what they produced convincing. But I’m not really interested in arguing about specific genres.

          With the fragmentation of styles I think I’m claiming more than what you say, though I admit I am not clear about exactly what I do want to claim. Partly, yes, that it’s hard for a composer to write good serious music with broad appeal without being able to assume much of their listeners. Partly that extreme fragmentation of styles encourages genre specialisation, which is somehow anathemic to stylistic maturity. Partly that the problem of developing a coherent style is more difficult with fewer people working on it – I don’t think the Mozart/Haydn development of the ripe Classical style was historically inevitable, suppose they had been working on totally different things? And their problem was much simpler than synthesising something suitable from everything we have available now! Anyway, fragmentation seems to me very good for ordinary artistic output but bad for the highest sort of achievement.

  14. Tenacious D says:

    The Aroostook “War”

    This is a topic I was already thinking about (I have family roots in the area in question, although as far as I can tell they immigrated after these events) but it goes well with a discussion in a recent OT about population densities in northern Maine.

    Most people have probably heard of the slogan “54-40 or fight” before the Oregon Treaty established the border in the west of the continent along the 49th parallel in 1846. The determination of the border between Northern Maine and Canada several years earlier in 1842 is less well known, I think. The ultimately peaceful resolution was preceded by the so-called Aroostook War in 1839. There were no pitched battles, but militias were mobilized and both sides seized prisoners. At first lumberjacks from both sides were coming into conflict cutting trees in disputed territory. Census takers and land agents were sent to the area to attempt to exercise some jurisdiction. A land agent from Maine was seized by a posse of lumberjacks from New Brunswick and taken to Woodstock as a political prisoner. Maine called up the militia and constructed Fort Fairfield. British troops assembled at towns along the Saint John River, of which the Aroostook River is a tributary. It seems the armed stand off more or less held the status quo until a treaty was hammered out.

    There were no combat deaths, although some lumberjacks or militiamen from the Canadian side were seriously injured in a bear attack*.

    Here is an article about the conflict (and the Wikipedia article has as much or more information).

    *Suggestions that this was an early and unsuccessful instance of a long-standing Canadian program attempting to recruit animals to the defense of the Dominion are sheer fantasy.

  15. Plumber says:

    If you want the comments ‘oldest first’


    seems to do the trick

    • Aapje says:


      Edit: unfortunately, if you reply to anyone it switches back :/

    • 10240 says:

      There is a link to do this at the top of the comment section.

      • Plumber says:


        I saw that on another thread yesterday morning and copied the words, but last night that option didn’t “load” for me so I thought that it might be just temporary, glad that it isn’t (goes to check).
        I still don’t see the option on this thread at the top of the page. Maybe it comes and goes?

  16. Brett says:

    There’s been some interesting news on the Deccan Traps eruptions. They previously thought that they took place before the K-T Asteroid Impact, but now it looks like they may have taken place roughly simultaneously. Maybe that’s why the Dinos died off when they did – the combination of the two was too much ecological stress.

    I’m surprised we haven’t had more talk of the Younger Dryas event. It was a 1200-year period where temperatures (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) rapidly dropped about 2-6 degrees Celsius mean temperature over a few decades, stayed that way for a thousand years or so, and then rapidly warmed up again at the same speed. Given that we’re going through some pretty rapid anthropogenic climate change and global warming over the course of a couple decades, it seems like it would be a very interesting event to compare it to in terms of ecological impact.

    • Ketil says:

      rapidly dropped about 2-6 degrees Celsius

      One thing I’ve wondered about: how accurately can we measure change in the distant past? People will make remarks about how current warming is much more rapid than earlier temperature changes, and I get that geological information or some such can estimate previous temperatures – but at what resolution? Can we tell the difference in temperature from year 10000BC to 9999BC, or do we have to settle on averages per century or more?

      • woah77 says:

        My understanding, which admittedly isn’t one of an expert just from what I’ve gathered over the years, is that resolution decreases with distance from the present. 10k BC probably has close to decade level accuracy, but 100k probably is closer to century. Anything further back than that is possibly a crap shoot.

  17. Reasoner says:

    I look forward to making all new SSC readers from this point on hopelessly confused.

    I think if you put something in every open thread post saying “unlike normal blog posts, open thread comments are sorted newest first” then that would go a long way.

  18. EchoChaos says:

    MedianMan was a complete bust, but how about a related superpower? Would you be MedianProfessionalMan?

    For every ability, you have the median ability of those who are paid to do that. So for driving, you’d be at the median professional driver (including Uber drivers, taxi drivers, truckers and racecar drivers). For programming you’d be the median of all paid programmers, etc.

    Certainly for most everyone here that means at least a minor hit to some abilities, but at the cost of a massive gain in most (all professionals, as mentioned, are pretty high in their abilities).

    Would you accept this power? What would you do with it?

    • Plumber says:


      Unfortunately my current job still requires specialized knowledge of “security” (jail and holding cells) plumbing fixtures, but given what I’ve probably forgotten, if I get tranferried or have to work on a house being “median professional” sounds like a good deal.

    • woah77 says:

      I’d become the world’s most capable consultant, able to help with any industry anywhere. I have basic competency with just about every skill and language, but the fact I have so many makes me able to provide insight that no one else could. Also, based upon other research I’ve seen, I’m most likely a super forecaster, so I can probably beat the market in investing.

      • acymetric says:

        You would be an average investor, and an average consultant, though. I don’t think there’s a way to make it cumulative, you are average at whatever you’re doing at the time but it isn’t clear to me that you’re average at all things all the time.

        • woah77 says:

          It’s my understanding that “super forecasters” of which Scott is considered one, are not actually paid for it. And while I’d be potentially average as a consultant for a given task, my flexibility would make me amazing as a one stop shop. So my opinion that I’d be a great super forecaster doesn’t make me any money (since I don’t get paid for it) it probably does lead me to associate with the people who could use a polymath of epic proportions.

          • acymetric says:

            so I can probably beat the market in investing

            I assume you’re playing the market to make money, which means the median rules apply and you get the median ability to make market moves of people paid to make such moves right?

          • woah77 says:

            Alright, I admit it: this power has no internal consistency. If it did, you’d be able to hack the system for free money.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Actually it depends on how you define medium. If you got the median return over the course of a year but had variance you could sell knowledge of your moves in the first half of the year plus commit to certain moves in the 2nd half because they would carry a lot of information about how the market would have to act to get your first half moves up or down to median return.

          • acymetric says:

            Remember, you just have median abilities, this doesn’t mean you are going to get median results. Some idiots get lucky, and some of the sharpest can still be wrong or unlucky and lose big (especially in the short term).

            This probably applies to all of the proposed careers…important to remember that median ability does not necessarily mean median income or career status (you could end up higher, lower, or totally out of the specific industry). Of course this line of thinking quickly devolves into a discussion about whether our economy is a well functioning meritocracy.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      Does this only apply to skill or also to physical fitness? How do things change with age?

      Is 50-year-old MedianProfessionalMan capable of holding his own as a professional athlete (due to having the abilities of the median pro) or is he like any other 50-year-old ex-pro, who has the skills but no longer has the fitness needed to use them at the top level?

      • EchoChaos says:

        Does this only apply to skill or also to physical fitness?

        Why not both?

        How do things change with age?

        I would say that you have the average physical condition of people who are paid to do something at your age. There are plenty of 50 year old professional athletes, so you have the average fitness of those.

        • acymetric says:

          I don’t think this rule works well with other professions where age/talent/pay is distributed so differently. I think you just grant the 50 year old incredible athletic talents for his/her age. I assume we’re still working with a genie, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

          Bean raised a good point below. You’re most likely in some minor league or semi-pro league…in football decent chance you’re playing in the Canadian league and that’s probably the best case.

    • Florent says:

      You’d think that having a lot of abilities in different subjects would make you a great polymath. Unfortunately your ability to combine insights from different domains to combine them into new ideas is average at best.

      • acymetric says:

        Average among people who are paid for it…so still pretty good right?

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          Not necessarily. Think of fields where the entry-level is really entry-level. Fast Food cook, retail sales, groundskeeper. “Average for paid employee” could still be borderline incompetent.

          Even fields where it’s clearly non entry-level may still be dragged way down by looking at the entire group of paid employees. Business owner comes to mind as a job that pays, and may conjure images of powerful CEOs, but would be averaged way down by all the people starting private (even part time) businesses that fail 50% of the time.

          Accounting is another good example, where you could be a CPA or you could be a Clerk doing essentially data entry.

          Even going with the “professional” requirement (which is very vague and I’m not sure how we draw a line at any strong schelling point), there are “professional” Accountants, HR people, IT people, etc. that are really the people in charge of those functions for their respective companies, but have no better skills than your average office employee.

    • Aapje says:

      Would you accept this power?

      Yes, I probably would.

      What would you do with it?

      The nice thing is that you can do any job where the median professional earns a good living. A great benefit you have here is that even in professions where it is hard to earn a living, those who fail to earn a living and aren’t that talented, don’t count as professionals. So they don’t lower your ability.

    • Eponymous says:

      Depending on exactly how the reference class is defined, having median professional ability in all areas seems extremely powerful. For example, you would be have the math ability of the median professional mathematician. Assuming this means people working in pure math research at universities, you would be very very good at math by any reasonable standard. If you further get the median ability of people in each subfield, you might be one of the best mathematicians in the world.

      But you have this in *every* field.

      Take another example: history. You have the historical knowledge of the median historian — good. But wait a minute. Historians specialize. Would you have the knowledge of Classical Greek history of the median Classical Greek historian? If so, you now have the most well-rounded knowledge of history of anyone in the world. Plus you’re a world-class mathematician. Hmm.

      I could keep going, but you get the idea.

      Basically, I think I would lose out a little bit on very narrow areas of my current specialty; but given the massive increase in my overall knowledge and competence, I would certainly be much much better at my current job, and at many other potential jobs.

      On the other hand, if “math abillity of the median professional mathematician” just means the median ability of people who use math in their jobs in some form, then I probably wouldn’t take it. I don’t really want the mathematical ability of the 80th percentile cashier. Or, if you define it more narrowly, the median accountant. And the historical knowledge of the 60th percentile high school history teacher would be a step down.

      • EchoChaos says:

        This is exactly the sort of take I enjoy reading here.

        I really hadn’t thought of it, but the first makes more sense to me.

      • rtypeinhell says:

        This brings up the question of skill/knowledge distinction. To my mind, the abilities of a Classical Greek historian probably consist of analytical writing, critical reading, and some linguistics. And that would be the same as a Classical Chinese historian, and a pre-unified British historian, and so forth. Historians are valued for their knowledge, which MedianProfessionalMan would need to go about acquiring on his own, which would require starting from the ground up – although at least he could be confident that he could have a career in any academic field, while others may worry about hitting a wall. A programmer or a plumber or a car mechanic or even a mathmetician have a lot of acquired skills. I don’t know how true that holds for academics.

    • fion says:

      I’d definitely take this one. I don’t actually think I’d get worse at anything. I’m probably pretty close to median at my job, but I definitely feel below rather than above. And I’m not close to professional level in any of my hobbies.

      As for what I’d do… I’d probably start by taking one of my existing hobbies and pursuing a career in that, but I’d have a great time trying new things. I’d try various sports and musical instruments, I’d try writing and acting… Just find something really fun, do that for a living and have a nice life.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      “MedianMajorLeagueProfessionalBaseballPlayerMan” sounds like a pretty good gig.

      • bean says:

        But why would we expect that “median professional baseball player” turns into “median MLB player”? There are lots of people who get paid to play baseball who aren’t in the MLB, and I expect they’d be included in any category where “professional baseball player” has any meaning. You’d do better in other sport categories, because football and basketball have outsourced their minor leagues to the colleges, and those probably don’t count as paid professionals.

        Figuring out the categories on this seems really hard. It can be made almost arbitrarily powerful by forcing it all into small subfields (“I can drive as well as the median Formula 1 driver”) or weak by making it wide (the median driver who gets paid to drive is probably a truck driver or an Uber driver, and not that far above the median of all drivers).

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          It can be made almost arbitrarily powerful by forcing it all into small subfields

          Yes, that’s why I edited my post to change it from “MedianProfessionalBaseballPlayerMan” to “MedianMajorLeagueProfessionalBaseballPlayerMan” when I remembered that farm clubs exist. I chose baseball instead of football or basketball because I think baseball players have longer careers with less chance of injury. Just seems like a really good gig for the median player.

          • acymetric says:

            I don’t think you get to define your employer though. I can’t be “MedianGoogleSoftwareEngineer”, I’m just “MedianSoftwareEngineer” which may or may not be good enough for me to sneak into Google.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            The rules do not specifically forbid it, and “technically correct” is the best kind of correct.

          • acymetric says:

            But the rules compare based on “ability”. In this case, ability would include things like “hit a ball” “field a ball” etc. So all the minor leaguers are still going to be included in the set based on the abilities involved (the key is that your abilities are median, not your career or career success).

            This of course means there are a lot of abilities that span many careers.

    • acymetric says:

      Accept immediately. I’m now a touring musician in some capacity (regional or even small-time national perhaps). I work a side gig that allows me to bring in some decent money working around the touring/practice schedule, using the money to

      a) Stay afloat financially
      b) Buy high-end equipment to help offset the fact that I’m merely average
      c) Help attract top-flight talent to help offset the fact that I (personally) am merely average

      • rtypeinhell says:

        Why do you assume that the median professional musician is skilled enough to be touring solo — based solely on talent? Isn’t a lot of success in the music industry driven by marketing / networking, not personal skill? I would assume that given median abilities (not median luck or median connections), your best hope would be in an orchestra or marching band somewhere scraping by. Maybe a session player, if not some guy on youtube who makes five hundred bucks a month begging for patreon subscribers.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          It seems that there are two theories of what the hypothetical would mean. In the first, you are a full professional in the field, which many take to mean the highest echelons. The second includes everyone doing the task/job at any level. So acymetric seems to be saying “median rock star” more than “median musician.” To my mind, most of the people who get paid to do music teach music lessons to kids or play bars on weekends. That would make the median musician a part time musician who may be working under the table.

          • acymetric says:

            Not quite, but you’re on the right track. I’m not saying “median rock star” because I’m talking about tours at small venues (<1k capacity). I would say that "paid musician" excludes anybody who is not actively gigging (so no music teachers that don't actively gig). How high the median is probably depends on what "gets paid" means in the OP. I'll operate under the assumption that someone who plays one gig a month for $50 bucks is not really working…the relevant data set should at least be limited to people who could reasonably claim the "work" as being a part time job (as opposed to a hobby that occasionally pays). Including music teachers fits the version of this from the last open thread better than this one.

            If you parse it as "get paid to do anything related to music" of course the median gets lower. If you parse it as "get paid to perform music" the bar moves higher (although my scenario never approached being a "rock star", I wouldn't even be a household name in the cities I was playing let alone nationally, except for the small set of people hopefully coming out to shows).

        • acymetric says:

          I explicitly didn’t assume that. I’m probably not even the frontman for the band, even if I’m a founding member. I assumed a side job for additional income, which would be used to supplement the bands income (so I do assume I’d be scraping by as far as band finances would go).

          I think you’re either interpreting me to be expecting more success than I actually was, or vastly overestimating what it takes to be a locally/regionally touring band.

          • rtypeinhell says:

            You’re right, you didn’t say solo. That was my mistake. I’m just curious what is the basis for your prior; what does it take to be in a locally/regionally touring band? The only (paid) musicians I know don’t make enough money to even mention it. I was assuming that “touring” would be a tier of talent above a studio musician, and that, accounting for the record industry, big music cities like Nashville, and the sheer number of people in an orchestra, that would fall above median level. It is highly possible that I am incredibly wrong.

        • Vorkon says:

          Isn’t a lot of success in the music industry driven by marketing / networking, not personal skill?

          You’re absolutely right. Isn’t it great, then, that you also have the skills of the median professional talent agent, marketing executive, nightclub owner, salesman, tour bus driver, and sound technician, among numerous other related skills, to back up your good-but-not-remarkable musical talents?

          • johan_larson says:

            So, you’re the guy who does all the myriad things necessary for the band to get started, but as it gets progressively more successful, more and more of what you contribute gets done by specialists until by the end you have been completely replaced.

            Charming. I picture a late-thirties guy in LA trying to convince women who are too young for him that he was the original lyricist/keyboard-player/manager of some currently hot band.

            Let’s hope the contracts specify he gets residuals from the early works.

          • LHN says:

            With median negotiating skill, knowledge of the music industry, ability to interpret contracts, and skill at picking representation, I don’t like their chances.

            I took a CLE course on music contracts once. My main takeaway was that unless your lawyer really knows what they’re doing (not just contract law, but the specific industry penchant for hiding time bombs in innocuous looking clauses), odds are you’ll come away from a platinum album (or whatever the modern equivalent is) owing the label money.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        You’d be average at identifying talent and putting a band together.

    • SaiNushi says:

      I accept it. I would focus on writing and programming, with sides of mathematics and 3d modeling.

      I feel like whatever skills I get interested in, I never get better than intermediate hobbyist. Which is fine for a housewife, but terrible if I want to do anything else. So, median author would let me write that novel that’s been banging around in my head since high school, and the rest would let me create the video game that’s been banging around in my head for three years.

    • Chalid says:

      Seems like the things to search for would be jobs that require a ton of training and experience before you can get them at all. Median CEO comes to mind, except that no one’s going to give you the job with your median resume.

      Another thing to look for might be something where you need to do a lot of task switching. The only thing I can think where this is actually a big win is unfortunately sci-fi – medianProfessionalMan would be an *amazing* asset on a Mars colonization mission.

      • Civilis says:

        Any place where you’re limited to a small number of people, having a diverse skill set will help. If you want a spot on a prestigious expedition to the Antarctic, “median research biologist” probably isn’t enough to give you a spot. On the other hand, if your resume includes “median research biologist”, “median medical doctor”, “median aircraft pilot”, “median aircraft mechanic” and “median sherpa”? (Assuming you can use sherpa as a job; could also be “median mountain expedition guide and porter”.) They’ll make a spot for you.

        For some professions, you can probably get well beyond “median” just by adding up enough other median professions. Adding any “median [Insert Common Language] translator” to just about any profession which requires social interaction increases its value; I can’t imagine what adding every “median [Insert Language] translator” does. (“Yeah, she’s not the fastest customs inspector, but she’s a passable speaker at every langauge that comes through here.”) For that matter, adding “median lawyer” to just about any other rare high-education job, like doctor or engineer, is probably enough to set you up for life.

        • bullseye says:

          You wouldn’t just be a passable speaker at every language; you’d speak each one as well as a scholar specializing in it. And a scholar specializing in one language likely speaks it natively.

    • Kuiperdolin says:

      Median is a moving target.

      As a median hitman, you should be a pretty good killer. Maybe not movie-hitman good (there’s a lot of goons out there ready to swing a knife or pull a trigger for a few bucks) but surely better than amateurs. Good enough that law enforcement should not be a problem as long as you don’t do something completely outrageous.

      So you start killing the worst hitmen in the world. They’re, by definition, not as good as you, so it’s not a problem. As you do so, mechanically, the median hitman becomes better, so you become better. Eventually it’s only you and a few top-level, movie-hitman good hitmen. You’re still median, but the population has shrunk upwards so your level would have been in the top percentile of hitmen before your intervention. At this point anyone is fair game.

      So you just start killing the worst professionals in whatever field you want to master next, and get better. And better. Repeat.

      • EchoChaos says:

        This is a beautifully morbidly evil tactic. I love it.

      • acymetric says:

        Love the creativity, but this massive killing expedition seems like it would be out of reach for the median hitman before either law enforcement catches up, someone hires a hit man to take you out, or you make some other fatal/”career” ending mistake (all of which are easily possible for the a median hitman).

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          How much effort do you really think law enforcement will devote to catching the guy who’s killing off killers for hire?

          • acymetric says:

            Certainly more than you, but even if I accept that no form of law enforcement will pursue a killing spree that has to stretch into the hundreds if not thousands (I have no idea how many contract killers are out there but you’re going to be taking out more than just a few to appreciably move the median) you’re also going to be upsetting a lot of high-powered people in organized crime. You’re going to be taking out people from the Russian mob et. al and I doubt they just take it lying down.

          • woah77 says:


            I know there are lots of movies/shows/books with plots like this, but my understanding with the real world is that expending lots of effort to catch the guy gunning down contract killers is just surrealistic. However, if you did botch the job, and get caught, some prosecutor will ride your name into the big leagues as the guy who stopped a rampant murderer.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Even if you aren’t worried about the cops most of your victims are going to be low level gangsters, and if they are somewhat evenly distributed across all gangs you will basically have every major criminal organization in the world happy to kill you if they ever found out that you had killed one of theirs. This is a hell of a razor’s edge to live on.

          • noyann says:

            The killers for hire won’t be pre-registered with the police, so they will look like innocent victims. Only after the cops catch on on their nature, you are right.
            …Until a smart cop figures “hold on, s/he’s just cleaning the market to get more jobs & higher profits later on, plus advertising & exercise”. Then the police is internally divided on how long to let our killer go on doing killer removing work, while getting better and better, and the tension within the cops rises, and clues to our killer’s work get harder and harder to find while s/he gets more and more dangerous…
            Eventuall top-notch killers catch on (alarmed by frantic police activity?) and go on a hunt…
            Would make a good movie plot, only real problem is explaining the moving (median) competence.

          • Civilis says:

            How much effort do you really think law enforcement will devote to catching the guy who’s killing off killers for hire?

            It’s not law enforcement so much as the people that employ hitmen you need to watch out for. The FBI’s probably not as much your worry as a mob boss or, say, Vladimir Putin.

          • Vorkon says:

            Probably not much. The hitmen, on the other hand, are going to expend an awful lot of effort to stop you, though, and half of them at any given time are guaranteed to be better than you. You might be able to leverage your other median talents to give you an advantage, but I wouldn’t put good money on you staying alive past the last hundred or so hitmen.

            Either that, or after you finally kill the last hitman, there is no longer a “median hitman” for you to be as skilled as, and you immediately forget everything you ever know about killing people and getting away with it, after which the police catch you. (Or maybe you’re killed by a random mugger, or something. You know, something suitably karmic.)

            …Then again, killing JUST ENOUGH lousy hitmen to ensure you get really good, and then switching over to killing lousy members of other lucrative job fields before the other hitmen catch onto what you’ve been doing might still be a good scam.

          • Clutzy says:

            I think people vastly overestimate the skill level of a hitman. The reasons for hitmen not getting caught have more to do with the lack of community cooperation and the lack of a personal connection between the hitman and his victim, than any objective skills attributable to the hitman himself.

            There is no “Il Duce” from Boondock Saints, there is no “The Transporter”. Mostly there are very few who even have military training, and the 30 best hitmen in America would probably get wrecked by 30 normal marines.

      • baconbits9 says:

        The flaw here is how long can the current median hit-man go without being caught? You are working pro-bono as a hit-man for an extended period of time before you get to the promised land.

        You are also making a lot of assumptions about the elasticity of demand for hit-men, if demand remains high with the constrained supply then you might end up with a situation where more hit-men are recruited from lower ranks, and they would be worse so they are failing and getting caught at a higher rate so you need more than 1 replacement level hit-man to replace every one you kill which actually reduces the median quality of hit-men, making you perpetually worse.

        • acymetric says:

          This is a good point. Being a hit man isn’t free (or cheap). So presumably you either take some paid hits first, or have to work a career for x years to save up money for all the stuff/connections/bribes you need.

          • The Nybbler says:

            You’re also a median professional burglar. Or beggar. And after killing the worst hitmen you can find, you can steal their stuff. There’s probably a terrible hitman out there who tries to make up for his crappiness with good equipment.

          • albatross11 says:

            My guess is that most people hired to kill someone are disposable lunkheads who have no particular skill in anything except violence.

      • The Nybbler says:

        This requires that you somehow find these crappy hitmen. But maybe that’s something the median spy or cop could do.

      • John Schilling says:

        The median “hit man” in the real world is a mob enforcer who spends most of his time looking tough, breaking kneecaps, guarding drug shipments, and very very rarely being told that no, this time, we actually do want this specific person dead and not just hurt/intimidated. And the core skill for breaking out of that low-rent role is not aptitude for killing, but for marketing yourself as a bespoke assassin rather than a common thug without getting yourself thrown in jail. Outside of Hollywood, there really aren’t enough assassinations to support a large class of professional assassins.

        So one question is, when you set yourself up as a “hit man”, does the system automagically give you the skills of the median mob enforcer, or does it limit itself to sampling the much smaller distribution of people whose primary job responsibility is assassination?

        Also, you’re going to want to target specifically the hit men who are worst at marketing themselves as hit men, because that’s the skill you need to boost. But if they’re so bad at marketing themselves that nobody knows who they are, then you don’t know who they are and so can’t kill them. If they’re so bad at marketing themselves that everybody including the police knows who they are, then they are probably in jail and no longer active hit men (and surrounded by walls and armed guards if you nonetheless do want to kill them).

        • moonfirestorm says:

          This actually presents an alternate solution, though. You don’t necessarily need to kill them, you just need to get them imprisoned or otherwise out of the business to no longer count towards the statistics and improve your skills.

          I suspect this still leads to the problem of “you’re a great assassin but every major entity that would hire you wants you dead” though.

      • Aapje says:


        I actually think that the average skill level of hitmen is among the lowest of professions. Most hitmen seem to do one or just a few hit jobs, being given a crappy gun and little training. They are essentially expendable.

        They cycle in and out of the profession so fast that you can’t keep up with your killings.

        Also, how are you going to find them in the first place? You are median cop, after all…

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        If I became aware that you were using this scam to become exceptional, I would respond by hiring a few hundred terrible hitmen, ganking you once your skill is immediately depressed, and then firing them before payday.

        If I were aware of why this scam would work, I would also be aware that you would have the skills of a median con man. Which doesn’t bother me, since I feel reasonably sure that I can beat the median con man, once.

    • baconbits9 says:

      If the whole “averagemajorleaguebaseball” player was a possibility in this scenario you could have a perpetual career at the median level.

      So my question is who is the best real life example of a high end professional that was pretty close to average for a long time? My first answer would be Tim Wakefield who looked like an average ish pitcher for his career and was still average at 42 (and pitched two more years at a below average level).

      • Well... says:

        The fact that I recognize his name even though I only closely followed pro baseball for about 5 years as a kid, and didn’t follow it at all the rest of the time, suggests he probably wasn’t all that average.

        • Protagoras says:

          In a 19 year career, he had 34.5 wins above replacement, averaging under 2 WAR per year, which is extremely low for a starting pitcher (and indeed in some years they used him a lot in relief). Probably the reason you’d heard of him is because there are very, very few knuckleball pitchers, so he tended to get talked about more than the results he produced would otherwise have justified.

    • Well... says:

      To sweeten the deal, allow me to keep 5 abilities as I currently have them.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I love my career, which sort of combines three different jobs, at least two of which have very unusual skill distribution among professionals. I already think I am both significantly better than the median professional and significantly worse than I would like to be at all three things. So that’s a no thanks from me.

      Also, it’s pretty blurry what counts as a professional actor. There are considerable numbers of people who are paid a few hundred pounds a year for a few days of corporate roleplay or murder mystery evenings. If they count, they are the median professional actors, and they are mostly… not good.

      • albatross11 says:

        This ties in with Scott Adams’ idea of a talent stack–instead of being the very best at X, you are pretty good at X, Y, and Z, which stack together to make you uniquely valuable.

    • aristides says:

      The median Doctor makes a good amount of money, so that’s tempting, but I assume I’d still have to go through Med School or risk imprisonment for practicing medicine without a license. The opportunity cost of going to med school and residency right now is too high, so I’ll have to pass.

    • Clutzy says:

      As many people have discovered, this is easy to loophole by exploiting some fields where the only professionals are super-elite, like sports.

      However, I think that outside the exploitable edge cases you have to decline if you are a person doing decently well in the Western world. That is because, first of all, there are a ton of people who are really bad at their jobs in Africa, Asia, etc. Like picking “median professional soldier” would get you washed out of the US Army in no time. On top of that, no one cares about your skills when hiring you unless you are super elite (see the few professions that are exploitable, maybe), what matters is credentials.

      It doesn’t matter if you are a “Median Supreme Court Justice” cause you aint ever getting to SCOTUS, indeed, your probably not going to get into any of the law schools you need to to even get on that track.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        That is because, first of all, there are a ton of people who are really bad at their jobs in Africa, Asia, etc. Like picking “median professional soldier” would get you washed out of the US Army in no time.

        The first MedianMan post specified that you would be the median of people in the country, not the whole world. I assume the same would be the case here; otherwise, the median professional driver would probably be a rickshaw driver rather than a trucker or an Uber driver.

        On top of that, no one cares about your skills when hiring you unless you are super elite (see the few professions that are exploitable, maybe), what matters is credentials.

        Credentialism is endemic indeed, but you are exaggerating. There are ways to make decent living with either no credentials. A lot of those rely heavily networking and selling yourself, but if you have the skills of the median professional marketer, diplomat, politician, PR consultant, brand consultant, technical writer, copywriter, web designer, and freelancer it should definitely be doable. Self-employed professional median man has a lot of opportunities for hustling. And then you can use your median professional accounting skills to keep track of your earnings and do your own taxes. Plus, think of all the money you could save on car and home maintenance by using your median professional mechanic, plumber, electrician, and handyman skills to do your own repairs! Not so much cooking, though; I’m guessing the median professional cook is some guy heating up frozen meat patties at a fast food restaurant.

    • DinoNerd says:

      If I were convinced we were approaching TEOTWAWKI I’d grab it with both hands, because there’d be a notable lack of specialists available to do things for me for a fee.

    • pontifex says:

      “Median Professional Man” is kind of an incoherent superpower. Some professions require extremely high levels of skill and talent. For example, being a median quantum physicist surely means you have an immense mathematical ability. But on the other hand, you’re somehow only a median accountant, or median high school math teacher. (Can I just start saying “average,” because almost everything is a Gaussian distribution?)

      Maybe you could rationalize this by saying you have some sort of tragic flaw that makes the latter two professions not work out as well for you as your quantum physics background would suggestion. But at some point, it just becomes ridiculous. Like, you’re only average at managing a gas station, but you could do Tim Cook’s job without breaking a sweat? (Or whoever you think the median CEO is.) You’re a median minor league baseball player but also somehow a median major league baseball player too?

      We could say that maybe the genie gives you the median (average) abilities of all white-collar workers. So you have median INT, median DEX, median WIS, median CON, etc. etc. That just makes you Homer Simpson, the everyman. Not really a superpower– kind of the opposite!

      Or, we could say that the genie auto-scales your abilities to whatever your current job is. But then the “ability” sounds even more like a curse. You will never be more than average at anything you do. And that includes being a student. Which means even getting a credential that says “I can do X” will be a challenge for you. Maybe you would have been a median quantum physicist or doctor. But how do you get there when you have to pass through so many layers of selection designed to only take the cream of the crop?

      • acymetric says:

        Well, there’s obviously a degree of “magic” to it, or we wouldn’t need a genie. It also helps to correctly parse the way the “gift” (curse?) works (how you break down categories is important). For example, I would argue that the way the original post was worded, you aren’t “median minor league baseball player” and “median major league baseball player”, you are “median baseball player” (of the set of baseball players who get paid to play). This would, of course, put you in the minor leagues.

        As to your last paragraph, I think we have to assume the genie is incredibly well connected and can get you placed in just about any job for this to work. If not, you would need to pick a career that is primarily merit based over performance which probably means grinding out grunt work for a while until you “prove yourself” with your median abilities.

    • Rachael says:

      I wouldn’t take it, and I think all the people saying they would take it have spent too much time in elite bubbles (like SSC) and have forgotten how bad average is.
      IIRC, the median programmer can’t implement FizzBuzz.

      • moonfirestorm says:

        IIRC, the median programmer can’t implement FizzBuzz.

        There’s a good chance I’m going to learn something today, but how would that even work? What programming work is anyone going to pay for that is less complicated than FizzBuzz?

        I buy that the median job applicant for a programming position can’t implement FizzBuzz, but that’s the whole point of FizzBuzz: it is close to the absolute lowest bar for whether an applicant can do any sort of programming, so it’s a useful first filter. No one’s hiring people who fail FizzBuzz.

        I guess there are people that can do the basic programming stuff like conditionals and loops but have never run into the modulo operation before and thus get lost in FizzBuzz. I’m not sure what I’d count “they do it, but you had to tell them modulo is a thing first” as. And I’m still sort of skeptical that there are significant numbers of people at that level that get paid to program.

        • Rachael says:

          “I buy that the median job applicant for a programming position can’t implement FizzBuzz”
          Unless all of those FizzBuzz-failing applicants are applying for their first job, that’s a significant number of paid programmers who can’t.

          “No one’s hiring people who fail FizzBuzz.”
          Except companies that don’t give programming tests and just hire people whose CVs look good and who sound confident at interview.

          I don’t know how common those are either. I’m probably being too cynical when I say “median”. But I definitely think a significant number of paid programmers are that bad, so I think any programmer on SSC who became a median programmer would experience a drop in skills.

          • acymetric says:

            Well, after a quick and dirty search I would say it sounds like at least a large majority of the failures are from people who have not been employed as programmers.

            I’ve also seen enough to suggest that some people are overreporting failures where the issue was really either differing stylistic preferences that still resulted in perfectly functional code, or bad directions that resulted in perfectly functional code that does what the directions ask but do not do what the interviewer thought they were asking.

            “No one’s hiring people who fail FizzBuzz.”
            Except companies that don’t give programming tests and just hire people whose CVs look good and who sound confident at interview.

            If this were true, how would we know applicants were failing fizzbuzz? Overreporting how bad applicants are is a well known trope in any industry.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            My expectation is that a FizzBuzz-failing applicant would not have previously been employed as a programmer: they might have other work experience in related fields and decided that this makes them qualified as a programmer.

            I agree that this is unlikely to account for enough programmers to make the median job applicant unable to pass it, unless there are a lot more unqualified people applying than I would think. I don’t know what that means, I’m just confused.

            I’ve never interviewed such a person, but I’ve also never interviewed anyone who would fail FizzBuzz, so I suspect such applicants were filtered in some other way before they got to me.

            My big question is what a FizzBuzz-incapable programmer would even do. All you need for FizzBuzz is loops, conditionals, and modulo: how would you program without loops or without conditionals? Maybe it’s a different type of programming than what I’m thinking of?

          • acymetric says:

            I can believe that the median job applicant would fail, although it is just this side of believable (and mostly because I suspect some interviewers “fail” people for things that a lot of reasonable people would not see as true failures of coding).

            I seriously doubt that the median actively employed programmer can’t pass fizzbuzz (given proper/clear instructions) which was the original assertion as I understood it.

          • Rachael says:

            @moonfirestorm I think it’s not about not knowing loops or conditionals, it’s about failing to translate a fuzzy concept in your head into a correctly working algorithm. So you get buggy implementations like printing both the number and the word, or printing both Fizz and FizzBuzz, or whatever.

          • Nornagest says:

            FizzBuzz is basically all about managing slightly complicated conditional branching. All the failures I’ve seen on it have come from oversimplifying the conditionals.

      • fion says:

        I think taking it and then becoming a programmer is one of the worst things you can do, because as you say there are a lot of very bad programmers. But most people are talking about being median at something that only elites can do professionally, such as sports, arts, running a business etc.

        The more I think about it, though, the more I think you have a point. Earlier I said I thought I was below median at my job (theoretical physics research). I am definitely below median among my colleagues, but then I am at a good university. There’s a chance I’m above median across the whole world.

        And also, my impression of sports and the arts may be biased because I only see the elites of the elites. How how good is the median professional footballer? I don’t know because he’s never on telly. How many gigs does the median professional musician get? I don’t know because I’ve never been to one.

        Hmm… you may be right.

    • David Speyer says:

      From a career perspective, this would definitely be a loss for me. MedianMathematician doesn’t have tenure and, if for some reason he does, he doesn’t have grants or grad students.

      But I am tempted by the opportunities for recreation. I can enjoy foreign language media as well as MedianTranslator, jam with my musical friends as well as MedianMusician, tinker with my house as well as MedianGeneralContractor, run as fast as MedianAthleteWithACorporateSponsor. Anything that some people are paid to do and a lot of people do unpaid has huge payoff here.

      A hard question is what to do for a career. MedianInvestmentBanker or MedianPetroleumEngineer are rich, but they work very hard. I want a job that leaves me a lot of free time to enjoy the opportunities in the second paragraph.

      • albatross11 says:

        Having the skill without the certification will make it hard to get a job in most well-paid fields. How about MedianProfessionalPokerPlayer? There’s no certification or exam for that one, and it means you’re probably good enough to make a living at it.

    • lvlln says:

      Is “being good looking” an ability, and how good looking is the median professional male stripper? And would I be able to practice the abilities of “being good looking” and dancing when not actually performing as a professional male stripper?

  19. bean says:

    Biweekly Naval Gazing links post:

    So You Want to Build a Battleship – Construction Part 1: There are a lot of pieces that go into turning a pile of steel into a vessel that’s ready to go into the water, and I examine several of them.

    Pictures – Iowa’s Boiler Room: I’ve dug into my photos and put together a post showing more of the boiler rooms, where the steam that powers the ship is generated.

    When Italy joined the Allies in 1943, its fleet tried to run for safety. Unfortunately, the Germans deployed their new guided bombs against it, and sunk the battleship Roma, shocking the naval world.

    Almost two years ago, I went to Singapore, and hit as many military military museums as I could. I’ve written mini-reviews of them, along with a list of military/naval museums I didn’t get to.

    Continuing my series on commercial aviation, reader Neal Schier, a pilot for a major US airline, has contributed a post on why delays happen.

    Following similar articles on battleships and aircraft carriers, I’ve written A Brief History of the Cruiser, a look at how the ship type we know as the cruiser developed over the last 200 years.

    And lastly, I’m having my own Open Thread.

  20. Aapje says:

    Dutch TV has quite a bit of variety for such a small nation, in part because public TV is quite fragmented, as you can start a broadcasting association and get it funded by the government if you get enough members. That broadcaster will then also get broadcasting slots on the public network. This is a left-over from pillarization.

    One remarkable broadcaster is BNN, started by Bart De Graaf in 1997 (and named Bart’s News Network, as a pun on CNN). Bart suffered from renal failure since getting into a car accident as a kid, which resulted in a growth disorder, so he looked like a child. He exploited his innocent looks on TV, by transgressing, which was more accepted because he looked rather innocent.

    One of his programs was a filthy parody of Teletubbies, called Teringtubbies. ‘Tering’ means consumption in Dutch and is a swear word (it’s a Dutch custom to swear with diseases). The intro song was ‘The sun shines, the sky is blue, teringtubbies, fuck off.’ There were 4 Teringtubbies: Tinky Winky, Dipsaus, Na-Na en Stro. One of these was a woman, which was obvious since there is a hole in the terrycloth, so her breasts are visible. The teringtubbies acted similarly inanely as the real ones, except instead of playing and frolicking, they would swear and simulate sex acts.

    BNN’s most famous program was The Great Donor Show, where a terminally ill woman got to choose which person with kidney failure got her kidney. However, this turned out to be a hoax, to get attention for the deficit in donor organs. Media all over the world reported on this.

    A very popular program of theirs is “Spuiten and slikken,” a program about sex and drugs. The name is a bit of a pun, since ‘spuiten’ means injecting, but also ejaculation. ‘Slikken’ means swallowing, which is applicable to both sex and drugs. Part of the show was that a presenter would try various drugs as well as various sex acts and would report on them.

    In 2008, they showed the porn movie Deep Throat on public TV.

    Other interesting shows:

    ‘The movie of Uncle Willem’ which was a bit weirdly named, since it wasn’t a movie. It was a children’s program that ran from 1974-1989 for toddlers or a little older. Uncle Willem would make an entrance by crashing through a paper door, would say ‘Hello goat knitters’ to the other cast members and would get drawings from the toddlers in the studio. Then he would play the drums and sing a song, where during the song he would ask questions to the toddlers like ‘are there boys/girls here?’, ‘Is there a crocodile here?’ and ‘Do you like ice cream?’ The toddlers would then shout yes or no in response. The crescendo of the song would be the question: ‘do you like a sandwich with poo?’ To which the kids would shout no, while uncle Willem was then visibly dejected. A great many Dutch people will know what you are talking about if you ask them whether they like a sandwich with poo (at least, when asking in Dutch).

    ‘Rembo & Rembo’, a children’s program with crude and sarcastic sketches. One of their standard sketch setups was ‘Is that allowed?’ One such sketch had a boy take the toys from his sister, after which she pushed his head between sliding doors and closed them. The question posed to the audience was then ‘Is that allowed?’ Then logical answer was given: ‘no, because it could break the sliding doors.’ This particular sketch went a bit too far when aimed at children and resulted in a (Dutch-sized) fine.

    ‘By Land, by sea and in the air’, which required participants to complete a relatively simply challenge, usually with self-built machines. For example, going down a soaped, steep and fairly long ramp into the water and then reaching a bell. Or crossing a chasm over two steel wires. Or many other challenges. There was a Carnival element too, with participants often dressing up themselves or their machines. Here is a small video. Here is a longer one.

    PS. Of course I focused on the more crazy and unique things.

    • Incurian says:

      I nominate “weird stuff my country does” as a recurring effort post topic for all SSCers.

    • dick says:

      Very amusing and interesting, thanks for posting about it. Out of curiosity, how common is it for groups that aren’t huge media companies to get public funding for making TV shows, or is that a rare outlier?

      • Aapje says:

        You have to convince the government that your broadcaster is a unique addition. An explicit goal is pluriformity. So a purely commercial broadcaster is going to have a hard time to qualify and to deal with the requirements (certain percentages of slots have to be spent on art, culture, etc). It’s also really not that profitable to do so, so the media companies prefer commercial TV networks. Originally this was illegal and the first commercial TV was run out of Luxembourg, to evade Dutch law.

        There was one broadcasting association that went the opposite route, starting on the public networks and then switching to their own commercial network (they actually started as pirate radio, broadcasting from a ship in international waters).

        Dutch public television has been shifting more to a centralized model in the last decades, allowing for fewer broadcasters, resulting in consolidation. For example, the aforementioned BNN merged with another (originally social-democrat) broadcaster. The Jewish Broadcasting Company now shares their license with the Evangelical Broadcasting Company.

        However, the rules for a new entrant are far more lenient. ‘Aspiring broadcaster’ status means less money and broadcasting slots, but also fewer rules. They have 5 years to then comply to the rules for a ‘real’ broadcaster.

    • Majuscule says:

      I spent six years in the Netherlands and have fond memories of friends showing us old clips of “Uncle Willem” after a few biertjes. There was another 80s kids show with a theme song involving a cactus- do you know which one I mean?

      • Aapje says:

        The Big Mister Cactus Show (‘De Grote Meneer Kaktus Show’). Another kids program, held in a boxing ring, with Mister Cactus wearing a pajama and having a drawn-on mustache and eyebrows. Co-presenters were Dunno, a guy in a boxing outfit and Ms. Vocal Cord with very big hair and a tiger print dress. Here is the intro, with an interesting journey into the pants/dress of the other presenters by Mister Cactus (so perhaps NSFW).

  21. JohnBuridan says:

    I am doing a chapter by chapter reading discussion of Fernand Braudel’s History of the Mediterranean on Reddit. My most recent post was two weeks ago. I will paste new post later tonight on Chapter 4.


  22. noyann says:

    The information is beautiful price this year “focuses on how governments are improving citizens’ lives.” Graphics to spend a day with… e.g.
    https://projects.interacta.io/country-tsne/ (I wonder why reducing only health expenditures groups the US with China/India/Indonesia/Panama? I randomly tried changing just one parameter and it usually does not have much of an impact.)

  23. Deiseach says:

    Our national postal service is issuing a new stamp celebrating the beauteous mildness of the Irish weather 🙂

    • Plumber says:


      Duly noted, my wife has already told me: “If we travel overseas we’re visiting Italy not Ireland!”

      (A whole nation with a great sense of humor is appealing though)

    • John Schilling says:

      But this calls for extensive anthropological field work – do the Irish in fact have more words for dismal grey rainy days than the Eskimo do for snow? The world wonders.

  24. Armand says:

    Apologies in advance if job postings aren’t allowed!

    I work at a small (~10 person) biotech start-up in NYC focused on cell turnover/death – we are looking at disease areas in which cell death plays a critical (and often understudied) role in disease pathology, and seeking to understand, and eventually drug the molecular mechanisms by which this happens. I work on the platform team, and I’m looking for an RA who will help with proteomics/metabolomics sample prep, analysis, methodology, and general lab support.

    It’s a great opportunity to learn some super cool science, help build out a cutting-edge drug discovery platform, and work with a really fun team 🙂

    Here is a link to the job description. If you are interested please send me an email at npbtarggn [at] vamragk.pbz with your CV/resume. Please also include the text ‘slatestarcodex’ in your email.

  25. arbitraryvalue says:

    Workers at major tech companies protesting military contracts has been in the news recently, and it got me wondering if that sort of work would bother me. Introspection seems to indicate that it would not (which is somewhat surprising to me, since I generally have a strong preference for not hurting people – I guess military software development is far enough from actual violence that my empathy doesn’t trigger). However, I would lose the satisfaction I currently get from knowing that my work makes the world a slightly better place, so the military work would have to either provide me that same satisfaction somehow or be *really cool* from a scientific/engineering perspective. What do the other software developers here think?

    • johan_larson says:

      It wouldn’t bother me. The military of my country is a useful and necessary institution and I generally approve of it, while disagreeing with some specifics of how it is run and what it is used for. I would be as willing to build software for the Canadian DND as I would be for the Toronto Metropolitan School District or the RCMP.

    • sourcreamus says:

      The military makes the world a better place more directly than most software projects. I would have no problem with working with them.

    • kaathewise says:

      I am a software developer working for one of those companies. I have been voicing my dissent with such military projects (and other “unethical” projects, like a spying/censorship project that is going to launch in one country), and I would be strongly opposed to working on such a project myself.

      While I agree that military overall is a necessary evil, I don’t feel like giving the most powerful army in the world even more power, especially considering that I do not have any way of influencing how it is used.

      The only thing worse would be working for something like Palantir, as the secret services (their main clients) experience way too little of public scrutiny in most countries.

      • Erusian says:

        especially considering that I do not have any way of influencing how it is used.

        You’re American, right? You, uh, live in a democracy. You might not be able to get public policy to match your preferences. But that’s only because your preferences differ from a large number of people. In this case, the supermajority.

        You are, of course, free to choose to work with the government or not, as you should be free to choose to do work or not according to your ethics. But the sense that you, as a skilled professional, have to accept the majority of people (something like 80%) like and support the military is a feature, not a bug, of our system.

        • kaathewise says:

          No, I am not American.

          If I was a US citizen, then, of course, I would have some way of influencing it, but

          First, it is valid to hold an opinion that army is under-controlled by the public (I am not stating that though).

          Second, even if one believes it is unreasonable to seek more control over the army, it is perfectly reasonable to condition one’s desire to cooperate with it on its behaviour, i.e., a choice to cooperate or not is also a type of control.

          • Erusian says:

            No, I am not American.

            You’re not an American but you’re working for an American company on an American military project? I wasn’t aware that was possible. How did you get clearance? Or onto the team at all? The US has rules that say most work has to be done here.

            Or are you working for Microsoft in some unrelated capacity in another country?

            First, it is valid to hold an opinion that army is under-controlled by the public (I am not stating that though).

            Absolutely. But if you want to make that argument, you have to actually make it. Ideally to the citizenry who can then elect representatives to enact those opinions. And if you can’t convince them… again, feature, not bug.

            Second, even if one believes it is unreasonable to seek more control over the army, it is perfectly reasonable to condition one’s desire to cooperate with it on its behaviour, i.e., a choice to cooperate or not is also a type of control.

            Control you shouldn’t have. It’s not my place, or anyone’s place, to act as a philosopher king.

            As a private individual, my job is to decide whether the work individually lines up with my personal moral code, economic interests, etc. And as a citizen, my job is to use the levers of the state to get such outcomes as I believe are best for the body politic. But I must enter the forum as an equal, both equally empowered and equally subject to the state. It is poisonous to enter as someone who can obstruct the plan because of my private power and then to bargain as if I was equal to the whole of the citizenry.

            What I dislike about this sort of protest is that it’s effectively an attempt to do that. These people have been handily beaten at the polls. They are a distinct minority but they’re a well off, skilled minority. Rather than attempting to convince the voters they attempt to use their position as wealthy, skilled elites to obstruct the government’s chosen policy. They do this by lobbying institutions who are supposed to be executing the people’s will to not do that. In secret, since they didn’t even sign their names.

          • albatross11 says:

            How does a person’s right to refuse to design weapon systems for the US military correspond to their right to refuse to bake wedding cakes for gay couples or their right to refuse to sell lethal drugs to executioners? To my mind, these are all part of the same thing, but it’s clear to me that many other people think they are quite distinct.

          • acymetric says:

            I’m not totally convinced they aren’t similar enough to be the same, but I’ll take a stab at it (I’m just looking at a reasonable definition of what is happening to separate these cases out, since this is CW free let’s avoid discussing whether they should be happening).

            Cakes and such: Goverment compulsion to offer services to anyone without discriminating against [list of things you aren’t allowed to discriminate against].

            Developing stuff for the military: Government compulsion to provide services for the government (this sounds quite a bit different to me, but maybe not to you/others).

            Use of drugs for lethal injection: This one is a little bit different, and has a lot to do with how much control you think any person/company should have over end use of their products more than it involves any compulsion for anyone involved (which is what connects the other two examples).

            I guess the key difference, to me, is compulsion by the government to do things for the government vs. compulsion by the government to do (or not do) things to/for other citizens. They are not wholly different, but I think they do require separate analysis and hopefully separate policies governing them.

          • kaathewise says:

            I apologise for the confusion, but I’ve never said that I was working on such project. In any case, I am not sure if it is required that not only the project is developed on the American soil, but also that all the participants are US citizens.

            @albatross11 That’s a good question. I think the main difference is that your other two examples involve a company selling goods to someone on the market (I don’t remember the term, “public offering” (?)), and there is a legal and ethical agreement that it ought to be non-discriminatory.

            It also doesn’t help that in one of them it is a clear discrimination against people.

            Regarding me vs Company. The offering of your own work as an employee doesn’t seem to follow the same rules, people seem to be able to leave and to refuse working for some company without any justification, for ethical reasons or not.

            Regarding Company vs Military. I don’t think the Company has any obligation of doing a specific project for the army, or for any other company, unless it advertises itself as the supplier of these services for anyone (as an integrator or consultant of sort, for example).

          • Nornagest says:

            You’re not an American but you’re working for an American company on an American military project? I wasn’t aware that was possible. How did you get clearance? Or onto the team at all?

            DoD contractors have plenty of work that doesn’t require clearance, or even citizenship. Export controls are a concern — releasing software or design information on defense projects (very broadly defined) to foreign nationals constitutes a “deemed export”, which can be a big deal — but permanent residents are excepted, and you can get licensed to work around it too.

          • albatross11 says:

            In all these cases, we’re talking about directly selling someone a product or service for something that you believe to be morally wrong. One pretty easy standard to have is that anyone is allowed to refuse to do business with anyone else for any reason or none–that makes it easy for people to refuse to do things that they find morally questionable. That’s the one I’d prefer, but it doesn’t play well with antidiscrimination law.

            Another standard is that if you’re in the business of providing good or service X, you must provide it to all comers. That means you have to sell Tiki torches to neo-Nazis and cattleprods to the Egyptian secret police. It’s consistent, and often argued for, but it tramples all over individual conscience.

            A middle ground is to say you can refuse to do business with anyone for any reason except for a list of specifically forbidden ones–I think that’s basically how US antidiscrimination law works, but also that it is more enforceable in some places than others. Nobody can force a white racist to choose a black doctor, and nobody can force a pacifist to go to work for a defense contractor. But a medical practice can’t in principle refuse to hire black doctors even if the local market is dominated by white racists who don’t want to go to see them. (But in practice, there’s probably lots of room to do that.).

        • Nicholas Conrad says:

          Besides (though perhaps not unrelated to) the smarmieness, this seems very poorly reasoned. Would you tell a suffragette that women not having the right to vote despite her objection is a feature, simply because the majority willed it to be so? What would you say to a slave?

    • rtypeinhell says:

      As someone who has spent 10 years in defense-related software development: I didn’t originally choose this field inasmuch as it was the job I got. I am presently at a career juncture where the OP’s question is relevant, and my inclination at this point is that it is incredibly important that I stay in the industry, if I believe myself to be a capable and productive developer (which I do).

      The short version is that the United States military is a central service provider, if not *the* central service provider, of current world order and peace, for whatever value of such thing we consider to exist (it is my opinion that we are at a fairly high level of world peace, but I understand that this is a complex subject with a great deal of room for interpretation). Were I to avoid defense-related employment, I could not count on an equally talented Chinese, Russian, Korean, etc. engineer to make the same decision, and I would therefore be contributing to a destabilization of the world, or at least be disadvantaging my own countrymen. Therefore, because certain individuals at certain tech companies seem to be thinking about this question at such an unrealistic and naive level, I consider it a moral imperative to continue in employment in the field of arms development. I likewise consider it a great danger to the country that some of our best and brightest see no value to (and active harm in!) defense.

      No military remains in a static state, and active development is necessary to maintain parity. Since the second world war, most advancements in military technology fall into the category of increasing precision and stealth, not raw power (especially in a software context). If minimizing unintended casualties of an otherwise unalterable war effort is the most altruistic thing I can hope to achieve, I would consider that a success.

    • John Schilling says:

      I do hardware, not software, but to me these declarations look an awful lot like the Oxford Union’s King and Country Debate, except without the debate. At least now we know where they stand.

      • rtypeinhell says:

        Exactly what I thought of, except I worry that because of lead times, our generation could be too late to get the irons in the fire. The Manhattan Project took 6 years to produce. Could we really endure a full-scale war at modern armament levels for 6 years if the techies waited til the last minute to pull their heads out of the sand? Especially considering how exposed our infrastructure has become (due to networking). Perceived capability is what matters during peacetime.

        • kaathewise says:

          Is there any country in the world that with at least 10% probability would have the desire and capability to endure a full-scale war with the United States for 6 years?

          I am not even sure that China has the capability, much less anyone else.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Given that Afghanistan and Iraq have done so, I would say that is a very solid yes.

          • acymetric says:

            Afghanistan and Iraq have been enduring a full-scale invasion by the United States. I’m not sure that is quite the same.

          • albatross11 says:

            I don’t think we need a lot of new technology to fight those wars, though. A war where we actually needed new technology would probably not be one where we could wait around for many years for that technology to become available. And the best kind of superior technology is that kind that ends the war on day one by blowing up the other side’s air force on the ground or something.

          • EchoChaos says:


            Are invasion and war not basically synonyms?

            It is entirely clear that the United States cannot count on being able to prevail in a full scale war that lasts over a decade with a tiny, technologically backward country. Why would we be able to do so with a technologically advanced near-peer that is vastly larger and more populated?

          • albatross11 says:

            The objectives are different. If our goal in Afghanistan or Iraq had been to destroy every city with a population over 50,000, blow up every bit of important infrastructure, and make sure the local population would need a generation to build back up to the point of being able to pose a threat to anyone, we could have done that by now. Similarly if our goal had been to kill as much of the population of Afghanistan or Iraq as possible, we’d have killed terrifying numbers of people. But our goals were kind-of ill-defined and fuzzy nation-building you-break-it-you-bought-it goals that aren’t exactly military. This is one reason I thought both these invasions were a mistake–it’s hard to even know when we’ve succeeded, and the mission plus the situation seems to justify a war that just drags on forever.

          • EchoChaos says:


            And our objectives in China would be to just kills lots of people? Our objectives weren’t that barbaric against literal Nazis.

            If we went to war against China, something I would assign a rough probability of 5-10%, then we would absolutely not just commit wanton genocide and slaughter. We would have military objectives to take and hold. And we can barely do that against backwards Afghanis.

          • albatross11 says:


            Probably we’d want to sink a bunch of their navy so they’d give up on trying to invade Taiwan or something. I’m assuming we wouldn’t be dumb enough to try to occupy any substantial part of China, and especially not to try to establish a new America-friendly regime there with our boots-on-the-ground and drones-in-the-air. That would be a very different kind of war, with very different objectives.

          • acymetric says:

            Right. Presumably, the goal against China would be something like crippling them in (pick any combination of):

            A) Economically
            B) Militarily
            C) Industrially (I guess this overlaps with A)

            Basically we would be trying to ruin their key infrastructure and leave them as a weakened state. If we were trying to ruin Afghanistan and leave it a weakened state…well we could probably just about say mission accomplished and leave now, but it wouldn’t take it long to do so. They would still have an armed military/militia, but it wouldn’t be much of a threat to us (of course it already isn’t, except that we’ve parked a bunch of people/stuff next to them).

          • EchoChaos says:


            You don’t win a war by being defensive. If China seriously engaged in an attempt to take Taiwan by force, we would have to respond by taking Chinese territory in order to end it.

            At a minimum you need to take Hainan and all of the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation. Probably several maritime centers on the mainland too, and that’s assuming that Korea doesn’t go hot at the same time to distract us.

          • Right… the point is that if the United States is not technologically advancing its military, and China is, then it is actively falling behind. If it has fallen behind, and China takes aggressive action #1 of a military conflict, the United States may have to sit back and let them have it, because they are not prepared to enter a war at or below parity. The idea that they should give everyone else some time to catch up, is… well, it made me chuckle at least. Particularly in the category of information warfare, the balance is incredibly slippery. It is arguable that the US is not even in the lead.

            I perfectly understand if you are not a resident of the United States why this is a much more complex geopolitical issue (and let me emphasize that there is a massive difference between R&D / tech upgrades and “build-up” in the sense of production and logistics construction). I would definitely expect you to prioritize the capability of whatever defense force is responsible for protecting you. From a globally-oriented EA perspective, that might also require identifying which military protects the most people, or is the lynchpin of global stalemate.

          • John Schilling says:

            At the time of the Oxford Union debate, the German army consisted of 100,000 men with light arms and no tanks. The German navy had two laughably obsolete pre-dreadnoughts, five modern light cruisers, and no submarines. The Luftwaffe did not exist.

            A complete enumeration of the potential military threats to the United States over the next decade would be the subject of a major effortpost in its own right. The idea that we can dismiss the possibility of a military threat to the United States because there is not presently a rival superpower, is as ridiculous now as it was in 1933.

            Also, no, “war” is not basically synonymous with “invasion”.

          • kaathewise says:

            @EchoChaos, @acymetric I don’t feel like Afganistan and Iraq are good examples of a “full-scale war”.

            First, it’s not like a Germany vs England war that started this discussion: Iraq and Afganistan never directly attacked the American soil (only terrorists), and the war itself was not state-against-state, it was rather state against some elusive movement insude another state.

            Second, Afganistan war was really a proxy USSR vs USA war, akin to those in Korea and Vietnam, and those powers were undoubtely comparable at the time.

            @EchoChaos then you say “Why would we be able to do so with a technologically advanced near-peer that is vastly larger and more populated?” and then, along with @rtype_in_hell, bring China as an example.

            My initial inquiry was exactly about a country that would be both capable and willing to go to a proper state-against-state war with the US, and I don’t think China makes a great example.

            About 15% of China’s trade is with the US (not counting other NATO members), and I expect their economy to be interconnected much more. In the countries so developed the classical XX century territorial war doesn’t seem as useful as economic pressure. In that regard, although China has comparable (albeit weaker) capability, they surely won’t have the desire to openly confront their main trade partner.

          • baconbits9 says:

            At the time of the Oxford debate it had been less than 20 years since Gernmany had been in a serious military conflict with its neighbors, and France had one of the largest armies in the world and there hadn’t exactly been a thousand year friendship between them to that point, and then there was the USSR. It isn’t as if Europe was a peaceful place that suddenly erupted into WW1, perhaps it would have been difficult to foresee a war with Gemany, but a war in general wasn’t nearly as difficult to imagine.

            The debate was heavily influenced by the experience of WW1 in which promising, and keeping the promises to, go to war had been a major factor in the escalation and then duration of the war. There was also a vigorous debate about if England should enter WW1, and the fears of the naysayers were largely confirmed. It is fairly natural if see that promises to go to war led to the worst war ever to conclude that perhaps promising to go to war isn’t such a great idea.

          • EchoChaos says:


            I am not sure by what definition we aren’t at war with Afghanistan or Iraq. We invaded their state, replaced their government and occupied them. If someone did that to the United States, we would certainly consider ourselves at war with that state, regardless of whether or not they recognized our government.

            Exactly the same as we did with Nazi Germany. And with more casus belli than we had with Nazi Germany, who had never attacked us and would never attack United States territory.

            As for the trading example, prior to Operation Barbarossa, well over 15% of Nazi trade was with the Soviet Union.


            That didn’t stop Hitler even slightly, and if China believed it would benefit from such a war (as Hitler did), I don’t see any reason they would hesitate because of economics either.

            Again, 10% is a bit generous for the odds of such a war happening, but it’s probably close to that if you put the timeline of it happening in the next 20 years.

          • rtypeinhell says:


            I agree, military might is not the primary deterrent of war between the US and China in the year 2019. I am not certain enough that this is the case, nor am I certain enough that this will ensue, (multiplied by however many superpowers available at any point in time), that I think it is wise to allow the US military to lose ground technologically. This was my point with the 6 years example. Should war break out, it may or may not be unexpected, but it will be sudden. If the United States waits until it kinda looks like war with China is going to happen before it begins work on x fusion, it has acted in a way to prolong said war.

            To reiterate, I am separating technological advancement from numerical buildup / deployment. Translating civilian technologies into a military pipeline may be harder than you imagine, not because of bureacracy (but also because of that) but because of supply chain, training, and logistics concerns.

          • kaathewise says:

            @rtypeinhell I agree with most of what you are saying. To be honest, if I felt that US military was risking to be beaten by China, I would wholeheartedly support it and try to give it as much help as I can (to maintain the balance). I think the main disagreement between me and my opponents is the assessment of their relative strength, which is a quantitative, not qualitative difference.

            I am happy to find the common ground:)

          • noyann says:

            Translating civilian technologies into a military pipeline may be harder than you imagine, not because of bureacracy (but also because of that) but because of supply chain, training, and logistics concerns.

            Unless it is eased by Walmart stepping in. Relevant scifi from 2015.

          • bean says:

            Unless it is eased by Walmart stepping in. Relevant scifi from 2015.

            Please. Just stop. My eyes are bleeding already.

            Walmart is significantly more vulnerable to any problems caused by trouble with China than the US military is. Also, 3D printing isn’t magic, and the idea that the Reserve Fleet is a good answer to, frankly, anything (yes, even that scenario) deserves to be purged with fire. I shudder to think what sorts of ideas people are getting reading stuff like that.

          • noyann says:

            Thanks for an eye-opener. Guess I am too gullible… blinded by the authors’ background.

    • albatross11 says:

      Censorship and spying products seem a lot worse to me than most military products, ethics-wise. In particular, high end military products (better fighter jets or tanks, say) seem unlikely to make the world much worse except by spending a lot of extra money that might have been better spent elsewhere. To the extent we’re engaging in pointless bloody clusterfucks now, we can do them with 30-year-old technology if we need to–the better technology might make things a little better (maybe we’re more accurate about only killing the people we mean to kill) but seems unlikely to make things worse.

      OTOH, working on bioweapons or nukes might be a different deal. And I certainly understand not wanting to work on weapons, or thinking that the US’ military technology advantage is sufficient that there’s no urgent need to do so.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Is it more companies than just Google? Microsoft has had military contracts for a long time, I believe Apple has too.

      I’ve done such work. I don’t have any moral objection, but Software Development, The Army Way (a.k.a DoD STD 2167A, which I admit is long since obsolete) was such a horrible experience I’d never go back.

    • brad says:

      I don’t think I’d feel comfortable writing, say, the software on an air to air missile that allows it to hit another plane. That would be a little too proximate for me. But I wouldn’t have a problem with writing less directly lethal software used by the military of my own country.

      Writing it out, it isn’t a line that makes much sense even to me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      • Nornagest says:

        I’ve never done weapons, but I’ve done biometrics. Thing is, in a counterinsurgency situation (which is what we were selling the stuff for), a search engine or interface bug that causes some poor schmuck’s eyes or fingerprints to be inadvertently flagged as belonging to a Person of Interest is the kind of thing that could get them shot. It didn’t keep me up at night, but I did think about it every now and then.

        Still do, really. Some of my software is still used in border control in various countries, and every time I go through customs, I’m a little worried that someone somewhere didn’t erase the test data and that I’ll be flagged as a one-foot-tall one-pound terrorist with pink hair and eyes and a f;laksjef8ayx listed under distinguishing features.

    • hnau says:

      Military projects directly jump-started the development of computers, GPS, the Internet, and autonomous vehicles… and I’m probably missing some. They tend to lead to interesting, important work and be more practical / foundational than the stereotypical Silicon Valley business (i.e. web apps, not systems companies like the one I work for.) I don’t see the military as much different from any other customer otherwise. In general I’d be happy to work on military contracts and might even get a patriotic feeling from it.

      To be a little more specific: it seems like there’s a meaningful distinction between mustard gas vs. gas masks, nukes vs. early-warning systems, cyber-warfare vs. cyber-security, and so forth. The former category– offensive technology that could change war in major, unexpected ways– is something I’d be much more reluctant to participate in.

      • albatross11 says:

        Is there some reason to think that military technology does this more than other technology in general? I mean, if someone’s working on self-driving cars, I’d also expect a lot of interesting spinoffs to come from it (better battery technology, mass-produced high-quality lidar systems, etc.).

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Just spit-balling here, but I can think of a possible reason. We understand that lots of innovation reaches the masses by first being attractive only to the wealthy. The military is very wealthy, arguably wealthier than the .1% as a class, given that its wealth is sovereign.

          But I’ve mostly given up making comparisons of this sort after seeing that Google took Larry Page seriously when he proposed Streetview. I mean, he was the president of the company, but still. That’s military-scale boots on the ground; in some sense I find it more impressive than SpaceX.

    • Garrett says:

      What’s funny about the whole thing is that in an ideologically-diverse company you could have people who didn’t object (or indeed, even liked the idea) to work on military-related stuff, while the people who were opposed could work on something else. But by chasing out anybody who doesn’t agree with the internal orthodoxy these companies are left with people who are unwilling to work on certain projects and thus are unable to pursue certain business opportunities.

      I find it deeply amusing because I left Google due to their hostile work environment right about the time that all the whining about Project Maven came out. And yet when I saw that I thought “that’d be a nifty project to work on”.

      • Aapje says:

        That doesn’t work when there are people who won’t tolerate when the company works on the project, even if they themselves work on saving kittens from people going after them with lawnmowers (they are pretty hard to run down, I found).

        • March says:

          I do think the point of having values (even as a company) is that they don’t just inform what you are willing to do but also what you’re willing to say no to.

          I recently joined a friend at her employer’s recruitment event (a big consultancy firm, let’s call them X). One of the speakers was from an actual charity, and they were very enthusiastic about working with X, and X even had budget for that project! Couple of questions later, it turns out that the budget line came from X’s PR department, who were noticing that one of their higher-ups was getting good publicity for being able to say ‘we are doing a project with charity Y.’

          The event’s a keynote speaker was from a company that’s very much values based. The consultancy firm introduced them as ‘John works for company Z, which is, as we all know, very much involved in making the world a better place. And we from consultancy firm X also find that kinda important.’ Apart from that being a terrible speech, even ‘kinda important’ is too much. The best you could say is that they’re not actively opposed to making the world a better place. Priority 1 is profitability, and they don’t really have many compunctions about where they get that.

          My main conclusion was that that was a terrible way to hold a recruitment event. They were really fishing for the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, highly educated bleeding-heart world improvers, and those people are very expensive to hire and would be burnt-out and disillusioned within the year. Or, like your kitten savers, actively trying to make the company less profitable by agitating against certain project lines.

    • gbdub says:

      I look at it this way: at this point the majority of the technology being developed for the US military is going to be used for a fairly narrow set of goals. Making soldiers better informed, better protected, and less necessary (e.g. unmanned systems and other force multipliers). Making weapons more reliable and more accurate. As an engineer I have little say over the decision to deploy troops and weapons, but I can positively contribute to those goals. The net effect of me doing a better job is that, when America does go to war (which again, I have basically zero control over), fewer Americans and fewer unintended targets die.

      Contributing to ongoing American military supremacy in general seems like a net positive. On the one hand, it makes America thinking Iraq is a good idea more likely. On the other, it makes WWIII and major proxy wars (Korea, Vietnam) MUCH less likely.

  26. HeelBearCub says:

    Have some links to a cool story about a rescued bat:


    Nice. But also not so nice as the appearance of rare fauna in new places seems like it is simply further evidence of the ongoing extinction event …

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      How does one go about rehabilitating an animal with such a (relatively) high risk of carrying rabies? Does the person get vaccinated against it ahead of time?

      • HeelBearCub says:

        From the UK Bat Conservation Trust website:

        Do bats in the UK carry diseases?

        The only known zoonotic disease (i.e. one that can be transmitted to humans) that has ever been found in UK bats is called European Bat Lyssavirus (EBLV) – a rabies type virus. The live virus has only been found, to date in 15 bats of one species (the Daubenton’s bat) despite having 17 breeding bat species in the UK and testing over 15,000 individual bats for the virus over the last 20 years. EBLV is transmitted through a bite or a scratch or from a bat’s saliva coming into contact with your mucous membranes (your eyes, mouth or nose). Therefore there is no risk to the public if you do not handle bats. If you need to handle a bat (i.e. if it is grounded/injured) wear gloves to protect from any potential risk.

        No other zoonotic diseases have been found in UK bats.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Bats are underappreciated cute animals. The incipient extinction of rarer species would be very sad.

  27. Oleg S. says:


    A friend of mine has come out with an idea to print information about carbon footprint on every bill one receives. Just like the VAT on fiscal documents or energy contents on a meal package. The state might make it mandatory for manufacturers to provide this info. I guess it’ll make it obvious that e.g. buying fruits transported from the different half of the world has a really big carbon footprint (or no, I don’t know the figures and that’s the whole point).

    Do you think it’s a viable idea? Has anyone experimented with this?

    • Evan Þ says:

      How far back would we have to go, and how much effort would it take for the eventual retailer to keep track of all this? Someone would need to keep track of whether each individual raw material was moved by train, by gas truck, or biodiesel truck. Someone would need to keep track of which product each material ended up in. And then – perhaps after they’re packaged – someone would need to keep track of how they were shipped to retail stores, and how the electricity to power the retail store was generated, and put new labels on each product at point of sale to reflect that.

      It’s an interesting idea, but I think it’s prohibitively difficult.

      • Oleg S. says:

        When up and running it’s only slightly more difficult than VAT. Say, you are a farmer and grow oranges. Over the year you collect all the bills (from electricity to pesticides to medical insurance). Each bill conveniently has a carbon footprint component on it. You sum up all the footprint and deduce the footprint per ton of oranges, and when selling to a retailer (or whoever) raise an invoice where a total carbon footprint is explicitly stated. A retailer then does the same thing: calculates its operational footprint, and add this information to the price of the product. At the cash desk, this carbon price is then printer along with the cost of the products. In effect, everyone has to keep track of the carbon footprint of incoming goods, once per specified period calculate its own expenses and incorporate this information into the price.

        • Incurian says:

          Do you count what it took to make the tools to produce the item and the food your workers had to eat to continue working? Any stopping point seems arbitrary.

          • Oleg S. says:

            The tools are counted (you have to buy them, so their carbon footprint must be included in the price). I think standard accounting procedure for cost amortization would work here: you slowly incorporate the CF of the tools into the cost of goods production. The food, too, is easy – you collect bills from local restaurants if your company covers it.

            In general, you can follow standard accounting procedures and calculate gross input and output footprint.

          • Aapje says:

            Is standard accounting easy?

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Each company uses different accounting because they want to get at different things. For instance, we don’t really track where energy goes in our factory, because it is such a small component of our cost compared to labor, raw material, and maintenance supplies. However, I imagine energy would be pretty significant in our carbon footprint, so we would need to roll out new accounting to properly allocate the carbon.

            We could do it, because we’re a big company, but smaller companies are going to fudge it using some general rules.

          • Aapje says:

            Indeed, that is what I was insinuating. Currently, most carbon footprint calculations seem to be thumb-based.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:


            That’s my experience as well. My company has a couple of clients that ask for that kind of information, and we use “industry standards” to fudge out some plausible numbers, but every one of them could be off by an order of magnitude. They account for virtually none of the little things we could do to make it better or worse (meaning we have no incentive to actually improve, if the final metric doesn’t improve).

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Well, for something you could look at as a comparitor, this is not really much different than energy star ratings on appliances. My sense is that those have generally been successful.

      • moonfirestorm says:

        Independently from any environmental concerns, energy star ratings are useful because they provide information about future expenditures: a more energy-efficient appliance will cost its user less in electricity bills. So even a non-environmentalist buyer reacts to energy star ratings because it’s a useful factor in his buying decision: spending $100 more for an energy star appliance might be worth it if it saves him $5 in electricity every month.

        This wouldn’t be the case for carbon footprint information, because it doesn’t provide any useful information to the buyer beyond his environmentalist desires. Any additional costs in transporting the good across the world are already priced into the cost of the good. As such, I would expect it to be a less successful program.

        • albatross11 says:

          OTOH, my experience in buying very efficient appliances over the last few years is that they tend to also be much slower. My washing machine and my dishwasher are high-efficiency water- and power-saving models that take about half again as long to finish as the older less-efficient models. If I’d realized that when I bought them, I would probably have gone for less efficient but faster models–my time is at more of a premium than the few extra dollars per year I’d be paying for more water/electricity.

          It’s really a pity that everything doesn’t work like LED bulbs, which for me basically are superior in every way to CFL and incandescent bulbs.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Unfortunately you don’t get to make that choice any more; the EPA keeps reducing the minimum standards for water use in dishwashers and washing machines, so you can’t get inefficient but fast. You’d think the EPA met in the Sahara (or California) rather than Washington, D.C.

            Last I heard, Whirlpool claimed to be unable to meet the next proposed standard for dishwashers (at any cycle time), but it’s possible either they have since then or Trump’s EPA quietly backed off.

        • bean says:

          You get surprisingly small savings from energy star appliances these days. When I bought my fridge, I worked out that the difference meant something like $1/month even at California prices, and the cost delta absolutely swamped that.

          • dick says:

            There are also a lot of incentives and subsidies for buying energy star appliances. Usually they’re from the utility (yes, this is counter-intuitive) so they vary by region quite a bit.

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      There are going to be products/industries where this is fairly straightforward, and some where it’s a giant mess to figure out. Various office work may have a fairly large footprint that’s non-obvious and hard to measure – such as electricity for lights and computers, paper used for reports, etc. Mining and manufacturing might be easier to measure, at least for their core functions. I’m not sure how anyone would model the periphery effects (like the plow trucks that clear our parking lot after it snows!) that are required to keep a business running. More complicated would be the combined carbon footprint of all the layers required to bring something to market, and then label it. A reseller would need to add the existing calculated cost to whatever it takes to bring something to the new market, including transportation, new electricity costs, etc. Would you need to add additional carbon labeling for an item that sat on the (lighted) shelf for an extra day?

      You could make this approach much simpler by only including a narrow set of considerations in the calculation. You would therefore consider electricity from a coal plant to be carbon expensive, and solar power free, even though the solar cells required carbon to be made, and the raw materials before that, etc. A solar panel is far from carbon neutral by the time it gets to you, but a simple accounting system may cost it at zero. A more complex system I think will end up being impossibly unwieldy.

      Edit: My last paragraph is a bit extreme saying that Solar would be labelled as zero carbon, but it would significantly under-count carbon required for its production in a simpler model.

      • Oleg S. says:

        If you have closed system (goods produced within a country from raw materials), you can calculate the carbon footprint explicitly, and there will be no need for any simplifications. You have to follow standard rules for price amortization etc.

        If however you have imports, then indeed you may have to rely on some simplifications. Alternatively you can delegate the calculations to external parties.

      • Oleg S. says:

        For imported goods you can introduce standards of reporting. If importing organization complies with the standards, then it just provides the information on the carbon footprint breakdown. If organization does not comply, the numbers are taken from the National Ecology Certification Agency giant lookup table. If you have enough political power, you can introduce a tax for not complying with the standards of reporting.

  28. johan_larson says:

    I just finished watching the 1956 adaptation of “Moby Dick” directed by John Huston with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Anyone know how closely it followed the original novel? They must have at a minimum cut out quite a bit to turn a thick novel into a two-hour film.

  29. I am in generally good health, but getting older. The most striking symptom observed so far is that it is no longer easy for me to learn poetry—although fortunately I still remember poetry I learned in the past. I think my short term memory is also getting worse, although that’s not as sharp a change.

    There are various nutritional supplements claimed to prevent or at least slow such effects. Can someone here point me at a competent discussion of them?

    • theroomgotheavy says:

      Try searching for “memory” supplements at Nootropics Depot website, and doing the research on which ones you’d like to try.

      However, I’d strongly recommend most of all exercise. And not just walking, but if you have the means get with a trainer and do some weightlifting. I think unless it’s already something you’re doing a lot of now, it will have a more noticeable affect than any dietary supplement.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      The two things I remember top of my head are:

      eating leafy greens daily cuts about 10 years off your mental age (it’s a combination of 4 ingredients which you can take separately if you want – I don’t like greens, so I researched it into 0.5l of carrot juice plus a bunch of lutein and k1 pills per week).

      – keeping your mind working on doing new stuff, which seems to be done best by always be learning a foreign language. I liked this book on the topic.

      More generally, the trusted source for supplements is examine.com. Probably racetams are top of the list, but check out for yourself. Well worth buying their guides btw – they have the same info as the site, but much better structured.

      • Randy M says:

        I need more greens, it took me while to realize you were saying something good about them.
        My wife will request that I only take them if that effect is confined to acuity and not sense of humor, as my tastes may not be quite as mature as my abilities.

    • sentientbeings says:

      I’ll second the recommendation for examine.com. It really is an excellent resource.

      I’ve tried out a lot of the nootropics and dietary techniques for improved cognition and found some to be mildly helpful. There is evidence that exercise improves cognition as well, and my personal experience is that it has much more significant impacts that anything else I’ve tried (note that I haven’t tried some of the things known to have large impacts, like Adderall). When I stick to a routine of waking at 5 AM and immediately hitting the gym for weight lifting, I experience a near-manic increase in creativity and intellectual drive, to the point that I’m routinely buying new notebooks to fill with ideas.

    • DragonMilk says:

      Speculative, but I think exercising memory helps keep it, and there’s nothing like games (board or computer) as a hobby to keep it exercised. I know you asked for supplements, but to me I feel like that could be like giving protein powder to a couch potato.

      Anyway, I like Board Game Arena – you can try 6 nmmt as a memory game, or go with seven wonders, puerto rico, etc.

      For computer, Steam has plenty of sales, but I like Paradox games a lot; depends on what you’re into.

      • Thanks to those who recommended examine.com. It seems like a competent and extensive source of information. It looks as though I should be taking Ginkgo Bilboa.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          That’s why I said you should get their guides 🙂 I took a glance at my copy, and the first option for both Memory&focus and Seniors guides is… blueberries. Yep, they’re very serious about it.
          Next options for Memory&focus are Bacopa Monnieri and caffeine+theanine. Next options for Seniors are B12 and Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR), with Creatine, CDP-Choline and protein suplements as extra proven options. (they have a very nice ranking, where first options are in the “no brainer” category, and up to unproven but may help).

          • Elementaldex says:

            I would third, fifth, or whatever number we are on Examine.com They do a good job assembling information in a useable way.

            I also want to second Bacopa. The research is better than most things for memory enhancement (though the timeframe is long and some people report side effects), I also personally believe I experience noticeably enhanced memory after I have been taking it for >1 month at a time. I experience flashes of older memories in a way I do not otherwise and can hold longer strings of digits in my head than I otherwise can. I try to do 2 – 3 month long cycles of the Bacognize extract 2 – 3 times/year.

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Unrelated to supplements, but I’m curious what your interaction with spaced repetition systems is – if you use them, how do you notice your interaction with them changing? If not, they seem like a potentially worthwhile way to memorize new things; I’ve used Mnemosyne’s cloze deletion cards to learn several poems over the past year or so.

  30. Uribe says:

    I suspect the TV show The Orville is too low-brow for most SSC readers, but I thought last week’s episode (Identity, Part 1) was amazing, at least for a network TV show. Did anyone else see it and think so?

    I won’t give away spoilers, but the theme is AI risk. (There’s nothing novel in it, but I found the dramatization unexpectedly exciting.)

    Also, I wonder how this show manages to not get sued by Gene Roddenberry’s estate. It would probably defend itself as “parody”, but last week’s episode was good evidence it’s only a comedy sometimes.

    • Theodoric says:

      I like the series. It is the closest thing to post season 1-2 TNG that there is.
      I did not see the twist in last week’s episode coming at all.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I’ve found this season to be rather weak, concentrating mostly on relationship drama (and going back to the well of Moclan rather too often). “Identity” mostly avoided that, but I think was rather boring overall. And that the robots had done what they did I thought was pretty obvious; maybe I’m just too genre-savvy jaded. (Why would they leave all that mineral wealth unexploited, though?). (BTW, why did Commander Data Isaac drop that paper? I think that might be important.)

      Also, I wonder how this show manages to not get sued by Gene Roddenberry’s estate. It would probably defend itself as “parody”, but last week’s episode was good evidence it’s only a comedy sometimes.

      Possibly Seth MacFarlane knows where a few bodies are buried.

    • John Schilling says:

      Also, I wonder how this show manages to not get sued by Gene Roddenberry’s estate.

      As I believe David Friedman has noted, when you’re young, you worry that other people will steal all your best ideas, and when you’re old, you worry that they won’t. Roddenberry’s estate looks after the interests of an old man, and can now be fairly certain that his best ideas won’t be used by anyone with the legal rights to the “Star Trek” name, so…

      • TakatoGuil says:

        Strictly speaking, the estate defends the interests of a *dead* man, which can change the calculus considerably.

        • Lillian says:

          Suddenly i have flashbacks to back when the Tolkien Estate issued a Cease and Desist to a Middle-Earth mod for Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in an obscure corner of the internet called The Elder Scrolls Nexus (formerly Morrowind Nexus) well over a decade ago.

          It wasn’t even an adaptation of any of Tolkien’s stories, but rather intended to be set somewhere in the Third Age extrapolating on the bits that did not write much on. As i recall the intended main plot would have had the main character seek out and retrieve a sapling of the White Tree of Gondor to plant on the barren slopes of Mindolluin for King Elessar to recover centuries later. Pretty neat idea, too bad the guy leading the mod was a fraud and it wouldn’t have gone anywhere even without the Tolkien estate’s C&D.

          These days the corner in question is called Nexus Mods and is rather less obscure, while the Tolkien estate is a lot more tolerant of fan content, and there are many Middle-Earth mods across a variety of games.

          • Randy M says:

            A decade ago? Was that around the time the Middle Earth MMO launched?

          • achenx says:

            LOTRO (the MMO) launched around 2007 I think.

            It, like most other video games, was licensed from Middle-earth Enterprises. Any issues the Tolkien Estate had with the terms of the license would have been taken up with MeE. (And indeed the Estate sued MeE around that time frame, though publicly one big point of contention was around LOTR-themed slot machines, I don’t think video games were necessarily under discussion.)

          • Randy M says:

            My assumption was they wanted to keep the competition, however comparatively minor, for their own electronic open world middle earth to a minimum, but from your post is sounds like the Tolkien Estate may not have had a stake it LOTRO?

          • LHN says:

            Pretty much every adaptation derives from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movie rights Tolkien sold in 1968. AFAIK, the Tolkien estate under his son Christopher was disinclined to license much else (and probably wished that they could rein in what had been sold). One result is that all those derivative works are heavily limited from using anything from the Silmarillion et al. unless it can also be found in LotR or The Hobbit. (Though some have pushed the envelope.)

            My impression is that the upcoming Amazon series won’t be operating under the same limitations, CJRT having stepped back from running things (he’s 94) and the later generations being less chary (and presumably more interested in what Amazon can offer).

      • Winter Shaker says:

        The open question that I’d like to see resolved is: can they copyright a conlang – i.e. can Paramount Pictures (/the Tolkien estate) prevent people from publishing their own original works, written in Klingon (/Sindarin etc) which otherwise make no reference to the Star Trek (/LOTR) franchise? Last I looked into it, this was something that had yet to be tested legally.

    • dick says:

      Man, I want to like that show but I don’t think it can decide whether it’s a parody or not. The plots and characters are too shallow to make it a good normal show, and it doesn’t have enough jokes to be making fun of the genre.

      I guess you could say I think “How many dick jokes can we slide past the censors” McFarlane >> “Singing Sinatra songs in a tux with a 60 piece orchestra” McFarlane, and The Orville is about 90% the latter.

      • The problem is that even though it’s a sci-fi in the vein of Star Trek, it spends most of its time dealing with relationship drama. I’m giving it until the end of the season but if it doesn’t improve on that front, I probably won’t watch the next. Say what you will about the new Star Trek but at least it is primarily a sci-fi show and doesn’t just use its sci-fi as a setting for romantic drama.

        • Randy M says:

          What’s wrong with relationship drama in space?

          • In Sci-fi, you have a wide variety of plot devices available to you. You can focus on aliens, time travel, biotech, nanotech, exploding stars, AI, etc. Why would you use that opportunity to redo the same recycled plot lines that have been used countless number of times before? I’m not saying that sci-fi authors should always avoid these themes but they should really stick to their comparative advantage. Relationship drama should, at best, be a side story to the main action.

          • Randy M says:

            [Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the Orville yet]

            I’d been thinking the problem was a mishandling of expectations–the audience you draw in with spaceships are expecting adventure, or thoughtful setting building, rather than kissy-stuff.

            I can see your argument for network TV, since there is less space for shows given the production cost compared to novels, having the Orville on might well be driving off other more speculative Sci-fi.

            Anyhow, I ask because I’m writing a story now that is probably closer to the kissy-stuff than the whiz-bang stuff, at least so far, but I’m using sci-fi devices to set up the mythic scope and am slightly worried about properly communicating expectations.

        • cassander says:

          Say what you will about the new Star Trek but at least it is primarily a sci-fi show and doesn’t just use its sci-fi as a setting for romantic drama.

          But it does do that for family drama! And that’s even worse in my book.

          • The sibling conflict is definitely an undercurrent this season but I wouldn’t say it’s the main conflict in the same way that most of The Orville this season has been about relationships. The last episode, for the example, was primarily about Saru’s homeworld and predator/prey dynamic. There was a recurring plot about an alien trying to forcefully communicate with a crewmember to save their world. Those are classic science fiction stories.

            And I highly disagree that family conflict is worse than romantic drama. Any kind of focus on “daddy issues” is a cliche but sibling conflict isn’t. I’ve been watching Better Call Saul where the main conflict is between brothers and it’s very compelling.

    • cassander says:

      I’m enjoying the show more or less, generally wishing it was just a little bit better than it is. I think dick is basically right that it can’t quite decide if it wants to commit to full on parody, or just have a sense of humor, and that it would be better firmly commiting one way or the other.

      I agree this was the best episode so far, and as much as I’d like them to really stick the landing and have this be their best of both worlds, I have a hard time imagining that’s really going to happen. The show has shown some willingness to commit to very modest consequences, but I’m fully expecting a reset button ending here, probably a dick shaped button.

    • What evidence would someone use against The Orville in court? The rubber forehead aliens? The spaceship peacefully exploring the galaxy? The Orville is obviously ripping off Star Trek to some degree but there’s nothing inherently Star Trek about their similarities. It would be like the first Western suing the second Western for copyright.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Beyond the genre elements, there’s some obvious similarities of the characters, in particular Data/Isaac and Worf/Bortus.

        • Consider the tv show Friends. After it came out, it had plenty of imitators in the general “hangout sitcom” genre. Some of them even use similar characters. Does anyone think that the producers of Friends have a case against them? You can’t successfully sue someone for using the same stock character.

          • acymetric says:

            I think people are mixing up enforcement of trademarks vs. enforcement of copyrights (which happens all the time and is an easy mistake to make).

  31. Edward2 says:

    Edward Scizorhands here. My comments don’t show up, and I tried to comment on the subreddit about it based on Scott’s RIP message

    [This post is having major technical issues. Some comments may not be appearing. If you can’t comment, please say so on the subreddit.]

    but the reddit account I made was brand new so my comment got shadowbanned. Is this something that will resolve in a few days once my account is newer? Should I use modmail on reddit?

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Many subreddits have automatic filters against new accounts because it correlates highly with spam and people trying to evade bans. In almost all* cases, it’s remedied by waiting a few days, but you can also send a message via modmail. Something like “Hi, I’m Edward Scizorhands, could you approve my recent comment/post at [link] please?” should work.

      *The exceptions being if you are shadowbanned sitewide (you can check this by trying to visit your user page in incognito mode) or your username is problematic in some way (e.g. contains a slur as a substring) such that the subreddit auto-removes comments from such users. These are much less likely events, though, and if you use modmail they’ll be able to tell what’s going on.

  32. proyas says:

    Is anyone here a “trust fund baby”?

    Does anyone here have a close relationship with one?

    If yes, I’d like to ask you some questions about the lifestyles of trust fund babies.

    • cassander says:

      how much wealth are you defining as the minimum necessary to count?

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        This. I don’t know any full “Trust Fund Babies,” but I know UMC with large trusts that occasionally have a totally different dynamic from me.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          The Urban Movie Channel? United Methodist Church? I’m blanking here.

          • Plumber says:

            I’ve seen “UMC” before, I think it stands for “upper middle class”.

            Most everyone who doesn’t use the abbreviation “UMC” just say “rich”.

            I think “UMC” must mean rich but not richest, so as long as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are around the rich will call themselves “UMC”.

          • BBA says:

            I grew up UMC and to my parents “rich” meant not having to work for a living.

          • brad says:

            In the US the rich think ‘rich’ is a kind of leprosy and emotionally and strenuously deny they have it. Hence “upper middle class with large trusts”.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I agree with BBA’s definition. Comfortable, little to no debt, don’t want for anything…but still have to 9-5 it.

          • albatross11 says:

            This conversation makes me think of a girl I dated in college who’d grown up very poor–at some point she commented to me that if I f–ked off in college, my parents would bail me out and get me back into college somewhere else; if she f–ked off, she’d end up waiting tables for a living.

            Is there a reasonably plausible path for you to end up waiting tables or stocking shelves as a way to put food on the table? Is there a reasonably plausible path for you to end up in genuine financial ruin that doesn’t require vast stupidity (borrowing from your trust fund to play the horses)?

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            What “rich” means depends on your perceptions of what “rich” is. I’d define them as “rich,” but they did not go to Harvard and they do not play squash on a New England field and sip Mint Juleps while wearing funny hats at the Kentucky Derby.

            Typically “Trust Fund Baby” conjures a very specific image, and while these people are damned wealthy, they do not fit that image.

          • Dack says:

            My theory is that pretty much everyone self-identifies as middle class…unless they are homeless or a billionaire.

          • acymetric says:

            I hesitate to dive into this conversation again, but I’ll just point out that if “not working” is part of the requirement for being rich then hardly anybody in the world qualifies. Way too exclusive.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Media gives us a pretty good view of what the “rich” are like (but actually, they mostly show the super rich). The kids in Gossip Girl for example: they wear all designer clothes, they summer in the Hamptons, they live in mansions or penthouse apartments, they may fly on private jets or merely first class, they have cars that cost $100k+, they may drop $20k on whims.

            So you have people who are solidly in the top 5% or top 1%, but are not in the top 0.1%, and they say, “Well, shit, that’s not me. I buy my clothes from department stores, I take vacations, including to pretty cool places like Hawai’i, but I stay in normal (perhaps nice, but normal) hotels, I usually fly economy (unless my job involves lots of travel and I get frequent flyer status from that), I have a house with between 3 and 4 beds and 2 and 4 baths, not between 6 and 10 beds and 6 and 10 baths, my car costs between $20k and $60k, not $100k, and the thought of racking up a $20k bill makes me really nervous, even if I could actually afford one of those.”

            People below those people in income/wealth tend to focus on financial security and general classes of goods (you can afford a house, you can afford a car that’s not constantly breaking down, you can take a vacation that you fly to, you have health insurance, your kids can definitely go to college). People at this level see a lot of lifestyle difference between themselves and the richer who can also, of course, afford a house, a car, a vacation, health insurance, and college, but whose houses, cars, vacations, and colleges are much more prestigious and pricier.

            To me, personally, “trust fund baby” implies a greater level of wealth than just “rich” or “upper class.”

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I hesitate to dive into this conversation again, but I’ll just point out that if “not working” is part of the requirement for being rich then hardly anybody in the world qualifies. Way too exclusive.

            This entirely depends on what the purpose of the term “rich” is. Do you mean “rich” as in “stop whining about your lot in life, you’re damn well off”? Yeah, use an expansive definition of rich.
            Is your purpose so you can take people’s money and not feel bad about it? Rob the rich and steal from the poor, so to speak? Then use a narrow definition, because you SHOULD feel bad that you are robbing from people who work for their money.

            So, what are you trying to describe when you use the term “rich”?

          • beleester says:

            I’ll just point out that if “not working” is part of the requirement for being rich then hardly anybody in the world qualifies. Way too exclusive.

            Hardly. With 1 million in investments, you can generate a passive income of $40,000/year (based on the 4% “safe withdrawal rate” most retirement planners use). $40,000 isn’t exactly a rich lifestyle, and you should drop the withdrawal rate slightly if you want a 70-year retirement instead of a 30-year one. But it shows you what ballpark you’re looking at – if you have more than about 2 million in investments, your passive income is as much money as most people get by working.

            This website says that about 6% of American households have over 2 million in assets. Or if you want enough passive income for both parents (two-income households are pretty common, after all), 2.8% of households have over 4 million.

      • I think there are two somewhat different categories that you might describe as “trust fund babies.” One is someone who lives off inherited money. The other is someone who has enough inherited money so that he could live off it at a tolerable to him standard, but chooses to work and support himself primarily on his own earnings.

        I believe Larry Niven is an example of the second group.

        • albatross11 says:

          These two categories approximately capture the likely responses to UBI. To the extent that you expect people to mostly still want to do worthwhile things (maybe just not worrying so much about paying back their student loans), you can imagine an UBI leading to a great deal of creativity and productivity unchained by concerns about paying the rent. To the extent you expect people to mostly lay around eating Cheetos and playing video games, you can imagine UBI just leading to an immense dependent class who will vote to keep the dole at a comfortable level forever so they don’t have to do anything.

          I had a friend in college, who was one of the smartest people I ever met. The year before he graduated, he did a summer internship at a company that I think would have hired him after graduation. But just before he graduated, his mother died in a tragic accident, and he got a pretty large settlement–not quite FU money, but enough that he didn’t really have to work for quite awhile, and that he could delude himself into thinking he could use it to make a permanent living day-trading. He graduated with a good degree but didn’t ever get a job. He got married, and seemed to have some big ambitions. But over time, he mainly smoked a whole lot of pot and spent a lot of time on the internet and playing video games. Eventually, the money began to run out, and by then, he began to have health problems–the kind that an employer would work around if you were already a solid employee with 15 years under your belt, but not if you were a 35-year-old with no work experience and a 15-year-old degree you’d never used. He died last year, way the hell too young, and he’d basically taken a first-rate brain and done *nothing* with it for his whole life. I can’t help but think he’d have had a better life (maybe a longer one, definitely a more productive one) if his mother’s death had somehow left him just enough money to pay for her funeral.

      • hls2003 says:

        My definition would include non-working (or working at a volunteer / low-paying job) as a plausible option while still maintaining an upper-middle-class lifestyle. My reasoning is semantic, not moral – the “baby” part of “trust fund baby” is an expression (generally pejorative) of dependence and irresponsibility; babies do not work and rely on their parents to satisfy all their needs. If the OP were referring to a hard-working fellow supporting himself entirely out of his own resources, but with some amount of family money in the background, I would be surprised if the term “trust fund baby” would be used.

        • Don P. says:

          I guess “baby” can have the connotation you describe, but I think of it as part of the whole concept: a trust fund baby has had a trust fund since they were a baby, so that’s how long (at least) their parents have been rich. They may well be a third-generation or later rich-person, as well, because rich people might set up trust funds for their grandchildren that do not come fully “due” until adulthood.

        • bullseye says:

          I think a trust fund implies irresponsibility. If I trust my kids to use the money wisely, I’ll just give it to them instead of setting up a trust fund.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Trust funds have other uses besides keeping the beneficiary from blowing it all.

          • Chipsa says:

            Trust funds are primarily about taxes. They turn a large upfront income that will be highly taxed for one year into a stream of income that will be taxed at lower rates. It’s only if you get to really high income levels that the stream of income gets to the maximum tax bracket, and the trust fund becomes less useful as a tax dodge.

            They’re also useful as an estate planning tool. It doesn’t go through probate, and no one can contest how the money is routed. It can also be a vehicle to hold property that a person wants shared amongst their heirs intact.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      I’m probably at the low end of what you might plausibly call a “trust fund baby.” My family is pretty wealthy, and I do have a trust fund. I’ve worked all my adult life (though I didn’t have any college debt), but my sister worked for about ten years and has lived on her trust fund since. She has to live a somewhat frugal life to make that happen — she has a (very) small house in a rural area with fairly low property values, and she does not vacation, she has a pretty inexpensive car, etc. But still, I mean, she hasn’t worked for ten years and she’s not running out of money (to my knowledge), so that’s obviously way better than the vast majority of people can do.

      For me, my trust fund has largely just served as a safety net. I did at one point take a few hundred thousand dollars out of it in order to basically give myself a bridge loan so that I could buy my new house and then sell my old house afterward — I paid the money back to the trust fund once the old house was sold, and we probably could have taken a traditional bridge loan but we would have been out at least tens of thousands of dollars that way. (I live in the Bay Area, and offers contingent on the sale of the old house are a non-starter here).

      • proyas says:

        Did your trust fund pay for your college tuition?

        Did your financial safety net affect what you chose to study in college (e.g. – something you were passionate about vs. something you knew would lead to a high-paying job) or how long you stayed in college?

        How does your sister use her time?

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          My parents separately paid for my college tuition.

          I studied computer science in college, partly just because I was interested in computer science, but also certainly because I felt there were good job prospects for computer scientists. I did not, for example, take up philosophy despite knowing that it was a tough degree to monetize. I was already determined, at age 18, to get a remunerative job and not just live off the family wealth.

          I stayed in college to get a bachelor’s degree and never really considered a more advanced degree. That was more “interests” than “financial prospects,” though again, I don’t think that there would have been much value in my getting a masters or PhD in CS.

          My sister knits, follows several sports, helps take care of my now-aging parents (in a light way, not like a dedicated nursing way), and spends a lot of time on the internet and watching TV. It sounds boring to me.

          • proyas says:

            If you’re a SSC reader, I can believe that you’re also the sort of person who studied computer science in college because it fascinated you, and not merely because it opened the door to a stable career field.

            Do you think your sister would have achieved more in life if not for her trust fund?

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            I think that if my sister hadn’t had the family money, most likely she would have a career (she’s smart, hard working, and people like her), but possibly she would be deeply unhappy in her career. I think it’s less likely, but possible, that the anxieties that led to her not working would have destroyed her in some spectacular way if she had to confront them.

        • cassander says:

          I had a trust fund from my grandparents as a way of avoiding inheritence taxes. I will inherit more when my parents die.

          My parents paid for my college education and my life while in college (a period somewhat extended from the normal). They paid a variety of bills (e.g. medical costs) through most of my 20s. I used part of that inheritence to live off of for a couple years in my early 30s, and a more substantial chunk of it as a downpayment on a condo.

          I wanted a high paying job for its own sake as much out of any sense of necessity.

    • Tarpitz says:

      Like Sandor, I’m probably at the bottom end of what might plausibly count. My grandfather was legitimately rich (and entirely self-made). He didn’t drink (past his 20s), so no mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, but he did own the horse that came second in it one year (still the best finish for a European owner, I believe). However, for the merely legitimately rich, owning racehorses is a dangerous hobby, and he had four children, so what was left by the time my grandmother prevailed upon him to get rid of the remaining horses had a fair number of people to provide for even in the generation above me – and I’m one of six.

      My father wanted to be an academic (botanist) but when he married my mother and I became an imminent prospect my grandfather told him he’d better get a proper job to support his family – a choice I think Grandad later deeply regretted. Dad qualified as an accountant with Deloitte, and was by all accounts highly regarded there, but left in his late 20s to take over as FD of the various family businesses (I think this coincided with/was driven by my grandfather falling out with his brother and splitting the businesses they’d built together).

      Both Dad’s brothers spent their whole careers working for the family bank (later just a securities brokerage), one as a broker, the other responsible for compliance. The latter was an exceptional youth footballer and had multiple offers from top flight professional clubs, but decided not to pursue them. Their sister, the youngest, is the closest to trust fund baby stereotypes: Grandad bought her a cocktail bar after she left university, and she married the man she hired to manage it. This escalated to a pair of high end London night clubs, which proved to be the husband’s Peter Principle point, and since their divorce she’s lived alternately a lower-upper-middle class lifestyle off the dividend income from her shares in the family holding company, sometimes supplemented by part time jobs, and a rather more lavish one thanks to wealthy boyfriends (the current one appears pretty serious).

      My education was directly paid for by my parents; my dividend income from the trust’s shares in the family businesses has certainly never been enough to live off, but has allowed me to work fewer hours in less responsible jobs than I otherwise might have been pressed to do, which in turn has made it easier to pursue acting, writing and directing than I would otherwise have found it. A share buyback a couple of years ago allowed one of my brothers and I to buy a 4 bedroom house in an expensive city despite our low incomes, and we’re approaching the point where the remaining assets will probably soon be liquidated; I’m yet to decide exactly what I’ll do with the capital.

      Another brother dropped out of school at 14 and – a brief dalliance with university aside – essentially bummed around for the next 15 years, living at home, drinking a lot, occasionally working bar jobs for extra beer money. He and his wife used the capital injection to buy a section of beach in Tanzania, where they’re building a hotel, and he’s doing a correspondence degree in engineering; he appears to have mostly got his shit together. He is very charismatic and has serious mental health problems; I do not think a world in which he grows up without a cushion of money is a good thing for him or the world.

      The brother I live with never took to university despite his considerable academic ability. He works in a skilled manual capacity for one of the family companies, for far less money than he could earn doing the same thing elsewhere. It appears he’s finally decided to quit and take the more money elsewhere. He’s very functional, but definitely has a drinking problem, and has never really found much sense of purpose. It’s genuinely unclear to me to what extent, if any, his problems are the result of a lack of financial pressure. On balance, I think it’s more likely they stem from a combination of genetics and family dynamic issues unrelated to money.

      My youngest full brother, uniquely among us, actually graduated from university. He started training as an accountant with KPMG, but didn’t enjoy it and dropped out to take a job as interim financial controller at a car crash of a start-up. He managed to unfuck their finances to the point where a sale as a going concern was possible, then took the same job at a non-car-crash start-up, where he was rapidly promoted to permanent CFO, in which capacity he is by all accounts still doing very well, making a good salary and likely to make real money on his shares in the near future. The trust income has meant little more than nicer holidays for him and his fiancée; the capital allowed them to put down the deposit on a nice South London flat a couple of years earlier than they would otherwise have been able to. The overall financial security may have been important in letting him leave KPMG without excessive worry, which was unequivocally a good decision.

      Of my six first cousins on my father’s side, three have or are about to start conventional well-paid upper middle class careers. One also has a wealthy mother, and consequently far more trust income, and is taking time out of her career in the charitable sector to start a family. Two are in their early-mid-20s and have good degrees but have not yet settled on a career path, though neither is dysfunctional in a way that leads me to believe they won’t: they’re effectively taking extended but temporary gap years.

      My second cousins have far more money (my great uncle was far less of a horse enthusiast than his brother). All of them that I know of are pursuing low-paid careers which they love (mostly in the arts, but one is hairdresser).

      One close friend from school grew up lower middle class, but his mother married a wealthy man in his late teens. He owns a nice but normal house outright, and has unearned income to the tune of £30k a year. They bought him a bar, which he managed with moderate success for a few years, but has now sold; he’s not currently working, but will probably find something that catches his interest again at some point. He was a fairly unhappy and dysfunctional teenager, and is a pretty happy and functional thirty-something, but it’s not clear to me how much of that is altered financial circumstances and how much natural maturation. His sister, however, has severe mental health issues and is happily pursuing a PhD; I am quite certain her life would be vastly worse (if indeed she was still alive) without the financial security.

      I’ve been friendly with a few people who had real FU family money (a Mosley, a Malaysian prince, the second son of an Earl) but not close enough to really tell you much about their lives.

      Superficially, it may look from my examples like trust income frequently leads to lower economic productivity and in some cases lower utility for its recipients, but I think that is misleading. What’s missing from that analysis is the pattern – at least in my acquaintance – of rich men marrying high IQ women with serious mental health issues that get at least partially passed on to at least some of their children. At modest levels of unearned income, the non-fucked-up kids get exactly the sort of upper middle class jobs that high IQ functional people get anyway, and the fucked up kids have far more bearable and productive lives than they otherwise would. At higher levels of unearned income, the kids do productive but not necessarily well-paid things which appeal to them. PlayStation-and-weed is the exception among the fucked up kids, and nonexistent elsewhere.

      None of my experience leads me not to think that UBI would be a good thing if it could be afforded.

      • Chalid says:

        Thank you for the detailed post.

        Is there anything you think your grandfather should have done differently in terms of how he structured his trust?

        • Tarpitz says:

          In terms of accounting/tax efficiency? No idea, but given that both he and my father were accountants by training, and neither of them were fools, I imagine they did a good job. In terms of portfolio? Well, sticking everything in a single, relatively illiquid and not especially diversified asset is probably not generally an advisable strategy, but he was never one not to back himself. Leaving all four of his children as directors and major shareholders of a single rather unwieldy entity? Not a recipe for family harmony. In terms of incentive structure? I think it would have been both safe and helpful to give us access to the capital at 30 rather than 35. Younger than 30 I would not recommend.

      • proyas says:

        Thank you!

  33. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Rate these pre-genre fantasy authors from greatest to least, assigning N to any you haven’t read:

    Lord Dunsany
    Robert E. Howard
    JRR Tolkien
    Poul Anderson (i.e. Three Hearts and Three Lions, Operation Chaos, The Broken Sword, A Midsummer’s Tempest)
    Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series)
    Jack Vance (i.e. Dying Earth, Lyonesse)
    Michael Morepenis Moorish rooster Moorcock

    • Nornagest says:

      Ordering by literary talent: Tolkien > Howard = Vance = Moorcock > Dunsany > Leiber > Anderson.

      Ordering by personal preference: Vance > Howard > Tolkien > Moorcock > Leiber > Anderson > Dunsany.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        You rate Moorcock’s talent that highly? He’s the only one I haven’t read.

        Tolkien outranks the others in literary talent, but there’s something very problematic with Lord of the Rings: at ~480,000 words, it’s unjustifiably bloated (compare War and Peace at 561,304 words!). He should have treated the same themes at the same depth with much more economy, so I rate Anderson’s The Broken Sword higher. He was an uneven writer though: I’d have to rank his fantasies individually.
        I haven’t read Vance’s Lyonesse, but his Dying Earth series rates highly.
        I have to rank Howard below Vance in talent. He wrote well and tightly for pulp, but you can sometimes see the market forces behind the curtain, at least in the Conan stories. When first trying to read those, I bounced off several due to threadbare worldbuilding, asking myself “Why aren’t I reading historical adventure fiction directly?”
        I haven’t read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but Dunsany’s short stories show a lot of talent. They capture the imagination immediately with great economy, much like folktales.
        Leiber I put below Howard. He was trying to improve on the sword & sorcery formula by making characters better/more realistic according to the standards of litfic, which led to some embarrassing missteps that Howard spared himself by not caring about his own literary quality. I’m thinking of things like giving Fafhrd a Freudian origin story in “The Snow Women”. Psychological depth = the science of psychology = Freudianism. QED!

        • Nornagest says:

          Honestly I haven’t read Moorcock in years — well, except for Dancers at the End of Time, but that’s a late and noncentral work — but he made an impression in late high school/early college, before I read anyone else on the list except Tolkien. I might place him differently if I reread him now.

          The King of Elfland’s Daughter is the main Dunsany I’ve read, and I found it pretty boring — The Worm Ouroboros (Eric Rücker Eddison, 1922) was a better read, and that was pretty boring in its own right. Imaginative guy, but far too married to Victorian whimsy for my taste.

          I really like Howard. Some of the stuff he wrote does come off pretty formulaic — I’ve lost track of how many different variations on lost city + mystic guardian + plucky bondage-prone heroine he wrote — but in a way I think that only makes his talent clearer; Moorcock and Lieber and Anderson were all, in different ways, trying to subvert sword-and-sorcery conventions, and Howard was trying to say something by working within them. He did it better than anyone else has.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I really like Howard. Some of the stuff he wrote does come off pretty formulaic — I’ve lost track of how many different variations on lost city + mystic guardian + plucky bondage-prone heroine he wrote — but in a way I think that only makes his talent clearer

            Interesting point. I really like many of his weird tales too. The Conan tale I bounced hardest off of was “The Phoenix on the Sword”, because except for Thoth-Amon everyone felt like they’d come from a pre-fab medieval setting. The book I was reading was in publication order, and only started to find a unique voice with “The Scarlet Citadel” (a literal dungeon crawl with Conan & a wizard, with no bondage love interest) & “The Tower of the Elephant”, which with its setting of Zamora with its spider-haunted towers and people who weren’t an ethnic stereotype living cheek-to-cheek with other ethnic stereotypes of history didn’t feel like threadbare worldbuilding.
            After that start, I don’t remember finding the repetition of lost cities + plucky Margaret Bondage heroines too bad. Perhaps that’s because the worst example of the type, “The Slithering Shadow”, was published first, so I could only read the formula getting better.

        • spkaca says:

          “there’s something very problematic with Lord of the Rings: at ~480,000 words, it’s unjustifiably bloated”
          I can justify it. The richness of the conception was such that I wanted it to be longer. (Tolkien notes in the foreword that his readers complained it was too short.) George Orwell said much the same about (I think) War & Peace.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Its also 1+ books, there is an extra story in the Hobbits return home and then eventual leaving for the havens that most genre books don’t really have. Its not bloat because it isn’t interspersed with the other stories but added on in a semi stand alone way, it doesn’t detract at any point from the action or the characters who aren’t involved in that part of the story.

    • EchoChaos says:

      Tolkien > Anderson > Howard > Vance > Leiber

      I haven’t read Dunsany or Moorcock.

      Poul Anderson’s High Crusade is one of my favorite fantasy books ever.

      • sfoil says:

        The High Crusade had a great conceit, and I suspect its portrayal of interplanetary feudalism was a major influence on Dune, but I didn’t think it tried hard enough to sell its premise. This might have been mostly the short form of SF novels from that time, but what else I’ve read of Anderson had that problem too.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Agreed. Poul Anderson reads as way more “pulpy” than Frank Herbert. Some people prefer that, though, to be fair.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yeah, Anderson has the Sixties SF writer’s disease: lots of great ideas, but presented almost totally flat. Best enjoyed as a fourteen-year-old boy with an overactive sense of wonder. And he’s probably the least good prose stylist on the list.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Right, but that’s when I read Anderson first, so he rates far higher for me than his writing quality deserves.

            I am totally willing to agree that he was the worst prose stylist on the list, but I enjoy his books so much.

          • Plumber says:

            ....I am totally willing to agree that he was the worst prose stylist on the list, but I enjoy his books so much"

            Cast a spell
            weave it well
            of dust and dew
            Night and you

            -From The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson

            Prose, smoe’s, I like Anderson’s verse.

          • EchoChaos says:


            You get me.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Nitpick: The High Crusade didn’t exactly portray interstellar (not just interplanetary) feudalism, it gave a vague sketch of interplanetary feudalism.

          The book is almost entirely about 12th century knights defeating an alien invasion.

    • sfoil says:

      Tolkien > Vance > Leiber > Anderson > Moorcock.

      Haven’t read Dunsany or Howard.

      • sfoil says:

        Tolkien stands head and shoulders above the others just for the sheer depth of his creation. I’m someone who thinks Tolkien’s influence gets overstated, but it’s really the scope — even inexhaustibility — of what he wrote, backed by his tremendous erudition, that puts him on top.

        His creation and execution of the Dying Earth setting might be enough for me to put Vance next on its own. Vance’s books are generally more about the journey than the destination, and readers who don’t like that don’t like him. I love his baroque dialogue and weird settings, and while he takes his cynicism too far it prevents him from indulging in the utopian impulses that plagued his contemporaries.

        Leiber is very fun. I think he’s something of a discount Vance, although less gloomy in attitude.

        Anderson had some great concepts but he never seemed willing to flesh them out. I’m not much of an expert on him, but from what I’ve read and from looking at his bibliography I wish he’d written fewer, longer books. I suppose a man’s got to make a living.

        I’m not much of a fan of the Elric books I’ve read, but on top of being rather pulp for my taste I think they fundamentally failed to “subvert” the sword-and-sorcery genre as Moorcock apparently intended along the lines of “there’s no such thing as an anti-war war movie”. On the other hand, I haven’t actually read Howard. Aside from that, I get the impression Moorcock wanted to be the Tolkien of the New Wave (in terms of literary stature) but didn’t have the ability, and he knew it.

    • Plumber says:

      In order of whom I’ve whom most re-read:

      Fritz Leiber (while the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series peters out in the end, the beginning and especially the middle are very strong)
      Michael Moorcock
      (Corum, early Elric, Oswald Bastable, and The War Hound and The World’s Pain are favorites) 

      J. R. R. Tolkein
      (“You’re a pirate George, you even stole my arr arr, I’ve got the prose of a pro, your stuffs subpar, you can’t touch this fellows[stuff], I’m too towering, everytime I battle it’s return of the King!)

      Lord Dunsany
      (I liked The Charwomen’s Shadow more than the more famous The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and the Jorkens tales are fun) 

      Poul Anderson
      (Three Hearts and Three Lions was okay, I’ve re-read it a few times, Operation Chaos I’ve only read once, and it was okay, The Broken Sword was AWESOME!!!, I have both the ’50’s and th ’70’s versions, I’ve only read the first few chapters of A Midsummer’s Tempest, I just didn’t get into it, and unfortunately unlike other of Anderson’s works I was too old and the type too small when I tried to read it)

      Robert E. Howard
      (The Tower of the Elephant is almost as AWESOME to me as it was when I read it 40 years ago, The Phoenix on the Sword, and The People of the Black Circle, while good, just didn’t strike home with me as well, and I haven’t re-read more Conan stories, many of which were de’Camp and others, not Howard’s that I read decades ago)
      Jack Vance
      (I enjoyed the Dying Earth stories, but I just didn’t get into Lyonesse and stopped after two chapters)

      Also, what do you mean by “pre genre” @Le Maistre Chat

      Throw in C. L. Moore, Hope Mirrless, Ursula LeGuin, Clark Ashton Smith, and, Roger Zelazny, and those authors are the genre!

      • Bugmaster says:

        +1 for Roger Zelazny. While Amber was IMO a bit weak, Creatures of Light and Darkness, and especially Lord of Light, are still among my favorite books of all time.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Very much a matter of taste, there. I thought Nine Princes in Amber was excellent, but I thought the series went sharply downhill with the second book. The consensus seems to be that the first five were much better than the second five.

          I thought Creatures of Light and Darkness was Zelazny clearing a bunch of interesting unrelated ideas out of his file cabinet.

          Lord of Light was excellent.

      • Randy M says:

        Plumber, I meant to ask you before when you mentioned epic rap battles Tolkien vs Martin, but did you ever watch the econstories Kaynes vs Hayek rap battles? Those are hilarious and pretty informative.

        • Plumber says:

          @Randy M

          “…I meant to ask you before when you mentioned epic rap battles Tolkien vs Martin…”

          I just love that one so much! I set the phone to YouTube and listened to it again on the drive to work this morning!

          “…did you ever watch the econstories Kaynes vs Hayek rap battles? Those are hilarious and pretty informative”

          And now I know what I’m going to listen to on the way home!

          Thanks for the tip!

        • J Mann says:

          I listened to Ash Ketchum vs Charles Darwin and Ivan the Terrible vs Alexander the Great this weekend – both awesome!

          I’m also a fan of Deadpool vs Boba Fett, which had a great video. I’m not sure about Rasputin vs Stalin – it’s good, but Stalin’s lyrics are so fire they leave me uncomfortable.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Also, what do you mean by “pre genre” @Le Maistre Chat?

        Throw in C. L. Moore, Hope Mirrless, Ursula LeGuin, Clark Ashton Smith, and, Roger Zelazny, and those authors are the genre!

        I meant “before a fixed fantasy genre appeared in the late 1970s.” My understanding of literary history is that in the first three quarters of the 20th century, there was Lord Dunsany and a few one-offs like The Worm Ourborous, then there were Weird Tales that used supernatural rather than scientific trappings. These were usually written by the same authors: Leiber, Vance and Anderson were mostly SF writers who wrote a few fantasies on the side, C.L. Moore started her Northwest Smith adventures in the Solar system and French sword & sorcery series in Weird Tales roughly simultaneously, Lovecraft had a general trendline from supernatural horror to SF in the same magazine, and Two-Gun Bob was a dabbler who sold supernatural tales to Weird Tales and “realistic” short stories to other markets. CA Smith may have written predominantly fantasy, but it was an amorphous kind that could involve space travel or a speculative future.
        Beyond that, supernatural adventures were treated as something for children. The Hobbit fit snugly into this genre when it came out during the Weird Tales era. It wasn’t until 30+ years later that LotR became a sales phenomenon, which Lin Carter at Ballantine tried to piggy-back on by cobbling together as many old titles as he could for “Ballantine Adult Fantasy.” Shortly before that, Lancer started printing old and new Conan stories as a continuous series of pseudo-novels, marketing them as a cross between LotR (long saga with magic) and ER Burroughs (the Frazetta covers).
        But it wasn’t until Dungeons & Dragons and the rise of Tolkien clones that fantasy became a publishing genre complete with the Standard Fantasy Setting (warning: TVTropes is a controversial waste of time).

        • Nornagest says:

          Folktale retellings, e.g. of the Arabian Nights or the Arthurian tales, probably fit in here somewhere — they were a lot more popular in the mid-20th century than they are now (I have several volumes dating from the Twenties through the Fifties), and they helped build a lot of fantasy’s current tropes, although it’s definitely not the same genre. The Once and Future King is probably the most famous one these days.

          Three Hearts and Three Lions is arguably a better match to this than it is to modern fantasy.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Folktale retellings, e.g. of the Arabian Nights or the Arthurian tales, probably fit in here somewhere — they were a lot more popular in the mid-20th century than they are now (I have several volumes dating from the Twenties through the Fifties), and they helped build a lot of fantasy’s current tropes, although it’s definitely not the same genre. The Once and Future King is probably the most famous one these days.

            Oh yeah, that’s a good point.

        • Nobody so far has mentioned James Branch Cabell, who is surely one of the more important “pre-genre” fantasy writers.

          • Plumber says:


            “Nobody so far has mentioned James Branch Cabell, who is surely one of the more important “pre-genre” fantasy writers”

            I have Jurgen, and The Silver Stallion (and a bunch of other “Ballantine Adult Fantasy” series books (unless my wife has found them and thrown them out in her war on my reading “clutter”) but I admit that I never read them.

            I think I still have another copy of Jurgen at work though (yes I hide books at home, work, and I have an overstuffed storage rental space as well, I probably won’t have the eyesight or live long enough to read all the books I have, yet I still crave more).

          • Ventrue Capital says:

            You’re right, and I love Cabell.

            What about Eddison?

            And William Morris?

          • Plumber says:

            Ventrue Capital

            “…What about Eddison?

            And William Morris?”

            I’ve read some William Morris (most memorable to me was his News from Nowhere), but I don’t remember reading any Eddison.

        • Plumber says:

          @Le Maistre Chat,

          Thanks! (Tv Tropes is SSC-like addictive).

          A pedantic correction (If I can’t bloviate here, where may I?), while cool guys like Peter Beagle (I See By My Outfit, The Last Unicorn) and David Friedman (Harald, The Machinery of Freedom) read the hardback version of The Lord of The Rings, the Lancer Conan paperbacks were out before the Ace “unauthorized” paperbacks of LotR (which called themselves “sword and sorcery” on the back cover, and the Ace paperbacks of the ’60’s not the ’50’s hardback brought Tolkein wide popularity.

          Those Ace paperbacks were printed because the Lancer Conan paperbacks were selling, and Ace was looking for something similar.

          I can’t read them anymore (the type is too small and the pages are too yellow), but I still have copies of the ’60’s Swords & Sorcery and Flashing Swordsmen anthologies that have stories by Dunsany, Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Smith and others.

          Tolkien expanded the market for Fantasy fiction, he didn’t create it.

    • Tolkien>Anderson, Howard, Leiber, Vance.
      Those four are all good in different ways, and I find it hard to compare them. I haven’t read enough Moorcock to have an opinion.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I’m not sure I can give them a strong ranking. I’d have to do some rereading to have definite opinions about the ones near the hop.





      Anderson (maybe, I’m not sure whether I like his work as much as I used to)

      Leiber (I’d probably rate his horror stories higher than Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser)

      Moorcock (definitely at the bottom for me, I don’t think I’ve liked anything of his except Gloriana)

      Not on your list, but E.R. Eddison should be there somewhere. I reread The Worm Ouroborous recently, and it’s phenomenal.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      JRR Tolkien > Poul Anderson > Fritz Leiber > Robert E. Howard > Michael Moorcock

      Haven’t read Lord Dunsany or Jack Vance (I think… )

      Personally I think Operation Chaos was the best magic-in-the-modern-world universe this side of Dresden Files. The others I don’t think aged very well. Or I haven’t read enough to appreciate.

    • hls2003 says:

      J.R.R. Tolkien – IMO basically occupies the top 3-4 slots here. Tolkien >>> the remaining names.
      Robert E. Howard – gets the nod for a good combo of influence and readability.
      Jack Vance – similar to Howard; if D&D were never a thing (and it still isn’t for me, but obviously not for all) then he’d be lower.
      Lord Dunsany – better than I expected, given his place in the timeline.
      Poul Anderson – only read a couple of his books ages ago. Not impressed.
      Fritz Leiber – N
      Michael Moorcock – I will freely admit this is because I only ever read one of his books and really disliked it (it was forever ago – The War Hound, I think?). Arguably deserves to be a little higher based on extensive bibliography.
      I would also second (third?) the recommendation to add Eddison to the list. While The Worm Ouroboros was tough sledding, it shares “early and inventive” with Dunsany and Howard. I thought Mistress of Mistresses and Fish Dinner in Memison were actually better, though perhaps weirder. (Mezentian Gate I found unreadable, which is perhaps not surprising since it was unfinished). I would slot Eddison about equivalent to Dunsany.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      @Nancy & his2003: Yeah, my bad for leaving out The Worm Ouroborous. Maybe I should go find a copy, as I’d currently have to rate it N.

      • Nornagest says:

        Titus Groan (1946) and its sequel Gormenghast (1950) might deserve a nod, too. They’re not well known in the States but were highly influential on the first generation of British genre writers.

    • Ventrue Capital says:

      Tolkien > Cabell > Dunsany > Eddison > Vance > Anderson > Howard > Leiber > Moorcock.

    • Ventrue Capital says:

      I’d also like to invite anyone who is interested in roleplaying gaming *and* enjoys classic fantasy to join my campaign set on the world of Terramar.

  34. alef says:

    To be more constructive, you should compare laws requiring me to ignore race when choosing my customers against the absence of laws forcing me to sell execution drugs/work for the military. These are absolutely the same class of thing (“i.e. if I am offering product/service on a market, can I choose my customers freely or not?”). But though these are the “same” questions, society (IMO rightly) sees a nuanced spectrum of morality here, and does draws a line – somewhere.

    Forced cake baking is really tricky, since it’s near our current line (so near that even people of similar political persuasions do see it on different sides). But whatever the line, there will be border cases. Saying “how is this different from the sale of execution drugs” (or “how is it different from restrictions on racial bias”) is either a boring question (since there will will always be some borderline issue) or is an argument for a universal law (total discretion about your customers; or on the other hand requiring that you must sell to all comers). If you want to argue that “same class of thing requires consistent law” it’s going to be more persuasive arguing the case looking at extremes rather than the absolutely inevitable gray area. Generally people who draw lines know that the latter exists, but aren’t thereby inconsistent.

  35. zmpster says:

    I am looking for a good couple’s therapist/counselor for my girlfriend and me in the SF Bay Area. She suffers from depression and anxiety, and hasn’t been able to stick with one-on-one therapy, and I think she’ll do better in a couple’s setting. I’m looking for someone who can focus on communicating and dealing with depression in the context of a romantic relationship. Let me know if you’ve had any positive experiences! Thanks!

  36. jonm says:

    tl;dr could you use space-based solar to transmit energy to planes to get around the weight problem for electric planes?

    Space-based solar power (large satellites gathering solar energy and transmitting it to earth using microwaves) is often dismissed because clouds and atmosphere would reduce energy transmission back to earth which would make them a poor value proposition.

    Electric planes are often dismissed because the weight of the batteries needed would make them impractical to fly.

    I was wondering whether one way to solve this would be to use space-based solar (satellites with large solar arrays transmitting power to earth via microwave) to transmit energy to the planes by microwave. Leaving aside the question of take-off (this seems like a hard problem), space-based solar would have some pretty big advantages. It is generally not seen as a viable method of power generation, because
    1) putting things in orbit is expensive and you can just use solar panels on the ground
    2) the atmosphere and clouds get in the way of transmission

    But flight is different because you have to pay to fly your power source into the sky and you are generally flying above all of the clouds and 80-90% of the atmosphere.

    Basically the design would just be have a large top surface of the plane be a microwave rectenna and have LEO satellites transmit power directly to each aircraft which could then use whatever electrical propulsion is most efficient for propulsion. The plane could fly almost unlimited distances with the same takeoff weight and the lower weight would reduce the energy needed for acceleration.

    So could this ever be viable or are there fundamental physical limits which would make this impossible?

    • acymetric says:

      You either need a massive amount of redundancy in the satellites in the event of failures, and even with that will probably need backup propulsion (I assume the existing propulsion we rely on). My hunch is that this would be scientifically viable, but that it would take a lot of advances for it to be financially viable if it ever could be.

    • DragonMilk says:

      I never did buy the microwave plant in Sim City 2000 other than see the laser disaster…

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Fundamental political limitations, more likely. Having something up there that can beam a lot of energy with pinpoint accuracy is waaay too easy to weaponize.

      Also reminds me of an older idea for indoor heating using microwaves. Don’t heat the space, just the people. Didn’t hit it off with marketing, for some reason.

      • monistowl says:

        The ease of weaponization could arguably be regarded as a selling point; a big enough orbital solar presence with a long enough lifetime would (tell me if I’m wrong) give the operators petroleum independence and considerable worldwide military supremacy in one stroke. Not saying a carbon-negative orbital death ray is how you’d unite any sort of culture clash, but realpolitik-wise what’s not to like?

        • Radu Floricica says:

          Realpolitik takes into consideration what the other guy will do. First they’ll be livid, then they’ll try to dissuade you using any means possible, then they’ll compensate with military tech of their own. Overall will lead to a more unstable and militarized world (it’s not called an arms race for nothing).

          Might be worth it if you plan on bankrupting the other guy, but in this particular context, the other guy has equally deep pockets (main world powers now are US and China).

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Space-based energy might make sense as a supplement for carrying fuel rather than a substitute for it. Sunny routes would get comparatively cheaper.

    • bean says:

      I’m not 100% sure about physical limits, but I have strong opinions about the regulatory problems you’d have with this. Basically, anything to do with airliners has to pass through an incredibly OCD bureaucracy, which will have seven kinds of cow over this. I really doubt they’d let you out over, say, the North Atlantic without a guarantee that you could get to a runway in the event of a complete failure of the beamed power system. And that’s going to do horrible things to your efficiency numbers.

      • jonm says:

        That is a fair point.

        Based on looking at google maps, I think that if you allow St Johns in Canada, Reykjavik and various locations in Western Ireland to be used in emergencies, the maximum safety distance you would have to travel is about 1600 KM on a north atlantic flight. That’s a hit to efficiency but is only around 30% of the total distance travelled, so that could still be a 70% weight saving on fuel carried. Additionally refuelling times would be much lower because you are usually only filling up the take-off and landing fuel and leaving the reserve.

        I think my best case savings would probably be on routes such as New York to Cape Town, where the flight is much longer, all over water, but with a safety distance fairly similar to that for the North Atlantic. I think I could get around an 85% weight saving on fuel carried in that case.

      • John Schilling says:

        You wouldn’t want to have high-energy power beams targeted at major urban areas, and you wouldn’t want to size this power-limited system for takeoff thrust, so we’re probably still talking about having either turbofans or turbogenerators to run the electric fans for takeoff/landing. So we can handle ETOPS requirements with “just” reserve fuel for the old-fashioned propulsion system that we’re going to be carrying anyway. It will still cut into your performance and efficiency to a significant degree, because it will be pure dead weight in any non-emergency context.

    • John Schilling says:

      Well, beam diffraction is one. Assuming 30 GHz microwaves and a 2500 km slant range, you’ll need a three-kilometer transmit antenna to put most of your power into a ten-meter spot.

      Then orbital mechanics; with a 2500 km slant range from LEO, you’ll need a roughly thirty satellite constellation to keep one satellite in the sky over any particular area at all times. And that’s one satellite for e.g. the entire US eastern seaboard, so how many airplanes can one satellite power at a time?

      OK, I’ll do the math. Assuming you cover the back side of that 3 km antenna with solar cells at 36% efficiency and 85% packing density, and you’ve got enough batteries in orbit to do load-leveling over several orbital periods, you can keep an average of sixteen Boeing 767s in the air at cruise power per satellite. I’ll let bean tell us how many 767-equivalent airliners are in the air any given time, and you can figure out how many satellites that equates to. And note that each satellite is going to mass on the order of 5,000 tonnes.

      There’s also the problem that anything that can concentrate a 767’s worth of power into a ten-meter spot, is an orbital death ray suitable for a James Bond supervillain, capable of achieving temperatures of ~1,200 deg C with a sustained dwell on a point target.

      Most space solar power system proposals put the satellites in GEO, and accept that the receiver site will have to be an antenna farm several kilometers across, to mitigate all of these concerns. If you’re targeting an airplane in flight, you’ve got problems.

      If you are willing to accept these problems, you may want to dispense with the “electric” part. The objective is to make lots of air move rapidly in one direction; that’s a thermodynamic problem of the sort best addressed by a heat engine. Just use a laser to target a heat exchanger on the back of the aircraft, which replaces or augments the combustion chamber of an ordinary jet engine. Lasers are easier to focus on small spots than microwaves, and probably more efficient end to end in this context.

      But you’re still talking about an enormous amount of hardware on orbit.

      • jonm says:

        Thank you. This was exactly the answer I was looking for.

        So what do you think of the following partial costings:

        Space X are claiming that the Falcon Heavy will be able to send a KG to space for $1700

        If that’s right then putting one of these satellites in orbit would cost
        1700 * 5,000,000 = $8.5 billion

        The estimate of fuel cost per boeing 767 flight hour is $10,000:

        So the satellite needs to avoid 850,000 hours of flying worth of fuel to break even.

        At maximum utilisation, your calculations suggest it could avoid 384 hours of fuel for flying per day. That would mean that it would take about 6 years of full utilisation to break even. That doesn’t strike me as totally economically impossible, especially if the lifespan of one of these satellites was around the 8 years that GPS satellites typically get.


        Obviously everything else involved in this venture is not included.

        On the positive side:

        * higher capacity of aircraft due to potentially using space and weight to carry passengers rather than fuel
        * carbon offsetting credits and other similar subsidies

        On the negative side:

        * cost of the equipment
        * repairs
        * under-utilisation

        As for the “problem” of creating a death ray. My pitch would be to the US military to create this as a project that has obvious military benefits:

        * death rays concentrated anywhere in the world
        * genuinely effective worldwide missile defence
        * further US economic control of key infrastructure that would become cost-prohibitive for other countries not to use

        and also a project that would have substantial civilian payoffs and climate change benefits. Might even get some bipartisan consensus.

        *edit: accidentally put 747 numbers rather than 767. Not as sure that the 767 numbers refer only to fuel, but looks like the system still gets within the range of being possibly economically viable.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          Better than expected. But you’ll also need to add the cost of a new fleet of airplanes to this.

          • gbdub says:

            That’s per satellite (remember you need 30 of them to have consistent coverage in any one location, and that’s one airplane per location at a time), and only covers the launch costs – you still have to design, build, and test a fleet of those things, and oh yeah figure out how to assemble them in space from 100 pieces because that’s how many FH launches it would take to put 5000 metric tons in orbit (actually probably more than that, since to get the low cost you need the fully reusable version and the satellites would need to be in a fairly high inclination orbit to cover the major air routes).