OT123: Oped 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. Some great comments on the article about Facebook moderation, including testimonials from a 4chan mod and a friend of a YouTube mod. And here’s a Facebook employee describing some of the steps they take to make mods’ lives easier. Also, comments by JenniferRM are a rare privilege and always great and this one is no exception.

2. Or an alternative candidate for comment of the week: NullHypothesis explains the relationship between thorium and molten salt reactors.

3. Does anyone want to automate the Psychiat-List – ie the process of submitting names and rating names that are already up there? Or is there some sort of pre-existing build-your-own-Yelp software out there simple enough that even I could use it? I would be willing to pay some amount of money for this, though I don’t know what’s reasonable to offer and it’s definitely sub-four-digits.

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546 Responses to OT123: Oped Thread

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

    I may be the only one on here who doesn’t know a lot about science. Could someone help me? What is the bottom line on whether (or whether we know that) some quantum events are ineliminably indeterministic? I remember in college that the general sense I took away by osmosis was that (a) quantum physics jettisons the Newtonian framework of the essential determinacy of physical law; (b) they had even somehow proved that there are no deeper-level hidden characteristics of these quantum phenomena that could one day restore determinacy to these events; (c) Einstein was a fool for rejecting the conclusion that events occur as a matter of a random game of “dice”; and (d) the abandonment of deterministic physics during the twentieth century had enormous implications for, among other things, the philosophy of science. At the same time, I now and then see things that say there are interpretations of quantum physics that are wholly deterministic. What’s the bottom line of how all this works? We don’t know? Or indeterministic?

    • orin says:

      Quantum interpretations is a rich and subtle area of research and there is no broad consensus answer to how to interpret quantum mechanics. That said, here are more or less the consensus answers to your questions:
      a) This is true on an empirical level, but there is no broad agreement on whether this is true on a fundamental or ontological level. The Everettian, de Broglie Bohm (pilot wave), and objective collapse interpretations are examples that on a fundamental level are fully deterministic, are not ruled out by no-go (hidden variable) theorems, and which are fairly mainstream. Even many of the modern Copenhagen-inspired interpretations (such as Quantum bayesianism) don’t necessarily deny determinism being possible at the fundamental level, but rather deny that quantum mechanics is a complete description of it, and tend to push against the notion that we have any scientific leverage in deepening our understanding of what is going on at a fundamental level, and involve a general skepticism of realism/ontology. This was more or less the early historical stance of Bohr/Heisenberg, but partly this was a result of positivism being popular at the time, combined with a (now understood to be wrong) no-go hidden variable proof by von Neumann, and a lack of good realist alternatives that would come later. This is despite many smart people like Einstein and Popper pushing hard against the early anti-realist stance. In any case empirically/practically all interpretations are in agreement that determinism is jettisoned.
      b) So called no-go theorems such as Bell’s theorem are somewhat subtle and don’t rule out all realist interpretations, such as Everettian or Bohmian interpretations.
      c) Einstein was not a fool, in fact modern interpretations show he was basically correct that realism could be maintained. A fantastic recent book that goes in depth into this subject is “What is real?” by Becker.
      d) We don’t know. Philosophers of science tend to be somewhat more sympathetic to realist/deterministic interpretations, while in my experience physicists tend to have a more Copenhagen “shut up and calculate” scientistic, anti-realist stance. Overall the jury is out, it is unlikely that the differences between most interpretations are falsifiable, and both realist and anti-realist stances have significant support.

      • zzzzort says:

        To expand/respond, the main argument against determinism is Bell’s Inequality, which is a statement about classical probabilities that is violated in quantum mechanics. There has been a fair amount of scientific work showing that Bell’s Inequality is violated in quantum systems, which is nowadays easy to do (I did it as a lab in undergrad), but hard to do while ruling out all of the various loopholes. While there are still quibbles one could make, my impression is that almost no physicists believe in local realism, and relatively few want to entertain non-locality as found in Bohm. There’s a big caveat that the vast majority have no real need to think about the ontology of quantum mechanics. The now standard-ish “shut up and calculate” stance is really a rejection of ontological questions altogether rather than an endorsement of Copenhangen anti-realism.

        • reallyeli says:

          I’m an interested amateur (background in math) who got interested in Bell’s Theorem six months ago. I read things like this blog post series by Mateus Araujo.

          After doing that, I became confused about why Bell’s Theorem is considered to be so related to determinism. Could you help me understand?

          I get caught up specifically on the following point — becoming nondeterministic does not let you violate Bell’s Inequality. In the sense that if you have a model which is just like classical physics except it’s allowed to sample from some distribution when it needs to make a choice (i.e. “roll the dice”), that model does not let you violate Bell’s Inequality the way Nature seems to. It’s not enough to have nondeterminism, you need to also have some kind of “nonlocality” — e.g. entanglement.

          Do you agree with the above? (I may have gotten a misunderstanding from Mateus’s post.)

        • orin says:

          This isn’t quite true. Everettian interpretations are local and real, and are seriously entertained. Bell rules out local counterfactually definite theories, but not local realism in the way “realism” is meant in philosophy of science today. Bell’s use of the world “real” is kind of quirky, and this is unfortunately a common stumbling block for people trying to understand what Bell’s theorem implies.

          • Aron Wall says:

            While I agree that Everettianism can be called “realist”, I’m not actually sure what you even mean by calling it “local”, given that the entity it considers to be ontologically fundamental, the wavefunction, is not really located in spacetime at all but rather on (roughly) the space of possible configurations of fields in space.

            The wavefunction includes data about entanglement, which is not located at any particular place.

            (But I liked your earlier comment above; good job giving simple but essentially accurate answers to some deep questions!)

          • zzzzort says:

            Granted, realist, but still non-deterministic experimentally. Mainly I think everyone agrees that the truth will be significantly weirder than a nice local hidden variable theory.

            Tangentially, I always thought many worlds would make for a great heroes vs evil genius with doomsday weapon movie. Misunderstood scientist sees the only way to prove quantum immortality is to threaten to destroy the entire world based unless a number of quantum coinflips all come up heads. Heroes of course prevent the device from going off with a lot of near-misses and improbable events This leads to a nice ambiguity as to whether all the lucky breaks/inevitably bad plot construction was the equivalent of a time travelling baguette-type scenario.

    • bullseye says:

      I don’t have a helpful response, but rest assured you are not the only person here who does not understand quantum physics.

    • badspeler says:

      The “bottom line” is that there is no way to measure all the state variables of a system to unlimited precision. Whether this is “just some practical problem stemming from wave-particle duality” or a rule in some cosmic sense is just speculation/philosophy.

      There are several senses of determinism that need to be separated. There is “states evolve according to their initial conditions and the laws of physics” sense of determinism. That’s still true in quantum mechanics. The only difference is that the state space doesn’t correspond to a system of observables.

      There is also the determinism of “everything that happens in the future is, in principle, predictable”. Quantum mechanics shows that this isn’t true for some pretty fundamental reasons. Since you can’t measure any system’s entire state, there will always be some new measurements that are entirely unpredictable. However, I would argue this was never true to begin with.

      Even in classical mechanics, you run into several problems with “determinism”. It’s impossible to perfectly measure the initial conditions of a classical system in principle as well, since the state space is continuous and measurements are always discrete. There are other problems. The being that knew the precise state variables for every object in the universe would have to know **its own** state variables.

      At the end of the day, quantum mechanics stops most accounts of strong causal determinism dead in their tracks. But it’s probably not the only salient objection.

    • actinide meta says:

      (Disclaimer: I’m not a licensed quantum mechanic)

      The Schroedinger equation that describes the evolution of the wavefunction is deterministic. In the many worlds interpretation, that’s all there is, so technically physics is deterministic! The subjective nondeterminism is essentially “indexical” – you can know that when you perform some experiment the universe will split into two “worlds”, and the amplitudes of these two worlds, and that you will “exist in” both worlds. But you can’t know which of the two worlds “you” will be “in” after the experiment, so you can’t make a deterministic prediction of your own subjective experience.

      You can get philosophically similar (but not quantitatively equivalent) kinds of subjective nondeterminism in a completely classical universe in which conscious beings can be copied.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        In the many worlds interpretation, that’s all there is, so technically physics is deterministic! The subjective nondeterminism is essentially “indexical” – you can know that when you perform some experiment the universe will split into two “worlds”, and the amplitudes of these two worlds, and that you will “exist in” both worlds. But you can’t know which of the two worlds “you” will be “in” after the experiment, so you can’t make a deterministic prediction of your own subjective experience.

        But just think about the ontological implications of having the power to split the universe into two worlds every time you do a certain experiment!

        • eyeballfrog says:

          The universe splits into “worlds” every time stuff interacts. You only see the splittings you happen to take part in.

      • Aron Wall says:

        You can get philosophically similar (but not quantitatively equivalent) kinds of subjective nondeterminism in a completely classical universe in which conscious beings can be copied.

        Except that in that case, unlike QM, it is extremely controversial how to assign probability judgements, and indeed every proposed method for doing so (e.g. Nick Bostrom vs. Ken Olum) leads to severe, counterintuitive paradoxes.

        Oh, and the paradoxes arise whether or not the beings are exact copies, and the controversy is highly relevant to questions like how much evidence is our own existence for alien life, and do we live in a multiverse?

        Edit: so in some ways this is the exact opposite of QM, a situation where we stipulate a realist scenario (so there’s no controversy about the ontology), but which epistemic rule to use to make pragmatic probability judgements is controversial.

        • actinide meta says:

          Well, the Born rule isn’t controversial because we can do experiments and verify it. Whether Born rule expectations actually follow deductively from many-worlds-QM is controversial, perhaps similarly because we don’t understand indexical uncertainty in general.

          • Aron Wall says:

            Yes, I agree, and that is in fact one of the reasons I don’t believe in many worlds!

            There is a certain kind of mind that claims not to understand what indeterministic probability means, and feels better if it can be reduced to indexical uncertainty. But to me, this is trying to replace a fairly precise concept with something we don’t understand well at all.

            “So, you see, nearly all of the possible worlds exist, but the ones with larger amplitude squared exist more than others, and therefore we are more likely to be in them.” This seems to stretch the concept of “exists” way beyond its original common sense meaning…

    • Soy Lecithin says:

      Quantum mechanics per se is deterministic. The indeterminism comes in when you want to ask what some “observer” within a quantum system “experiences.”

      (Quantum mechanics per se is well understood, but the question of how to formalize a concept of “observer” and ascribe experiences to it is subtle, and the standard answers are merely “good enough.” The details are what people generally lump in with the field of quantum foundations/interpretations. Wrongly or rightly quantum foundations is an unfashionable field among physicists. Maybe this is because it attracts crack-pottery, or maybe this is because they suspect the answers will have too much of a philosophical flavor. In any case, the standard ways of treating observers in quantum mechanics really are good enough for the applications physicists care about.)

  2. johan_larson says:

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to foster the growth of a city of at least one million people roughly halfway between San Francisco and Portland. How will you do this?

    Why, you ask? Trains, my brothers and sisters, trains. If we are to succeed in the Great Mission of building a high-speed rail service from Vancouver to San Diego, there need to be shining cities all along the line. And right now there isn’t anything for 900 miles between Portland and San Francisco except a banjo-picking heathen wasteland and a state government. This means it just isn’t economically to connect the two cities. And that makes the Great Conductor cry. Won’t you build a great metropolis on the Oregon/California border and dry His tears?

    • shakeddown says:

      1) Switch to by-right, Japanese-style zoning in Eureka CA.

      2) Open a UC Eureka. Spend a lot of money on hiring prestigious professors for it, so it becomes a good university to get into, then heavily subsidize it so that it gets a lot of students.

      3) Reduce business taxes in the Eureka area. Along with all the graduates/professors there, this incents companies to open up shop there, Irvine-style.

      4) You could further encourage growth there by opening some government labs/businesses there. Move the JPL up there, and maybe open a navy base.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      First, I win a local election in that spot on a platform on tax breaks for banjo tuners and subsidized strings. Then, I start making ridiculous offers to Amazon: Build HQ3 in Bumfrick, Nowhere, and we literally won’t tax you at all! Zero taxes! Provided that you build the necessary housing and cafeterias, shops, etc. for your employees. Hope that Amazon takes the offer and starts building something in the vein of one of those old company-owned coal mining towns, except for 21-st century managers and programmers, hopefully drawn to Bumfrick by the fairly high salaries and insanely low cost of living (assuming they don’t plan on going anywhere else very often [until the trains are running! 🙂 ] ).

    • Basil Elton says:

      How about the plans to move the Silicon Valley out of the Santa Clara Valley? I haven’t heard of any specific ones but sure there have to be plenty. Can we just apply them to whatever is the most geographically convenient spot roughly halfway between Portland and SF? (Which I guess will boil down to more or less what thevoiceofthevoid suggested, only with the offer extended to other tech companies)

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      What nobler way to follow up on California’s Merced-Bakersfield high-speed rail line than with a Davis-Redding high-speed rail line?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      If we are to succeed in the Great Mission of building a high-speed rail service from Vancouver to San Diego, there need to be shining cities all along the line.

      – This is the opposite of the way transit generally works. It’s much more “Field of Dreams”. Build quality transit from A to C and development will occur at stop B. The key is whether a transit option from A to C is workable.
      – it is opposite of the way transit works in another way. High speed rail that can on-board people without stopping would really solve some problems. What novel had underground high speed people movers? But stops generally are the opposite of what you want.

      So, the best way to get a city to grow in Cali is just build the line and put a stop at an attractive build site.

  3. BBA says:

    I just saw an “issue ad” on TV, exhorting New Yorkers to call our legislators in support of the congestion pricing bill, arguing it was necessary to prevent future transit fare hikes. A fairly common sight during the state legislative session, but what surprised me is the fine print: “Paid for by Uber Technologies.” I was expecting a vaguely named lobby group (“New Yorkers for a Better New York”) or maybe one of the MTA unions.

    Obviously Uber doesn’t care about transit fares. They want to discourage private cars in order to make their own services more attractive; besides, a congestion surcharge was just imposed on Uber, as well as other car services and yellow cabs, whenever they serve Manhattan below 96th Street.

    Personally, I’m vaguely in favor of a congestion charge just because anything that can lessen the burden of Manhattan traffic is a good thing; I doubt it’ll actually make a difference. The MTA funding is just throwing more money into a bottomless pit and won’t change a thing. Still, given how bad things already are, it can’t hurt. (Disclaimer: I don’t own a car and I walk to work. This won’t affect me in the slightest.)

    What do you think, sirs?

    • shakeddown says:

      1) The consensus on yimby twitter seems to be “congestion pricing good, but throwing more money at the MTA is pointless unless we get serious management reform”.

      2) Congestion pricing has worked pretty well in cities that have done it.

      3) Fairness/neutrality also suggests that pricing applied to cabs/ubers should be applied to private vehicles (which are overall worse for congestion, because they spend more time idle).

    • The Nybbler says:

      Transit fares will go up anyway, Manhattan traffic will remain just as bad, but people will be just a little bit angrier that they’re being gouged more to sit in it. There’s no positives and some negatives.

      The money, as you say, will go into a bottomless pit of corrupt contractors, politicians, and labor unions.

    • brad says:

      What do you think, sirs?

      Mostly this:

      Personally, I’m vaguely in favor of a congestion charge just because anything that can lessen the burden of Manhattan traffic is a good thing; I doubt it’ll actually make a difference. The MTA funding is just throwing more money into a bottomless pit and won’t change a thing. Still, given how bad things already are, it can’t hurt.

      The one part I really like about it is that the way it is likely to be enforced means that the placard abusers will probably have to pay it.

  4. 10240 says:

    I’m not getting the person-specific reply notifications since the end of December. Have they stopped for everyone who used it?

  5. dndnrsn says:

    Hello, and welcome to the nineteenth instalment of my Biblical scholarship effortpost series. Sorry it’s been a while – I’ve been quite busy with other things. Last time we looked at Job and Ecclesiastes. This time we’re going to look at two of the writings, both short pieces of fiction about important women, the book of Ruth and the book of Esther. We’ll also take a look at a noncanonical book (it didn’t end up in the Hebrew Bible, though some Christians have it as scripture), the book of Judith – the titular character of which is also an important woman. While I’ve generally avoided material outside the Jewish canon, it provides a useful springboard to talk about a period of historical background we otherwise might miss. There are some good paintings of a scene from it, too.

    The caveats: I’m not an expert in this, though I did study it in university. The focus is on secular scholarship, not on theology. I’m aiming for around a 100/200 level coverage of this; feel free to ask questions and I’ll see if I can dig up more – although currently I’m away from my books, so my ability in that regard is currently limited – but once I’m back with my sweet, sweet books I might be able to throw something together. I’ll provide minimal summaries but I’d encourage you to at least glance at them in a Bible.

    The book of Ruth is about Ruth, a Moabite woman, and her mother-in-law, Naomi, from Bethlehem, living in Moab. They are suddenly impoverished when Naomi’s sons die; her other daughter-in-law leaves (on her advice) but Ruth stays with her. They return to Bethlehem, intending to survive by collecting gleanings. Ruth encounters Boaz, a relative of her late husband, who is kind to her. Naomi hatches a plan: Ruth will seduce Boaz (the language used, involving uncovering and lying down at his feet, is at least a double entendre; “feet” could be used as a euphemism for genitals). Boaz is receptive, and agrees to marry her if the kinsman responsible for so doing doesn’t. In the event, the man doesn’t; Ruth and Boaz marry and she bears a son. The book ends with genealogies showing the child’s place in the Davidic line.

    Various customary practices that come up in Ruth appear to line up with rules found in the Torah. For example, there’s a rule found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy about leaving some grain behind during harvest, for those with no other means of sustenance to gather – this is how Ruth and Naomi intend to survive. Similarly, the idea of a kinsman marrying her looks like Deuteronomy’s levirate marriage – although, however, that’s only supposed to involve a brother. These apparently customary traditions may be referencing the law code, or they may be referencing earlier traditions (possibly adding, for dramatic purposes, a wrinkle such as the kinsman with a responsibility to marry her). Ruth is also dated quite early by some scholars – it’s possible that the book reflects a pre-Torah understanding of the customs due to its conceivably having been produced before they were settled.

    Indeed, the range of scholarly date estimates seems quite a bit wider than usual, and there’s no real consensus. The style of the language and the setting of the story don’t give much in the way of clues. There are some scholars who date Ruth quite early – frequently, they see the genealogical content related to the Davidic line as a core element, and associate the origin of the story with the pre-exilic royal court. Those dating Ruth especially early frequently locate it from the end of the eighth century or even the middle of the tenth century – which could even place it in the time of Solomon. This runs into the problem, which we’ve discussed before, of a lack of evidence of significant development then, both of building projects and a literary culture. (Of course, we’ve also seen before that this is an argument from silence, and it’s politically untenable today to dig up the sites that could prove it one way or the other.)

    Those who date the book of Ruth late, meanwhile, view it as an exilic or immediately postexilic document. Some of those who date it late think it was composed as a response to the negative immediate-postexilic view of intermarriage one sees in books like Ezra. This would make the book of Ruth a work arguing a point of view – that intermarriage (at least, intermarriage involving foreign women) is OK. This runs into difficulties, though, because the book of Ruth doesn’t read as if it was composed to argue in favour of the legitimacy of intermarriage. It has a positive depiction of intermarriage (and makes a Moabite woman an ancestor of David) but this is weak evidence. These views would see it composed sometime in the sixth century.

    The protagonist of the book of Esther is a Jewish woman living in Persia who becomes queen (in a sort of competition to identify the most pleasing to the king among the most beautiful virgins) to King Ahasuerus (likely the early to mid 5th century emperor Xerxes I). She has concealed her religion on the advice of her cousin Mordecai. The two of them then prevent an assassination plot against the king. Mordecai angers Haman, a servant of the king, who then plots to organize the massacre of the Jews. Esther and Mordecai outmaneouvre him, Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai, and far from being massacred, the Jews do the same to their enemies. The occasion becomes the beginning of a new holiday.

    The book of Esther is a tale set at the court of a foreign ruler. There are other stories in the Hebrew Bible, for example Joseph in Egypt, that fit this model. Herodotus relates some stories set in the Persian court, so the Hebrew Bible isn’t alone either. It is not a historical document: there’s really no record of anything plausibly like it happening; some scholars think it was put together to explain the origin of Purim. It resembles a folk tale: the characters are stock types who behave in an exaggerated fashion – Haman’s incredibly outsized lust for revenge, the king’s pliability when confronted with everyone around him – although it would be unfair to think this means it’s unsubtle. It’s a comic story in places, as well. Significantly, it is not an explicitly religious book. A related point is the nature of some Greek additions in the Septuagint version. They make both the book and the characters more religious: while they do more than just this, it’s the major impact of the additions. For instance, they add pious prayers by both Mordecai and Esther.

    The book of Esther is likely an adaptation of an older folktale. The earliest reference to it is in a noncanonical book, 2nd Maccabees. Meanwhile, there’s no evident Hellenistic influence. This would place it in the 4th century, most likely. There’s a Greek version that shows up in some medieval manuscripts which some scholars believe contains portions that were translated from an older form of the Hebrew version than we have otherwise, but it also includes the Septuagint additions.

    • dndnrsn says:

      (Broken into 2 because it went a bit long)

      The book of Judith is noncanonical to Jews, and canonical only to some Christian churches. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Assyrians (an inaccuracy; on this more later) sends his general Holofernes against enemies to the west. Holofernes stops near the Israelite town of Bethulia, ignoring advice not to attack the Israelites unless it can be established that they have offended their God – only if their God declines to defend them can they be beaten. The next day, he besieges the town. Judith, a widow (who, it is noted, fasts as rigorously as is permitted) responds to the plan of the town leaders (to surrender if God does not come to their rescue in five days) by chastising them, telling them not to put God to the test. They agree, and she tells them that she needs their cooperation – she has a plan, but she can’t tell them what it is until she’s carried it out.

      Praying to God for strength to carry out her plan, she dresses up and goes to the Assyrian camp. She presents herself as a defector, charming the guards, Holofernes, and everyone else. She tells Holofernes that the inhabitants of Israel, including Jerusalem, will eat forbidden food (such as grain set aside for the priests) when they hunger from deprivation and will thus anger God. She tells him that each night she will go out and pray to God, who will tell her when the people sin. Then she will tell Holofernes, and he can conquer. She does this for several days, then seduces Holofernes after a banquet (at which she indicates she provides her own food, which she is allowed to eat). He proceeds to get extremely drunk, and she cuts his head off. She leaves with his head in her food bag, unchallenged by the gaurds, who are used to her nightly excusions. She returns to town, the head is displayed on the parapet, and the Assyrian army breaks up and is cut down, their camp plundered. Judith is honoured and lives until the age of 105.

      The book of Judith is fiction. There’s no evidence that it or anything like it happened, and there are clear inaccuracies and anachronisms. Nebuchadnezzar was not, for starters, an Assyrian leader. Many of the person and place names are unattested outside the book. The Israelites are described as only recently having been returned from exile in 4:3 – the exile happened under Nebuchadnezzar, making the reference anachronistic. It is possible that these inaccuracies and anachronisms are simple mistakes, or that they are intended to place the story firmly in the realm of fiction. However, it is also possible that they are clues as to when and why the book was composed, and indicate its agenda.

      If, as many scholars think, the book of Judith was composed in the middle of the second century, it makes sense that it would celebrate Jewish defiance and victory over a foreign invader, one who is (in 3:8) described as destroying the holy places of conquered peoples so that they should worship him instead.

      It also makes sense that this would be associated with Assyria, rather than with Babylon. A brief historical note (I would welcome contributions by anyone more versed than I in this period of history) is necessary. After Alexander the Great conquered vast territories, then died, various kingdoms ruled by Greek and Greek-speaking elites sprang up. All over the eastern Mediterranean, Greek became a common language and the language of learning (thus the Septuagint, the Greek Hebrew Bible translation – it was produced for Jews in the diaspora who were not fluent in Hebrew), and Greek culture and religion were general cultural influences. This process was known as “Hellenization.” One of those kingdoms was the Seleucids, who ended up in possession of Judea. By the middle of the second century, under their king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, they were in decline, and a rebellion in Judea won increasing autonomy, until a few decades into the next century, when Judea came under Roman control.

      While the nature and details of the rebellion are something historians argue about, the version which became the norm in Jewish literature of the time and a bit after was one in which Antiochus IV was the unquestioned aggressor, seeking to destroy Judaism with the utmost harshness. We will see this in Daniel, where at one point a prediction is made of Antiochus’ reign. One also sees it in noncanonical works, such as the books of Maccabees, celebrating defiance against foreign tyrants and preferring martyrdom to violating Jewish religious practices and adopting foreign culture (2 Maccabees was mentioned earlier). Some scholars think that Judith is a product of this period – celebrating resistance against a foreign power. In this explanation of its origin, the association of Nebuchadnezzar with Assyria may be a reference to the Seleucids, an attempt to associate Antiochus IV (whose territory included some that had once been Assyrian).

      Judith, whether or not it’s thought to be a work of nationalist propaganda, is usually dated to the mid to late second century BCE. Use of idiom suggests that it was originally composed in Hebrew, although it survives only in other languages. It’s clearly postexilic, and contains references that indicate Persian and Hellenistic influence. It must have existed by the late first century CE, when it is mentioned in the Christian work 1st Clement.

      In conclusion, all three of the books discussed today are short stories about important women. Ruth, in a book that could date from a very wide range of times, shows loyalty to her mother-in-law and adopted people, and becomes a chain in the Davidic dynasty. Esther, whose eponymous text likely dates from the fourth century, acts to save her people from the plans of a wicked courtier. Judith, whose noncanonical book probably dates to the second century, seduces and kills an enemy general to save her people from conquest.

      (If anyone catches any errors, let me know, ideally within around 55 minutes so I can edit.)

      • Placid Platypus says:

        advice not to attack the Israelites unless it can be established that they have offended their God – only if their God declines to defend them can they be beaten.

        That’s an amusing level of genre savvy that I don’t usually expect from this kind of story.

    • FrankistGeorgist says:

      Lovely summaries. Though I’ve not posted before I’m a long time reader and wanted to tell you that I like your posts on the Bible specifically.

      I love the women of the Bible precisely because they seem to persist from folk tales and earlier sources. One day I dream of having one of those cheesy Bible verse cross stitches/posters/trashy art on my wall that every conservative wine mom had in their house where I grew up – but instead of the usual fripperies it’ll be Jael’s killing of Sisera after betraying the laws of Milky hospitality.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Thanks! I think one of the reasons this one went over (usually I’m good at trimming to fit the word limit) is that I really like these stories – they do indeed work very well as stories. I think scholars maybe try a little too hard to find ideological/theological reasons they survived – especially in the case of Ruth, my favourite of the three. Good stories often survive for that reason alone.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Ruth will seduce Boaz (the language used, involving uncovering and lying down at his feet, is at least a double entendre; “feet” could be used as a euphemism for genitals).

      Such a weird euphemism.

      The protagonist of the book of Esther is a Jewish woman living in Persia who becomes queen (in a sort of competition to identify the most pleasing to the king among the most beautiful virgins) to King Ahasuerus (likely the early to mid 5th century emperor Xerxes I). She has concealed her religion on the advice of her cousin Mordecai.

      Notice that Esther and Mordecai are the first assimilated Jews. Born in the Babylonian Captivity, they have Babylonian names: Esther = Ishtar, Mordec = Marduk. The assimilated names being foreign theonyms is never alluded to as being problematic.
      Despite the word God going unused in the Hebrew text, the tension Esther and Mordecai are dealing with is being faithful to Him in a multicultural society. Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire, dated back to Early Dynastic Sumerian times as the capital of the Elamites. Babylonian culture is obviously present, “Jews” is used in an unrooted ethnic sense for the first time, and Xerxes’ father Darius was the first to promote his tribe’s indigenous religion of Zoroastrianism (Cyrus the Great’s surviving inscriptions only refer to his respect for Babylonian gods).

      • dndnrsn says:

        I want to come back to the latter point tomorrow – it’s kind of late – because while there are tensions there, they’re far weaker than they are in the final book of the Hebrew Bible I’m going to look at (book of Daniel). However, I might be underselling their presence in Esther because of how much stronger they are in Daniel – I usually start working on the next instalment before I’ve finalized and posted the previous, and that makes it easy to slip into juxtaposing them in my head.

      • geist says:

        Esther is indicated as a secondary name she assumes when going to the royal court. Her original name is Hadassah, a native Hebrew name. It’s interesting that the Talmud has a discussion where some opinions hold that her orignal name was Esther and that Hadassah was the second name taken.

      • bullseye says:

        The foot euphemism reminds me of the Albion’s Seed book review:

        But [the Quakers] were such prudes about sex that even the Puritans thought they went too far. Pennsylvania doctors had problems treating Quakers because they would “delicately describe everything from neck to waist as their ‘stomachs’, and anything from waist to feet as their ‘ankles’”.

    • Deiseach says:

      the king’s pliability when confronted with everyone around him

      It may be a stock trope, but given that it is a stock trope there must be something to it. You see it a lot in Chinese mythological/historical tales, Indian stories, basically anywhere there’s a harem and/or eunuchs: the intense competition amongst the women for access to the king/emperor because they can influence him by getting him to make them a promise, and the equally intense competition amongst court officials to get the king’s ear for the same reason. Heck, if you look at the court of Henry VIII and see the jockeying for influence amongst the courtiers (including dangling their attractive daughters as potential mistresses in front of the king – this is the gamble the Boleyns took and first won, then lost – or steering the king by being yes-men, getting him what he wanted, and then gaining his favour that way – see Thomas Cromwell who ditched his patron Wolsey as soon as he saw the writing on the wall, sucked up to Henry as hard as he could, and came out the victor in the power struggle between himself and Anne over who would control Henry only to later lose it all in the same kind of internal power struggle that had benefited him previously) it happens in Actual Real History. So that part of the book of Esther – influential courtier gets king to grant him X as favour on special occasion/as mark of special favour for services rendered, harem consort/concubine gets king to grant her Y in opposition to X by use of feminine wiles – is quite believable.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Oh, certainly, and this is a good point. It’s a stock trope in folk tales because, at a minimum, it’s believable. Gets dialled up to 11, but 1-10 are still there.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        So that part of the book of Esther – influential courtier gets king to grant him X as favour on special occasion/as mark of special favour for services rendered, harem consort/concubine gets king to grant her Y in opposition to X by use of feminine wiles – is quite believable.

        So is the tantrum Xerxes throws over Queen Vashti refusing his summons to a drunken party “wearing her crown.” Compare Herodotus, where Xerxes’ tantrums often lead to the offender’s execution (“O King, I will give you all my money if you don’t make my son fight in the war.” “A condition? Waaah! *has son flayed””

        • dndnrsn says:

          To be fair, I think Herodotus is often standing pretty close to “folk tale”. Then again, “drunken tantrum” is not even a dialled-up-to-11 thing. The real folk tale element comes in with the stuff surrounding how the king’s orders work.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The real folk tale element comes in with the stuff surrounding how the king’s orders work.

            You mean how Rule of Law is used as an exotic plot device in both Esther and Daniel?

          • dndnrsn says:

            Yeah. In Esther, the rules seem pretty inconsistent – they are what the story demands. Both of them use the plot device – Daniel maybe more – of nobody being able to change an order of the king, not even the king. (There doesn’t seem to be any other attestation of this, so it is probably not an actual Persian thing, but something thought up as a story element; compare to the “courtroom stuff” in American courtroom dramas that doesn’t actually exist in American courts, but makes the drama better).

          • bullseye says:

            IIRC, a Persian king not being able to rescind a royal command comes up elsewhere in the Bible. The king told the Jews to stop rebuilding the temple, but it turned out his predecessor had ordered them to do it so the work continued.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @bullseye, good catch! Yes, that’s in Ezra. The Samaritans convinced the king to issue a decree to stop the Jews to stop rebuilding the Temple on grounds that Jerusalem had previously been rebellious against the Assyrians and Babylonians. At first, they did indeed stop, but then the prophets Haggai and Zechariah convinced them to restart. When the Samaritans complained again, the Jews protested that there was a previous royal decree allowing them to rebuild (and pointed out the Samaritans’ biased retelling of history). The king searched in the archives, found the previous decree, and let them rebuild.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Book of Daniel also has the “can’t reverse a decree” thing. I’m not sure if Ezra has the same thing going on. In Daniel, the king can’t reverse his own decree, even if he wants to – combined with some other problems in Daniel, and the apparent lack of any external confirmation of this, it’s a bit dubious. The situation in Ezra seems more like a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing – fairly plausible; the same happens in much smaller organizations today (with much better information-circulation methods).

          • Evan Þ says:

            @dndnrsn, I agree that’s a big part of Ezra, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that since the “left hand” and “right hand” are both the king. The Jews resumed the rebuilding without any new word from the king, which would land them in really big trouble in a lot of places. But here, they got away with it because of a previous royal decree.

          • dndnrsn says:

            It’s not one single king, though. In Ezra 4, a letter is sent to Artaxerxes, and he orders construction stopped (and a letter is described as having been sent to Xerxes). Then, in Ezra 5, a letter is sent to Darius requesting it start again – on the grounds that Cyrus had given permission. In Ezra 6, Darius orders the archive searched, and finds the relevant document. That covers several generations of kings. “New guy at the top” causes confusion and chaos in a modern office – how much more so in an ancient society without emails, mass literacy, etc?

          • Evan Þ says:

            @dndnrsn , yes, but in a modern office or government that’d almost always come down on the side of “latest ruling holds unless we admit the last manager was a fool and mass-repeal everything.” In this case, Darius agreed it was “earliest ruling holds” – implicitly because it can’t be repealed.

          • dndnrsn says:

            “We only made a new ruling because we didn’t realize there was an earlier ruling that was perfectly fine” seems different, to me at least, from “the earliest ruling is sacrosanct and Cannot Be Changed.” I don’t think it’s implicit that it can’t be repealed – most organizational bodies give some extra deference to older decisions (that haven’t been explicitly overturned) but that’s not the same thing as “the first decision is always right and can’t be changed.” Latest ruling usually holds – provided all the information was available to the decision-maker.

            To give another example: kid runs to Dad saying “Billy is doing xyz he shouldn’t!” and Dad doesn’t know Mom gave Billy permission. Dad tells Billy to knock it off, then Mom gets home from work and Billy calls her in to support doing xyz.

            Additionally, the way it’s presented in Daniel, seems like a really really weird way to run things. It also isn’t supported by anything other than a couple of folktale-seeming bits in the Hebrew Bible – presumably if the Persians had a weird way of doing things, or there were even just stories about that, Herodotus or somebody would have been all it.

    • Aron Wall says:

      I think you’re much too fast to dismiss the historicity of Esther.

      The idea that the Jews would have a major festival devoted to “Someone tried to kill us all and it didn’t work, yay!”—assuming that didn’t happen—seems very unlikely. Which generation would celebrate it first? And why wouldn’t all their elders say, um I don’t remember that being a thing? (It might be different if we were talking about a myth set a long time previously, but this is one of the last historical events in the Jewish canon, so it’s kind of a weird thing for a clearly-by-then literate and historically-aware culture to do.) Something must have happened to start the celebration and it’s completely unclear on the “fiction” theory what that thing would have been. But since the book refers to the festival, it also seems clear that people didn’t just start celebrating Purim because of the book.

      I also don’t see the actions of the king as being that implusible for a potentate of his time and age. Part of the advantage of being king is that you get to do what you want, but yes everyone else is trying to manipulate you and you have to pick who to listen to.

      And to dismiss a story because it seems implausible that Haman would have such a vehement and irrational desire to kill all the Jews seems… like maybe you should take into consideration that this happens all the time in confirmed history?

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Something must have happened to start the celebration and it’s completely unclear on the “fiction” theory what that thing would have been. But since the book refers to the festival, it also seems clear that people didn’t just start celebrating Purim because of the book.

        Indeed. The paradox here seems to require the Jews to be blithering morons for the theory to hold up.

        • dndnrsn says:

          There’s all sorts of false beliefs today, in educated and literate societies, about the recent past, the present, etc that are easily dispelled by a few minutes on Google, or at least doubt cast on them. Yet they’re repeated as fact. Are we blithering morons?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            There’s all sorts of false beliefs today, in educated and literate societies, about the recent past, the present, etc … Are we blithering morons?

            Eh, let’s not go there. 😛

            Let’s break the problem down:
            1) This peripatetic ethnic group called the Jews suddenly starts celebrating a new holiday.
            2) Scholarly consensus is that, to explain the holiday, someone wrote a fictional story about how a Persian vizier tried to kill them but he was outsmarted and the Jews killed a bunch of people instead, yay!
            This entails either truth claim a) the the author was a bloodthirsty liar and the Jews believed him or b) he never intended to pass his fiction off as history but the Jews foolishly mistook his fiction about killing people they don’t like for God’s own truth due to completely unjustified (since there had never been any such thing as a pogrom when they canonized it) psychological problems.

          • dndnrsn says:

            So, I’m not 100% sure what the “Esther is ahistorical” scholars have as a model for how it came about. When I’m back with my books, I can look through them again – when I’ve started the New Testament bits, bug me if I haven’t done this.

            Option a) is unfortunate, but there have been bloodthirsty liars before, are now, and there will be some in the future. I can see why a group that feels threatened might like a story about turning the tables, even moreso in the future when they actually are threatened, seriously and repeatedly, with the threats turning to reality. A lot.

            Option b) – I suppose the question is, did those who accepted and canonized it think it was factual history, did that develop later, ? I don’t know the answer to this – again, maybe it’s in my books at home, but it’s not an area I spent a huge amount of time on in school.

            Option c) – it happened – is weaker than the above two. The events described, which include killings on a significant scale, have left no evidence other than the book of Ruth, and there’s other reasons to doubt it.

            I like option d) – something happened, and then it got exaggerated in the telling. This is something people do, and there’s other examples of it in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @dndnrsn, given how surviving Persian records are even sparser than other ancient Near Eastern records, are you sure we’d expect to see other evidence? According to Esther 9, there were 75,000 dead altogether, including 800 in the capital Susa. I’m not entirely sure how large that number is?

          • dndnrsn says:

            The Persian empire is estimated at mid-eight figures; supposedly around 50 million-ish (quick Google) at the time Esther is usually supposed to have been set. I would expect that something killing that many people would leave some kind of evidence, archeological or written.

      • dndnrsn says:

        @Aron Wall

        The idea that the Jews would have a major festival devoted to “Someone tried to kill us all and it didn’t work, yay!”—assuming that didn’t happen—seems very unlikely. Which generation would celebrate it first? And why wouldn’t all their elders say, um I don’t remember that being a thing? (It might be different if we were talking about a myth set a long time previously, but this is one of the last historical events in the Jewish canon, so it’s kind of a weird thing for a clearly-by-then literate and historically-aware culture to do.) Something must have happened to start the celebration and it’s completely unclear on the “fiction” theory what that thing would have been. But since the book refers to the festival, it also seems clear that people didn’t just start celebrating Purim because of the book.

        Sure. The origins of Purim are debatable, or at least vague. I don’t think it’s the only festival where scholars posit that the explanation given as written isn’t really why the festival started in the first place. However, I think this is the same thing as we repeatedly ran into with stuff like the Exodus – something must have happened, but the story as told is extremely unlikely to be what happened. There’s no external evidence for anything significantly like the story of Esther going down. I could definitely accept that there’s something there, which is now lost to us, which sparked the festival and got changed and built up in the telling – same as I think must be the case with Exodus (because it makes no sense to, in the case of Exodus, just make up a story about being escaped slaves and give a guy with an Egyptian-derived name pride of place in your national mythology). But the needle is towards “ahistorical” rather than “historical.”

        I think you’re also overestimating the ability of literate societies to fact-check the past. We live in a society with vastly higher popular literacy than any in the ancient world, information preservation/reproduction/retrieval technologies are vastly better and more prevalent, and bogus myths and folk tales about the fairly recent past still circulate. This isn’t “those people in the past were so much dumber than us” – we’re pretty dumb too.

        Sure, something must have happened – but that’s a far cry from “things happened like this”. I agree that scholars go a bit hard in the direction of “this is ahistorical” but what history is there is likely rather different from the story as we have it.

        I also don’t see the actions of the king as being that implusible for a potentate of his time and age. Part of the advantage of being king is that you get to do what you want, but yes everyone else is trying to manipulate you and you have to pick who to listen to.

        It’s not that they’re thoroughly implausible, but that they feel like they’re being played up to add to the story. Esther feels more like a folk tale than the parts of the Hebrew Bible that are or that claim to be history.

        And to dismiss a story because it seems implausible that Haman would have such a vehement and irrational desire to kill all the Jews seems… like maybe you should take into consideration that this happens all the time in confirmed history?

        Not at the time that it is supposed to have taken place, or at the time it was written. The bad stuff that happened prior to the development of Christian anti-Jewish belief was the sort of bad stuff that happens to conquered/subject peoples in any time/place. Further, the Persian empire seems to have been pretty chill as far as religious tolerance went. It’s less likely to be a story speaking to an actual experience of persecution, and more to a fear of possible persecution – understandable for a minority group, as Jews in the diaspora were. (Of course, persecutions that were just ordinary crap that happens to those who are weak, the kicking of those who are down, might have been understood by the victims as specific and special persecution – but it doesn’t mean they actually were that.)

        he stuff that happened from, say, the first destruction of Jerusalem to the second wasn’t unusual – that was how life was for conquered and subject peoples. What was unusual is that Judaism developed and survived despite destruction of the Temple (twice!), dispersion, attempted forced assimilation into a larger culture, etc. The reason it looks more unique than it is, is that peoples, cultures, and religions that don’t survive don’t get to preserve and tell their story. It isn’t until later that uniquely anti-Jewish persecution develops, driven by the development of Christianity, its differentiation from Judaism, etc.

        (To provide a comparison, when, say, Jews were persecuted by Antiochus for not Hellenizing, they were not being persecuted for being Jews, they were being persecuted for not-Hellenizing; similarly, when Christians were persecuted by Rome, they were generally not persecuted for being Christians, but for refusing to participate in civically-important religious rites on the basis of it conflicting with Christianity.)

      • dndnrsn says:

        Plus – what is the purpose of a holiday, of a story? Is the purpose to accurately write history down, or is it to benefit the people reading it, doing the story? At the time it was written, Esther would have been a story of Jews surviving, and thriving, in the diaspora – a source of strength to Jews in the diaspora (ditto the court-story parts of Daniel, as we’ll see). Later, when the experience of Jews in Christian lands became one of chronic discrimination punctuated by occasional terrible persecution, the message becomes that those trying to wipe them out won’t win – because here’s this example of someone trying to wipe them out and having it reversed upon himself. The story of Esther benefits the community, so the community has a reason to adopt it.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Also, @Aron Wall

        I think you’re much too fast to dismiss the historicity of Esther.

        The stuff I’m presenting is (my attempt at rendering) scholarly consensus, or the major scholarly positions when there’s no consensus. I try to keep my own opinions out of it, because, well, I ain’t even got no PhD, what do I know?

        My personal take on Esther is, as I noted, similar to mine on Exodus – it doesn’t make sense for it to be “oh hey we got this Random Holiday, Meaning TBD” in the same way that there’s places here and there that have holidays with names like Civic Holiday or Family Day, and then they just made up a story to toss on it. On the other hand, there’s no evidence other than the book itself, and the way the book is written doesn’t make it seem like reliable history.

        What might the original core of this be like? Dial everything down several notches: maybe it didn’t happen in the royal court, but in some place of lesser authority. Maybe it was something that remained as a personal vendetta, rather than the villain going immediately to “kill them all”. A couple of locally important diaspora Jews outwit some antagonist. This is a story that would appeal to Jews in the diaspora. Then the tale gets inflated in the telling.

        This is just speculation, and it’s not very interesting, but at least it has the advantage that it explains the festival without positing historical events we have no other evidence of.

    • S_J says:

      The book of Ruth feels like an old family story, dressed up by court historians.

      It even includes a comment about closing a negotiation with a handshake…actually, by exchanging sandals. The narration adds an explanation, roughly “that is how the men of Bethlehem signified closing a deal in front of the City Elders at that time”.

      It could be the kind of explanation of how deals were done in the good old days that is added in the re-telling of family history. Or it could be the kind of explanation that was added by a court official who was writing down stories about the life and times of interesting people in the family history of the House of David.

      • Evan Þ says:

        You get some of the same comments in 1 Samuel – for instance, 9:9, “for he that is now called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer.” I think it’s the same general sort of explanation: one of David’s court officials was editing a previous story.

    • Aapje says:

      I didn’t realize that Purim celebrated genocide. Hmmm….

    • JPNunez says:

      Ugh I missed the Job discussion. I’ve been obsessing a little over some passages of this book.

      First, there is the weird part where Satan says he’s been coming to and fro Earth, walking up and down it. That’s such a funny thing to say, just evading the question and going with a generic answer.

      Second, is that Maimonides says that Job must not have been a wise or intelligent man, as he is only described as fair and upright. Which means he could not have figured out what was really going on, which clashes with God showing up later and telling Job that he could not figure out what was going on because he is unknowable. If Job had been smart and wise, would God have said the same?

      Then there is the implication that God and Satan just straight up wager with people’s lives. Maybe there was an actual bet that God won? Did Satan have to pay somehow? Is Satan being dumb by betting with an omniscient being? Or is Satan wise enough to know that if God said so, Job would not curse him, and just enjoyed fucking around with Job?

      Not sure what this says about the hebrew religion and its intellectual heirs. Along with the passages of the Binding of Isaac, and Lot offering his daughters to the mob to protect the angels, they make me a little queasy on the whole deal.

      Finally, there is the important part where this must be an exclusively monotheistic story. Early Hebrew religion seems to have been polytheistic and there are still traces of that here and there. But even if Job had been a match of two or more stories thrown together, this is only something that makes sense if there is a supreme God and some angels who are subject to him. Otherwise, Job’s mantra of “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. I praise the name of the Lord” makes no sense. If this was a polytheistic setting, he’d just worship someone else, or sacrifice to the appropiate god. But on the other hand, God betting with Satan sounds a lot like a polytheistic setting, so maybe the plot and mantra was heavily modified, or the mantra just added later.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Lot offering his daughters to the mob to protect the angels, they make me a little queasy on the whole deal.

        I don’t think the intention of the story of Lot was to inspire people to emulate him. After fleeing Sodom, Lot’s daughters get him drunk and lie with him. He then becomes father to the Ammonites and the Moabites, rivals of the Israelites. My interpretation of this story is, “you know those other tribes near us? Bunch of drunken incestuous rape-babies they are.”

        • JPNunez says:

          Ah, true, true.

        • EchoChaos says:

          Another interpretation is that Lot is deliberately insulting them.

          “You are threatening to assault two men I have offered hospitality to. This is exactly the same as threatening to rape my virgin daughters, which I am showing by offering it as an equivalent.”

    • S_J says:

      About the Book of Judith: I’m almost totally unfamiliar with it. The story, as you describe it, is interesting.

      It appears to contain elements of stories found in the book of Kings, in which a few people somehow become privy to something which drives a besieging enemy away.

      It also contains elements similar to Esther, in which a woman’s action brings an end to a powerful enemy. This theme had showed up previously in Judges, with Deborah (and Jael, wife of Heber) aiding Barak against Sisera. There are also similarities to the tale of Ehud from Judges, in which a single person is able to kill an enemy king while the king is alone, and then is able to walk out of the king’s palace alive.

      If I were forced to have an opinion of it, I think it is an attempt to echo the spirit and style of Judges, set in the post-Exilic era. The enemies are Assyrians, but the dynamic of foreign armies occasionally marching through Judea was part of the political reality of the time.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        It also contains elements similar to Esther, in which a woman’s action brings an end to a powerful enemy. This theme had showed up previously in Judges, with Deborah (and Jael, wife of Heber) aiding Barak against Sisera.

        In the German Renaissance, artist Hans Burgkmair noticed these shared elements and made woodcuts of “the Eighteen Worthies”. Jewish knights Joshua, King David & Judah Maccabee were complemented by Jael, Judith & Queen Esther. (The Christian knights Arthur, Charlemagne & Godfrey of Bouillon were paired with St. Helena, St. Bridget of Sweden & St. Elizabeth of Hungary, while the Pagan knights Hector, Alexander & Julius Caesar were paired with Roman women from Livy’s tales of the early Republic.)

      • J Mann says:

        My wife and I coincidentally started reading Judith recently. It’s a surprisingly well realized story that establishes its characters very well – you really get the feeling you know who Holofernes, Achior, Oziah and Judith are very quickly.

  6. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    There has been a clear trend towards greater continuity in television. Early shows were either genre anthologies (like The Twilight Zone) or status quo is god (like Star Trek: The Original Series); the most you could hope for was the occasional two-part episode or callback to an earlier episode. Contrast to the present day, when it seems that everything is a serial.

    It seems like the increase in continuity is a consequence of technological development. The concept of a rerun didn’t even exist until I Love Lucy. Before that, shows were meant to be broadcast once and never seen again; they were often performed live and many were never recorded in any way. Home video didn’t exist in any meaningful form until the advent of videotapes, and even then the sheer amount of space they took up meant they were primarily used for movies. The idea of being able to own entire, 100+ episode shows at home didn’t really take off until DVDs, and later Blu-Rays. These days, of course, there is streaming, and ever more shows are made directly for streaming platforms rather than being broadcast at all.

    Can show continuity evolve any further, and what technologies might push it there?

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      There has been a clear trend towards greater continuity in television. Early shows were either genre anthologies (like The Twilight Zone) or status quo is god (like Star Trek: The Original Series);

      I would argue that Star Trek: TOS was a genre anthology that used the Enterprise officers as protagonists in every short story. Like, “Arena” was literally a Frederic Brown story whose prose version hadn’t used Kirk.

      • Don P. says:

        I would argue that Star Trek: TOS was a genre anthology that used the Enterprise officers as protagonists in every short story.

        A structure that it shared with the TV Westerns that it openly emulated. There may be some exceptions, but the typical one of those was really all about the one-time-only guest starts in each episode.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Ah, good point.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Wagon Train was the explicit inspiration for Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry famously pitched it as “Wagon Train to the stars”) and the vast majority of its episodes were named using the formula “The [guest star’s character’s name] Story”. Said episodes would revolve around these one-shot characters, with the regular cast relegated to support roles.

        • LHN says:

          That seems related to Robin Laws’ distinction between dramatic and iconic heroes. Dramatic heroes are changed by the events of the narrative. Iconic heroes effect change on the guest characters while remaining essentially themselves. Detective stories are probably the epitome of the traditional iconic hero.

          (Sometimes lampshaded. E.g., Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin never aging or changing their lifestyle as the world around them moves from the 30s to the 70s. In one 60s story, they help the adult son of a character from a 30s story, without any hint that they themselves might be noticeably older.)

          Current fashion is for making everyone a dramatic hero, which is arguably why traditionally iconic heroes keep being given dramatic arcs (James Bond spends a movie Becoming James Bond, only to do it again in the next movie) and why it took so long for superhero movies to get past origin stories (frequently the only major dramatic arc a superhero has). And possibly why coming of age stories are another frequent go-to.

          There are also hybrids. E.g., in the animated Justice League series, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are mostly treated as iconic (Superman has a small dramatic arc stemming from his solo series), while e.g., Hawkgirl undergoes a series of dramatic character transformations.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Required Superman: The Animated Series viewing for that Justice League cartoon:

            The 3-part pilot, “Stolen Memories” (Brainiac), “World’s Finest” 3-parter (establishes this version of his relationship with Batman) “Tools the Trade” (Intergang, Darkseid cameo), “Apokalips Now!” (Darkseid’s invasion of Earth), “Little Girl Lost” 2-parter (Supergirl, more Apokalips), and series finale “Legacy”.
            It ends up being a pretty dynamic take on Superman, especially compared to Batman.

          • Nick says:

            Might as well add all of Batman: The Animated Series, not because it’s required viewing, but just because it’s really good.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nick: You must mean the FOX series. Changing the Bat-channel resulted in cheaper animation (albeit the same animation used for Justice League, where it’s easy to overlook due to story quality) and worse scripts.
            (However, no one should miss “Over The Edge” from the post-change run.)

          • Nick says:

            I’m talking about this one. There was a mid-2000s one that was okay, from what I remember, and I know The Brave and the Bold exists, but I haven’t watched any of it.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Well, The Brave and the Bold holds the distinction of using campier Silver Age content than the Adam West show did, so there’s that.

          • LHN says:

            Batman the Brave and the Bold was brilliant, and a reminder that Batman works in many different registers. The episode “Battle of the Super-Heroes” also managed to distill the complete essence of the Silver Age Superman into 22 minutes.

            While usually comedic, it occasionally dipped into tragedy (notably the Doom Patrol episode) and pure horror. (This Spectre appearance in the cold open to “Gorillas in Our Midst”. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x50v5dc )

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            My wife and I had a great time watching Brave and the Bold with our older son.

            For his younger brother, the new Duck Tales is pretty good watching with him.

    • cassander says:

      I actually think that anthology series are due for a comeback. Not episode by episode, but each season doing its own thing in a similar style or genre, like true detective. It lets you craft very serialized, integrated story arcs without the difficulties and risks of planning them out years in advance. Plus the ones that really work you can spin off into their own series.

      • Clutzy says:

        I agree. And also I think it helps with a problem for series I expressed in a previous OT: The overwhelming bias towards unlikable characters. In a serial, it seems like villains must become the central character, or a central character must become a villain. In the traditional format your main characters can remain likeable and interesting.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        The problem with seasonal anthologies is that there’s a huge temptation to ditch the format once the fans get attached to one set of characters.

        Heroes had this problem as I understand it. The first season was good; it efficiently introduced a cast of (for the most part) compelling characters, then wove their individual storylines to into a single narrative with a definitive resolution. They saved the cheerleader, they saved the world, roll credits.

        The problem with the second season onwards was that they couldn’t let the season one characters go. Sylar being the worst example of this: his death at the climax of the first season was key to resolving that season’s plot, but Zachary Quinto was so popular with the fans that his character was brought back from the dead and began warping the fictional universe around him. This made it impossible to replicate the success of season one, because the story was too crowded for new characters and the existing characters’ storylines were already fully intertwined if not resolved.

        Sticking to a seasonal anthology format means dropping fan-favorite characters every season, and that requires a level of discipline that I don’t think that most showrunners have.

        • cassander says:

          hence, the spinoffs. If one season’s cast gets really popular, give them their own show and move on to the next one. Use the main show as an incubator.

          • Nick says:

            That’s a good idea. It doesn’t work in Heroes’ case, though—Sylar got his power at the beginning of the story and died at the end, so there’s very little room to tell a continuing story about him.

          • LHN says:

            It’s arguable that it’s basically a bad idea to use death as a plot device in a serial medium, at least for major characters. (The corpse before the credits who drives the episode’s action probably won’t be a problem.)

            Near the end of the story, fine– but the history of creators who thought they were ending the story only to find that commercial considerations demanded a backpedal go back at least as far as Arthur Conan Doyle.

            As dramatic as it may be to finally eliminate the villain or for the hero to make the ultimate sacrifice, if the story is going on, the likelihood that it will stick is inverse to how compelling the character is. The longer the serial, the less final death is likely to be and the less dramatic impact it will tend to have. (Superhero comics being the ultimate expression of this.)

            In speculative fiction, there are a few end-runs around this, like clones and dopplegangers and evil twins to keep the beloved actor and some aspects of the character around while undercutting the death somewhat less. But those also tend to lead to diminishing returns or turn death into a running gag eventually.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I really liked the way American Horror Story handled this. Using the same actors but in different settings each season meant nobody had Plot Armor. They could absolutely kill off major actors in any given episode, and it’s fine because they’ll still be in flashbacks or as ghosts or something in the rest of the season, and back in a different role next season.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          +1 to AHS. They ran out of writing steam by season 3 or 4, but that’s still 3 or 4 really good seasons.

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      There are two things that are very clearly still in flux that changed with the advent of streaming.

      1: The freedom from structuring around adbreaks.

      2: The binge.

      I think what is going to happen is that places like netflix will realize that the best way to structure a season of a show is arcs in arcs – If you want to do 20 episodes, you break this up into smaller sub arcs that sum to 20, or 13 or whatever, instead of trying to do one long plot for consumption in one go.

      • beleester says:

        You don’t even need to make them sum to 13, since you don’t need to fit into TV season lengths. I expect we’ll see more mini-series, and stories with irregularly-spaced “season finales” shorter or longer than the average.

        Netflix’s Castlevania had a 4-episode first season, followed by an 8-episode second season.

        • JPNunez says:

          the obligation to make 13 episodes for season made the Netflix Marvel shows unbereable

          they barely had material for 8 episodes, and they never put in some filler like other series do, focusing on the side characters, or anything that was not trying to advance the already thin plot

          • Thomas Jorgensen says:

            The episode count is not the problem, the problem is stretching one plot over 13 episodes. Sooner or later they are going to wake up and smell the clue in the morning and just go “.. We could have.. more than one thing happen to these characters in a season?”

        • Don P. says:

          My impression is that at least part of the push towards, say, 13-episode seasons, as opposed to shorter, is that you’re competing for actors with shows that will give someone 13 episodes of employment.

          • Civilis says:

            I think this touches on something I suspect is highly related but I don’t know the details on: the role of rules regarding how American actors are compensated for work. I’m working off snippets of information I’ve seen here and there, so I don’t know how much of this is accurate and would appreciate corrections and more detail. I’m suspecting that what I say below applies primarily to the traditional network TV shows and that the premium network shows can break the rules, which might be a reason they work better.

            My understanding is that anyone in an American network TV show with a speaking role needs to be credited and paid some level of scale wage. This means that the random extras in a scene rarely ever say anything; they just stand around looking busy, because you’d need to pay them significantly more if they had to talk. You have the main regular characters, the ones with a speaking role almost every episode. You have the guest stars, who have the regular-character level screen presence and speaking role for an episode (or a couple of episodes a season for recurring characters). And you have the nameless extras, who have no continuity to the story.

            There are a few exceptions to this, but I suspect they are closer to guest stars than extras. Take Star Trek: the Next Generation: you’ve got the regulars (the bridge crew) and the recurring extras like Q who show up two or three episodes a season. You’ve also got a few that are difficult to categorize, like O’Brien, Barclay and Guinan. Colm Meaney as Chief O’Brien might be a good exception that demonstrates your point: the actor has a decent career as smaller parts in movies and TV and can afford to show up and get paid for only some of the episodes in a season since he’s making enough extra from smaller roles in other shows and movies, something most actors can’t count on.

            This ties into another limitation of network TV storytelling: major characters are almost never going to die outside a season-ender, taking away some of the suspense. Shocking mid-season character deaths are almost always recurring guest stars.

    • eyeballfrog says:

      I feel like television has gotten too serial. I think the format works best as semi-serialized–episodes are largely self-contained, but they do tie together into a larger story arc. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a good example that I happen to be watching through on Netflix.

      • DS9 wasn’t as serialized as contemporary tv shows but for the most part, you can’t just sit back and watch a post season 4 episode in isolation.

        • eyeballfrog says:

          That’s true, and semi-serialized shows do tend to get to that point after a few seasons (I remember Person of Interest running into this, too). But at the same time most episodes had a proper ending, and there were only two real 3+ parters (Call to Arms and the finale). Something I don’t like about a lot of contemporary TV shows is that episodes don’t seem to have endings. They just have some tease for the next episode, and after enough of that it feels like I’m watching a soap opera.

      • AG says:

        Good storytelling is fractal.

    • Nick says:

      I posted about this a few months ago, based on an article by Sonny Bunch.

      (Incidentally: my google fu was completely failing to find this post. I searched things like site:slatestarcodex.com “Nick says” “mdet says” serial episodic The Wire Dostoevsky, which is really thorough, and I wasn’t turning up anything. I found it because I linked someone to it in Discord. What the hell, Google?)

      • CatCube says:

        I’ve had a heck of a time finding posts based on keywords as well. I once had a reason to look at a post I had done comparing Air France Flight 447 with the Seventh Fleet collisions with commercial ships, and couldn’t bring it up. You’d think searching those together would bring up some results, but nope. (I did eventually find it later, when looking for something else.)

    • Randy M says:

      I think my favorite teen cartoon shows from the ’90s were forerunners of this trend; Gargoyles and Exosquad and continuity, such as numerous multi-episode stories, call backs, and significant changes to the world. To the point where, while I would love more of either, the storylines were wrapped up satisfactorily by the end of the second seasons.

    • ProfessorQuirrell says:

      I wouldn’t call it technological development so much as trying to work around the expected audience. Continuity demands that the audience tunes in every week. If they don’t, they will miss context and plot advancement and be hopelessly confused — and it’s difficult to get new viewers this way.

      Being able to store and playback earlier episodes makes a continuous show significantly more accessible to a wider audience; you can skip episodes and watch them later or you can bring on new viewers.

      My guess is that funding prospects for such programs were not good as you couldn’t be sure of keeping around an audience.

      However, you’re missing my favorite example of an early TV show with continuity — Babylon 5, which had an extremely ambitious 5-season arc with a detailed storyline running through it. Babylon 5 was just great TV, period, although the dialogue and effects look quite dated to modern audiences.

      • Civilis says:

        However, you’re missing my favorite example of an early TV show with continuity — Babylon 5, which had an extremely ambitious 5-season arc with a detailed storyline running through it. Babylon 5 was just great TV, period, although the dialogue and effects look quite dated to modern audiences.

        Babylon 5 did one thing very right with storytelling, and it shows why it’s been hard for American TV to do it again: if you’re going to tell a story across multiple episodes for continuity, you have to plan at least the outlines the entire story out, and the story needs to stop at the conclusion. And it’s very hard to do continuity with TV, because the network can decide your show is doing too poorly and kill it before it gets good, or doing too well and demand you add on to it (which is almost as bad for storytelling). You also have to worry about such mundane issues as actors leaving the show. My understanding is that the Babylon 5 writers had a series bible with contingency plans for modifying the story if they needed to replace an actor (and needed to use it with the whole Michael O’Hare / Sinclair -> Bruce Boxleitner / Sheridan change).

        • ProfessorQuirrell says:

          All correct and you’re exactly right about how even so you are at the mercy of the network.

          In particular, it was not clear due to the larger difficulties of their network whether or not Babylon 5 would get a fifth season despite reasonable ratings. JMS truncated the story as best he could and pulled off his original 5 season arc in 4 seasons (which is why the 4th season feels so rushed at times), but then Babylon 5 ended up getting a 5th season after all (which is why the 5th season is weak in comparison to how strong seasons 2, 3, and 4 are).

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, it was obvious that they were cramming the resolution to the earthgov stuff into a small number of episodes at the end.

        • albatross11 says:

          Also, they cycled through psychics a couple times. And lost some more people for season 5, but I mostly didn’t watch that one.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      ISTR one of the first fixed-length television serials, particularly in the SF genre, was Babylon 5. Before that, it was episodes all the way down. …Well, not quite. Soap operas were their own thing, in the magical fairyland of Daytime, where that assumption needed not hold. And there were dramatic serials in primetime, such as Dallas and Dynasty. However, these weren’t fixed length. They just ambled on until they petered out from ratings failure.

      And while there were story arcs, I think they weaved a lot. Some got immense attention (Who Shot J.R.?), while others just filled time with a handful of characters while others had their own plot going, and they didn’t all begin and end at the same time, although season boundaries were useful Schelling points. (How often were midseason replacements for cast members?)

      I’m irresistably drawn to the logistics behind this. Was there something innate to TV writing that made episodes easier? Thomas Jorgensen cites ad breaks and binging, which seems plausible to me. Changes in viewing habits enables changes in writing. One problem, though, is that I think we got serials first.

      I think another factor may have been a rise in disposable income, coupled with a growing market for boxed sets. Studios would sell seasons 1-3 of some classic show, find out they would sell, and offered more. Easy revenue for content they’d already made. And there’s no web yet, so they had this sweet spot where this would actually work.

      After enough rounds of this, I think it natural for studios to look for ways to make the product better, and one solution was to optimize the writing for boxed sets. So they took this idea of fixed length stories and ran with it, knowing from experience with dramatic serials, westerns, etc. that a good writer can plan a cliffhanger every episode, a bigger cliffhanger every season, and a huge climax ending season 5 or 7 or whatever, and then they just do it again.

      The only losers here are syndication, and casual viewers who just want an hour of entertainment.

    • L says:

      One technology would be Pop-Up Video. This did manifest in the “Avatar Extras” edition of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

    • honoredb says:

      I hadn’t thought of this before, but Netflix’s ability to know what shows you’ve previously watched (and general interactivity) opens some doors. Netflix already decides dynamically whether to show the “Previously On…” clips based on how recently you saw the referenced episodes. They’re at the point where they’re capable of doing much more with crossover continuity, especially in their original programming. A simple step would be to have a “dependency graph” stored for each episode–if Buffy’s going to show up unexpectedly in this episode of Angel, if you’re up to date enough on Buffy you don’t get a warning, but if you’re not you get the option to either watch the relevant Buffy episodes first or to watch the necessary Previously On Buffy summaries.

      More complexly, Netflix could invisibly edit in or out exposition scenes when “introducing” a character from another series (or from three seasons ago) depending on how much exposition it thinks you need. Or the reverse–if you’re a big Ozark fan and Marty Byrd is getting a cameo in another Netflix show, you see more of him, whereas if you’ve never seen the show then you only see enough of Marty to make the plot you’re actually following make sense.

      In the limit, you’re not so much watching individual shows as ticking checkboxes for which threads you want to follow in a giant shared universe.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        In the limit, you’re not so much watching individual shows as ticking checkboxes for which threads you want to follow in a giant shared universe.

        Good grief, don’t give Marvel ideas!

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          Can you imagine the online discussions about it all though?

          Hundreds of nerds complaining about what “really happened” and trying to piece together the “full story” with multiple iterations of people talking over each other because they did or did not see various scenes…

          • beleester says:

            Reminds me of an old debate over Suzumiya Haruhi – do you watch it in broadcast order, or in chronological order? Except this time it’s going to be “do you watch it one storyline at a time, or watch it with all the crossover elements?”

  7. hash872 says:

    I wonder how much ‘makes friends easily’ as a personality trait contributes to positive life outcomes. Kicking around the idea that it’s a secretly important determinant that’s been overlooked, like IQ or self-discipline or work ethic. Lots of work out there on the ills of social isolation on adults, and I wonder how much just general extroversion and the ability to start friendships from scratch when plopped down in a new area are positive indicators.

    I also suspect that lots of introverts/don’t make friends easily crowd are the loss of one or two friends away from negative outcomes. Like, if you made your very small friend group way in the past (possibly back in school or college days when it was easier), and then you lose one friend due to moving, new family responsibilities, a falling out etc.- for people who don’t make friends easily, this is a pretty dramatic step back. And all of the ‘make friends through doing activities’ advice outside there may feel pretty clunk and forced if you’re not a natural. Just thinking out loud

    • DinoNerd says:

      I’m unclear on the extent to which the recently popular claims about social isolation are based on data acquired from extroverts, either through research or through introspection.

      I get the decided impression that the folks making these claims believe I’ll be miserable, particularly in old age, unless I take up a lifestyle I already know (from experience) would make me miserable.

      OTOH – introversion, and not making the kind of friends you can count on (for anything) may not be correlated. Damned if I know how loud noisy environments with meaningless rote chatter contribute to any kind of real friendship, beyond the sort involved in e.g. FaceBook.

    • Enkidum says:

      I think it’s pretty well-established that this is the case. Or at least that having a few good friends is one of the single strongest predictors both of longevity and happiness. Being able to make such friends is obviously a necessary condition for this. But I’m not sure that there’s any formal metric to quantify making-friendsedness.

    • j1000000 says:

      Seems almost certain this is the case. I can’t point you in the direction of any studies but I’d have to imagine they exist.

      Citation very much needed, and no one should take this as life advice b/c it’s probably something like an urban legend but: A friend of mine, in the course of writing his thesis a decade ago, claimed that studies showed high-volume drinkers who gave up drinking had generally worse life outcomes than high-volume drinkers who drank until the very end. People suspected it might be because by giving up drinking you lose a good percentage of the social life you had. That kind of “be social at any cost” story seems in line with what you’re thinking.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Here’s a theory, but as stated, we don’t know whether there’s a study let alone whether it’s a sound study.

        If someone has given up heavy drinking, it’s probably because something has gone very wrong for them. It’s conceivable that there’s an unnoticed population of heavy drinkers who don’t have a lot going wrong for them.

        • j1000000 says:

          Yes this is another good possibility, but this mythical-and-maybe-not-existent study presumably controlled for that? Although obviously many of us have our doubts about how adequately anything can actually be controlled for.

          Anyways if anyone knows if such a study exists (or if a study proving literally the opposite idea exists), help me out here.

        • Tarpitz says:

          For what it’s worth, I am on the periphery of at least one fairly large social group of heavy drinkers who I would say mostly don’t have a lot going wrong for them.

  8. DataPacRat says:

    Fiction, 6300 words, science-fiction and abstract horror:


    • Vermillion says:

      I thought it was pretty good, but not really enough terror for my taste. Of the existential variety or otherwise. That’s what I like to read and if you’re up for writing that then excellent. It’s not easy to get very unsettling but I think you’ve got potential if you keep at it.

      • DataPacRat says:

        I’m afraid that I don’t read enough Stephen King, et al, to really have a good grasp of how to induce proper terror and squick in a reader; I generally have to settle for the more intellectual “Well, when you think about the implications…” sorts of horror. I appreciate that you think I have promise, and will work on doing better in my future works.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      So this is what became of Singleton/Fiat l’un, huh?. Well, I’m glad to see you didn’t give up on it, but I’m afraid it didn’t turn out very good. There’s a quote about H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, “It is not interesting enough for the general reader, and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.” That’s how I feel about this. You quickly skim over plans and implementations, showing little of the loving attention to detail that characterized your previous work such as Myou’ve Gotta be Kidding Me, Friendship is Optimal: X-Risks are Magic, S.I., or Extracted. At the same time, the story presumes much in the way of background knowledge from the reader; people who haven’t read Yudkowsky and Bostrom won’t know what to make of LoadBear’s fear towards Earth, which is barely explained.

      The story is emotionally flat; the entire thing is stuck on tell-mode, like a Wikipedia summary of an actual book. There is no tension, no sense of mystery, and no payoff. The ending in particular is bland and abrupt, as if you decided to just stop writing halfway through (I get that this is probably your way of dealing with your tendency to not finish what you start writing, but still). And I don’t think the pictures added much. Overall, I’m disappointed; I was expecting something much better based on the planning doc and your previous track record.

      • DataPacRat says:

        > So this is what became of Singleton/Fiat l’un, huh?

        ‘Tis, but it might not be the only result of that earlier draft.

        I’m just coming out of a prolonged period of depression, thanks to my latest therapeutic intervention, and felt an urge to publicly present a story of some sort. I decided that the rule-of-thumb that ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ applied here, and despite the original draft’s flaws, I could extract enough of the good bits to get a short story’s worth out of it, which would hopefully get me back into the writing saddle.

        I understand the viewpoint of your criticisms, and agree with most of them, particularly that I under-explained the reasoning behind the narrator’s paranoia. (Though I have gotten a thank-you for the images from a non-LW-diaspora reader. 🙂 ) I’ll do my best to figure out how to improve on all of those as I start work on the next story’s draft. (I have an initial seed for an idea; I’m currently poking around with it, trying to expand the premise into a plotline.)

        Thank you for the constructive criticism.

      • Brassfjord says:

        I prefer to read the Wikipedia summaries to the actual books. Who has time to read books? I’m only interested in the ideas, that I then can explore myself. If I wanted characters to identify with or psychology or feelings, I would read real literature, not SciFi.

        I liked the story because it gave me some food for thoughts.

  9. Theodoric says:

    I had to get some dental work done recently. I am bad with needles, however, when I am on nitrous oxide, and use a sleep mask to cover my eyes so I don’t have to see anything, I can take them fine. It is common for dentists to use nitrous oxide. Why isn’t it more common for medical doctors use nitrous oxide for uncomfortable/painful procedures?

    • Placid Platypus says:

      The one time I was put on nitrous oxide I had some pretty wild hallucinations. If this is common (my impression is it’s not that rare at least) it might explain why non-dentist doctors don’t use it much. That still leaves the question why dentists would be different.

    • johan_larson says:

      Seizures, maybe? I seem to remember something like 0.5% of the population goes into convulsions when exposed to nitrous oxide, rather than feeling a bit high.

    • marshwiggle says:

      N=1, but at least one birth in Canada I know of had nitrous oxide given for the pain.

      Wild guessing, but lots of medical procedures need lots of stuff to be stable and predictable. Nitrous oxide doesn’t seem to provide that.

      • Rachael says:

        It’s pretty standard for giving birth here in the UK. I had it for both of mine, and several of my friends had it for theirs.

    • Walter says:

      In Atlanta you see nitrous advertised on billboards. Lots of “Come to X dentist, we have laughing gas!’ kind of stuff. I dunno why real doctors don’t use it, my guess would be traditional anesthesia is more dependable.

      • Theodoric says:

        But there are procedures for which traditional anesthesia isn’t practical, like certain injections (like rabies shots in the area of the bite, or long needles)? Nitrous does not require the patient to fast beforehand, and they can drive home.

      • johan_larson says:

        Imagine if that sort of thing catches on, and doctors start competing to become known as the clinic that prescribes the strong stuff.

        • Theodoric says:

          Is there really much risk of that though? It’s only used during the procedure, and it wears off very quickly. It’s not something you take home, like Oxycontin.

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

    I posted below with a question about quantum physics, and the replies were so helpful I thought I’d go ahead and get out of my system the other question I had about this area. Again — I know nothing about science. But the question is whether the concept of an “observer” is significant to anything in quantum physics. When I see discussions directed at laypersons I often see references to observers, for instance, in discussions of Schroedinger’s cat. I have the fuzzy idea that certain quantum states remain indeterminate until an “observer” detects something, at which point it snaps into a particular state, along with its paired particle some distance away (or something like that). But my understanding has to be wrong. Physics can’t detect any “observers.” From the perspective of physics, you and I are just bundles of particles like anything else in the universe. There can’t be anything special about interactions initiated by “observers” as opposed to non-observational bundles of matter since that distinction is one that physics won’t be able to make. Isn’t that right? Whatever makes some particle snap into a determinate state out of some sort of indeterminate middle ground cannot possibly depend on whether it is an “observer,” right? Or, to put it another way, if so, then how is “observer” rigorously defined to permit the theory to tell you when the snapping event is or isn’t triggered?

    • orin says:

      This question (called the “measurement problem”) is at the heart of the unresolved question of how to interpret quantum mechanics; different interpretations answer this question in different ways. The fact that interference effects go away upon “measurement” has a generally accepted answer, called decoherence: measurement happens when the relevant property of the system under study becomes correlated (“entangled”) with the environment (which includes the observer) in a thermodynamically irreversible way. However the question of why an observer sees one measurement outcome and not another depends on interpretation. Everettians say that both outcomes happen, and there is a copy of the observer who sees A, and a copy who sees B. Pilot wave folks say there really is a definite measurement outcome just like in classical mechanics, but it’s in practice impossible to predict. The original Copenhagen basically said “a measurement is something we do in the lab, and we are going to pretend that the lab isn’t quantum mechanical, because it doesn’t look quantum mechanical.” Of course the latter isn’t a very satisfying answer, which is why there are so many alternatives to Copenhagen.

      • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

        Ok, thanks. But what is the motivation for the idea that the act of observation splits off two separate real copies of the event? Couldn’t you postulate that under any physics? (Whenever we observe any outcome, it could be that we are triggering a universe split where another me saw something else.) I’m sure I’m starting into an area where the technical details start to matter too much to answer at this level of generality but is there any non-technical way to explain why this inference is any less gratuitous in the quantum context than any other?

        • bucket of kets says:

          The motivation is quite literally “This interpretation is consistent with any experiment we can perform.” That’s kind of the rabbit hole of interpretations of quantum. Different, serious interpretations are interchangeable because there are not experiments that can tell them apart in principle.

        • Basil Elton says:

          As far as I’m aware (not much) that world-splitting allows you to avoid faster than light propagation of the “observation” aka disentanglement event in certain cases. Most likely other interpretations have some workaround for it too, since they are equally valid, but those workarounds are more complex (for me to understand).

        • orin says:

          That “an outcome splits off two real copies of the event” is not an independent idea; it’s derived as a consequence from a far simpler and more reasonable assumption: taking the wave function as a real thing rather than an epistemic tool. The wave function is a wave, which is inherently in more than one place at once. The worlds don’t “split.”

        • broblawsky says:

          Just to emphasize this: an “observer” doesn’t have to be conscious or alive. A stray photon from the sun can collapse a superposition as easily as one from a microscope. Every individual particle in the universe is constantly superpositioned, decohered by electromagnetic/gravitational/nuclear interaction with other particles, and then superpositioned again. The result appears to be solid matter as long as you don’t look too closely at it.

        • eigenmoon says:

          There’s a sequence by Yudkowsky about that.

          TL;DR: Splitting worlds isn’t special; it’s just large-scale quantum entanglement. It’s the “snapping” that is special, because it requires quantum entanglement to stop at some scale somehow.

    • savebandit says:

      Disclaimer: Not a physicist, but someone who just plays around with quantum computing simulators. Please, please correct me if my understanding is bad.

      As I understand it the idea that observing a quantum state means coercing a quantum state (represented by a complex number, like 1 – 2i) to a value (represented by a real number, like 0 or 1). It’s not necessarily that quantum particles have no set value, it’s just that we can only measure real numbers with some degree of certainty. No idea what the quantum mechanism is there. But it would make sense that if you can’t measure the imaginary part of a number, and have to condense multiple complex numbers into a real number to perform measurements, you’re going to lose some information about the original system in the process.

      • bucket of kets says:

        Quantum mechanics over the reals is actually just as powerful as quantum mechanics over the imaginary numbers (see, e.g.Scott Aaronson’s post about this).

        It has more to do with ‘amplitudes’ not having an easy classical meaning (hence Schrodinger being so befuddled about the implications for his famous cats). At classical length scales, a preferred basis appears, and we don’t really see superpositions of macroscopic states.

        Measurements need not be destructive, either! But you’re absolutely right that destructive measurements are most of the reason that we don’t see quantum effects at classical scales. Just…defining “measurement” precisely takes more linear algebra than most people have seen.

        • savebandit says:

          Thanks! That blog post is excellent. Sounds like I’m attaching more importance to the use of complex numbers in quantum mechanics than I should. I appreciate the correction.

        • The Big Red Scary says:

          “The wave function is a wave”

          That, or a vector in some Hilbert space. The particular representation of that Hilbert space is irrelevant to predictions, no?

        • The Big Red Scary says:

          “defining “measurement” precisely takes more linear algebra than most people have seen.”

          All you need to know is basic arithmetic of complex numbers. Surely Koko the Gorilla could have learned how to do it.

          • Soy Lecithin says:

            Maybe you’re being sarcastic, but Bucket of Kets probably has in mind tensor products and partial traces, or maybe even Schmidt decomposition.

    • Uribe says:

      As someone else who doesn’t know much about physics and related to the original question about Determinism, here is my question:

      We are often told that Time is a dimension. Is that just a social construct? Because if Time is really a dimension, then determinism isn’t a function of causality, it’s just that the Future has already happened.

      Do many physicists think the Future has already happened, or is that just a philosophical thing a la Nietzsche?

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        In general relativity, time is indeed a dimension that is altered by gravity. This is a fairly well tested prediction of relativity, and as I understand it, it does imply determinism.

        Quantum mechanics does not as I understand it make a bunch of useful predictions around time. But I am not a physicist and could easily be badly wrong.

      • Placid Platypus says:

        “The future has already happened” is a contradiction. If it had already happened it wouldn’t be the future. Treating time as a dimension does seem to imply accepting some amount of determinism though, depending on how exactly you define a dimension. In this view “the future” means “the stuff in that direction along the time dimension.”

      • bucket of kets says:

        The word ‘dimension’ carries a whole bunch of extra ontological weight in popular english usage. That extra weight is certainly a social construct. But, something “really” being a dimension or not really really doesn’t have anything at all to do with determinism or causality or anything.

        Physics is about building models of the world. When physicists talk about “dimensions”, we really just mean “here is a degree of freedom that we have found useful to model as a continuously parameterizable thing”. That is essentially as deep as the philosophical rabbit hole goes.

        It’s extremely convenient to treat time as one of these continuously parameterizable things, because our universe appears to have a rich (read: describable, compact) structure when you treat it (along with space) like a continuous, parameterizable thing.

        Physics doesn’t have much to say about whether the Future already happened, or not. In a concrete, pragmatic sense, Physics doesn’t really care–i.e., it’s not something that we have epistemic access to. It seems elegant (read: simple, self-consistent) to treat the universe as the deterministic evolution of a universal wavefunction, in which case, yes, the full trajectory of the universe is fully determined for all times by some indescribably vast matrix of complex numbers.

        Does that mean the “future” “already happened”? Not in any sense that’s useful for me or you, certainly.

      • broblawsky says:

        The question of whether the universe is causal is still open in physics, AFAIK.

      • Soy Lecithin says:

        What do you mean by “then determinism isn’t a function of causality”?

        If you take the “block universe” perspective where time is really a dimension, I don’t see how that changes anything about determinism, causality, or how these two are related. As an example, just consider the universe’s past. You can think of this in the “block universe” perspective just fine. Was the universe deterministic in the past? Did it exhibit causality in the past? Was “determinism a function of causality” in the past?

        We can meaningfully ask the question of whether or not the past exhibited determinism or indeterminism, even if the past (by virtue of being the past) has already happened how it happened.

    • Clutzy says:

      A major problem with quantum physics for laymen (such as myself before I did a deep dive) is the fact that is abuses language. This is reflected in your use of the word “observer”. There are no “observers” in quantum physics, rather there are “interactions” for lack of a specific term.

      The easiest way to explain this is by using an example most people in physics use: The double split experiment. In the double split if we “observe” an electron before it goes through the split it acts as a particle, but if we wait until after it acts as a wave. But “observing” the electron requires a photon (or other particle) hitting it. In everyday life photons hit things all the time and then we view them bouncing off things like people, baseballs, etc and they don’t much affect the thing they hit. In the quantum world that is like hitting a baseball midair with a golf ball. Its state, trajectory, velocity, etc is obviously changed.

      That is not to say quantum mechanics are solved or simple, it is just an explanation of why your question is a result of a quirk of language.

    • rlms says:

      An observer actually has to be a person with a soul, but Big Science suppresses this knowledge.

    • Soy Lecithin says:

      When physicists talk about observers they have something abstract in mind.

      Think about what an observer is in Newtonian mechanics. An observer is just a reference frame. The observation of what the universe is like will be different in different reference frames. Given a reference frame you can ask “What would an observer in this reference frame see?” What’s actually important to the answer here is the reference frame, not the scientist, astronaut, or detector that might be sitting in it. In fact, any choice of reference frame can be talked about as an observer, whether or not there is actually some scientist, detector, or [other object that we might typically ascribe experience to] stationary in it. An observer, in this abstract sense, is merely a “point of view” that some object could be imagined to have.

      An observer in quantum mechanics is a suitable sense of “reference frame.” Any point of view, whether it corresponds to some person or particle or detector or whatever, can be thought of as an observer. What exactly the suitable formalization of “point of view” is in quantum mechanics isn’t fully worked out.

      On the topic of “wavefunction collapse”: there’s no snapping event. The snapping is the result of a shift in perspective from the global picture to the phenomenological picture of what some particular observer “sees.” Different observers see different things, and with a suitable sense of what an observer is you should be able to answer the question of what any such observer “sees.”

  11. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Have any of you watched El Barco (The Ship)? It’s a Spaniard TV show. It’s on Netflix (the audio is in Spanish, but English subtitles are available). The premise is that the LHC accidentally created a miniature black hole, which absorbed enough continental mass that every place in the world is now underwater, and created violent storms that sank every ship except the Polar Star, a Spaniard school-ship. Bullshit science, obviously, but it does the job of establishing the setting where a bunch of teenagers, a crew, and a few other characters are stuck together in a ship struggling for survival.

    Season 1 plays a lot like Star Trek, with each episode centering around a problem of the week of questionable scientific plausibility (a murder of crows that has been flying for days without rest since the continents sank, a giant waterfall in the middle of the ocean, an underwater volcano that boils the waters, etc…) which the characters must overcome. Seasons 2 and 3 shift focus to a myth arc revolving around conspiracies and factions and fighting and stuff, which is a sadly common fate for a lot of these shows (see also Jericho). And no matter the season about half of each episode is dedicated to one of several stupid romance plots that seem to be lifted straight from a bad soap opera. But I’m a sucker for the whole “the world has ended and this isolated town/ship/bunker contains what may be the last survivors of the human race” thing, so I kept watching, even though I made heavy use of the fast-forward button.

    The characters’ goal is to reach an island that they have calculated still exist. And that got me wondering about what the long-term prospects of humanity would be in that scenario. Early on, it’s established that the ship has a cargo of seeds, tools, and other supplies that would be useful for surviving in the island (there’s that conspiracy thing again), but even then, let’s suppose they make it to the island, they establish themselves there, they have children, and so on. In a few generations, all the supplies and tools from the ship will be gone, the island will be at carrying capacity. The most they can hope for is some kind of medieval living standard until some disaster happens and wipes the last remnant of humanity out. Not exactly a happy ending. Of course, the actual ending of the show is so fucking weird, it’s impossible to tell how it would work out.

    Here’s a short Spanish trailer and a longer English trailer if anyone is interested. And if you do watch the show, keep an eye out for all the Coke and Minute Maid product placement! It’s a running joke in the fandom.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      What’s the explanation for how they’re the only boat left? The super storm sinks every one of the US’s aircraft carriers, but not this little boat? And what about submarines?

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        More bullshit science. The conspiracy had determined that there were seven “peaks with the least tectonic pressure” (that’s a direct translation of the Spanish technobabble) on the face of the Earth where ships could survive the storm, and deliberately sent the Polar Star to one of those peaks at the time of the LHC activation as a contingency plan to ensure the survival of the human race if the worst happened (the miniature black hole was considered to be a one-in-a-million failure mode). The seven peaks thing is used as a convenient plot device to introduce other ships when the writers feel it is dramatically appropriate.

  12. marshwiggle says:

    I’ve got a fairly serious question. When did it become acceptable to bs in school? That is, to produce work that only barely pretends to be an attempt at whatever was assigned. Being American I’m talking about American public schools, but I’d be interested if people have narratives about how this evolved in other countries too, how it went differently in different parts of the American education system, and so on.

    Perhaps I am mistaken and this has happened forever, but it seems that, say, 60 years ago, teachers detecting bs would have either delivered corporal punishment, a communication home leading to punishment, or both. If only for that reason, but presumably for lots of other reasons, it wasn’t very common. 30 years ago it was happening all the time? I’m not sure what the exact temporal boundaries are on this. I suppose I’m hoping that a solution to it might be easier to find if we can figure out how it started, and it’s hard to find out how it started until you know when.

    • Cariyaga says:

      Epistemic Status: Wild Guessing

      That said… my guess would be at the advent of standardized testing. Why bother caring if the system doesn’t, and teachers that do are quickly forced to bend to the will of the system?

      • marshwiggle says:

        That might be why, and when. I’m still hoping for better evidence as to when – if only to narrow down which theories as to why are consistent with the evidence.

    • johan_larson says:

      Lazy students have been half-assing work forever. And really, if you’re being graded, handing in anything at all is typically better than handing in literally nothing. A deeply flawed answer might get you 1/5 or something, and that’s still better than zero.

      • Protagoras says:

        Grade inflation may encourage this. Sure, a 1 is better than a 0, but 1s don’t really happen these days. Grades are compressed toward the top, so bs work probably gets a 3 out of 5, which is a lot better than a 0 out of 5.

        • marshwiggle says:

          Agreed that grade inflation is definitely at least part of this. It might be one of the causes, or it might be caused by the same thing. Whatever is going on, students are not as afraid to do poor quality work that is nowhere close to their best effort. I think some time between say 1960 and 1975 that got a lot worse – but I’m not sure about that. I could be wrong about the timing and the magnitude. If I’m wrong about either of those, I’m probably wrong about the causes too.

          • johan_larson says:

            It seems most positions of authority got ground down over the twentieth century, with ordinary people trusting them less and having more avenues to challenge them formally, whether through disciplinary boards or courts. Doctors, for instance, used to have a lot more discretion to commit people to insane asylums than they do now.

            Teachers occupy one such position of authority. I have a hard time imagining a 1919 parent walking into a public school to demand that a teacher change her son’s grade on a test. I have no trouble imagining a 2019 parent doing so.

            That sort of things filter down, until students are more willing to plainly defy teachers than they used to be.

      • JPNunez says:

        unless you blatantly copy and the teacher catches you

        then it’d be better to handing in nothing

        a couple of undergrad teachers complain about this all the time. They handwring about sending the kids to the ethics comittee, then decide against it and only address the issue in class, explaining why it’s a bad idea, only for the same kids to deliver another copied test/work/etc and getting sent to the ethics comittee

    • Theodoric says:

      Can you give an example? Do you mean that, say, if the assignment is to write an essay on Nigeria, the student writes “Nigeria is nothing like China” and proceeds to write all they know about China? Kids have been doing crappy jobs on assignments since we have had schools, and, as johan_larson said, it is usually better for your grade to write BS than to hand in a blank paper.

      • marshwiggle says:

        BS is admittedly a sort of vague term. Your Nigeria essay would be an example. The sort of thing I’ve seen has been human generated, but like an AI that doesn’t understand the subject was writing it. Sometimes from people who didn’t understand the subject, sometimes from people who did and couldn’t be bothered to think. Anyway, I think if someone turned in as homework one of the examples of AI generated text we’ve been looking at recently at SSC (and it didn’t get seriously punished) that we have a problem. I think we have a problem, since that’s basically what is happening, just with human essay generators.

        The question isn’t why BS gets written. It works and it’s easy. I guess I’m defining BS as something that in, say, 1950, would have been labeled as rebellious and a lie – an attempt to not do the work and pretend you did. In 1965 in plenty of places it would have gotten labeled that way too. I’m asking when that stopped and BS started being passed through without comment.

      • it is usually better for your grade to write BS than to hand in a blank paper.

        Not on exams I give. My standard rule is (was before I retired) that if you left a question blank or wrote “I don’t know” you got 20% credit. If you tried to answer and got it entirely wrong you got zero.

        I usually started my explanation of that policy with the story of why Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, as per the oracle. Then explained the relevant incentives.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Eliezer had his version of Professor McGonagall do something similar. From Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, chapter 15:

          McGonagall’s fingers rapped the desk in front of her. “Mr. Potter, would you care to guess whether this is a desk which I Transfigured into a pig, or if it began as a pig and I briefly removed the Transfiguration? If you had read the first chapter of your textbook, you would know.”

          Harry’s eyebrows furrowed slightly. “I’d guess it’d be easier to start with a pig, since if it started as a desk, it might not know how to stand up.”

          Professor McGonagall shook her head. “No fault to you, Mr. Potter, but the correct answer is that in Transfiguration you do not care to guess. Wrong answers will be marked with extreme severity, questions left blank will be marked with great leniency. You must learn to know what you do not know. If I ask you any question, no matter how obvious or elementary, and you answer ‘I’m not sure’, I will not hold it against you and anyone who laughs will lose House points. Can you tell me why this rule exists, Mr. Potter?”

          Because a single error in Transfiguration can be incredibly dangerous. “No.”

          “Correct. Transfiguration is more dangerous than Apparition, which is not taught until your sixth year. Unfortunately, Transfiguration must be learned and practised at a young age to maximise your adult ability. So this is a dangerous subject, and you should be quite scared of making any mistakes, because none of my students have ever been permanently injured and I will be extremely put out if you are the first class to spoil my record.”

          This stems from Eliezer’s frustration with the school system, as seen in “Two More Things to Unlearn from School” and “Guessing the Teacher’s Password”.

          For my own part, I never saw anything like this in all my years of schooling. The closest thing was the practice of some standardized tests to give a penalty for each wrong answer on multiple choice questions, but even those were weighted such that the expected value of guessing was zero, not negative (and if you could eliminate at least one choice, which was often possible, the expected value of guessing became positive).

          • Nick says:

            I’ve heard of math teachers doing this. It makes sense there, since otherwise your professor or TA is stuck attempting to untangle an answer that’s basically nonsense, and they’d rather not waste the time.

          • Ketil says:

            For my own part, I never saw anything like this in all my years of schooling.

            And I think it is bad teaching practice. Student should be encouraged to guess, since it is by engaging our brains and trying to figuring out things we develop intuition – and usually, getting things wrong in most academic fields is not as dangerous as it apparently is in Transfiguration. Also, student’s mistakes convey important information to the teacher about where things need to be better explained or elaborated, and – quite often – also reveals insufficient understanding on part of the teacher. (At least, it seems to happen a lot when I teach).

            In fact, I try to deliberately construct questions so that they are challenging to intuition, ambigous, or even outright nonsensical – in order to spur debate and discussion. (Not for graded exams, of course, but in class, or for kahoots on each week’s curriculum)

    • Clutzy says:

      I don’t really think this is new, as my initial statement. Propaganda is successful because of humans. I always tailored my papers to the teacher beginning as early as grade 2.

      To the extent that it might be I would blame the thought process that grades in non-objective subjects like English essays are useful compounded with the “common knowledge” that teachers have a political leaning. If we look at Sokal + Sokal 2 its obvious that trash gets an ‘A’ if its the right trash.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Tangential, but a funny (I think) story related to the topic of “maximum reward for minimum effort:”

      We got an Apple IIe when I was in the second grade, and when we flipped it on and got the blinking cursor and I said, “what now?” my older brother handed me the Basic Apple BASIC book and said “read this.” I learned very simple programing early, mainly stuff like

      10 PRINT “[Brother’s name] IS A NERD!!!!!”
      20 GOTO 10

      My school system had an Apple II in every classroom so they could say “we’ve got computers in every classroom!” These computers were never turned on by anyone except occasionally to play Oregon Trail. In the fourth or fifth grade we had an assignment to do a project about earth’s biomes (desert, tundra, rainforest, etc). Most people made dioramas or something. I wrote a simple quiz program in BASIC called “Name That Biome!” that would select 10 multiple choice questions at random from a list of 20 study questions out of the book and ask them to the user, and keep score letting you know how many you got right or wrong. Of course I got an A because I was using the Magic Demon Machine that the teacher didn’t even know how to use.

      Well in every class after that, through high school, we would have some kind of open-ended project to do for something. I saved that code and just changed the questions and title screen. “Name That Planet!” “Name That Napoleonic Wars Battle!” And every time I’d get an A because the teacher had never seen it before and even though some of the other kids complained and tattled on me, how do you not give an A to the kid who writes a computer program?

      The moral of the story is “code reuse is good.”

    • LHN says:

      Pop culture data point: “The Book Report” in 1967’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” shows grade school kids engaging in an assortment of avoidance strategies. (E.g., padding with adjectives, writing “it reminded me of Robin Hood” followed by a straight summary of same.) It was presumably intended to provoke a chuckle of recognition in an adult audience, so that points at at least as far back as their childhood.

      (I’d personally guess that it goes back as far as relatively open-ended writing/speaking assignments.)


  13. theredsheep says:

    Quick note: For Lent, I give up social internet use, including Facebook, forums, and blogs like SSC. Orthodox Lent starts tomorrow. For the last Fast (Christmas) I got really lax for complicated reasons and wound up basically abandoning it halfway through. If you read this, and you happen to to see me posting on here prior to the end of April (Orthodox Easter is a week later than Western, 4/28 I believe), please yell at me and chase me off with some kind of stick.

    Thank you, and I wish you all a joyous Easter, a pleasant spring, a fertile Beltane, or whatever else you happen to believe in that falls around this time of year.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Remember (at least in the Catholic tradition) Sundays don’t count for Lent! Also, Lent officially ends at 7PM on Holy Thursday (Mass of the Lord’s Supper). So you don’t have to hold out all the way to Easter!

      • eigenmoon says:

        Unfortunately modern EOs do fast on weekends.

        The actual Byzantines would totally suspend modern EOs for violating the Apostolic Canon 64: “If any one of the clergy be found to fast on the Lord’s day, or on the Sabbath-day, excepting one only, let him be deprived; but if he be one of the laity, let him be suspended”.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Any idea what caused the change? I’m a Protestant who generally doesn’t fast, but it seems to me that “every Sunday is a feast day” is better symbolism.

          • eigenmoon says:

            First extra fasting was adopted by monks. Both Zonaras and Balsamon, XII-century EO church lawyers, affirm the Apostolic Canon but note that really cool monks should be exempt.

            But then around XV century something weird happened: EOs have adopted Typikon – essentially a monastic manual – for general use. This wasn’t a decision of some patriarch or council, it just so happened that no other manual was available and in the EO world you can’t just make one up and give it to your parish, so the priests just used whatever they could.

            The result is really strange. The priests alternate between saying that the laymen are supposed to be fasting as much as monks and saying that of course they’re not expected to do that, but it would be super nice if they do.

  14. proyas says:

    I’m doing a major renovation of my basement and could use advice from anyone who knows about code requirements and architecture. It’s early on in the projects, and I have a jumble of thoughts and questions.

    For starters, is there a difference between “things that are required by building codes” and “things that are good practice for architects”?

    This bears on my planning to build a full bathroom. The space available for it is very small, and I’m thinking it would really help if the door swung outward into the hallway instead of inward into the bathroom. Would having an outward-swinging door violate building codes?

    Also the place where I want to put the toilet is under a stairwell. So, if you were sitting on the toilet where I want to put it, the ceiling directly above you would be only 6′ high. If you stood directly up, your head might hit the ceiling. However, since no one stands directly up above a toilet–everyone kind of crouches and pivots backwards to sit, and then reverses that motion to get up–no one would ever hit their head. Would putting the toilet there comply with building codes?

    What about minimum clearances around toilets (minimum to the left and right, and minimum forward to the arc of an inward-opening bathroom door)? What are the code requirements for that?

    Also, there’s a gas-burning furnace in the basement, and I want to build a wall next to it. Are there restrictions on minimum distances from this sort of appliance to a wall?

    Thanks for any help. BTW, I live in the U.S.

    • The Nybbler says:

      This bears on my planning to build a full bathroom. The space available for it is very small, and I’m thinking it would really help if the door swung outward into the hallway instead of inward into the bathroom. Would having an outward-swinging door violate building codes?

      Generally there’s no rule against outward-swinging doors inside a residence, but the thing about building codes is there’s always an asterisk which says that the AHJ (authority having jurisdiction) has final say. If you’re lucky this is a particular set of exceptions and additions written into the law. If you’re not, the inspectors just make up stuff as they go along.

      What about minimum clearances around toilets (minimum to the left and right, and minimum forward to the arc of an inward-opening bathroom door)? What are the code requirements for that?

      There’s no clearance limit for the swing as far as I know. It’s 15″ from the center of the toilet to a wall, cabinet, or other appliance. Again subject to the asterisk.

      Would putting the toilet there comply with building codes?

      Probably, but this actually changed with the 2015 code so you’d need to find out which code your jurisdiction is using and whatever changes they added.

      Also, there’s a gas-burning furnace in the basement, and I want to build a wall next to it. Are there restrictions on minimum distances from this sort of appliance to a wall?

      Definitely, but they’re specified by the manufacturer of the furnace; the code says to follow that. Sometimes the clearances are on a sticker on the appliance itself.

      (not a contractor, just been through some of this)

    • CatCube says:

      I’m a structural engineer, not an architect, but I can confirm that there are definite differences between “what the code requires” and “what you should do.” There’s a lot of stuff that you could do that’s uneconomic, difficult to construct, or that will piss the building owners off that is compliant with the code.

      You need to be very careful asking questions here, rather than a more focused forum: building codes in the US are very localized. I’ve got effortposts about building codes, their development, and how they’re laid out here: Building Codes I, Building Codes II.

      I can at least answer one of your questions for the model code. (Which may have been modified for your jurisdiction! Check your local code!) The minimum ceiling height for a bathroom is 7′, per IBC 1208.2*. However, there is an exception for sloped ceilings that may or may not apply. As a general rule, building codes are absolutely dead-set against having head-banging or tripping situations, and do not have a “well, just tell the occupants that’s there and hope they remember” exception.

      Note that I’ve just discussed one requirement in the main building code. Plumbing codes may have other requirements, and other chapters of the IBC may have other criteria that influence the answer. The codes are set up to be easy for lawyers to enforce, not easy for users to understand; criteria are grouped by topic, which means that many criteria that will apply to a particular location may be scattered around among the topical sections.

      * Edit to Add: Note that this is for the 2012 version of the IBC, because I have a printed copy of it sitting next to me. That may or may not be the version that applies to your jurisdiction, in addition to whether your jurisdiction has modified that section.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The IRC rather than the IBC is probably the relevant code here. Current IRC allows 6’8″ ceiling height in bathrooms (but the sloping ceiling allowance doesn’t change from 7′, great code writing guys!); the annotations to the change suggest no requirement for the ceiling over fixtures but that’s going to depend on how the local inspectors interpret the code.

        • CatCube says:

          Huh. The exceptions in the IRC are a little different than the exceptions in the IBC, but I think more in wording than in effect. How I’d read the IRC 2012 version of 305.1 is that those exceptions need to be worked together. That is, you have to have a minimum ceiling height of 7′, with an exception for a sloped ceiling. If you *do* have a sloped ceiling, 1) at least 50% of the ceiling area must be 7′, and 2) however the sloping ceiling and fixtures are arranged in the bathroom, you can’t let the ceiling be less than 6′-8″ at the midpoint of the required fixture area–that is, you can have a ceiling slope down to 5′ at the wall, but you can’t put a crapper there if the slope is such that the ceiling will be less than 6′-8″ in that fixture area.

          You are totally correct, however, that it doesn’t matter what *I* think that provision means, or what *you* think it means, but what the guy hacking off on the building permit thinks it means.

          It’s weird to see the changes in the 2015 version that you point to, though. Now it appears the only limit is the ceiling height “shall be such that the fixture is capable of being used for its intended purpose.” That *seems* to say that you could have the ceiling slope down to, say, 5′ in front of the sink, and as long as you are able to wash your hands in that sink in front of the inspector, it’s “capable of being used for its intended purpose.” I mean, it’s nice to have flexibility, but not so nice to not have any idea if a design will comply or not.

          If I remember and have time tomorrow, I’ll see if I can dig up the version with the Commentary that explains the intent of these provisions.

        • Beck says:

          I don’t use IRC much (at all), but this from the 2015 Commentary would likely apply.

          Exception 2 requires that showers and tubs
          equipped with a shower head have a ceiling height at
          the shower head of not less than 6 feet 8 inches for an
          area of not less than 30 inches (763 mm) by 30 inches
          (762 mm) at the shower head, but allows other areas
          over showers and tubs to have lesser ceiling heights,
          as long as the fixture is capable of being used for its
          intended purpose. Similarly, the required minimum
          ceiling height over other bathroom and toilet room fix-tures
          is allowed to be less than 6 feet 8 inches (2032
          mm), as long as the fixtures are capable of being used
          for their intended purpose. This exception would allow
          a sloping ceiling over toilet, bath or shower fixtures if
          the minimum ceiling height of 6 feet, 8 inches (2036
          mm) is maintained over the front clearance area (see
          Figure R307.1). If the fixture can still be used effec-tively,
          the ceiling height can be lower over the fixture
          itself. For example, the ceiling height over the tank and
          bowl of the toilet can be below 6 feet, 8 inches (2033
          mm), provided that the clearance was high enough to
          allow someone to sit on the toilet.

          So there’s a good case for the bathroom being okay as designed but, as everyone’s mentioned, it’s ultimately up to local code authority.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I can’t help with the codes issue, but I would suggest looking into a pocket door for a small space.

    • Eric Rall says:

      For starters, is there a difference between “things that are required by building codes” and “things that are good practice for architects”?

      Yes-ish. In general, building codes are an attempt to capture objectively-measurable best practices for construction techniques, with an emphasis on safety and maintainability. For the most part, code rules are a large but far-from-complete subset of “things that good practice for architects”.

      The kinds of “good practice for architects” that don’t get required by code are 1) nice-to-have premium features that aren’t strictly necessary (e.g. sub-floor heating, extra outlets, nicer finish materials), 2) things that are hard to nail down objectively (e.g. efficient layouts with little or no dead space), and 3) things that are stupid or wasteful but aren’t actively unsafe, and which are obvious enough to both the builders and the clients that the code authorities don’t feel the need to guard against them.

      Things that are required in code but aren’t good practice are rare and almost always an indication that the code-writers made a mistake. I can’t think of any current examples off the top of my head, and the only recent historical examples I can think of are lags between a new material or technique becoming available and being demonstrated to be safe and useful and when it becomes allowed in code (most notable recent example I know of is PEX).

      That being said, things required by codes vary in how bad it is if you violate them. Some are really bad. If you undersize a structural member or use the wrong type of hardware to connect it up, your building might collapse unexpectedly, ruining your whole day. Likewise, wiring a 20-amp circuit with 18-gauge lamp cord instead of 12-gauge romex is a huge fire hazard. Or using PVC pipes for a hot water supply (they’re intended for low pressure and cold water applications, so they’re likely to leak if used for high pressure hot water) instead of PEX or copper.

      Others are less bad, to the point of bordering on being a decision by the code authority to require a premium feature. For example, I think code requires one outlet for every 12 feet of wall space (so every part of wall is within 6 feet of an outlet) for most living areas, but your house isn’t going to fall down if your outlets are 14 feet apart; it’ll just be inconvenient (and needlessly so, since outlets are cheap and easy if you already have the wall open and are already running a circuit). There is a marginal safety issue with this example, as too few outlets too far apart tends to tempt people to daisy-chain power strips and extension cords (which is a fire hazard and a trip hazard), but it’s not inherently unsafe if you know not to do that.

      In general, don’t knowingly violate code unless 1) a building inspector will never see it, and 2) you really, really know what you’re doing and have a very good reason for violating code.

      The space available for it is very small, and I’m thinking it would really help if the door swung outward into the hallway instead of inward into the bathroom. Would having an outward-swinging door violate building codes?

      I’m not familiar in detail with this part of the code, but this seems like a potential safety issue even if it’s not a code violation. The reason residential doors usually swing away from hallways is that residential hallways tend to be narrow, so an open door swinging in could block the hallway, and that if multiple doors swing into they same hallway there’s a risk of them blocking each other if they’re both open at the same time. This is inconvenient design in normal usage, and it’s a potential safety issue in an emergency (e.g. the building’s on fire and an open door is blocking the hallway slowing down people trying to get out). I suspect it’s also easier to break down a door that swings in than one that swings out in an emergency rescue scenario. I’d suggest exploring baconbits9’s suggestion of using a pocket door instead.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Recent example of a bad requirement in code was the one requiring deck benches to have a railing 3 feet above the seating surface.

        • CatCube says:

          One other possible example I discussed in previous posts is due to competing model codes. What clearance is required between a handrail and the supporting wall?

          There are two competing model fire codes, one by the International Code Council (the International Fire Code) and one by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 101, Life Safety Code). If a jurisdiction adopts the IBC as the building code (which pretty much all of them do in the US), but adopts NFPA 101 as the fire code without modifying one or the other, you can have the spectacle of the building inspector approving the handrails 1.5″ from the wall, while the fire marshal prohibits use of the building until the handrails are replaced with ones 2.25″ from the wall.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            If a jurisdiction adopts the IBC as the building code (which pretty much all of them do in the US), but adopts NFPA 101 as the fire code without modifying one or the other, you can have the spectacle of the building inspector approving the handrails 1.5″ from the wall, while the fire marshal prohibits use of the building until the handrails are replaced with ones 2.25″ from the wall.

            … which we can take as evidence that Earthly bureaucracy is a shadow of an archetype in Hell. You should see their fire code!

          • CatCube says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            You’ve gotta figure there’s a Platonic ideal of Bureaucracy out there somewhere.

          • Nick says:

            You’ve gotta figure there’s a Platonic ideal of Bureaucracy out there somewhere.

            If we go by archetypes-as-animals rules from The Place of the Lion, then it’s the sloth DMV in Zootopia.

          • The Nybbler says:


            I think bureaucracy is purely an artifact of the Shadows. Plato’s or JMSs, either one will do.

    • Plumber says:


      “…BTW, I live in the U.S….”

      Unfortunately that doesn’t help, in California (where I live) the plumbing code in most municipalities is based on the California Plumbing Code, which is based on the Uniform Plumbing Code published by IAPMO, a “code organization”, but relevent parts (such as clearances to meet A.D.A. standards are in the California Building Code which a seperate organization writes, and each municipality, county, et cetera may (and often do) add and subtract requirements, for example some types of pipe aren’t allowed to be used in The City and County of San Francisco that are allowed next door in Daly City, and other States have completely different codes enforced, or none at all.

      You have to go to your city planning department (or country if in an unincorporated area) and ask for what’s in force, in San Francisco the Main Branch of the Public Library keeps the San Francisco addendums, to which you look up in the main code in the reference section.

      You can buy the code books (and copy the municipal addendums), but the codes are amended every three years in California, and the cities and counties usually adopt them two to five years later (the ’98 to ’01 CPC required more venting than previous or subsequent codes for a typical home bathroom).

      Sorry, can’t help you, but if you live in a small town the planning department is usually helpful, in a big town it’s usually harder to learn what is required for a permit, but in theory it’s public record.

  15. CheshireCat says:

    My socioemotional functioning is poor, and has been especially poor recently, so I’ve been cultivating homemade yogurt with a particular strain of bacteria that seems to produce endogenous oxytocin. Specifically the Lactobacillus Reuteri 6475 strain found on BioGaia’s Gastrus product. There has been evidence that it improved autism-like symptoms in rat trials and that autistic children have lower concentrations of this strain in the gut than healthy controls.

    If this sounds like the kind of snake oil only desperate suckers try, you’re absolutely right! But it seems to actually be working?

    I’ve become far more socially capable in the ~week since I’ve started, and the effect is strong and varied enough that I’m reluctant to call it placebo. My social anxiety has diminished, I’m better able to hold a conversation, and my overall ability to navigate social situations seems greatly improved. And all this is in spite me being smack in the middle of a depressive episode and suffering from a lot of interpersonal stress.

    The difference is almost night and day, and for it to have happened within a week is really impressive. I’m trying to remain skeptical but it’s difficult. I’ll continue to monitor the effects and try to see if I’m placeboing or not.

    Some notes:

    – According to Promethease I have a normal oxytocin receptor gene, so this kind of mad scientist stuff may be more effective in those with that genotype than others without.

    – It’s not all that appetizing. The taste isn’t that appealing and it doesn’t form yogurt so much as bacteria slurry. Apparently subsequent batches taken from a starter culture are thicker though. You could probably add something to it to make it taste better, including actual yogurt cultures, but for now I’ve just been plugging my nose and downing 1/3 cup a day.

    – It’s pretty cheap. I bought a $30 yogurt maker for convenience, but all you really need is half-and-half, the probiotic and maybe some glucose tablets to get started. Once you’ve made one batch you can reinoculate with samples from that one.

    • metacelsus says:

      Oxytocin is a peptide, which means that it will quickly be destroyed by digestive enzymes. I suspect that even if the bacteria produce a lot of oxytocin, little of it will make it into the central nervous system. Oxytocin can be dosed sublingually but absorption isn’t very efficient.

    • noyann says:

      Maybe it is not so much the the oxytocin but a shift in gut flora composition. Or other substance(s) in the yogurt itself. Or reduced consumption of some other (non-yogurt) foodstuff.
      Also, placebo effect, or coincidence. You’d need a stomach tube and a double blind randomized setup to rule them out.

      • myers2357 says:

        My bet is on gut flora composition.

        Here’s a study done on infants with colic (vs placebo) which shows some pretty strong improvement.

        I don’t know much about colic, but long-term-constant-crying seems next-door to a mood disorder in an uncommunicative person(infant).

        (It’s strange that the only studies I see are these colic studies on infants, rather than “healthy adult males” – makes sense in this case, but still unique.)

      • CheshireCat says:

        I responded to another user and don’t want to spam too much, but some points:

        – I forgot that I’m taking Celexa, which counteracts social anxiety and therefore is a huge confounder. Whoopsy daisy. That’s probably the reason.

        – Yogurt just has lactose-free milk and some glucose in it, and I’m not taking much so I’m not replacing any meals with it.

        – Based on prior experience I’m don’t think I’m very susceptible to placebo but blah blah my word doesn’t mean anything here

        – A study found that feeding mice dead, sterile bacterial lysate with this strain still increased oxytocin levels, indicating that it’s something inherent to the bacteria, not a result of their metabolic processes.

        I’m not expecting anybody to take my experiences too seriously, it’s just some n = 1 fun stuff.

    • Maxander says:

      Interesting! I’m sure I’m not the only one in the community who would be interested to hear if the effect persists, or if anyone else tries this.

      As far as I’ve read, no one really knows precisely how L. Reuteri treatment does this. As metacelsus and noyann noted, it seems odd that a oxytocin could be absorbed through the GI tract, but at least one study (paywalled, natch) saw that taking out a mouse’s oxytocin receptors rendered L. Reuteri treatment ineffective. The same study showed that the effect was mediated by the vagus nerve (which runs between the brain and the gut), which partially explains things; what oxytocin the gut does absorb doesn’t have very far to travel.

      While looking up the reference that paper I also found this one, which seems very relevant, but I don’t have much to say about it right now because I should be doing Actual Work.

      • CheshireCat says:

        Embarrassingly, when I wrote the above comment I completely failed to remember that I’m taking Celexa, a medication that treats social anxiety. I’ve been taking it for 3 weeks now, so that’s a massive confounder that makes it difficult or impossible to determine what effect the yogurt’s having, if any. Oops.

        That being said, thanks for your research. The studies I read when I was looking into it did seem to indicate that the effect was mediated through the vagus nerve. I believe I was incorrect about the mechanism behind the increased oxytocin signalling – it seems that the bacteria promote oxytocinergic activity, rather than simply producing oxytocin in the gut. The best study I’ve found on the underlying mechanisms expresses uncertainty about the fundamental cause does note that tampering with the vagus nerve cancels the effect, as you noted.

        Another interesting thing – this study found that killed, sterile lysate of L. Reuteri 6475 was enough to elevate plasma oxytocin levels to more than 3x that of control mice, indicating that the actual activity of the bacteria is irrelevant in promoting the oxytonergic effects. Really odd.

        I can’t view the articles you linked, since I don’t have a Harvard Key account. What were their titles?

  16. Le Maistre Chat says:

    I’m sure it’s been discussed here before, but here’s some of my favorite graffiti from Pompeii:

    Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio: Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!

    Vestibule of the House of Cuspius Pansa): The finances officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison
    (Bad Yelp review? Or a warning you’d give your players in an RPG?)

    Pottery Shop or Bar of Nicanor: Lesbianus, you defecate and you write, ‘Hello, everyone!’

    House of Caprasius Primus: I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world

    In the basilica: O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.

    • Nick says:

      Wisdom for the ages:

      VIII.2 (in the basilica); 1882: The one who buggers a fire burns his penis


      VIII.2 (in the basilica); 1852: Pyrrhus to his colleague Chius: I grieve because I hear you have died; and so farewell.


    • sfoil says:

      “Defecator, may everything turn out okay so that you can leave this place.”

      Literal shitposting.

  17. Aapje says:

    Androgen Restored Contraception

    The current contraceptive pill reduces testosterone, which can cause diminished libido, mood changes, tiredness, reduced strength, etc. A new pill is now in phase 3 trials, which has DHEA added to it, which metabolizes into testosterone (and is used to treat postmenopausal women).

    I suspect that this pill will mainly be beneficial to women with lower natural sensitivity to testosterone, for whom the reduced testosterone caused by the current contraceptive pill causes a severe shortage.

    ‘Side effects’ of the new pill are that restoring a more natural testosterone level increases acne and hair growth.

    Interestingly, DHEA/prasterone is an over-the-counter medication in the US, so one could theoretically do the same thing as the new pill by combining the current pill with taking DHEA (although there may be dosage issues). Has anyone here, or their partner, tried this?

    • Ohforfs says:

      That is extremely interesting thing. I would also very much like to know if anyone tried this.

      Although, i always read that it’s progesteron that influences mood changes? What’s the deal with that?

    • superbee says:

      This post made me decide that if I ever get back on BC I would add on DHEA.


      • Lord Nelson says:

        Interesting read. I’m particularly interested in the fact that depression is listed as a possible consequence of low testosterone.

        I was on a testosterone-blocker for about two years (off and on), and I noticed that my depression and suicidal thoughts got a lot worse during the times I was taking that pill daily. I brought it up with my doctor and she swore that my increased depressive symptoms could not be a side effect of that pill. I was beginning to think it was all in my head, but now I wonder…

      • Aapje says:


        Interesting. It seems like dosage risks with DHEA are minimal, although some women apparently need testosterone injections or gel.

        That may even be independent of hormonal birth control. There is Testosterone Replacement Therapy for older men, but not that much attention for women and younger men (especially given the falling testosterone levels in Western society).

        @Lord Nelson

        I think that your doctor is not familiar with the science.

  18. Amit Amin says:

    If you pay $100, I will make the website.

    For my final project of app academy 4 years ago I made rationalreads.com, which does something similar, but for books. I then worked for a YC startup.

    I’ve been on a break from programming for a while now due to health issues. I’ve been looking for a small programming project to get back into things. The hundred bucks is to cover miscellaneous expenses.

    • rx8 says:

      I’d be happy to pay the $100. I suggest that I send it to Scott right away (so that you know this is for real), who can then send it to Amit Amin when he chooses (at project completion or whatever).

      If for some reason the project falls through, I don’t want the money back, it can be spent as Scott chooses.

      • Amit Amin says:

        Awesome, that works for me. I trust Scott, so I’ve got no problem being reimbursed once finished.

        All I need is the go ahead and to flesh out the details. Once that happens, depending on my health, it will take one to four weeks to finish.

      • carvenvisage says:

        I suggest that I send it to Scott right away (so that you know this is for real), who can then send it to Amit Amin when he chooses (at project completion or whatever).

        I don’t think it’s proper form to accept a bid on someone else’s behalf, even if you intend to pay for it.

        Also it could set a precedent that such things won’t be done for free. (and there is someone in this thread offering to do it for free)

        • rx8 says:

          There is no acceptance of bids being done here, on my part. Scott is the ultimate decider of which offer he’d like to go with, and how it’s funded. If he wants to go ahead with this offer, he can respond here or contact us, if not, no action will be taken without his response.

  19. TheMadMapmaker says:

    A week or so agao Scott asked:

    Is there already a name for this concept?

    Suppose you have a population of dinosaurs. If there were birds, they could fly to new food sources and outcompete dinosaurs and generally have much higher fitness than they do. But right now you don’t have any birds.

    A dinosaur has to go through some transitional steps before becoming a bird. Let’s say most of those transitional steps have small fitness advantages, but a few have small fitness disadvantages.

    If DinoWorld is 100% competitive, then the half-birds with small fitness disadvantages will be eaten immediately, and birds will never come to exist.

    If DinoWorld is less competitive, then some half-birds will survive, even though they’re at a slight disadvantage, and maybe they can wander around aimlessly enough that one of them takes the next step and evolves into a full bird with a fitness advantage.

    So it’s very important that DinoWorld not be too competitive, or have far-off isolated valleys, or include some random factor where sometimes worse animals win, or something like that. If you want to evolve the “best” animals, you want some level of competitiveness between 0% and 100%.

    The same is true in any other evolving system, like capitalism. Suppose that there’s some kind of basic physics research that doesn’t look promising, but will actually invent infinite free vacuum energy. In a very competitive economy, the research never happens. In a less competitive economy, where some people are eccentric billionaires and do things for no reason, the research might happen, discover the free energy, and then take over everything and produce trillions of dollars. So it seems like one interesting parameter of an economy is how competitive it is, with some optimal number between 0% and 100%.

    What is the right keyword to look up to learn more about these kinds of dynamics?

    … there are some good answers around “fitness landscape” etc., but for a *precise* term referring to this, the best I know is “Slack” (as used by Zvi). Not a formal academic term unfortunately, but worth knowing.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Book about slack in business: Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency

      Thanks for the link to the Zvi essay.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Not sure “slack” is really getting at the concept Scott wants. “Slack” in an individual company more means spare employees who can handle surge capacity. But Scott is describing a situation where employees are deliberately not trained in best practices so they can learn future best practices more easily, which is not what any individual company would ever do. A company may let you not do anything, but they certainly would want you trained in the “right” way of doing things if you were called upon.

      In a macroeconomic context, “slack” usually means a recessionary gap/excess unemployment, defined as employment above where inflation will kick in. Targeting an increase in macroeconomic “slack” means you want to keep people unemployed, otherwise they will learn how to do business, but that’s okay, because we want them to be blank slates to learn the NEW business practices that might come around in 10 years, and it’ll be easier to learn if they’ve spent the last 10 years living in a gutter.

      But I don’t think there will be a good economic mapping because the situation for dinosaurs is not at all analogous to the situation with the economy. Physical evolution is usually a painstaking long process compared to economic evolution, and the economy has a glut of capital and plenty of extra labor if you pay me enough to work 100 hours per work. Maybe we need some more basic research R&D, but somehow the human race spent billions of dollars on the LHC, which has not given us any world-changing benefits.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Not to be harsh, but how is this concept different from flexibility?

    • littskad says:

      I mentioned this last time, but I figure it’s worth mentioning it again. The phenomenon where systems are able to leave one local optimum and reach another because of the existence of stochasticity/noise in the system (that is, if the noise is absent from the system, it can’t leave the vicinity of the stability, even if there were a better optimum elsewhere) is called “noise-induced transitions” in the stochastic processes literature. The standard text is the one by that title by Horsthemke and Lefever (who are physical chemists, if I recall correctly). In that book, they set up the basic mathematical framework and then give applications and examples in optics, physical chemistry, biological dynamics, etc. In fact, one of their major examples (see chapter 6 and later revisited in chapter 9) is exactly a genetic model which is a simplified model of exactly what Scott asked about: in the presence of a fluctuating environment, the genetics of organisms can get away from a local optimum and arrive at another optimum.

  20. realitychemist says:

    I was recently thinking about trying to put together a taxonomy of basilisks, but it seems Nick Bostrom has beat me to it. If we accept basilisks to be a subset of information hazards, he already put together a taxonomy (he used the word typology) back in 2011 in the paper Information Hazard: A Typology of Potential Harms from Knowledge.

  21. helloo says:

    Let’s try for the monthly/weekly/X-ly writing prompt thread. (Someone else please take over this responsibility if they want it, I’m not exactly a timely poster).

    Post whatever interesting scenario, question, or mad rambling that’s been squatting in your head.

    By default, feel free to take and use any idea posted here.

    • helloo says:

      Very possibly already written somewhere.

      Heaven and Hell.

      Starts of as a typical utopia-which-turned-to-be-dystopic.

      One of the leads then tries to discuss this with someone/thing responsible for managing it.
      They then state something to the effect of “why did you expect it to be a utopia for YOU/everyone?”

      The existence of a Heaven doesn’t prevent that of a Hell. But can it be described as a utopia then? or is it even a desirable state to have?

      • beleester says:

        I’m having a little trouble parsing your prompt, but I think most people would define a utopia from the perspective of all its residents – e.g., we don’t say Omelas isn’t a utopia simply because they haven’t also solved all the problems in the neighboring city of Salemo, but we do say it’s not a utopia because the child who supports the whole thing gets a pretty raw deal.

        So my response to someone saying “Why did you expect it to be a utopia for you?” would be “Uh, because that’s what any reasonable person would understand it to mean.”

        (And also “Because apparently we didn’t discuss anything at all before we launched this utopian project” because honestly how did they manage to build an entire utopian society without someone asking the question of who is it for? But that’s more of a question for the author than for the leader.)

        That said, I don’t really like arguing over definitions, since that’s just arguing over what label you stick on the same underlying reality. The real question you’re asking is something along the lines of “Is it better to have a small number of people living very happy lives, or a large number of people living less happy lives?”

        For Heaven and Hell specifically, you also add infinity into the mix. So the question there becomes if there would be any reason to exclude people from Heaven, since God doesn’t have to deal with the resource constraints that a mere mortal utopia would have to.

  22. Deiseach says:

    Oh, San Francisco. Never change? Well, maybe change a bit!

    Leaping right in to a sensitive issue with their hobnailed boots on. Now, if they’d given him the award for “his work in the power sharing assembly” then fair enough – himself and Ian Paisley got on so well they were nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers – but this is rather pushing it a tiny bit, particularly given the whole concerns around Brexit.

    It states: “Martin’s courageous service in the military and as a negotiator helped cement and shape the Northern Ireland peace process and construct the Good Friday Agreement.

    “His sacrifice and dedication to secure peace for his people is not only an inspiration to us all, but represents San Francisco values at their best. He leaves a legacy that embodies and celebrates the diverse history and strength of San Francisco and Ireland.”

    Oh yeah, this really, really does represent San Francisco values.

    There’s really only one song that can accompany this 🙂

    • The Nybbler says:

      This is the culture-war free thread (I’ll grant I don’t actually know your post is CW, but “Oh San Francisco” suggests it’s likely)

      • Enkidum says:

        Eh, I feel like mild condemnation of San Fran for literally rewarding the leader of a terrorist organization for his “military service” shouldn’t be so controversial as to count as CW? Do we have a strong contingent of Real IRA types around?

        • Evan Þ says:

          We’ve had some good discussion of retirement savings here before, so…

        • rlms says:

          More or less agreed: this is one of those topics that would be heavily CW in some circles (namely ones where people are invested in Irish independence in either direction) but isn’t here.

          • Chalid says:

            I might give it a pass if it was from someone other than Deiseach, but her whole crusade against San Francisco is CW.

          • Deiseach says:

            Chalid, I know I seem mean about San Francisco, but then they pull a stunt like this, and I get the distinct impression this is more about their own local anti-fa/SJW/jostling for wokeness points internal struggles than anything to do with Ireland.

            If they really gave a damn then they would be extra careful about being tactful and not equating the IRA with the military, especially at this time. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, got herself into hot water last week over certain comments. So yes, I resent the hell out of them using my country for cheap point scoring in their own internal little games.

            How would you feel about them issuing a Certificate of Honour to a deceased member of Hamas for “his courageous service in the military” and announcing this on “the national day of Palestine”? I think there might just be some comment nationally about this being a touch clunky?

            Or would that kind of comment just be a crusade against San Francisco?

          • Gobbobobble says:

            You’re not wrong, but your reply is also pretty good evidence that it constitutes CW

          • Nornagest says:

            For once I don’t think this has anything to do with malignant wokeness or any other Bay Area diseases. There’s just a tendency on these shores to romanticize certain aspects of the Troubles — probably because Irish-Americans, especially in the Northeast, tend to have a weird and often unreasonably rosy view on their ancestral homeland.

      • Deiseach says:

        Nybbler, not so much Culture War as Real War (or however you would like to describe The Troubles). Dobbing in that this award is for Martin’s “service in the military” on top of what would otherwise be fairly bland “peacemaking political hands across the divide yadda yadda yadda” and doing it the week before St Patrick’s Day as an ostensible gesture to the Irish is rather contentious, to say the least, particularly as there has already been some stirrings in the North and with the unsettled state of Brexit and people anticipating the starting up of shootings and bombings again in a worst-case scenario on the Border, this is Not Helping, San Francisco!

        And I mean, I’m a 32-county Republican and even I am wincing at the wording and timing of this. Is the Irish vote so strong in the City by the Bay that this is worth doing, or is it more Trendy La Résistance We Too Are A Guerilla Army Fighting Colonialism Signalling? I don’t know Mayor Breed’s particular level of politics (save that the Lucies hate her) but who, exactly, is this meant to be appealing to?

        EDIT: Maybe she’s just a mad keen fan of Derry Girls and they all thought this was a cracker of an idea?

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          I don’t know Mayor Breed’s particular level of politics (save that the Lucies hate her) but who, exactly, is this meant to be appealing to?

          Lucies? You mean Australopithecus afarensis hate her? Do they express this by throwing feces like chimpanzees?

          • Deiseach says:

            I meant the Lucy Parsons Project, an outfit I was introduced to via Reddit commentary a while back on their brave fight against gentrifying in a particular area, via supporting tweets from the SF branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

            I don’t know if you’d class it as faeces flinging, but they’ve said some unkind things about the Mayor and other black politicians/activists they deem insufficiently progressive by their lights.

        • Plumber says:


          “….Is the Irish vote so strong in the City by the Bay that this is worth[….]

          [….]I don’t know Mayor Breed’s particular level of politics (save that the Lucies hate her) but who, exactly, is this meant to be appealing to?[…]”

          First on our Mayor: she is a local girl who grew up the “Western Addition” public housing (and her older brother has been in prison for almost 20 years so far for involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery), a co-worker of mine (who still lives in “the projects” as an “in-home caretaker”) claims that he and she were in the act of romance together, but before he could finish she stopped it because “They’re roaches on me!”, now that’s local!

          As for the “Irish vote”, it’s a bit weird in that (along with those of African, Italian, and Portuguese descent) there’s just not that many Irish descended residents compared to years past,, but in terms of who works in City government Catholic school graduates form many (it used to be the overwhelming majority, and while it isn’t anymore it’s still many, you’ll find few Firefighters and Police Captains who didn’t go to Catholic schools to this day).

          It used to be that union carpenters and cops were Irish, City Hall and union plumbers were Italian (when I transferred to the San Francisco local the guys joked that I’d have to change my first name to Giacomo), the Fire Department was evenly divided (“His father is Guido and his mother’s Coleen, so he’s a fireman”), and so on.

          San Francisco is far more Asian now, and the Irish influence is more a legacy and tradition now, instead of arguing if the unions should have a parade in May (like the Longshoremen), or in September (like the building trades), now the unions march on Saint Patrick’s Day, so you’ll see many with Asian faces and Chinese last names wearing green shirts with union logos, retirement celebration dinners are often held for long time City workers at the Irish Cultural Center (and the Italian Athletic Club) despite being they’re being Filipino, et cetera. 

          The office in the building that I do most of my work in with the most “Irish” decorations this month is in one of the District Attorney’s offices, his last name is Singh.

          When I started work here there was an annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch that had been celebrated for decades, but the crew was by then overwhelmingly born in the Philippines or the Soviet Union, but it was still a tradition left over from when most of the crew was Irish sur-named.

          “Irish” in San Francisco has become sort of a symbolic synonym for “has foreign born ancestors” of everyone – a catchall instead of favoring one or another of the more dominant ethnicities (I imagine for much the same reason as India still uses the English language as a compromise) and it’s sort of a shout out to the founders of the churches, clubs, political “machines”, and unions still in use.

          The blood ties are dissipated, but traditions linger.

          In all likelihood someone in the police union passed on a request from a grandparent, or a respected retiree, to the Mayor (with a first name of London!), and she signed it without much thought.

        • Evan Þ says:

          To go off on what’s not quite a tangent, you’re the first admitted 32-county Republican I’ve met! If you don’t mind going into it a little more in your ever-engaging style, what does it mean to be a 32-county Republican these days after the Good Friday Agreement?

          • Gobbobobble says:

            And to riff off this a bit: is there a segment in the Republic who are actively opposed to reunification, even if the North voted to, or is it mainly “they don’t want to and that’s that”?

    • BBA says:

      The mayor claims the selection was made by the United Irish Societies, who run the local St. Patrick’s Day parade. I’m ready to believe her – she’s probably gotten hundreds of these symbolic resolutions to sign and doesn’t pay much attention to any of them. (Just poking around the SF government’s website, I haven’t found the actual text of the Certificate of Honor, but I have learned these certificates are also given to high school students who volunteer as poll workers, to give you a sense of what it’s worth.)

      The UIS names a grand marshal to lead the parade and several posthumous “honorary grand marshals” to honor recently deceased members of the San Francisco Irish community. I imagine it’s typical for the mayor to give certificates to each of the honorees’ families, and nothing ever happens… except this year, McGuinness is on the list, and I don’t know why. In past years, they never gave this honor to an Irish political figure, controversial or otherwise, and did McGuinness ever even visit San Francisco? I suppose that, like most other fraternal organizations, the UIS has seen its membership dwindle, and it could be small enough now that a committed radical could take over…but why bother, when the most significant thing they do is organize a parade?

    • Plumber says:


      Mayor Breed has apologized, however there is a local “politico” who is unrepentant, and I’ll try to remember to post details in the next “culture war allowed” fractional Open Thread.

  23. bean says:

    Biweekly Naval Gazing Links Post:

    I looked in detail at the design of the North Carolina class, the first of the American treaty (1930s) battleships.

    For those who would like to get down to Iowa’s engine room, but are not able to, I’ve posted a bunch of my pictures, as well as some commentary on what you’re seeing.

    I’ve continued the tale of the Spanish-American War, looking at the beginning of the blockade of Cuba.

    The Germans introduced the first guided bomb in 1943, and made extensive use of it to attack the Allied invasion of Salerno in Italy, with mixed results.

    My long-running series on the Falklands War has finally gotten to the point where the troops actually got ashore on the Falklands.

    Neal Schier has contributed again, talking about how airlines untangle the delays that happen when, say, weather shuts down a major airport.

    And as always, there’s the Naval Gazing Open Thread, this time with bonus drunken broadcasting.

    • Silverlock says:

      Bean, I have tried to comment on Naval Gazing a couple of times, but I can never get the Captcha to show. Other people can comment, so I am left with the only possible conclusion: there are gremlins at work. Or, if that is not the case, some sort of configuration problem. I have tried in Chrome and in Safari (and maybe on my phone, but I am not sure of that).

      Any ideas? Is there a magic incantation I need?

      • Evan Þ says:

        I’ve commented successfully in Edge and Firefox, so maybe changing browsers could be a workaround?

      • bean says:

        Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic incantation for you. Said Achmiz, who handles the backend technical stuff, has tried to fix this several times, and still isn’t sure what’s causing it. We also tried disabling captchas for about a week before I got tired of deleting spam and had him turn it back on. It usually seems to be intermittent, so maybe try again. I rarely have trouble on firefox. (I do sometimes comment when not logged in.)

        • Lambert says:

          How do the spambots know what the submit button is?
          Could you make a dummy ‘submit’ that does nothing, and an ‘Ignore the other button. This is the real su**it button that actually does things’ button that submits?

        • Evan Þ says:

          I’ve seen other bloggers do stuff like add a mandatory text input asking “What’s the blogger’s middle name? (Hint: His name is Scott Realcaliph Alexander)” and then throw away all comments that get it wrong.

          As long as you keep ahead of whatever super-simple AI the spammers are using, it works.

  24. niohiki says:

    Hi @Scott
    about the Psychiat-List, what do you have exactly in mind? In particular, do you want it to have a pre-moderation system for the submissions? I can work something out if you don’t need it soon (i.e. right this week). Let me know.

  25. Nancy Lebovitz says:


    The standard medical advice for getting off an antidepressant is to take a month. This works for some people, but it turns out that the is too fast for a lot people (they get significant side effects), and (as described in user forums) it can take months or years and sometimes it’s a matter of opening up the capsule and taking out one grain to go down a level.

  26. Ash says:

    Hey All – this is a meta-help request, I am pinging many different places for possible advice on this. I am a relative-to-the-norm “outsider” who has always wanted to get a PhD (economics or political economy, I am EA in the poverty space), but has never been able to figure out a way – never been able to get a real research job, going for a masters was a big dud, etc. Now I am am older outsider who either needs to, despite probably entering worse programs due to that, either do it anyway or just move on with life. Yet all PhD advice out there seems to be catered to either fresh-out-of-undergrad types who worked under professors, or is of the “how to write a personal statement” variety of phd application coaches, which is not hard to figure out. I am looking for a service, individual, etc, who can actually serve as an expert on discussing what a viable path down this road would look like, what is a viable school to apply to, etc, so I can make a decision.

    Its something I am happy to pay for, and I was hoping some people here had a similar experience given the audience here and so may have recommendations of possible people, or their own insights? Probably a goose chase, but I lose nothing from trying. If you or someone you know would have that skillset, let me know and I would be happy to try to work something out.

    • IdleKing says:

      Hi Ash – I’m actually in a very similar situation. 30 yrs old and trying to transition from the private sector to a PhD in economics or political economy. The system isn’t really set up for us!

      Maybe it would help to share our findings so far? LMK if you want to get in touch.

      • Robin Hanson was once in about your situation—I’m not sure exactly how old, but he had been out of school for quite a while. He ended up getting an econ PhD at Cal Tech.

        You could ask him for advice. My guess is that an important part of it was that he had developed a set of ideas (markets designed to generate information) that academic economists would find very interesting (as I did, corresponding with him at the time). So one possibility, if you are sufficiently bright and creative, is to do amateur work in the field that will strike the admissions/fellowship people at a university as a reason to want you as a grad student.

      • Ash says:

        Hey Mate! I would be happy to get in touch, though my findings are definitely of the “uh well here certainly is a list of schools” variety. But I would be happy to email/talk about discoveries that we may have and sources. Not sure if the system here has a DM option, alternatively one of us could just post a throwaway email, I am fine with either method less you know an optimal way and such a thing would be of interest?

        • IdleKing says:

          You can reach me at eliot.bridge at Gmail etc. (That’s not my regular address.)

          I’m quite a bit further along in the process, but thinking of bailing out and returning to the private sector. I may be able to relate secondhand some of the info/advice you’re looking for.

    • Enkidum says:

      I registered for my Master’s when I was 27, I think. Which isn’t quite the gap you’re talking about, but it isn’t far off. But I had a fairly good idea of exactly what I wanted to study, and a relatively limited number of schools I was interested in. Then I simply searched the profs at those schools, and contacted the ones whose interested most closely aligned with mine.

      In theory, there’s no penalty for having taken significant time out of school. The application process is reasonably well explained on most good schools’ websites.

      One critical thing (at least in my field) is to define a project you find interesting, which could conceivably occupy the 3-5 years of a standard PhD, that is based on up-to-date research. So you’ll have to do a LOT of reading. If you can throw in a few references to stuff the profs in question are particularly expert in, that would go a long way.

      I’m not sure if those are the kinds of answers you’re looking for, exactly, but they’re the ones I have.

      • Ash says:

        I think its the in-theory vs in-practice thing – the content itself is not a concern of mine, I could outline many a dissertation project thats well calibrated I think. Its more like – ok yes, this is the application process, but is it even worth my time to bother applying to this school? Oh, I wont have any professor recommendations since I am way out of school, how do I resolve that? What strategies can I pursue to say find some research projects that could get recommendations or ins?

        Its essentially why I think talking to sa phd version of a career coach is the ideal way, there is a lot of insider knowledge that I just wont have.

        (But I appreciate the post all the same, its good perspectives to have)

    • Ketil says:

      If all you want is the degree, it is in some places at least (e.g., here, in Norway, YMMV) possible to get a Ph.D. without following a university program. “All” you have to do is publish a sufficient number of scientific papers to your name, write them into a dissertation, and submit for evaluation. Actually, you don’t formally need the papers either, but as the work has to be substantial and publishable, having them accepted for publication by scientific journals is the indisputable way to demonstrate that. I would definitely team up with a professor or an otherwise accomplished academic to get some guidance on what topics to pursue and how to formulate those papers.

  27. Stone Soup Scientist says:

    I have a two-fold question for the SSC hive mind.

    I work at a high tier university in a major US city. Part of my job is to run an outreach organization that teaches science to low socioeconomic status students. This has become quite a successful program – approximately 20 undergraduate and graduate students volunteer for it on a weekly basis to teach around 80 middle and high school students in small group based lessons. One of the unique things about the program is that we teach the same students every week, building personal connections between volunteers and middle/high school students.

    1) With 20+ relatively dedicated volunteers (i.e., consistently willing to put in 3 hours a week for the cause), what is the best way to improve the life outcomes of these students? I am not idealistic enough to believe that the science that we’re teaching them will improve their future economic prospects; that simply generates the warm fuzzies (and grants) that help people stay dedicated to the organization. However, I do believe putting the younger students in repeated social contact with well educated undergrads from affluent families might lead to some beneficial outcomes for both parties: contacts are made, informal information on how to get into college is transmitted, and these students get first hand experience with upper middle class mores that they would need to succeed. Besides throwing people together and crossing my fingers, does anyone here know of any more directed approach that I might take in structuring the organization to improve actual outcomes? Personal experience and sources from the psychological/sociological/pedagogical literature are welcome.

    2) Are you aware of any sources of practical advice on how to escape extreme (in the American sense) poverty? Specifically, these students tend to be black and latino, if that makes a difference. I plan on interviewing people who have succeeded in these communities this summer and compile some scripts that take into account local features (e.g., specific businesses, churches, scholarships, grants, laws, etc. that they could take advantage of), but I want to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

    • albatross11 says:

      One obvious way for the connections to pay off would be for any of the kids who do well in school to get summer internship sorts of opportunities at the volunteer scientists’ institutions, or undergrad research opportunities in their labs in college, or whatever.

    • IdleKing says:

      I don’t have answers; just want to applaud the work you’re doing and the questions you’re asking!

    • Randy M says:

      edit: You asked for sources. Not sure about that. Anyway, I’ll leave this here as the obvious conventional wisdom that is nonetheless probably certainly true.

      Are you aware of any sources of practical advice on how to escape extreme (in the American sense) poverty?

      As a near requisite but not sufficient advice, they should not do hard drugs, get arrested, nor get themselves or another person pregnant. If in school, they should complete it.

      After that (and perhaps this speaks to your first question as well) they should develop basic job skills, like showing up consistently on time and sober, interacting respectfully with a boss, coworkers, customers, etc., following instructions step-by-step, focusing on a task to completion, communicating problems promptly, not taking any unsafe actions, speaking clearly, etc. Obviously literacy if lacking.

      Then staying away from credit cards and otherwise spending outside their means. I understand some people live hand-to-mouth, but if you want to actually get out of poverty, you need to at least, learn how to keep recurring expenses below income.

      As for particular opportunities that you can point them to–I don’t know. But know how to avoid blowing an opportunity once found may be useful advice to impart.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Numbers are numbers, and numbers can be boosted. Solicit donations of old SAT prep material from your volunteers.

      Talk to your school’s admissions office about the right ways to talk about things like caretaking (siblings and parents), translation services (chances are very very good that this is a HUGE part of some of these kids’ lives), informal clubs, and home duties on an application. Relay that information (tactfully, if you can).

      If you’re offering any of these students work or study opportunities, throw in some sort of take-home perk. Money disappears into a black hole of need; perks are valuable because they can’t (and therefore can’t be taken away by the family). This could be used experimental material (non-dangerous), plans or journals, or similar.

      Related: see if you can get program “graduates” to help design the curriculum. Often this involves summer projects that are paid (by that grant money). Even if they aren’t, “consult” with them.

      Make them aware of the application and fee waivers available through the College Board and other programs.

      Recognize that a good portion of the advice and life experience of your volunteers will be useless. Try to convey to volunteers that they should avoid making assumptions about the availability or affordability of programs or opportunities; this can make the kids they’re talking to feel ashamed, which is discouraging.

      Keep an eye out for things that are within easy WALKING distance of school. This is about 3 miles at the outside, probably more like 1.

      Give them reminders about things like free museum days and local library programs. If you have galleries and/or presentations on campus, invite them to stop by. Similarly, if your school offers auditable summer sessions, let them know. Making them feel like you’re Moses coming down from the mountain can decrease perceived accessibility.

      • Stone Soup Scientist says:

        Perks are a clever idea – I’ll keep that in mind and work with community leads to figure out what would be the best perks that could directly benefit particular students.

        Walking distance stuff is hard, but I’m using the existing program as scaffolding to bring more events into the region (e.g., science demonstrations at churches/community centers). There’s a general hunger to “do good”, and in the vein of EA, I’m trying to make sure that good is actually done.

        We currently do a college day, where volunteers discuss their experiences getting into college and help foster specific connections (i.e., exchanging email addresses) with students to review their paperwork and answer any questions. A handout and discussion on fee waivers and gaming the system is a large part of this day.

        We do some stuff on campus, but that has been logistically difficult. I’m going to continue working on making that a reality.

    • Plumber says:

      Stone Soup Scientist

      “…..what is the best way to improve the life outcomes of these students?…”

      Lessons on the benefits on having a high school diploma.

      Lessons on how easy it is to test and get a “California High School Proficiency Exam” diploma that is “the legal equivalent in the State of California of a regular High School diploma”, stress that unlike a G.E.D. this test must be taken before you turn 18, and will be accepted when sometimes a G.E.D. won’t. 

      Lessons on how to find a quiet and safe place to study away from the demands and noise of family and peers so they may achieve a high school diploma. 

      Lessons and where community colleges teaching air conditioning repair and welding are.

      Lessons on how to apply for Building Trade apprenticeships, and how to achieve the qualifications (start with here).

      If four-year college bound, lessons on how to pay one’s living expenses while a student. 

      Lessons on how to apply for jobs on-line (such as those of The City and County of San Francisco

      A reliable car, a cell phone, a working computer to do job searches, electricity, a place to bathe, haircuts, shaves, and an alarm clock with replacement batteries. 

      How to avoid the demands of family and get the credentials to improve one’s living standards. 

      • Evan Þ says:

        Co-sign cellphone, computer, lessons in how to use them, and lessons in applying for a job online. I come from what’s probably a much more privileged background than most of OP’s students, but applying for jobs online wasn’t at all intuitive for me in high school; it’s probably a far greater leap for them.

        Also, I didn’t realize how inconvenient it was not having a cellphone until I finally got one just before going off to college… and, again, I didn’t have to go through anything like what they probably are.

        • Stone Soup Scientist says:

          I have recorded these responses in a notebook, and I’ll definitely work on trying to make some of these a reality. This sort of practical advice is exactly what I’m looking for.

          The problem with the non-college routes is that it’s unpopular to evangelize, particularly within the higher academic culture. That being said, I probably have enough cred at this point to push it as long as I’m politic about about it.

          I understand what you mean about the demands of family (one of the problems of poverty is that you rely on others; if you do well, you’re expected to “socialize” your success, often to the point where you can’t make capital investments in yourself). Do you have any suggestions on how to explain this to students? On how to tell my volunteers to explain this to students? I have the feeling that they may be averse to doing so if I explain it like I just did.

          • Hyperfocus says:

            Hi, first-gen college grad here. I don’t have everything in common with these students, but this particular lesson is one I had to learn for myself.

            I would explain it like this: one day, disaster will strike your family. Something terrible, that would be difficult for a middle-class family’s finances to handle, but will be impossible for your family’s. It could be a natural disaster, it could be needing to hire a defense attorney*, but most likely it will be a medical emergency. When that happens, your family’s only hope will be to already be middle class, or at least for you to be middle class with a large untouched savings account. If they can’t afford to avert the disaster, someone will die or rot in prison for life.

            (*Only if you’re sure they didn’t do it. Don’t waste your money defending a guilty relative.)

            Once you have a steady paycheck, family members will start asking for money. It happened to me; it will happen to you. 99 times out of 100, this won’t be for an emergency; not the kind where someone’s life is at stake. When the real disaster strikes, you will look back at these requests as pointless leeching away of the money you needed to handle the disaster. If you gave in to the requests, you’ll never forgive yourself when your mom dies because you couldn’t afford the pacemaker she needed. So don’t give in to those requests.

            Invent an imaginary debt that you “have to pay” if you have to: buy something on the cheap that looks extravagant, but pretend like you went into debt to buy it. Then you can say “yeah, it was a stupid decision, but I still owe a ton of money on it. If I don’t pay they said they will garnish my wages/I stopped paying and now they take the money right out of my paycheck” when pressed for why you can’t buy your cousin new shoes for the first day of middle school (or whatever). The person you’re really in debt to is your future self; the one who really needs the money to buy that pacemaker surgery for mom.

            Until that day comes, build your finances and your career. Within your family and friends, keep an eye out for the ones that wouldn’t squander an opportunity if you found one for them, and try to find opportunities for them. As they start becoming more successful, meet their successful friends and make friends with them. That will help you find more opportunities for yourself (and for your friends/family that are reliable), and is what people mean when they say “network to find better jobs”. Some of your reliable friends or family (particularly parents or aunts/uncles) may have pride issues with accepting your opportunity offers: tell them it’s not a handout, it’s not even a job, it’s just a job interview, but I think you will succeed if you show up polished. Tell them that even if you totally pulled strings to make sure they will get the job. Also, if your brother/sister/friend is unreliable, or a loudmouth who refuses to follow direction *DO NOT* put your reputation on the line to get them a job. Most of them will eventually grow out of it, and then once they have clearly become employable (i.e. have their own steady-but-probably-crappy job that they don’t flake out on), then start trying to hook them up with opportunities. By the time you hit your 30s, your reliable friends/family should be breaking into middle class, and your finally-shaped-up friends/family will probably be starting their new jobs you helped them get.

            Other than money, this network of reliable people is the main advantage middle class people have over lower class people; and in fact, is a big factor in helping them get the money advantage as well.

            Finally, you can use the oxygen mask analogy (even though it seems heartless, you must secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others, or you will both suffocate), or if your students have never been on a plane, use the swimming safety rule for saving a drowning person (“reach or throw, don’t go”). The crab bucket analogy works too.

    • LesHapablap says:

      In addition to all the stuff already posted which is excellent, there ought to be a way to help people gain the cultural knowledge that separates classes. For a start I’m sure there are a wide range of modern etiquette books out there to help out.

      • DinoNerd says:

        I wasn’t as disadvantaged as these kids, but parts of this were very much an issue for me.

      • Stone Soup Scientist says:

        I’m working on a series of “How to Adult” essays for both my undergrad students and these high school students, which basically amounts to “How to maintain the ruse of being upper middle class on the cheap” (at least, that’s how I consider it on my more cynical days). If there are any books of that fashion I could suggest instead, I’d be appreciative if anyone could let me know.

        • Lambert says:

          Money Mustache Man blog, of course.
          Though it’s more about ‘on the cheap’ than ‘ruse of umc’.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Exposure to upper-middle-class stuff like the New Yorker and so forth? Upper middle class on the cheap, in my experience, is about being thrifty and justifying it whilst being able to small-talk (eg, buy good but cheap wine, and make small talk about how wine tasting is a scam).

          If you personally want an amusing take on this, read Class by Paul Fussell.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Doesn’t “how to adult” include more practical stuff like “how to balance a checkbook” and “how to pay bills on time” and “the importance of folding laundry”?

          I’m not sure if there is a book about looking rich for cheap, but there sure are a hell of a lot of google hits. You need to buy a used car that looks nice, travel to cheap but instagrammable areas, economize your non-public meals, buy nice clothes from thrift shops, and then just talk about whatever popular show the UMC people like right now. Like, everyone is watching GOT: you don’t need to watch it, just look at an episode recap that posts 2 hours after GOT airs and you can pretend you’ve seen it, too!

          • Randy M says:

            …What is the importance of folding laundry?

          • Stone Soup Scientist says:

            Perhaps I was a little too glib; I was thinking of something like basic home-economics (how to balance a checkbook, how to cook cheaply/quickly/nutritiously) with some info on how to avoid money traps (certain behaviors in bars, getting cable, car payments, the latest iPhone) while still having a good time and not appearing miserly. Many people will drive themselves into poverty to not look poor, so it seems like any guide to being an adult should take that into account. Not to go full Robin Hanson, but signaling is pretty important.

            I’ll take a look at the Class book. Thanks!

          • JonathanD says:


            If you don’t fold or hang your laundry promptly, your clothes will be wrinkly. Wrinkly clothes will read as slovenly for most people. (Some people can pull off absentminded and rumpled, but most can’t.)

          • ana53294 says:

            Why do you need to balance your checkbook?

            I use a debit card for most transactions, and at the end of the month I get a nicely detailed report that details all incoming/outgoing transactions, and where and how it was spent.

            Or are you referring to the simple action of opening your online banking account, and going over your expenses to make sure there is no suspicious activity and that you are not underwater?

            Because “check your online statement” seems much easier than “balance checkbook”. Unless they do it in cash, in which case it is harder, and you have to keep some kind of tally.

            That is indeed something you need to learn; I have been robbed because of not checking, and my bank refused to return me the money because it was too late (I only noticed it half a year later).

          • Don P. says:

            I think “balance your checkbook” was more important when your transaction were actually checks that might not deposited right away; you need to know, not only how much your reported balance is now, but how much it will be after everything has cleared.

            Also: did I make any arithmetic errors?

            And all in the service of, big picture, do I have enough money to spend what I intend to spend soon?

          • Randy M says:

            Right, balancing your checkbook means being aware of pending transactions so you don’t overdraw. If you want, you can replace it with “use debit card and check account balance on line before making any unusual purchases.”

            Re Laundry, I hang up my nice shirts and my T-shirts don’t seem to wrinkle.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Unfolded laundry quickly looks like crap, particularly most business casual clothes. Folded laundry is also easier to put away and sort through.

            I’d also recommend young guys own an iron and learn how to use it, because dress shirts often look bad if they are unironed.

            “Balance your checkbook” at this point is just the common colloquial for all sorts of financial planning tasks you might be doing. I don’t think I’ve balanced a checkbook since high school.

          • John Schilling says:

            The 21st-century concern is not so much that you’ll overspend due to not noticing a check in transit, but that you’ll overspend because one of the various entities you’ve authorized to automatically debit / withdraw from your account went and took a lot more money than you were expecting.
            Either way, you should be actively keeping to some sort of budget, and any ledger or spreadsheet that does that should incidentally “balance your checkbook” in the original sense of the word.

    • johan_larson says:

      The US military has been a way up from poverty for many. The pay for enlisted men and women kind of sucks, but there are all sorts of secondary benefits, including the GI Bill to pay for college or other training once you get out. The military also doesn’t require you to pay for your own training, unlike pretty much every other sector of the economy.

      Having a military recruiter come in to explain to your kids what the military has to offer, and (more importantly) what it takes to get in, might be useful. The big ways to get rejected are failing to graduate from high school, letting yourself get really out of shape, and getting a criminal record or a drug habit. Less obviously, some tattoos are a problem, as are dependents.

      • Evan Þ says:

        On the other hand, if you do this, also have a less-biased source explain the disadvantages of the military. (Or, if you can’t get a less-biased source, how about a biased-in-the-opposite-direction source?)

        • johan_larson says:

          Laudable in principle at least. But who could knowledgeably argue against military service? Someone who served but really hated it?

          Also, what’s the path to a better life for someone who manages to graduate from high school and isn’t just working-class/poor but damn near destitute? There are lots of programs that make training cheap or free, but these people need to worry about living expenses too. So, unskilled labor plus night school?

          • Incurian says:

            Laudable in principle at least. But who could knowledgeably argue against military service? Someone who served but really hated it?

            A group of people, each of which (whom?) did exactly one term and got out, would probably give a fairly balanced assessment of military life.

          • Nick says:

            each of which (whom?)

            It’s each of whom, yeah.

          • woah77 says:

            As just such a person, I can give you the cliff notes of it: It sucks, but I learned a lot of important life lessons that keep paying dividends every year. The benefits of service have aided in propelling myself from lower middle class to upper middle class with minimal hassle, and the ability to put Veteran on my resume aids with interviews greatly.

    • AG says:

      The thing I resent having never been taught are basic Home Ec finance things.
      Teach them to do their taxes. Teach them what getting loans for a car, student loans, mortgage, etc., really actually means vs. their daily living costs. Teach them how to budget. Teach them what the actual costs of college are, so they can figure out how much money they need to make or how much scholarship help they need or what kind of job they should pursue to make it worth it. Show them what the expected pay ranges are for various STEM jobs, and how much of that pay will go to student loans, so therefore what kind of apartment they can afford or how long they have to save (and how much) before they can start looking for a house or condo (and in what price range).
      Teach them how to evaluate deals. Are they getting ripped off on their data plan? What price range for a new phone is worth it? How can they search for alternatives? Is there a mesh network program in their area? Are they buying food in a smart way? How to determine if it’s more worth it to take public transport somewhere vs. driving? How much will taking this vacation impact their finances? Are they getting the best deal on the various costs for this trip?

      But in terms of actually improving outcomes, yeah, it’s all about providing actual opportunities for them to apply for jobs/internships, undergraduate/high school research programs (or even just being a lab technician), and the like.
      And don’t forget that it’s not necessarily about getting them into college, either! Teach them to look for and apply to vocational opportunities that they might not know about, otherwise. Professional lab techs can be paid fairly well.

      Also, don’t underestimate the advantage that basic computer literacy brings. A lab tech that knows how to use Excel and navigate file paths can be actually more valuable than someone with 10+ years of technical experience, but has trouble adjusting to new test software.

      • LesHapablap says:

        Steve Wozniak used to go to disadvantaged primary schools, loan the kids powerbooks for the year and give them lessons in using all types of software and basic networking. It would have made a great impact.

        • albatross11 says:

          It must have made a great impact, but if ever there was a case for doing your altruism by working more hours and making more money….

          …thinking more about it, though, maybe exposing the kids to a one-of-a-kind genius had some kind of impact that made it worthwhile.

      • Stone Soup Scientist says:

        Computer literacy is definitely something we work on, and that’s a really easy sell to the grant giving agencies. We do some basic coding (using code.org for help) and it seems to work pretty well.

        I’ve snuck some home-ec classes into the curriculum (“The Chemistry of Taste”), because I do agree that this is a major issue; cultural knowledge on how to effectively run a household has decayed in the face of advertising and convenience (“Buy 1 microwaveable dinner instead of 5 lbs of potatoes!”). I’ll try to sneak more real world problems in with the science education, and use the existing connections as a scaffold to build these programs.

        I’ve added what you’ve said to my notes, and I’ll try to bring these ideas into the curriculum for next year.

        • AG says:

          I’m reminded that a few studies have shown that many kids will grasp math concepts much more easily if framed in terms of a real world application, rather than in theoretical terms. Specifically, in money terms. Instead of using generic word problems, using actual applications from their life may help their academic thinking, as well. “Buy 1 microwaveable dinner instead of 5 lbs of potatoes!” or “do I save money driving further out to fill up my gas at that station with the cheaper price?” put in terms of algebra, or calculating how to split the rent for game theory, or using Amazon or Yelp reviews to illustrate various statistical concepts.

          And for helping them get into the coding mindset, having them work through debugging Excel formulas for similar real-world applications is excellent, as well as giving them the skills to be capable of using Excel flexibly at work. For example, the Excel formula to detect duplicates uses the dot product! You can start them on the road to linear algebra, but also how to think about stepping in and out of functions!

          The biggest computer literacy issue at my workplace is file navigation. Learning the folder hierarchy and searching for files without getting lost is surprisingly difficult for many people!

          • Aapje says:

            Story-based math seems to help girls and those with a good grasp of language, but harm boys and people with poor language skills.

            I suspect that the boy/girl difference is in part due to boys being more systematizing and that a study that correlates the effectiveness of story-based math with a systematizing tendency will find a significant negative correlation.

            If so, teaching math that way might make systematizing people dislike math, while those are exactly the kind of people that could become programmers. I don’t think that people-oriented persons are ever going to enjoy it, even if they do better at math.

            The biggest computer literacy issue at my workplace is file navigation. Learning the folder hierarchy and searching for files without getting lost is surprisingly difficult for many people!

            Yes, many people clearly have great difficulty creating a good abstract mental model, so even their position in a basic hierarchy is a mystery to them.

          • AG says:


            No gender effect described.

            Do systematizing math people still need to learn how to do their taxes and go shopping without getting ripped off? Yes they do.

            In addition, recall that Stone Soup Scientist’s program is an outreach program. Presumably, systematizer types are already doing well in math, and do not need this additional outreach.

            As for computer literacy, most of it seems to come down to experience. Some of those people who can’t use Windows Explorer to save their lives are perfectly capable of finding the apps they need on their smartphone, because they’re familiar with their smartphone. Younger employees are much more likely to know how to navigate folders simply because they grew up with computers.

      • LesHapablap says:

        For the computer stuff I would focus on how to use cut/copy/paste, how email works, gmail, and basic microsoft word/excel/powerpoint. Social media might be good too especially around ‘don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your boss to see.’

      • Evan Þ says:

        On basic computer literacy, here’re some points from how I’ve helped my mom over the past fifteen years:

        * How to open applications. How to manage tabs inside an application.
        * How to use web search, including how to recognize better v. worse sites.
        * How to use URL’s, including how to recognize domain names and SSL.
        * How to comparison-shop online and read reviews
        * How to use email, including heuristics for recognizing spam.
        * How to use basic Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, etc. features.
        * How to have enough confidence to hunt for features in Word, Powerpoint, etc. that you haven’t used before or don’t remember how to find.
        * What the folder hierarchy is and how to use it.
        * How to use copy/paste.
        * What antivirus software is and why it’s important.
        * What software updates are and what to do with them.
        * How and why to use privacy settings on social media.

      • Tenacious D says:

        Teach them how to evaluate deals.

        To this I’d add teaching them how to shop around for services (or basically anything that isn’t sitting on a store shelf with a price tag on it). You could walk through the whole general procedure of calling around for a few quotes, asking for references/certification/insurance as needed, and negotiating where appropriate.

    • SamChevre says:

      From personal experience, one thing to keep in mind is that simply having an idea of what non-poor culture is like can be helpful. (I grew up Amish-Mennonite, in Appalachia.) When I was 18, I knew 3 people that I know to have graduated from college–and they were my parents’ age or older (family doctor and two extended family members). I had no idea what any white-collar job other than doctor was, except a vague idea of accounting based on tax preparation. I had a vague concept of “businessman”, but the examples I had were either skilled tradesmen who did contract work, or storekeepers.

      So particular skills, and particular advice, are helpful–but anything that helps people see what the options that are normal to a different culture are will be hugely valuable. If there’s any way to get paid internships doing even basic data entry or tidy up the lab type work, the exposure will be valuable.

      One key pitfall: many tips above assume that if they advocate for themselves, their experience will be like yours. It very likely will not. Their self-advocacy will come off as aggressive or as ignorable–complaining effectively, and shopping effectively, and negotiating effectively, are culturally specific skills.

      • SamChevre says:

        So, things that were helpful to me; these might point in useful directions.

        I started out with a huge advantage; while my parents hadn’t graduated from college, one of my grandfathers and one of my uncles had. But I didn’t know them well. What was helpful was all the people I met when I did construction who had white-collar jobs, and took the time to give me a little picture of their life–the person who told me what kind of clothes to wear to fit in (an oxford blue shirt and jeans), the lawyer who told stories about how he decided to become a lawyer, and so forth.

  28. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Star Wars: objectively a theatrical spectacle?

    So I mentioned a couple OTs ago that I started watching the SW: Clone Wars cartoon at a friend’s instigation. I just found out that during its run on Cartoon Network, this series averaged ~2 million viewers (per Wikipedia). Before Solo, the lowest inflation-adjusted gross for a Star Wars movie was Attack of the Clones at $482,820,300 domestic. Since the adjustment numbers would be based on a Q1 2019 average price of $9.11 per ticket, that was 53 million domestic views. In other words, >98% of people who liked Star Wars enough to see every movie that came out didn’t care about the TV series.
    Is it a hasty inference to say this means Star Wars’s niche is objectively theatrical spectacle, story doesn’t matter unless you screw up severely?

    • Randy M says:

      Clone Wars was a cartoon. The people who like seeing it on film may well not enjoy cartoons in the same way.
      If HBO had done episodes 7-9 as a miniseries instead of Disney as theatrical releases, I’d wager it would be quite popular.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Game of Thrones took until its 4th season to break 5 million viewers per episode, Star Wars would likely have been more popular on HBO, but TV just doesn’t have the same numbers that movies do.

        • Randy M says:

          But GoT also didn’t come in with a Star Wars audience, it came in with a popular genre book audience.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The Walking dead opened up its run on AMC averaging over 5 million viewers per episode and was over 10 million by its 3rd season.

            Star Wars viewership on HBO might (would) have been more than GoT but HBO just isn’t going to draw in 10s of millions of viewers. The Sopranos only averaged 10 million an episode once, True Detective didn’t break 3, Curb was I think 8.5 per regularly (wikipedia doesn’t have numbers).

          • Randy M says:

            Okay. I don’t have data, so I’m not going to push the point, but I was more thinking about a quality live action show versus a cartoon show, rather than the merits of a particular network.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I’m just mostly pointing out how different TV and Movie viewer-ships are, and then that there are sub types of TV viewer ships.

            I don’t have any idea how to address the cartoon/non cartoon stance, The Simpsons were wildly popular as their own show, Family Guy had good ratings and South Park has been on for decades now. None of these are action shows though.

          • Randy M says:

            Eh, thinking about it more, I think Pixar pretty much disproves my hypothesis that the average movie-goer is less ready to root for/identify with a cartoon character.
            There may be some weirdness about seeing animated characters as the peers of real people.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Movies are just a different medium than TV. The Simpsons opened averaging 28 million viewers an episode in the US, by the time their movie came out in 2007 it had fallen to 9.5 million, but their movie still made > $500 billion worldwide. Viewership has fallen to 4 million an episode, but they could probably gross a few hundred million with the release of another mediocre movie.

      Movies are less of a commitment, 10 bucks and a few hours of your time, at your choosing- while a TV series is asking for buy in on characters with longer term payoffs.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        The Simpsons opened averaging 28 million viewers an episode in the US, by the time their movie came out in 2007 it had fallen to 9.5 million, but their movie still made > $500 billion worldwide. Viewership has fallen to 4 million an episode, but they could probably gross a few hundred million with the release of another mediocre movie.

        Interesting comparison, thanks.

    • Gobbobobble says:

      Cartoon Network is a children’s channel

    • baconbits9 says:

      The other complaint about this line of reasoning is that a 22 episode series that averages 2 million viewers per episode is viewed 44 million times, while you are basically counting every individual viewing at the theater as a unique person. Wikipedia says there were 121 episodes, at 2 million per that 242 million views.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        That’s bad math. They didn’t have 242 million viewers who each watched only 1 episode, and normal people don’t go see a movie 121 times.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Isn’t that the point? You can’t note that 98% of Star Wars fans missed a series that was asking for 60 hours (assuming 30 mins an episode) worth of viewing time without mentioning the 60 hours of viewing time.

          They are different mediums pulling in different viewers with different revenue streams.

    • John Schilling says:

      Is it a hasty inference to say this means Star Wars’s niche is objectively theatrical spectacle, story doesn’t matter unless you screw up severely?

      Mostly, it means that ~98% of the people who watched the movie are not geeks and therefore either did not know that the cartoon existed or did not know that cartoons were anything more than pure geek fodder and therefore did not for one second consider the possibility that they would enjoy them.

  29. bullseye says:

    Whenever I read about the Three Musketeers, they always say that, while the king and cardinal are rivals in the novel they were not in real life. But it seems to me that they aren’t rivals in the novel either; the king goofs off all day while the cardinal runs the country, and they’re both happy about this arrangement. Characters who don’t like the cardinal accuse him of being the the king’s rival, but it’s a lie.

    I was reminded of this because of the mention of the pliable king in the Bible thread. The king in the Three Musketeers never does anything unless someone else (usually the cardinal) talks him into it.

    • shakeddown says:

      They’re something inbetween. The king knows he isn’t very good at running the country and got the cardinal to do it, but the king also feels like he *should* be running the country and resents the cardinal for actually being good at it. There’s a conflict of worldviews where everyone knows the cardinal running the country is the reasonable, practical option, but everyone in the book kinda hates being reasonable and practical.

  30. weird_library says:

    I’ve got a fairly broad, non-specific question for Scott or anyone else if they’ve got thoughts.

    I’ve been interested in writing more seriously as a regular practice and potentially developing it into something more than just a hobby. In particular, I’m interested in what I would broadly call creative non-fiction, though I don’t love that term; what I’m interested in is not too far from what Scott or some of the other writers in the rationalist community do, though I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a rationalist.

    I know what I need to do to is just write more than I do, but I’m having a lot of trouble getting my feet off the ground. I read the kinds of things Scott writes, and while I like to think I’m okay at expressing myself in the written word, I know there’s a gulf from the brief, mostly non-serious things that I’ve written and the longer, more involved works I really want to be creating, and I have a tendency to get overwhelmed. I’ve recently worked to dedicate much more time to reading, and I’m definitely starting to see some changes in the way I think about things and my attention span, but I’m still dragging my feet when it comes to building writing into my daily life.

    Anyone have any thoughts on concrete practices on improving writing and building habits specifically for the serious-minded non-fiction writer? There’s a ton of info online about writing practices, but the things I’ve seen seem more geared toward fiction writing hobbyists, and are a bit touchy-feely for my tastes.

    To clarify a bit, I know that a pretty substantial part of my hesitation comes from fear that what I write will not be good enough/will be worthless (this post, for example, took me a while to write and I couldn’t prevent myself from editing to clarify after posting), so I’m interested in methods that emphasize just writing and having something to show for it whether or not the output of any given day is worth much (though of course I hope it will at some point be worth something and coalesces into something more concrete and cohesive).

    Even a pointer in the “write” direction (sorry) would be much appreciated. Thanks!

    • Orpheus says:

      You could start an effort post series.

    • mendax says:

      I know that a pretty substantial part of my hesitation comes from fear that what I write will not be good enough/will be worthless

      Hopefully I can dispel some of your fear and uncertainty.
      When you start out, what you write will not be good enough, much of it will be worthless.
      Same as if you were to take up any other art or sport. This doesn’t mean you should quit or are lacking in some ‘talent’.

      Here are some mantras: Fail early fail often. Worse is better. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Done is better than good.

      Something I do when I find myself writing and re-writing and editing is to give myself permission to be bad. I say, “Okay, today I am going to write a bad post.” No lives are on the line, it’s a hobby not a job, no one will know or trace it back to me, so it’s okay for what I write to be bad. And then I write and it’s bad and I’m done and I’ve actually written something instead of editing it five times before deleting it. Progress.

      More to your point, have you read Scott’s advice on Nonfiction Writing?

      • How can someone, when first starting out, tell the difference between them just being inexperienced at writing vs just not being good?

        • Plumber says:

          @Wrong Species

          “How can someone, when first starting out, tell the difference between them just being inexperienced at writing vs just not being good?”

          What is the difference?

          Isn’t that the same dilemma in deciding to learn any skill?

          I strongly suspect that as well as “practice makes perfect” young minds are more plastic so “he who hesitates is lost”, when you’re older you just assume it will take even more practice.

          • In some skill sets, it’s more obvious. In sports, you can play a game against other people and even if you’ve never played before, it’s immediately obvious if you have talent. Someone musically gifted might play an instrument competently faster than others. Is there any sign that differentiates a bad, inexperienced writer from an inexperienced but promising writer?

          • Plumber says:

            @Wrong Species,

            I’m more inclined to credit age, opportunity, and practice rather than “natural talent”, the “red-shirted” effect of kids being simply closer to being closer to being too old to meet the cut off age doing better in athletic competitions early and major league players being majority born in those months is well known, the same pattern is still seen (albeit to a lesser extent) in academics.

            I remember being between jobs and a social worker had me take a test of my “career personality test” which declared that I should be an accountant, astronomer, or mathematician, based on my inclinations – which would be great to know if I was a teenager with a dump truck full of money – but pretty useless when I’m in my 30’s with a family to support.

            “Talent” is bogus, skill is from opportunity and practice, with age a factor as the younger you start practicing the more effective the lessons

          • Nornagest says:

            Most of those career personality tests are MBTI variants. Which I’ve defended elsewhere in these comments, but which I’d only trust slightly more than a horoscope to guide something as important as career decisions.

          • @Plumber

            That’s just not true. At all. Olympic athletes aren’t better than everyone else because they just have a lot of gumption. They have more talent. There’s no alternative world where I’m better than LeBron James at basketball. To believe that is ludicrous. Do you think it’s a coincidence that NBA players are almost all abnormally tall?

        • Walter says:

          I dunno that there is a difference, yeah? Like, anyone who writes stuff that isn’t good could theoretically tap different keys, and would do that if they knew people wanted it, and cared.

    • Randy M says:

      know that a pretty substantial part of my hesitation comes from fear that what I write will not be good enough/will be worthless

      I know the feeling. I don’t have a method, but a motto that works for me is, “This might not be good; it might not even be original, but it will improve my skill.”
      You don’t have to be great if you’re humble, and over time you will improve.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Consider getting a Tumblr, or some other social media account, then friending people you like.

      It’s a low-pressure environment and if you get positive feedback on the things you write that can make it a lot easier to keep writing.

  31. Radu Floricica says:

    I’ve stumbled on this image on social media and I realized that yes, I don’t really know any European digital companies. Anybody has any idea as to why? Regulations come to mind, but can they generate that much of a difference? Especially with EU being (still) reasonably diverse.

    • Aapje says:

      One obvious answer is that the image is bullshit. It counts entire conglomerates as ‘valuable platforms.’ What platform does Samsung make? Their most important source of income is mobile phones and semiconductors. If they count, why not Nokia?

      Why not count Ahold Delhaize, which owns both supermarkets and e-commerce platforms (including the Dutch equivalent of Amazon)? They are worth about 29 billion dollars. Of course, nowadays all big supermarkets have an online presence, so why not count Tesco, Carrefour, Lidl, Aldi, etc?

      The value of Naspers seems to come primarily from their investment in Tencent at the right time. They are not worth 120 billion dollars due to their own strengths (unless you count investment acumen, but that has nothing to do with developing platforms).

      Why is SAP on there? They make enterprise software. How is that a platform? If they count, why is Oracle not on there?

      So the image seems extremely questionable, to say the least.

      Another possible answer is that Europe is more fragmented and diverse. In the USA, if you dominate the American market, you will have huge clout and income. In Asia, the same goes for China. Once this home base is secured, the company then has the means to expand internationally aggressively.

      This is far less true for Europe. Dominate France, Germany or England and you can expect 10-20% of the income of a company that dominates the US, even though the costs won’t be 1/10th-1/20th. The demand on the company leadership also won’t be 1/10th-1/20th.

      So you get a (relative) downward spiral. European companies fall behind in the first place because the same effort gains them less. Then they have less means so they can make less of an effort, which means they fall behind further, etc. Furthermore, having a weak home market (that tends to be more loyal) results in difficulty weathering downturns.

      The big behemoths tend to hover up smaller companies anyway. For example, Shazam is one of the most popular apps and was bought by Apple. The Dutch Ebay-variant was bought by Ebay. Etc.

      • Kuiperdolin says:

        Samsung makes (“**not quite forces**”) you to create a account on some sort of Samsung platform/social club to use their phones, I think that’s what they count. Most people log into it once when they change phones (it allows you to clone your parameters from your old Samsiung phone to the new one) and that’s it, but technically I suppose it’s true.

        Dunno if Nokia does the same, but they’re not nearly as big as Samsung smartphone-wise.

      • Radu Floricica says:

        I was talking with a friend and he gave me the same argument you did: smaller markets, too fragmented to scale etc. So you’re probably right. But I think there’s also something more basic: US had first mover advantage, and now everything interesting is being bought by their investment funds. So the picture is more like plain old Extremistan, except China is too protectionist to allow it.

  32. Rosatrix says:

    Recently I came across an article on here “The Toxoplasma of Rage” about rage cycles within society based on often political and social issues and it occurred to me that these, recently have been started by advertising campaigns. The two obvious examples of this to me are the Colin Kaepernick Nike ad and the Gillette “The Best Men Can Be” line. Both of these seem to “work” because it polarises the population in half. It begs the question whether in an environment we are told is increasingly becoming ‘polarised’ whether this will increase, whether this will drive the two tribes further apart from each other and to what end. I would love other perspectives.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Is this meta-culture war?

      I would say “yes.” They’re testing to see whether or not “all press is good press.” Can you drive sales up by making half your customers hate you? We’ll find out when we see Proctor & Gamble’s earnings reports.

      If so, get ready for great new slogans like “McDonald’s: I’m Lovin’ It, Unless You’re a Republican In Which Case Fuck You” and “Built Ford Tough for Republicans but Not Pansy-Ass Democrats.”

      • Rosatrix says:

        I’m not sure whether it is an extension of the culture war or just opportunism around its fringes, either way it could have a terrible effect on culture.

        Imagine walking down the street and knowing which tribe someone belonged to, to an extent this already occurs… But everything may become political.

        My ultimate hope though is that people may wise up to this opportunism and take a cynical view of it. This may have further complications though

      • EchoChaos says:

        I welcome our new Culture-War combat between Chik-Fil-A “Only for Christians, get out you unbaptized heathens” versus Trader Joes “Trample the Bible for half off produce today only!”

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          Someone should create a sentimental map out of all these CW domains, and then we could hold Diplomacy games on it. #onlyOnSSC

      • vV_Vv says:

        Can you drive sales up by making half your customers hate you? We’ll find out when we see Proctor & Gamble’s earnings reports.

        Given that the message is designed to be popular with women, who don’t have beards, and male feminists, who anecdotally (*) seem to go for either the unshaven neckbeard style or fancy hipster beards, it seems that they are pissing off more than half of their customers.

        Maybe they are aiming at increasing the sales of “female” razors for leg shaving (which are more expensive than the normal “male” ones even though the only difference is that the handle is pink) even at a loss of sales to male customers, though I’m not sure that it makes financial sense.

        (* I can’t find actual studies on correlations between facial hair style and political affiliation, that sounds like something somebody should have studied, but Google is not helping)

        • Dan L says:

          I can’t find actual studies on correlations between facial hair style and political affiliation, that sounds like something somebody should have studied, but Google is not helping

          I’m not going to make any claims to its quality, but…

          Razor’s Edge: The Politics of Facial Hair

          (Also, there’s sketchy evidence from older studies/cohorts that hippies drive an opposite effect.)

          • achenx says:

            Isn’t this a plot point in Cryptonomicon? Randy’s ex-girlfriend writes a thesis on facial hair and… it wouldn’t have used the term “toxic masculinity”, but essentially that. Hadn’t connected that with the Gillette thing until now, but I guess Stephenson wins again.

            My favorite Stephenson prediction though is the widespread return of graphical pictures with semantic meaning, in The Diamond Age. With how Japanese-influenced the early Stephenson books are, I’m almost surprised he didn’t use the word “emoji”.

          • toastengineer says:

            I think connecting Stephenson’s pictographs (don’t remember what they were called…) to emoji is a bit of a stretch. Remember that an emoji’s semantic meaning rarely directly matches the picture, and varies between cultures; I’ve never seen anyone use 🔥 to refer to a literal fire or say “hey guys let’s get some 🍺s and watch the 🏈 game” “ooh I’ll bring the 🍗.” I can’t imagine a chicken restaurant putting 🍗 on their menu, especially since emoji don’t have a standard representation anyway, making them no more useful than just including a picture of something.

            That’s what Stephenson implied his symbols to mean; they were standard pictographs that had their own consistent meaning. You want a mattress from the universal assembler, you press the mattress icon on the touch screen. There’s no mattress emoji, though there are elves and several orcs.

            I’ve pretty much only seen emoji used as a joke, or, yanno, the eggplant and the peach and the squirty liquid. But then maybe I’m just 🔅.

      • rlms says:

        This marketing magazine says the Gillette campaign was net negative, at least in the UK.

    • Aapje says:


      Stereotypes are often seen as being negative, but very, very many people willingly adopt stereotypical ‘uniforms’ because they want to be stereotyped. For an extreme example, see the punker with a mohawk, leather, spikes and studs.

      The reason is that its actually really irritating to be judged individually (or to judge individually), as it effectively means that you have to give lots of information to every new person you meet and that the other person is burdened by having to digest and remember all of this.

      It’s much easier for both parties for you to present as a stereotype, so you only have to give very limited information and the other person can deduce things about you by assuming that you match the stereotype.

      This in turn means that brands can gain (or lose) sales if they become associated with a stereotype. It can become more or less mandatory to buy that brand/product as part of the uniform.

      Companies are not merely passive in this regard, as they can convince people that their product is part of the uniform. For example, DeBeers famously worked very hard to convince people that an expensive diamond ring is part of the ‘loving husband’ stereotype.

      As stereotypes can also be political/culture war, the stereotypes and brands can thus cater to a side, in an attempt to become part of the uniform for that side.

      • Rosatrix says:

        I agree that stereotypes are often a way of projecting character in a short period of time, its something we probably all do consciously or otherwise.

        My concern comes from defining yourself as part of a group that necessarily has an out group.

        We only have to look at two fashion subcultures, the rockers and the mods of the 50s. They defined themselves, to some degree, by not being the other and it ended acrimoniously.

        However the groups that are being targeted right now are not niche but mainstream. Brighton Beach has been limited to social media but could easily spill out into the real world.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          My concern comes from defining yourself as part of a group that necessarily has an out group.

          There’s a train of thought that basically says this is unavoidable. I am not completely sold on that understanding, but I definitely lean that way. I think the only way to avoid such a situation is if everyone always agrees about every [important] topic. One of the most important topics is “how to allocate scarce resources.” I don’t think it’s impossible to do so in a fair and consistent manner, but it seems to be one of the hardest Hard problems. There are too many competing definitions of “fair” to even really have the conversation, for one.

          • Rosatrix says:

            That’s a fair point

            I think, possibly, that this way of thinking is too binary. It sorts people, into two groups; right/left, vegan/non vegan, old/young… And eventually good and bad. I agree that society, and in response marketing, is headed in this direction.

            Wouldn’t it be better if there were more groups to identify with? Instead of blue group and red group, there could be (and forgive this horribly twee metaphor) a rainbow of colours.

            It seems this new advertising could be fanning the flames of polarisation

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            We could do better, and in many areas of interest we have a huge variety and everyone respects the differences. Think of hobbies, for instance.

            The reason we tend to drift towards two opposing options is that the efficient way to win in a competitive environment (where the stakes are high enough to be competitive and not everyone can get their way) is to form the largest coalition possible. In that kind of environment, there are only two stable states. One in which an overwhelming majority gets their way, end of discussion, or two, where principles and nuance get replaced with partisanship and forcing people to select one of the two competing possibilities. Adding in a third or fourth or further option just ends up splitting the coalitions and making them less competitive. 3rd party candidates can have this effect, which is why they get treated so derisively by the main parties.

            From the perspective of a losing party in scenario one, compromising on some values in order to not lose every time makes sense. So even a 60% “stable” majority will be eroded as the 40% offers more and more concessions to the people on the margin until such time as they can start winning at an acceptable rate.

            Solutions include making fewer things scarce (production), or building larger steady majorities. Otherwise, I expect that we will find increasing partisanship. Note what we tend to fight about today in the US is not “I need clothing” – because we could produce more and solve the problem. Instead it’s non-excludable goods, like immigration. Or the personal becoming the political, as with the abortion debate.

          • Aapje says:

            @Mr. Doolittle

            The American system is set up to force duality. Other countries have competitive political systems where more diversity is realistically possible.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Yes, and that is more effective at reducing partisanship than only having two parties. But they still form coalitions explicitly, and “coalition governments” that follow the same pattern of compromise in order to form a majority.

            Ultimately, I’m not seeing much less “Rage” in France (Macron, yellow vest) or the UK (Brexit) than the US, despite a broader group of parties.

          • Aapje says:

            You seem to be conflating orthogonal, if not partially opposed things.

            Diversity is a matter of access (to the halls of power and/or to actually wield power).

            Partisanship is a matter of (lack of) agreement.

            You can get less partisanship by excluding those with different ideas. Then you have achieved agreement by way of exclusion. Of course, removing the partisanship from politics that way doesn’t actually make it disappear from society. It makes people feel unrepresented and abused.

            Another way to achieve less partisanship is to compromise. This works very well if a solution exists that achieves the major goals of the people involved, where the sacrifices that the compromise demands is a relatively minor cost to one side, but a major boon to the other. Or when achieving one half of your goal is considered much more valuable than achieving the other half. It doesn’t work well if people are strongly opposed about the exact same thing and/or if achieving a goal partially is not valued more or even valued less than achieving a goal fully.

            So the room for compromise is in large part dictated by people’s beliefs & values, not by the political system. A system can encourage compromise, but it cannot in itself make a compromise acceptable.

            As for France and England, they both have cultures that are hostile to compromise and have political systems that are hostile to diversity.

            For example, politicians in France are mostly elected in a winner-take-all manner just like in the US, albeit with a two-round system, rather than the American primaries system. French people are known for not accepting decisions by their government, often trying change them through disruptive demonstrations.

            In England, MPs are also elected in a winner-take-all election. Despite claims to the contrary, the UK doesn’t actually have a proper coalition government right now, as the Cabinet is entirely composed of Conservatives. The hostility to coalitions is also evident in May’s behavior, as she never seriously tried to court Labour for a Brexit deal.

            Anyway, a major issue with the current rage is that the globalists have, even in countries where coalition and compromise is more common, been quite resolved in not catering to certain desires. In my country, that went so far as to hold referendums that the globalists fully expected would result in support for their policies and then repeatedly doing the opposite of the result, when a majority of voters turned out to desire the ‘wrong’ thing.

            It seems rather obvious to me why people get very angry and start to doubt the democratic nature of the system in the face of that.

    • AG says:

      You act like advertising hasn’t always been defining what the heights of masculinity and femininity are. The only difference is that the backlash against them has been more on the resigned side, rather than taking things so personally.

      As for where polarised marketing will continue to be effective, it depends on how corporations want to make their money. If product lines are consolidated, they’ll want to market to a broader swath of people, be less offensive. But if product lines are diversified, they’ll want to target more niche people.

      An example of the latter is how basically the entire snack aisle is owned by the same conglomerate, who has bought most all of the various mainstream brands. So they air some sneering hippie ads to target the health crowd by buying organic snacks or whatever, but also air some populist ads to make them buy the base non-health brand to spite the health people. But the money is all going to the same company.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      You’ll most likely hear more about the divisive ones, because they all get signal-boosted by the offended parties. There are plenty of advertisements similar in nature that you don’t ever hear about because they don’t generate as much controversy. For instance, the Dove’s True Beauty Ad didn’t seem to generate as much immediate controversy, and Dove is probably happier with that campaign than Gillette is with their campaign.
      Intentionally causing controversy? Mmmmm, probably not for major household brands under the P&G or J&J umbrella. We definitely aren’t advertising any of our consumer-facing products with anything super controversial, even though there are still nods towards “diversity” and “inclusiveness” in our mission statement and company values and probably our Twitter feed.

  33. vV_Vv says:

    What do you think is going on with the Boeing 737 MAX? Second fatal crash of a brand-new plane of this brand-new model, while the causes of both crashes are still under investigation it’s speculated that they may lay in a piece of software that was supposedly added for safety reasons but can apparently drop the plane into a nosedive in the not uncommon eventuality that the sensors it depends on fail.

    I’m not an aircraft engineer, so this is my uninformed perspective, but in my understanding, they wanted to make the 737 to be more fuel efficient in order to compete with the Airbus A320neo while avoiding a major redesign, thus they put on bigger engines on essentially the same airframe as the older version, moving the airplane center of mass and changing its aerodynamics in a way that made it more prone to stall. To counter this, they hacked up a piece of software that pushes the nose down when it detects that the airplane is close to stall according to a crude heuristic based on airspeed and AOA sensor inputs. Boeing neglected to mention this software in the crew operation manual and generally minimized the changes to the airlines and regulatory agencies in order to avoid the requirement for expensive pilot retraining which would have removed much of the incentive for airlines not to switch to Airbus. Their selling point was that it was the same good old 737, just more fuel efficient.

    Now shit hit the turbofan and the airplanes are being grounded in multiple countries, I expect that in the aftermath Boeing will patch the software and update the training manuals, maybe pilots will be required to undergo a full retraining. Still I get the bad feeling that they designed a fundamentally unstable aircraft and any attempt at a software solution will be nothing more that a band-aid prone to failure.

    I’m also less confident in the competence of regulatory agencies to protect public safety. The American FAA might have been subject to regulatory capture, apparently European regulators had some concerns but eventually played along, even contrary to national financial interests.

    Are my concerns substantiated or am I overreacting?

    • John Schilling says:

      There isn’t enough information yet to make even a well-educated guess as to what caused the second crash, making this a pretty obvious case of panic and/or PR games driven by statistical innumeracy. There are always crashes, so there is always a particular make and model of airliner that was involved in the last high-profile crash, and if the next crash is of the same make and model, that is effectively one data point. We need more facts to make any general conclusions.

      That said, describing the MCAS as “hacked up” is uncharitable. It is debatable whether MCAS is an appropriate thing to have – it’s an automated nudge in the direction of (hopefully) aerodynamic goodness that will only ever annoy an expert pilot but can save a marginal one in a certain class of emergency. Being automated, it will always be possible for a combination of bad sensor data and AI lack of common sense for it to apply that nudge in the wrong direction at the wrong time, and almost by definition the sort of marginal pilot who needs the nudge will have difficulty recognizing when the nudge is being misapplied. So whether or not it is a good idea, depends on your relative estimation of the “our AI isn’t that I” vs “some of our pilots aren’t that hot either” risks, and the balance of the high-profile accidents before Lion Air 610 was pointing towards wanting something like MCAS.

      Boeing did more than just “hack up some software”, Lion Air was pretty clearly a case of that software getting caught between both faulty sensor inputs and marginal pilot skill, and both Boeing and the FAA were working with the Lion Air 610 data to make further improvements. Those improvements should be implemented whether or not the stock MCAS was involved in the Ethiopian 302 crash. There is as yet insufficient data to justify “ground them all!” pending that upgrade.

      • vV_Vv says:

        There isn’t enough information yet to make even a well-educated guess as to what caused the second crash, making this a pretty obvious case of panic and/or PR games driven by statistical innumeracy.

        Under the null hypothesis that the crash probability of the 737 MAX is not higher than the crash probability of other versions of the 737, what is the probability of observing two crashes in less than two years of service, and about ~350 airplanes being built?

        I don’t know exactly how to compute this, but I compared with the predecessor 737 NG, which according to Wikipedia had 15 hull-loss crashes over about 21 years of service and ~6,996 airplanes.

        The MAX so far had a crash every 1.11 years while the NG had a crash every 0.71 years, in terms of numbers of airplanes the MAX had a crash every 0.006 airplanes while the NG had a crash every 0.002 airplanes.

        The numbers for the MAX are worse, but not by orders of magnitude, so I suppose that it might be a statistical fluke, given that the number of samples for the MAX is so small, but maybe not. I’d like to see a proper statistical analysis.


        on the other hand the direct competitor, the Airbus 320neo never crashed in over 3 years of service and 687 airplanes being built. If one crashed today it would still be about 1.5x as better than the NG and 4x as better as the MAX in terms of crashes per airplane.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I’ve found this Yahoo! finance article with a nice infographic. They estimate that the 737 MAX is the most unsafe civilian aircraft after the Concorde.

          • bean says:

            That graph isn’t even remotely credible. First, remember that the dice have no memory. A plane going down today doesn’t materially alter the chances of one going down tomorrow. In either direction. So probably the dice just came up 1 twice in a row.

            Second, that graph has several problems. I’d estimate that the total flights for the MAX is around 800,000, not 500,000, which obviously cuts the crashes/flight a lot. Also, very similar airplanes are spread out, most notably the A300 and A310, which are basically the same. Actually, this also goes for the A330 and A340. Or the MD80 (not on that graph, but linked) and the DC-9. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the graph is wrong, so much as it demonstrates that the apparent accident rate can vary widely on planes that are actually the same.

          • Garrett says:

            A plane going down today doesn’t materially alter the chances of one going down tomorrow.

            Isn’t that based on whether the trials are independent or not? That is, if there’s a systematic problem with the aircraft then the dice might not have memory but they certainly could have bias.

          • bean says:

            Isn’t that based on whether the trials are independent or not? That is, if there’s a systematic problem with the aircraft then the dice might not have memory but they certainly could have bias.

            True. But modern airliners are almost unbelievably safe, and the odds of this kind of systemic problem slipping by are smaller than the odds of getting a freakishly short period between crashes of the same model IMO.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, they wouldn’t be independent events if they were being shot down by terrorists or something, but when they’re rare one-off events, it’s hard to see how they’d be related.

        • 10240 says:

          The MAX so far had a crash every 1.11 years while the NG had a crash every 0.71 years, in terms of numbers of airplanes the MAX had a crash every 0.006 airplanes while the NG had a crash every 0.002 airplanes.

          Your first calculation only considers the number of years, and the second only considers the number of airplanes. What really matters is the number of airplane-years. In that measure the difference is much more than in either measure separately, and consequently the MAX looks much worse.

        • albatross11 says:

          Remember that we’re only asking the question because of the second -MAX crash. I think to see how unlikely this is, we’d need to correct for multiple comparisons (all the other comparable plane models, I guess). There’s something a little like the file-drawer effect going on here–plane models that *don’t* have two crashes fairly close together never come to our attention.

        • bean says:

          It’s probably worth pointing out that the A320 had a crash within two months of its introduction into passenger service. Care to guess what the crash/flight ratio was at the time, with a single-digit number of planes in revenue service? And today, it’s as safe as any other airliner.

          • Aapje says:

            Are there studies into changes in the safety of planes during the life cycle of the model and the life of the plane?

            I’d expect new models to more dangerous early on, as it seems that manufacturers typically do safety improvements once issues are found. On the other hand, I’d expect old planes to be more dangerous due to aging.

            The optimal plane to fly in might then be a model that has existed for a long time, but where the actual plane has been recently produced.

          • bean says:

            I’m not aware of any research, and it would be heavily confounded by the small number of models. The A320 suffered a couple of crashes early on, that one being the most prominent, which basically boil down to the pilot saying “the Fly-by-Wire will protect me” and then doing something stupid. Airbus successfully managed to hammer into their heads that FBW isn’t magic, and that basic airmanship is still needed. Well, almost everyone’s heads. The crew of AF 447 didn’t get the memo.

            I’d expect new models to more dangerous early on, as it seems that manufacturers typically do safety improvements once issues are found.

            Typically? Always. The process always swings into action, whether or not it makes sense to do so. For complicated legal reasons, they can’t even do exploratory work to try to figure out if a problem is a one-off or a serious fleet-wide problem. They have to treat it as a real issue.

            On the other hand, I’d expect old planes to be more dangerous due to aging.

            Less than you’d think. The main effect of aging is on structures, and they’re really careful about inspecting for it.

            The optimal plane to fly in might then be a model that has existed for a long time, but where the actual plane has been recently produced.

            That’s pretty much true. Is the risk on a MAX a little bit higher than an NG? Yes. Does it matter? No.

            Actually, the 777 might be a good comparison. It entered service in 1995, and didn’t have a hull loss until 2008. The first crash with fatalities wasn’t until 2013 (Asiana at SFO) and there were two more the next year (the Malaysian incidents). They’re now up to six hull losses. And it’s not like it didn’t sell early on. The 50% point in terms of deliveries relative to current looks to have been in 2009. So we have good evidence that crashes can clump in weird ways. It’s easy to discount the Malaysian crashes because those were both caused by external forces, but I’m not sure it’s statistically distinct.

          • Lambert says:

            It’s called the Bathtub Curve, by reliability engineers.
            Failure rate drops quickly as they fix or mitigate problems, stays low for a while, then slowly rises.

          • vV_Vv says:

            It’s probably worth pointing out that the A320 had a crash within two months of its introduction into passenger service.

            Yes, but during a demonstration flight at an airshow (with passengers on board, what the hell were they thinking?) where the pilots deliberately performed a dangerous maneuver.

            I don’t think it’s fair to count things like this, or planes being shot down by missiles or pilots clearly committing suicide.

          • bean says:

            I don’t think it’s fair to count things like this, or planes being shot down by missiles or pilots clearly committing suicide.

            You’re missing the point. We have three fatal 777 losses during the entire life of the aircraft, which is now approaching 25 years old, all from different and totally uncorrelated causes. All three happened within a span of 54 weeks. So this kind of weird suggesting clustering can and has happened on an airframe we’re very sure isn’t at fault. Maybe the 737 MAX was just unlucky.

    • DragonMilk says:

      From the NYT article, a huge issue seems to be that pilots are unaware of exactly what MCAS will be doing during flight, particularly in developing nations.

      While US pilots are often Navy/Airforce pilots and are have thousands of hours of flight experience, the same cannot be said for pilots of Ryanair and the like, many of whom are undertrained, overworked, and were dealing with a meth scandal a few years back.

      To me, if you’re moving a plane’s center of mass, that doesn’t make the plane inherently unsafe, but it does make it different enough to point out/do training on. Boeing/FAA argues against the additional flagging/training for bureaucratic reasons/saving money, and the result is heightened risk of hard crashes.

      But the investigation is ongoing, so this is speculation that retraining will be required, Boeing will get sued, and people will get fired at FAA and Boeing for following the incentives of bureaucracy.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’m skeptical that additional training would make any difference, because trim runaway has always been a thing and the techniques for recognizing and responding to it should work whether the runaway comes from a faulty MCAS or anything else. I can see Boeing’s POV in not wanting to clutter up the manual or the training curriculum with this, though from a PR and liability standpoint it obviously doesn’t help.

        The CG limits have changed with every new model of 737 from the -200 on, and as far as I know have not been change for the -MAX since introduction; that part is a solid RTFM situation with no particular sneakiness on Boeing’s part. The FAA (or its foreign counterparts) may decide that e.g. a dedicated type rating should be required for the -MAX going forward, that’s their call.

      • vV_Vv says:

        While US pilots are often Navy/Airforce pilots and are have thousands of hours of flight experience, the same cannot be said for pilots of Ryanair and the like, many of whom are undertrained, overworked, and were dealing with a meth scandal a few years back.

        Can we avoid slandering non-American pilots as incompetent overworked drug addicts? Also, I’m not sure why you are bringing up Ryanair, but they never had a fatality, unlike various comparable American airlines (e.g. Southwest).

        • DragonMilk says:

          The drugs are for the overwork, it’s a matter of culture, just like a lot of US truckers use it or distributeit. It’s not about being non-American, it’s about having objectively less flying hours and working more, coupled with well-documented instances of drug abuse.

          Plane crashes are rare, so when they happen, it’s important to consider all the factors that led to the conditional. Almost all non-American pilots are fine too, but I don’t see how you could argue the hazard rate would not be much higher given the same plane.

          • vV_Vv says:

            The drugs are for the overwork, it’s a matter of culture, just like a lot of US truckers use it or distributeit. It’s not about being non-American, it’s about having objectively less flying hours and working more, coupled with well-documented instances of drug abuse.

            Meanwhile in the US.

    • bean says:

      Boeing neglected to mention this software in the crew operation manual

      This is not true. Boeing didn’t highlight it in the “intro to the 737MAX” training that aircrews are required to have when they transition, which is a fairly reasonable decision, given the competitive pressure they were under, and the fact that it won’t show up in the life of a typical pilot. But it was in the manual.

      The speculation about the Ethiopian crash being due to MCAS is pure drivel from the uninformed. We don’t have nearly enough data about what was going on aboard that airplane to even take a guess as to what happened. My money is on it not being the MCAS at all. If there’s one system pilots will be on the lookout for problems with now, it will be that, and it’s not powerful enough to put the plane in the ground if the pilots are trying hard to fight it.

      Actually, we can pretty much rule out the MCAS Alone hypothesis for Lion Air, too. If the pilots had run the checklist properly and it had still put them in the drink, you can be damn sure we’d have heard about it by now, because they’ve had the CVR for weeks. The NTSB and the FAA do not screw around where safety is concerned, and Indonesia has no reason to protect Boeing’s reputation and every reason to trash it. Some tweaks will be made to the software because that’s what you do after a crash.
      (I once saw a year-long project that I’m pretty sure was because an airplane had landed too hard and broke a part designed to fail in that condition. The entire fleet was required to inspect that part and replace it if it was damaged or looked like it might possibly be damaged, at a tremendous cost. The incentives of the manufacturer run towards excessive safety here, because they don’t have to pay for those inspections or those parts. Actually, they want to make money off the parts.)

      The groundings are essentially for show.

      Still I get the bad feeling that they designed a fundamentally unstable aircraft and any attempt at a software solution will be nothing more that a band-aid prone to failure.

      No chance at all. Aerodynamic stability is a well-understood field, and there was a lot of CFD and wind tunnel time thrown at this. We know what went wrong on Lion Air and it had nothing to do with the plane’s aerodynamics. It was a faulty sensor and a system designed to protect against a very specific case where the plane could get into trouble, not to deal with general instabililty.

      I’m also less confident in the competence of regulatory agencies to protect public safety. The American FAA might have been subject to regulatory capture

      I used to work in aviation safety. I’ve dealt with the FAA on airliner safety before. If they’ve been captured, someone forgot to tell me the magic words to get them to stop nitpicking my work. Everyone in that field takes safety very seriously, and if they’re going too far, it’s in the direction of too much safety. I once told one of our engineers that we should just jump to the logical conclusion and replace the entire aircraft every 3,000 flight cycles (about every year for a narrowbody). It was a little unfair, but there was a core of truth to it.

      • vV_Vv says:

        More troubling news: apparently pilots have been sumbitting anonymous complaints about the 737 MAX trying to nosedive during takeoff.

        But it was in the manual.

        How many pages do these technical manuals have? I assume that these technical manuals are aimed at airline engineers and government regulators, not at the pilots. In one of the complaints I’ve linked a pilot describes the flight manual as “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient”.

        If there’s one system pilots will be on the lookout for problems with now, it will be that, and it’s not powerful enough to put the plane in the ground if the pilots are trying hard to fight it.

        If the pilots knew what was going on perhaps they could have rescued the aircrafts, but the pilots were scarcely aware of the existence of the MCAS, let alone its operational parameters, if I understand correctly there are no warnings in the cockpit when the MCAS kicks in, and certainly pilots haven’t trained in a simulator for the scenario where the MCAS goes bananas, therefore it seems to me that blaming the pilots is quite unfair.

        No chance at all. Aerodynamic stability is a well-understood field, and there was a lot of CFD and wind tunnel time thrown at this. We know what went wrong on Lion Air and it had nothing to do with the plane’s aerodynamics. It was a faulty sensor and a system designed to protect against a very specific case where the plane could get into trouble, not to deal with general instabililty.

        In the words of one of the pilots: “The fact that this airplane requires such jury-rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error-prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place and failure modes. I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know?”

        If they screwed up the plane aerodynamics to the point that it requires a hacky software they are evidently embrassed about to deal with a “very specific case”, and the same software can crash the plane in some other “very specific case” (which actually occurs about once a year), then it looks like a major design flaw to me.

        Of course I’m speculating about what happened, but given the available information I don’t think my worries are unwarranted.

        • LesHapablap says:

          The manual is directed toward the pilot. There are separate maintenance manuals and as far as I’m aware nothing specific for a regulator.

          Those reports from pilots don’t have anything to do with the MCAS system (one uncommanded level off during a climb, two weird descents after takeoff, all under autopilot, while MCAS only functions under manual control). They sound a bit unnerving but I’m not an airline pilot so I don’t know how common it is for autopilots to do weird things.

        • John Schilling says:

          In the words of one of the pilots: “The fact that this airplane requires such jury-rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error-prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place and failure modes. I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know?”

          The aircraft does not in fact require “such jury-rigging” to fly, or even to fly safely with a competent pilot. Note that when the MCAS failed on Lion Air 610 on October 28, the crew simply disengaged the system(*) and flew to their destination without further incident. This did not require any heroic level of airmanship, and was not perceived as involving significant risk. Why the October 29 flight crew didn’t do the same, is not yet known.

          The Boeing Commercial Aircraft Company needs something like MCAS to be able to say, “We have officially Done Something(tm) about the problems marginally competent pilots have been having flying airliners in stall and near-stall conditions”. Since the 737 MAX was (and more importantly, was known to) be marginally more likely to encounter such conditions, not Doing Something about it would have been legally imprudent. Of course, Doing Something and not getting it perfect is also legally imprudent, Doing Something and not putting lots of official warnings in the manual was also legally imprudent.

          From a safety standpoint, MCAS mostly just adds one more failure mode that can lead to a (mild) trim runaway. Which is a scenario that can happen on any model 737 for multiple reasons, and which any 737 pilot should be able to recognize and recover from without knowing anything about MCAS.

          And I sympathize with competent pilots who are having to deal with with the spurious activation of a system designed to protect the less competent. But, so far at least, it looks like the competent ones are dealing with it. And it’s not clear how many marginal ones might have been saved by it without anyone noticing, whether MCAS in its current form is a net win or a net loss in safety.

          But we’ve got one and maybe two data points on how to make MCAS better, so we’ll do that.

          * Not sure from the reports I’ve seen, but I think they cut out autopilot trim entirely, at least at first, which should disable MCAS even if you don’t know what MCAS is.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          What is the base rate of anonymous complaints for an aircraft?

        • bean says:

          How many pages do these technical manuals have? I assume that these technical manuals are aimed at airline engineers and government regulators, not at the pilots. In one of the complaints I’ve linked a pilot describes the flight manual as “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient”.

          There are a lot of pages, but as LesHapablap says, there are specific manuals for the crew, and completely different ones for the airline engineers. As for a pilot, remember that there are a lot of pilots out there, and some of them like to complain. And that at least some pilots seem to have a weird sense of solidarity which causes them to try to dump blame on Boeing when things go wrong. Is the airplane perfect? No. But it’s pretty good, and airplanes basically don’t go down without some sort of pilot error these days. Find a crash and prove me wrong.

          If the pilots knew what was going on perhaps they could have rescued the aircrafts, but the pilots were scarcely aware of the existence of the MCAS, let alone its operational parameters, if I understand correctly there are no warnings in the cockpit when the MCAS kicks in, and certainly pilots haven’t trained in a simulator for the scenario where the MCAS goes bananas, therefore it seems to me that blaming the pilots is quite unfair.

          1. I was talking about Ethiopian, not Lion Air.
          2. The pilots of Lion Air kept it in the air for 10 minutes after the problem started by resetting the trim. Then they stopped resetting it. So yes, I’m going to say that they bear a big part of the blame. Particularly because there was a checklist step which turned trim off, and all evidence says they didn’t do that. If they had, they’d have announced it when they heard it on the CVR.

          In the words of one of the pilots: “The fact that this airplane requires such jury-rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error-prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place and failure modes. I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know?”

          All systems are error-prone. Including the pilot. And while the decision to run MCAS off of only one AoA sensor is weird, Boeing’s basic point that the failure mode for trim runaway is just like any other trim runaway is valid.

          If they screwed up the plane aerodynamics to the point that it requires a hacky software they are evidently embrassed about to deal with a “very specific case”, and the same software can crash the plane in some other “very specific case” (which actually occurs about once a year), then it looks like a major design flaw to me.

          The software did not crash the plane. The software did exactly what it was supposed to. The problem on Lion Air was a bad sensor, and the resulting situation was mishandled by the crew.

          Of course I’m speculating about what happened, but given the available information I don’t think my worries are unwarranted.

          What information? We have no idea what happened on the Ethiopian crash. For all we know, there was a bomb onboard. Or they ingested a bird. If something like that happened, I’ll do my best to avoid being smug.

      • DragonMilk says:

        Also no flying background so correct my misconceptions here:

        My biggest sympathy with the inexperienced foreign pilots is that the Max was marketed as a new and improved 737 to skimp on retraining requirements. In case of dives, however, a traditional 737 allows the pilot to just pull on the yoke to override the system, but the Max requires the stabilizer to turn be turned off.

        Should pilots know this? Yes, and that’s why I think US pilots will be fine
        Will an over-worked meth addicted pilot react appropriately? Mostly yes, but when they don’t, it doesn’t help that the system may crash the plane if the sensor data is faulty.

        What’s troubling to me is that pilots are familiar with the 737 and expect the Max to fly like a 737 they know. But it doesn’t. And this doesn’t mean it’s a bad plane, but I think it does mean that Boeing was incentivized to skimp on retraining/highlighting what could go wrong. One can argue that’s on the individual airlines, and that developing nations need to have better pilots, etc., but as a practical matter, I can’t help but wonder if special training on the new systems would have prevented both crashes (though as you say elsewhere, we don’t have info on the Ethiopian airline flight)

        • bean says:

          In case of dives, however, a traditional 737 allows the pilot to just pull on the yoke to override the system, but the Max requires the stabilizer to turn be turned off.

          Not necessarily. The MCAS activating improperly will look just like a trim runaway for any other reason, and can be dealt with in the same way. Trim runaways happen, and there’s a procedure for dealing with them. If the autopilot in particular is misbehaving, then pulling back on the yoke will, IIRC, switch it off. That will probably solve the problem. But maybe it’s somewhere downstream of that, and in that case, you have to switch off the trim. Not a big deal. The fact that the Lion Air crew didn’t do that is baffling. This isn’t “in a dive” or anything nearly that general. It’s one system, that should only activate rarely, when the pilot is about to do something stupid.

          Also, keep in mind the magnitude of the trim. It’s not like someone is shoving the nose violently down. Trim doesn’t work that fast. You’d have to be seriously not paying attention to not notice it (there’s feedback to the manual trim wheels, and they should have seen/heard them turning) with plenty of time to stop it. The Lion Air crew actually did. They manually reset trim repeatedly until they stopped for reasons that we won’t find out until the CVR information is released.

          What’s troubling to me is that pilots are familiar with the 737 and expect the Max to fly like a 737 they know. But it doesn’t.

          It does. 99.99% of the time, it’s just like a 737NG. And in the .01%, there’s a checklist that tells you exactly what to do.

          though as you say elsewhere, we don’t have info on the Ethiopian airline flight

          This is the most important bit. Speculation that the MCAS is responsible is completely insane right now. We simply do not have enough information to know if it was a bird or a bomb or a [turbine] blade or a [software] bug. The eyewitness reports say that it was trailing smoke and stuff was falling off before the crash. If that’s true (and I haven’t been pushing it harder because we simply don’t know right now), then we can pretty much rule out any sort of flight control problem as the primary cause.

          • DragonMilk says:

            So are the journalists emphasizing the larger engines changing the plane’s center of mass over-hyping the increased chance of stall? It’s certainly being painted like Boeing tried to use software as a CYA-gone wrong attempt to cover a potential vulnerability.

          • John Schilling says:

            “Over-hyping” is about right. Particularly when we start seeing claims about how the plane is allegedly unstable or unflyable without MCAS. There is a real, finite increase in the risk of stall due to the engine placement, which should not be operationally significant but might be considered enough to push the 737 MAX over whatever threshold makes an engineer say “OK, now we should put in some sort of automatic stall protection” – but as a hedge against a combination of unlikely events, not as a necessity for safe flight.

            Independently of any change in 737 pitch characteristics, the Air France 447 crash reduced the threshold at which automatic stall protection was considered necessary in new designs. And the -MAX was the first 737 design to follow AF447. Between the actual risk increasing slightly, and the tolerance threshold for that risk coming down greatly, the 737 got MCAS with -MAX.

            It would probably have been a perfectly serviceable airliner without MCAS, but I might be nervous flying one that didn’t come with a first-world pilot. And now, even with MCAS I’d be temporarily nervous about flying one that doesn’t come with a first-world pilot, but MCAS at least can be fixed if it turns out to be the problem.

    • Walter says:

      Did you read the Vox article by Gaby del Valle? It seems mad similar to your points.

      As a software guy I wouldn’t be super shocked by that path of happenings. Like, “Can you just push the nose down?” is the sort of thing I can imagine my PHB saying.

    • I’m currently in the airport, about to board a SW flight to go give a couple of talks in Pennsylvania. When I checked yesterday, one of the four planes I was scheduled to fly on was the Boeing model that has now crashed twice. I was going to see if I could change my flights to avoid that, but when I looked this morning that flight was no longer listed as using that plane, so it looks as though Southwest has grounded them—they are a very small part of their fleet.

      My conclusion from what I have seen on the crashes is that it probably was a problem with the plane, most likely with the software that’s been discussed. Both crashes were shortly after takeoff and there doesn’t seem to be any other likely explanation. That was enough to make me nervous about flying on that particular plane.

      • bean says:

        Both crashes were shortly after takeoff and there doesn’t seem to be any other likely explanation.

        Any airplane crash is very unlikely these days, so “no compelling alternative explanation within two days of the crash” isn’t particularly surprising. And the Lion Air crash was compounded by serious mistakes of airmanship (if it hadn’t been, we’d know about it) which is unlikely on Southwest.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Where and when, and how about some advanced notice next time!

    • gbdub says:

      Other than “crashed shortly after takeoff” and “was a 737 MAX” what’s the evidence for connection here? “Shortly after takeoff” is one of the more common times for a crash to occur.

      I’m not sure the “crashes per flight hour” makes much sense for a plane so new… small data sets make for bad data, and beyond that you would expect newer planes to be more dangerous until the kinks are worked out and the pilots get used to them.

      We should be careful throwing around terms like “jury-rigged”, “hacked together”, and “unstable”, all of which range from wrong to deliberate fear mongering.

      MCAS is just one of many systems designed to idiot proof planes (MCAS may have saved AF 447). If it is the culprit, it isn’t the first such system to do this (and is unlikely to be the last). Was actually just reading the other day about a crash in Sweden caused in part by an auto throttle designed to prevent pilots from throttling down to dangerous levels too soon after takeoff. The engines had been damaged by undetected ice falling off the wings, and had started to surge. The correct response to surge is to rapidly decrease throttle, but when the pilot attempted to do so, the auto throttle ramped it back up and the engines continued to surge until they both destroyed themselves. Fortunately they were able to glide the plane to a non fatal crash landing. This was in 1991.

  34. Le Maistre Chat says:

    In hedonistic consequentialism, how do you quantify pleasure and pain? Ideally or materialistically (i.e., “pleasure neurotransmitters are the good, pain receptor activation is the bad”)? Does maximizing pleasure or minimizing pain take moral priority? If the latter, how do you escape repugnant conclusions like “Saving poor Africans’s lives with mosquito nets is actually bad because they’ll live long lives of suffering: their early death being painless would be better”?

    • Walter says:

      I don’t think you are allowed to escape repugnant conclusions if those are where your -ism takes you. Like, then you aren’t really a hedonic consequentialist, you are a whatever-you-are-using-to-configure-your-hedonic-consequential-ist. You know?

      Like, if I am a strict deontologist who is gonna obey the rules on this piece of paper I found on the ground, and I hem and haw about whether to always go about on one foot because I’ll look silly, then how strict am I, for realsies? It sounds like looking silly is more important to me than the paper, yeah?

      As far as quantifying it, I think the other question I brought up determines the answer there.

      • Nick says:

        Well, you can escape one consequentialism’s repugnant conclusion by being a different kind of consequentialist. Is there a form of consequentialism that doesn’t have any repugnant conclusions?

        • Lillian says:

          Utilitarianism obviously, because the Repugnant Conclusion isn’t actually repugnant when you consider the real life implications instead of simply looking at it in the abstract. When you get down to it all it means is that if the most cost-effective way to increase net utility is by adding more people, you should do it.

          This seems obviously right to me. If we had Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism complete with people making factories, we should indeed be mass producing humans to maximize how many of them get to enjoy paradise. In the real world, however, adding more humans has considerable opportunity costs, particularly if nobody wants them, which means that we should be focusing on bettering the lives of those that already exist rather than bringing more into existence.

          • rlms says:

            In the real world, however, adding more humans has considerable opportunity costs

            I don’t think that explains enough. Imagine I am in a position where I could have children that would probably be reasonably happy but I choose not to. It’s plausible that I’m going against a moral obligation in doing so, but I don’t think it’s plausible that that choice is anywhere near as objectionable as killing existing reasonably happy children, which your version of utilitarianism requires it to be.

            Or put another way, if you posit a significant opportunity cost for each new life you’ve got to explain why there isn’t a corresponding benefit to killing people (or at least killing expensive resource-consuming orphans and suchlike).

          • Lillian says:

            One of my unspoken assumptions is that the utility of people who already exist is worth more than the utility of people who could exist. So one of the potential opportunity costs in adding more people is that the people expected to create and take care of them would be taking a utility hit from it. Since these people exist their utility takes precedence over that of people who merely could exist. This seems like an obvious and necessary assumption, since the vast majority of people who could exist won’t.

            As for why there isn’t a benefit to killing people, i think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that killing people who don’t want to die usually results in utility loss. Hell not intervening when suicidal people do want to die is usually a net utility loss, except in some some rare circumstances like terminal illness.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            When you get down to it all it means is that if the most cost-effective way to increase net utility is by adding more people, you should do it.

            This seems obviously right to me. If we had Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism complete with people making factories, we should indeed be mass producing humans to maximize how many of them get to enjoy paradise.

            I’m sorry, but that’s trying to escape the Repugnant Conclusion into a Convenient World. It doesn’t actually address the issue.

            What we’re talking about wrt Repugnant Conclusion is that when you have two populations:

            1. A small population of people who are all moderately well off, and

            2. A substantially larger population of people, each of whom is noticeably worse off than any individual in Population 1,

            the aggregate utility in the case of Population 2 is greater than the aggregate utility in the case of Population 1, simply because Population 2 is more numerous.

            The core tenet of utilitarianism is that a state with greater aggregate utility is “morally” better than one with a lesser aggregate utility, whence stems the Conclusion that a huge population where everyone is absolutely miserable is preferable to a small population where everyone is happy, so long as the individual utility experienced by the miserable people is greater than zero.

            I probably don’t have to point out why people consider it Repugnant.

            While we’re at it, adding more people is probably “the most cost effective way to increase utility” (I’m not sure what you mean by “net” here, net of what?), especially if you don’t care about individual utility (which is fundamental for the argument leading to the Repugnant Conclusion). I really don’t want to paint a picture of how a benevolent utilitarian dictator might proceed to effect this, but – believe me – the costs compare favourably to most forms of trying to improve people’s lot (if only because we’re not trying to improve it and we don’t care about individual losses of utility).

            A general tip about the RC: if you’re not addressing the reduced individual utility (actual living people being more miserable than in the alternative), you’re not addressing the RC.

            ETA: Your stipulation of “existing utility trumps potential utility” avoids the issue, but in that case you should say that you agree with the Repugnant Conclusion and choose to avoid it thusly.

          • rlms says:

            OK, but I don’t believe that’s the usual assumption. And as Faza suggests, it doesn’t solve the RC in e.g. the case where we are considering bringing one of the two mentioned populations into existence.

          • acymetric says:


            I am hardly an expert on utilitarianism, but from debates I’ve had with people who are my understanding is that Lillian’s assumption about existing people vs. future people goes against what at least some utilitarians consider a core part of the philosophy.

          • Lillian says:

            Your stipulation of “existing utility trumps potential utility” avoids the issue, but in that case you should say that you agree with the Repugnant Conclusion and choose to avoid it thusly.

            That makes sense, will keep it in mind for the future. To be honest, my real take on the Repugnant Conclusion is that it’s irrelevant. That is to say, my moral assumptions are such that there is no real circumstances in which my moral rules would demand that i bring about B in favour of A. Just thought it would be more interesting to defend the “not actually repugnant” take, but it seems my logic train wound up circling back to where it started.

    • Anatid says:

      how do you escape repugnant conclusions like “Saving poor Africans’s lives with mosquito nets is actually bad because they’ll live long lives of suffering: their early death being painless would be better”?

      The assumption of “long lives of suffering” is doing all the work here, and it is probably not true in the real world. The typical life of a poor African is probably not a net negative, hedonically.

      If the suffering is great enough, plenty of people seem willing to bite the bullet here. A nontrivial number of people support assisted suicide, or euthanasia of seriously injured pets and other animals.

      (I don’t necessarily endorse hedonic utilitarianism.)

    • how do you quantify pleasure and pain?

      For one individual, it’s pretty straightforward to do it if you use the economist’s approach to utility. The pleasure from eating an ice cream cone is just equal to the pain from getting an injection if I am indifferent between having neither and having both.

  35. proyas says:

    How quiet can a helicopter get?

    I’ve been reading about things that reduce the noise signature of helicopters (such as the “Blue Pulse” main rotor, multi-bladed main rotors, putting tail rotors in cowlings, and using electric engines), and it got me wondering what the theoretical limits of helicopter noise dampening are.

    Even if the engine were perfect quiet and the rotors were designed for optimal aerodynamics, wouldn’t solid, spinning objects slicing through the air at hundreds of miles per hour unavoidably make large amounts of noise?

    Could some kind of “noise cancellation” feature work?

    Assume we’re talking about a craft the size of an R22. How quiet could we get it, in theory?

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Hey, while you’re at it, make it a tilt-rotor, so we can finally have our (mach 0.7) flying cars!

      • John Schilling says:

        Sorry, you’ve got to pick one or the other. Rotor noise per unit lift scales as (roughly) the square of the disc loading, and tilt-rotors have substantially (2-3x) greater disc loading than equivalent fixed-rotor helicopters.

        • Gurkenglas says:

          Could you enclose the rotor in a sound dampener? Like a jet engine pointing up.

          • John Schilling says:

            Jets produce an irreducible level of noise from their turbulent interaction with the surrounding air, which has to happen sooner or later, so there’s a limit to what sound dampeners around the rotor can do. And the part they can’t do, gets worse as the square of disc loading, so you want the rotor to be as big as possible.

            Since “make the rotor as big as possible” and “enclose the rotor in a big structure” work against one another, it’s not clear that this is a net win and it probably isn’t a huge win.

        • LesHapablap says:

          We can reduce disc loading by doing a negative G pushover. In the R22, this will reduce the noise substantially in short order!

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Darn, that’s too bad. Helicopters would make weak replacements for cars.

    • LesHapablap says:

      Apparently US Special Forces have some very quiet helicopters, not sure how you’d go about finding info on those though.

  36. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I may have discovered a new bias, or else an old one has been brought to my attention.


    In a facebook discussion of that NYTimes piece about a lot of people needing to withdraw slowly from antidepressants to avoid withdrawal symptoms. some commenters kept saying “People need talk therapy as well as antidepressants” which is missing the point.

    In a conversation about the plausible idea that agriculture will take minerals out of the soil, the person I was talking with kept talking about using manure. Now manure is a good thing, but unless it’s got the minerals, it’s not going to replace the minerals– and as far as I know, replacing minerals isn’t standard practice*.

    I think the bias is hearing about a problem which might have a connection to something which is generally considered to be good, and having one’s mind get stuck on something related and good that doesn’t actually address the problem.

    *Thinking about it now, all I’ve got is a proof of principle, I don’t know that enough minerals are taken out of the soil to be a problem.

    • bullseye says:

      I don’t know if I’d call that a bias. I think sometimes people want to contribute even if they don’t have anything to say that’s really relevant.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        The feeling that one must say something definitely drives a lot of low-quality talking and writing ans is probably worth exploring.

  37. Plumber says:

    I don’t feel much like biting my tongue thumbs about this anymore, and by now it’s likely that most have by now heard or seen some details of the college admissions bribery scandal, and a “hot take” pretty much confirms this Morlock/peon/plebiean/prole’s suspicions.

    I’ll probably post more on it in a fractional Open Thread after some time goes by and more is confirmed.

    Nice Meritocracy you have.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Both my liberal and conservative circles are loving this investigation. Entirely different spins, of course, but one common conclusion seems to be “they messed up by bribing individual people in the school instead of bribing the school itself.”

      Bet the people that paid $6 million feel really dumb knowing that others only paid $40,000.

      • LHN says:

        Though leaving everything else aside, I wouldn’t think the 40K was really buying the same service. Give the school a wing, and I’d imagine that there’s a vested institutional interest in seeing that the kid graduates with a degree one way or another. Give one admissions officer a bribe, and what stops the kid from going on academic probation in six months when they’ve spent more time keeping up their vlog than attending classes?

        (Sure, you can plan a series of bribes, but that ups the risk substantially.)

        • albatross11 says:

          There’s a college-as-signaling thing going on here, too.

          Consider two worlds:

          In world #1, the top schools are extremely tough–if you’re not in the top 1% of intelligence, you’re going to have to work your ass off to get a C.

          In world #2. the top schools are extremely hard to get in, but once in, it’s not so hard to get good grades and to graduate.

          In world #1, bribing/cheating your mediocre kid into a top school is a terrible idea, as is using legacy admissions or connections or affirmative action to get your mediocre kid into a top school. Your kid will just flunk out in a semester or two, because he’s totally outclassed.

          In world #2, bribing/cheating your mediocre kid into a top school makes a lot of sense, as does using legacy admissions or connections or affirmative action. Once in the school, he’s got it made even if he doesn’t really understand the material in the advanced classes.

          My not-too-informed guess is that admissions to Caltech are like being in world #1–bribing your high-school-B-student into Caltech is just setting him up for a painful one-semester education. And my not-too-informed guess is that admissions to Yale are like being in world #2–once you’re in, you’re pretty likely to come out with a high-prestige degree.

          • JonathanD says:

            One of the things that floated across my Facebook feed yesterday was an essay from someone who claimed to have made a living writing essays for the wealthy. Basically, in this story, once you’re in you go into a soft degree that requires a lot of writing, and your family hires it done. I’ll poke around and see if I can turn it up.

          • Murphy says:

            Even in a Uni without any legacy admissions where bribery is likely harder… I do remember being somewhat surprised at how some inept people still basically got dragged through the course.

            But then I found Uni fundamentally easier than highschool because I was able to specialise in things that actually interested me and I was no longer required to waste time on dead or utterly useless languages that I’ll never use like gaeilge.

          • DinoNerd says:

            My experience at Harvard in the 1970s fits the above – almost no one ever flunked out. 65% or so graduated “with honours”. Graduating “with highest honours” (summa cum laude) was hard, and the premeds were highly competitive – but mostly once you were in, they wanted you to have a nice relaxed education, with room for lots of networking, culture, etc.

          • Protagoras says:

            Huh. I went to grad school at an Ivy, so I was a TA for some undergrad classes. I also did undergrad at a state school, and have taught at a variety of places. My experience with the Ivy students is that while only a few of them were truly exceptional, even fewer of them were bad or even mediocre (as opposed to badness being common and mediocrity being the mode in the state schools with which I had experience). They were almost all reasonably good. The particular school, or the subjects I taught, may have influenced my impressions, of course, and perhaps my standards are low because of my experience of the state schools. But maybe those who say Harvard students are mostly mediocre slackers are underestimating how much better even the typical Harvard students are than the typical students at lesser schools. So I thought I’d submit my anecdata.

          • albatross11 says:

            This ties into a point I tried to make awhile back: the easy gains in education (in terms of observed performance and reputation) are in selection. If you can cherry-pick smart, ambitious, hard-working kids from good families, you can appear to be a spectacular school even if you’re indistinguishable from any other school.

            I suspect this makes real innovation in teaching a lot harder, and in fact makes it easy to get away with phoning it in on the education front–those easy gains are available, they’re reliable, and they have more impact than almost anything else you might do. No educational intervention is going to make a classroom with an average IQ of 110 perform as well as a classroom with an average IQ of 130. Classes taught by adjuncts and grad students, fads replacing a lot of traditional subjects that were taught, ideology being taught as much as anything factual–no problem. Your smart, ambitious, connected kids will *still* do great. Dedicated teachers and tutors and extra hours spent working through the problems with the kids will help, but even if you do that, your 110-average-IQ class is still not going to perform as well as your 130-average-IQ class. So there’s not so much incentive to do that stuff, and there’s not much reward when you come up with something that works better. (And so your better techniques don’t spread.).

    • One thing that struck me was that almost all the stories on it I saw emphasized the fact that the offenders included two TV (possibly movie?) stars. That seems to have been much of what made it newsworthy.

    • johan_larson says:

      The more I learn about how elite US colleges select students, and what students and parents do to secure admission, the more attractive I find admission by no-exceptions competitive exam. It wouldn’t be a perfect system. There would be an industry of tutors, test-prep, and cram schools. Parents with money would still be able to buy their children a leg up through superior preparation. But it would be a more legible and transparent system, with fewer unstated criteria and who-you-know back doors. When all is said and done, that’s how much of the world does it, and it seems to work.

      • albatross11 says:


        Successful systems attract parasites. Elite colleges have gotten pretty good at getting a lot of the smartest and most ambitious students to attend, which helps maintain a strong correlation between attending Yale and being very smart and ambitious. That means that Yale can afford to slip a few less impressive people in exchange for {donations, political influence, getting the racial numbers right} and can still maintain that strong correlation. To some extent, the value of those degrees for the less-impressive people probably relies on keeping the admissions criteria used for them obscure. If your Harvard degree came with an explanation of why you’d been admitted, it might not be so helpful in later life. (“John was admitted to Harvard thanks to his uncle’s generous endowment of new anthropology building.”) But it still might, because rational astrology is a thing–nobody ever got fired for hiring a Harvard man.

      • CatCube says:

        Well, part of this scandal included rigging competitive tests by several means including the suborning of proctors, so I don’t know how much that would fix the problem.

      • John Schilling says:

        The more I learn about how elite US colleges select students, and what students and parents do to secure admission, the more attractive I find admission by no-exceptions competitive exam.

        So, you’re saying you want to make it easier for rich parents and their larcenous “fixers” to do what this crowd is accused of doing?

        College admissions in the US, with few exceptions, require students to score well on one of two no-exceptions competitive exams, and to portray themselves as broadly talented and conscientious individuals by some combination of extracurricular activities, essays, and interviews. In order to secure admission for his client’s underqualified children, William Singer and his co-conspirators had to put corrupt officials in place to tamper with the exams, and corrupt coaches in every relevant college to sell a false narrative of the applicants as well-rounded scholar-athletes even though the children in question would be clearly incompetent in their assigned sports when they arrived. I’d wager it was the last part that tripped them up and led to this indictment.

        This has nothing to do with test prep academies or “who you know” soft influence peddling, and it’s only going to confuse the issue to try and talk about those issues when something completely different is the focus of everyone’s attention. This week, we are focusing our attention on a straight-up criminal conspiracy (I think it’s even actual RICO) that has proven it can subvert the one thing you think should be the only thing that governs college admissions. Making that one thing a single-point failure mode, is not going to be an improvement here.

        • SamChevre says:

          I think I disagree-we may be using “no-exceptions” differently. I’m understanding it to mean that a certain score is required for admission in all cases, and a (possibly higher) score is sufficient for admission. There is no score on the SAT or ACT that guarantees admission to {selective college}, and no score that means “no, you aren’t qualified”. If there were, cheating on the exams might be more of a problem–but it’s a solvable and detectable problem.

          • John Schilling says:

            There is no score on the SAT or ACT that guarantees admission to {selective college},

            Correct, and this is a good thing – at least in this context.

            and no score that means “no, you aren’t qualified”.

            There’s a score that means that even with a tame academic coach saying “Olivia Jade is just the coxwain we need to lead our rowing team to victory over {rival college}”, Olivia doesn’t get in to USC without also paying someone to inflate her score. That is a de facto “no, you really aren’t qualified” score even if nobody is willing to write it down on paper.

            If there were, cheating on the exams might be more of a problem–but it’s a solvable and detectable problem.

            If that’s your argument, you might want to make it when everybody else isn’t talking about a case where cheating on the exams was a problem, and one that wasn’t solved or detected until well after the fact and most likely as an incidental result of trying to finagle the other non-test-score admission requirements.

            We have an example of a problem. The solution you and johan are proposing, makes that problem strictly worse. It leaves all the incentives to cheat in place, but by making the cheating into a one-and-done affair in a closed room with a single co-conspirator, it makes cheating easier and cheaper and safer. Future cheaters would have to do (or pay to have done) only a subset of what these cheaters have successfully done, would have to trust a smaller number of co-conspirators and would have substantially reduced exposure to detection.

          • rlms says:

            There is no score on the SAT or ACT that guarantees admission to {selective college}

            I don’t think they discriminate well enough at the top end for that to be possible.

      • Clutzy says:

        Why even keep the colleges? Just administer the exam, make the results public, and let companies hire based on the number.

    • albatross11 says:

      The last decade or so has not been much of a commercial for US elites’ commitment to fairness or honesty. And the last 20-30 years haven’t really been much of a commercial for their competence.

    • AG says:

      The question is, though, surely this means there’s money left on the ground from paying equally-capable non-elites less? Getting more bang for your production buck?

      Instead, it shows that soft power is the real power, that mere accomplishment can be squashed by status. Moneyball isn’t sufficient, the market is optimizing for nepotism.
      That’s what needs to be burned down.

    • I’m curious about how the schools are going to react to the story. Are they going to expel the students who got in by fraud?

      It seems the obvious thing to do, but I wouldn’t count on it. Universities don’t like offending rich people, for obvious reasons. And there is a certain suggestion of hypocrisy to the degree that other students get in via legal bribes that go to the university, in the form of donations, rather than illegal bribes to university employees.

      It also raises the issue of why being an athlete gets someone into a university that he is not qualified to get into on an academic basis.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        For most of the students, they can portray them as innocent dupes who have since demonstrated their ability to perform. That is a tough argument to make with a straight face, but still better than trying to expel the rich and powerful.

        IIRC only one student was alleged to have knowingly participated in the scam.

      • John Schilling says:

        I doubt that any of these families are really rich enough that offending them would cause the University any significant harm. They are, by definition, the ones who weren’t rich enough to just donate a building or whatnot, to work within the system and with the trust of the sort of people who would make trouble for the university if One Of Their Own were betrayed. So the issue is mostly one of reputation, and the universities have already paid the reputational penalty of having been fooled in public. It is unclear that expelling the students will reduce that penalty, as opposed to aggravating it by looking like they are punishing the innocent to protect the guilty and/or foolish.

        On which front, I believe most of the students are plausibly innocent. The indictment itself claims that the transactions were in some cases at least structured to hide from the students exactly what strings their parents were pulling on their behalf. They’d certainly have known that they were e.g. letting their parents take action shots of them playing at a sport they’re not really in to, but the parents could have sold that as “everyone fibs about their extracurriculars”. And everyone kind of does fib about their extracurriculars so that standard would lead to mass expulsions. So unless the university can prove explicit collusion, expulsion would be a risky PR move.

        Also, I’m pretty sure expelling student-atheletes as soon as you find out they cannot play is not a precedent that anyone wants to set for a number of reasons.

        A long, quiet chat with the student about how they’re going to go before the cameras and act contrite and promise to work extra hard to make the most of this unearned opportunity, would be a win-win solution and I expect that’s what will happen.

        ETA: Ninja’d by Scizorhands

  38. Well... says:

    Since this OT is in its waning day, it’s the perfect time to play the Describe Your Ideal Food game, where you pick one (or more) dishes and describe how you think they should ideally be prepared. The dishes don’t have to be your absolute favorites, just ones whose ingredients, preparation methods, etc. you have strong opinions about. And then, other commenters should argue with you about your choices!

    What’s the ideal burger? What’s the ideal breakfast burrito? Etc.? You probably know already, but so does someone else, and with any luck you don’t agree. It’s time to hash it out!

    • Nornagest says:

      Red chili should be made with a whole cut of beef, not ground, and should not contain beans. Use at least three different kinds of chilis (smoked ancho for one, and the others depending on taste). This actually isn’t how I learned to make it growing up — my dad’s chili uses ground beef and three different beans — but I’ll still stand by it. I also have a white chili recipe that I like, but I use beans in that one.

      Pickles should be brined, not vinegar based.

      • Well... says:

        I agree about the pickles, but if you’re making chili without beans then what you’ve got is just a spicy meat sauce, not chili.

        [ETA] I don’t know what exactly goes into the ideal pickle (definitely whole coriander seeds, to say the least), but it’s made by Don Hermann and Sons and is hardly sold anywhere.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        I agree with you on everything except for the beans. Ground beef in chili isn’t even the lazy way out, it just tastes horrible compared to actual braised whole cut.
        I end up using 3 kinds of dried peppers, but of course add on extra peppers as a topping.

        • acymetric says:

          Yeah, no beans is fine for chili the condiment (as in for hot dogs) which is effectively meat sauce, but if you’re making chili as a meal beans are one of the main components.

          Chili with whole-cut meat is stew. If you and Nornagest have never had good chili made with ground beef I’m not sure what to tell you.

          I wonder if there are some significant regional differences here in terms of what someone considers the key components that are required for a thing to be called “chili”.

          In fact, are we talking about chili as meal a condiment here? Maybe that is part of the disconnect.

          • gbdub says:

            I mean, chili IS a form of stew.

            For eating on its own, it really is better with unground chunks of meat.

            For Coney dog topping, it should be ground.

    • cassander says:

      red meat should not be served red, or grey. It should be pink with a little bit of charring in basically all circumstances.

    • Evan Þ says:

      The ideal burger is very close to the one I had last night: good ground beef, cheese, tomato, sauteed mushroom, and some sort of sauce involving garlic. Ideally, I’d toast the bun on the grill and use Thousand Island dressing as well as a bit of mustard.

      I’ll allow for people to add bacon if they want, but I never saw what was so great about it (in any form) myself.

      • dndnrsn says:

        There are two ideal ground burgers: one is a big “pub burger” with fancier toppings, cooked to medium or medium-well. The other is a thin burger with a slice of processed cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce, some sort of condiment(s). In both cases, a squishy white bun is best. Bacon is indeed optional.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Pub burgers should obviously have pretzel buns.

          • acymetric says:

            The idea of a pretzel bun sounds really good, but I’ve never much cared for them in practice.

            A kaiser roll as a bun can be pretty tasty.

          • Lambert says:

            Laugenbrötchen are good, but too salty for burgers, IMO.

            And I’d argue that the correct thing to interpose between halves of a Kaiser roll is Frikadellen.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      Carbonara sauce should not contain cream. Ever. Onions probably also don’t go in there.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      -Skillets have over-easy eggs. They do not have scrambled eggs.
      -Steaks have three levels of doneness: Rare, Medium-Rare, Medium, and Eat Chicken
      -Baked mac&cheese is horrible
      -Stews get made in a dutch oven, not a crockpot, and at least a third of the cooking liquid should be red wine
      -Chicken stock gets made from scratch. Beef stock ESPECIALLY gets made from scratch.
      -I did not set the kitchen on fire, I accidentally flambe’d.

      • gbdub says:

        Baked mac and cheese is delicious, but it’s easy to make badly, in which case it becomes worse than non-backed.

        Try a little sodium citrate – works magic for keeping the cheese sauce from separating.

        Also, I’ve yet to find homemade chicken stock worth the time and effort. Mostly it just takes a long time and I find the results inconsistent (which can be fine for just a soup base but it can throw off recipes that expect a certain flavor and salt profile from the stock). Plus it can be easy to get off flavors depending on how the chicken bits you base it on we’re originally prepared.

        Commercial beef stock is worse for reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me

        • baconbits9 says:

          Chicken stock can be inconsistent, but effort wise I find it super easy. Just simmer for a few hours on the stove, pour through a strainer and freeze.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          If I make chicken stock just to make chicken stock, it can be a lot of effort. I only do it if I see chicken drumsticks for especially cheap.
          I normally buy up chicken fryers and then throw the carcass in a stock pot and simmer for a few hours. It’s not consistent, but IMO it’s damned good. I am 100% wedded to it, so we can use SOME store bought stock, but normally I use our home-made.

          Agreed on commercial beef stock. Terrible, terrible stuff.

    • acymetric says:

      If you say “I made barbecue for dinner” it better be pork (and of course it should be vinegar based sauce).

      Pork -> BBQ
      Chicken with BBQ sauce is BBQ Chicken, the chicken part must be specified.
      Brisket is brisket, not BBQ (and still delicious, just not BBQ).

    • SamChevre says:

      Barbecue takes at least 8 hours to cook.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        Agreed. If you are frying up steaks and burgers on memorial day, you are grilling. You are not barbecuing.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Pho should be made from beef broth (yes, made from scratch), and be served with pickled white onions, rather than bean sprouts.

      And said onions are pickled in white vinegar alone.

    • AG says:

      Cheese and lettuce being adjacent in a sandwich is a recipe for grossness. The cheese should always be on the opposite side of the meat choice from the greens and wet veggies.

      Sauce and cheese being on the same side is on thin ice.

      “”””Egg rolls”””” are chimichangas. Spring rolls must use the proper thin skins that don’t bubble when fried.

    • andrewflicker says:

      Man, I’m full of these, so I’ll just pick one:

      Pulled pork should, if served on a bun, be served on a very cheap, very small bun of little additional flavor. Fancy buns distract from the *very* complex flavor of a good pulled pork- it’s perfectly acceptable to skip the bun entirely, but if you use one, use a cheap basic bun that serves as a textural counterpoint and convenient serving method.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I think that cheap, basic buns are usually better for most anything. I’ve never eaten a burger on a fancy bun and thought, “that bun really improved the burger”.

        • andrewflicker says:

          Eh, I dissent slightly for certain sandwiches/burgers. I like an onion bun on some fish burgers/sandwiches, and a kaiser roll can be nice on certain types of hamburgers. But it’s usually a marginal case.

        • LHN says:

          Though I have eaten a burger on a bad bun and thought “that really detracted from the burger”. Fancy isn’t necessary, but there is at least a quality floor.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I don’t think I understand pulled pork.

        • SamChevre says:

          Proper pulled pork is skin-on–either a whole pig or a shoulder–cooked very slowly, over a wood fire that produces some smoke, and is cooked first skin-down, (so the fat collects on the bottom and is trapped by the skin), then turned and finished skin-up (so the collected fat drains through the meat, and the excess drips out). The fat should be fully rendered, the edges nicely browned and slightly smoky, and the collagen broken down so it can be pulled apart with a fork or your hands. It is often wrapped in foil to keep it moist while cooking, and it’s never as good as when it’s fresh–it is OK refrigerated and re-heated, but not as good. It’s incredibly meat-flavored, moist, rich, and tender.

          The things that go with it should highlight it, not drown it. A plain hamburger bun, or plain white bread, and pepper slaw, and vinegar based barbecue sauce, are in my (Tennessean) opinion perfect.

          (It’s only one week into Lent, and this is making me crave pork–thanks SSC!)

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Pulled pork is cheap, easy, and delicious if you cook it right. This makes it perfect for large gatherings of people. About once a year I make 20-30 pounds of pulled pork for a big early summer party.

  39. AlphaGamma says:

    Potentially of interest:

    An article by Czech scientists saying that after catastrophic floods, people tend to rebuild in the area that flooded within two generations, based on data from about 1300 settlements in the Vltava basin.

  40. Edward Scizorhands says:

    On the subject of “why can’t we build anything any more”

    Elon Musk’s high-speed tunnel project is the big loser in Chicago’s race for mayor:

    Someone said it was of “no cost” which seems weird that Musk is just donating. . .

    “It was hard for [Emanuel] to say no to Musk because he said it would be of no cost to the city. How do you pass that up?” says Harnish. “Regardless, we still need an express train from Loop to O’Hare—it’s what we need to do to keep our city competitive and attractive to business.”

    but, maybe?

    Musk promised he could build the massive project with just a $1 billion of his own money and no public subsidies.

    In any case, even if not free, Musk is exactly the person who can build a project with no cost overruns. He can do a “you only pay me when it’s built” contract.

    The socialists are out in force against it, because building an electric train is now wrong:

    There’s is already talk among them about building a democratic socialist caucus on the council that could better fight against projects like Musk’s. “On a national level, here we’re talking about Green New Deal and taking care of this planet that will die on us if we don’t take care of it. Locally we need to move away from individualistic policies and systems that benefit a few,” said Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez, a socialist and DSA member attempting to defeat incumbent Alderman Deb Mell in April’s runoff election.

    I have pro-Musk and anti-Chicago-because-it-is-full-of-corruption biases, so I may not be seeing everything clearly here.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      “On a national level, here we’re talking about Green New Deal and taking care of this planet that will die on us if we don’t take care of it. Locally we need to move away from individualistic policies and systems that benefit a few,” said Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez, a socialist and DSA member attempting to defeat incumbent Alderman Deb Mell in April’s runoff election.

      I didn’t have any pro-Musk bias until I read that, and now I do.

      • Nick says:

        I wanna ask Rodríguez-Sánchez what she thinks of Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses now.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        I was going to snark about how public transit is now apparently an “individualistic policy that only benefits the few” but then I re-read that it’d run from the Loop to O’Hare and, uh… we’ve already got one.

        So now I’ve flipped 180° and it smells like muckety-mucks want to avoid having to share trains with The Poors and maybe shave 20min off their ride time

        • AlphaGamma says:

          People still take the Heathrow Express train even though it cuts only 15 minutes off the travel time compared to the regular TFL Rail service, and costs significantly more.

        • The Nybbler says:

          And what’s wrong with either of those things? Cutting 20 minutes ride time seems like a good thing, and not wanting to share a confined space with “The Poors” is understandable if that group consists of beggars, con artists, the literally unwashed and eye-wateringly malodorous, and the mentally disturbed.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          20 minutes is a hell of a lot of time for VPs and above. Plus, if we can get them to pay for it, why the hell not?

        • Gobbobobble says:

          I don’t disagree, but it does mean that it actually is a policy that only mostly benefits the muckety-muck class. If it follows the Heathrow Express model, it wouldn’t have any stops along the route so people who actually live in the city (except the Loop, I guess, but rents there dispose me to think they’re all muckety-mucks anyway) get ~no added utility compared to the Blue Line. And I quite agree with the case others have laid out for this project not exactly being a Free Lunch. 20min is nice, yes, but a case has to be fleshed out that it’s $Xbn-nice.

          So, god help me, Rodríguez-Sánchez’s argument is substantially less farcical than it first appeared.

          • LHN says:

            A high fraction of the muckety-muck class live in the suburbs and drive to the airport. An express between downtown and the airport is probably more beneficial to business travel and tourism. A dedicated airport train could potentially also be better designed for people with luggage than the Blue Line is. (Which would also make the Blue Line somewhat more pleasant for people not headed to the airport.)

            In addition, most CTA commuters don’t live on the Blue Line, and if they’re taking transit to the airport have to change trains somewhere (frequently the Loop) anyway. So the time savings potentially benefits most transit-riders (e.g., if I’m taking the Green Line and then the hypothetical airport express, I save the same fifteen minutes over switching from Green to Blue). Just not those on the northwest portion of the Blue Line– who already have the shortest transit ride to the airport of anyone in the city. (It’s also the line that probably has the least representation of “the poors” of any segment of the system.)

            None of which is to say that it would justify its costs, since I’m highly skeptical that it would.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Musk would do best to give Chicago the Amazon NYC treatment before he loses his shirt. If he tries to build anything in Chicago he’s going to run into dozens of lawsuits for environmental impact, every union and politician in the city demanding set-asides and bribes and work rules that result in nothing getting done and/or getting done unacceptably and having to be re-done (or done acceptably and having to be re-done because the inspectors weren’t sufficiently bribed), constant stop-work orders, etc.

      I guess he could handle this if he was willing to cut his losses after the first $1B was spent to little effect, but he doesn’t strike me as the type to cut losses.

    • gbdub says:

      Musk is exactly the person who can build a project with no cost overruns.

      Huh? Basically everything he has done at SpaceX and Tesla has been years late and way over budget compared to his initial promises.

      Still impressive and cheaper than his competitors, but anybody who bets on the schedule and budget Elon puts in his initial PowerPoints is a fool.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I meant he could do it fixed-price, so no overrun to the client.

        • John Schilling says:

          Elon is not infinitely rich, and I doubt he could eat the likely overruns on a Chicago(*) public works project of this magnitude without going literally bankrupt, having his checks bounce and his workers walk off the job and leaving the project half-done and himself unpaid.

          * Not just because Chicago is more corrupt than the average city, but because Elon is conspicuously Not A Chicagoan, so doesn’t know which palms to grease and would be seen as a threat to the cozy established order.

          • LHN says:

            While I’m only a transplant Chicagoan, I think that could be dealt with (albeit expensively, and with a lot more concrete poured than engineering might demand) by cutting in a local fixer with that domain knowledge.

            The trick, admittedly being identifying the one who’ll take [large]% and do the job vs. the one who’ll take 100% and produce nothing but kickbacks and delays. (Or who will either turn out to be an FBI informant, or will get caught up in some other scandal that will then expand to drag Musk and Boring down with it.)

        • CatCube says:

          …I really need to do an effortpost on government contracting or something, because people seem to labor under the delusion that all of the contracts they complain about overruns on aren’t Firm-Fixed Price contracts.

          Whenever* you see a news story about a project that was bid at $blah and the final cost was $1.7×blah, they had a fixed-price contract for that $blah. The additional $0.7×blah was negotiated by both parties and the extra funding was either approved by Congress directly, or was in a line item that bureaucrats further down the chain had the authority to move money around in.

          These negotiation for a cost overrun happen due to two primary causes: 1) Design error – the design turns out to not be constructible or insufficient for it’s purpose which means that providing what we need is outside the limits of the signed contract or 2) Differing site conditions – site conditions are different than what was in the contract, which also means that providing what we need is outside the limits of the signed contract.

          There’s a reason we call people who build buildings “contractors” and not “builders”: they may or may not be good at building stuff, but they’re generally excellent at writing and understanding contracts. Contractors will not provide something outside the limits of their contract out of the goodness of their hearts. Nor, really, should they. If there was a design error or site conditions that the government owner either didn’t know about or didn’t bother to inform their contractor about, it’s not clear to me why the hired contractor should take that risk.

          Getting bids that are too high for your budget sucks, but there’s nothing as scary as a contractor that came in at 50% of the government’s estimate of how much it will cost.

          I forgot about answering @DragonMilk’s post from a couple threads back, but people seem to think that we can cheaply put the risk of project failure on a contractor, even if the site is vastly different than what was thought. Either the contractor will walk away and leave you with a half-completed building (or, for a megaproject, go out of business), or they’ll cut every fucking corner twice to try to get back in the black, and it’s a nightmare for Government QC to try to keep them from giving us unusable shit. Plus, they’re going to blow up the bids to try to make sure they’re guaranteed a profit, and see previous paragraph about being good at contracts.

          * There are some situations where this might not be the case but they’re not typical. Cost Plus Fee contracting is possible, but not preferred because it puts too much risk of overruns on the Government. However, it is fast to do and may be appropriate for, say, moving debris in the aftermath of a natural disaster and you don’t even know the quantity.

          • DragonMilk says:

            The issue is that the US used to get infrastructure built at reasonable prices, and the rest of the world is still doing so. I am not blaming contractors, they are merely responding to incentives. And somehow the US approval system has gotten so convoluted that the cost of subway line per km way overshoots the rest of the world

            It’s at the point of the costs being so absurd it doesn’t matter what explanation is given of why the cost is such and such – the underlying complaint is that the system is broken through soft corruption – incentives seemingly designed to ensure as much money leaks out of the actual project as possible

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Scott has hosted a few topics on “just why is it so hard” and lots of people have come up with theories (including me) and a lot of those theories don’t work (including mine).

            My argument for “we only pay you after you finish,” in theory, is that it stops the contractor from getting halfway through and then saying “gee, you’ve spent all this money, you have sunk costs, but we need more money, or else all the money you’ve already paid us is lost.”

            As CatCube points out, even if you get rid of that, you still have a problem of a contractor leaving your project half-finished, which can be a really bad situation.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            There’s a reason we call people who build buildings “contractors” and not “builders”: they may or may not be good at building stuff, but they’re generally excellent at writing and understanding contracts.

            The issue is that the US used to get infrastructure built at reasonable prices, and the rest of the world is still doing so. I am not blaming contractors, they are merely responding to incentives.

            IIUC, in Britain they are called “builders”


          • Lambert says:

            But half the builders in the UK are actually cowboys.

          • CatCube says:

            @Edward Scizorhands, @DragonMilk (Sorry this is a little unfocused and I jump between private owners and government owners)

            There are a couple of problems with “we don’t pay you a nickel until you complete the project” but one I’ll highlight is that the Government will have essentially no leverage over a contractor to ensure compliance with either the design (in Design-Bid-Build) or that the design is in any way sufficient (in Design-Build). We can say that work is noncompliant and withhold progress payments or order them to stop work as things stand now, but if we tell them “Hey build a thing over the next four years and then come pick up your check,” it’s not clear to me at what point we get to approve what they’re doing or what level of control we have over them. If we do try to maintain that control, what happens when we think the construction is insufficient and they say that they’ve perfectly met the terms of the contract? We’re right back where we started about negotiating a change for more money, or going into litigation.

            This is a thing that I harp on with large building projects: you still have the building in whatever state its in, literally cast in stone. Refusing to pay the contractor won’t change that fact. If they give you bad work, it can cost significantly more to fix it than to get them to do it right the first time, and may not even be physically possible. We cannot count on iterating on a poor design, and if what exists is poor you’re going to have to pay a lot of money to fix it.

            I think people are missing the main point of writing a construction contract: risk. One of the main discussions we have when making a Government contract is, “How can we push as much risk from the Government onto the Contractor as possible?” I want to emphasize that I’m not exaggerating–I’ve heard that exact sentence several times in various projects, and it’s an overriding concern in how we structure our Requests for Proposal. (I’m sure it’s true for private owners as well, but I’m not privy to their internal discussion.)

            However, putting 100% of the risk onto the contractor is neither possible nor advisable. The more risk we push onto the contractor, the more the project will cost; at some point, you’ll get no takers because you’re asking them to take on risks that they have no control over and that could sink their company.

            Let me use an extreme example to illustrate what I mean: what if we contract for a school to be built for, say, $10mm, and after the contractor has their excavator turn over its first bucket of dirt they discover a toxic waste dump? How on Earth is a contractor supposed to know we threatened to use eminent domain to get the site from Hooker Chemical? Are you seriously going to expect them to pay a billion dollars to clean up our property and then build the school for the contracted $10 million? If you’re going to propose that we can sign a contract to build something and thumb our nose at the contractor no matter what happens, you have to have a way to explain what you want to happen in cases like this. I’ve used an extreme example to illustrate the point, but stuff like vastly different foundation conditions from what everybody expected happens all the time.

            Even if the contractor is trying to cheat the Government through “Bid it Low and Make it Grow”, this is the hook that they use: they find a substantial real difference between what is required and what is in the contract and then inflate the price of that modification, because they have the option* of walking away and leaving the government holding a half-finished project to limit how hard a line we can draw–and it can be very, very expensive to readvertise a half-complete project because now we’re expecting the new contractor to take responsibility for what the old contractor did, to say nothing of the hit to timeline.

            There are risks that should be placed on the contractor, and others that are better placed on the owner (the Government, in this example). Things that everybody agrees should be on the contractor are stuff like prices of inputs. If the price of steel shoots up, well, Mr. Contractor, get better at pricing steel. Same thing with labor. We have a contract that said you’ll erect a steel frame as shown in this package of drawings for $X. If steel or labor gets more expensive, too bad. It was very clear what you’d have to provide when you made your bid. (And, note, that if steel goes down we don’t expect them to discount the price, either! All risk of change in input prices is owned by the contractor, both good and bad.) However, stuff like site conditions are much better placed on the owner. If you’re going to buy a piece of property to build something, it’s on you to do due diligence to make sure that it’s fit for that purpose, and a contractor coming in after you’ve already bought the property is in a poor position to control that risk. If you’re doing Design-Bid-Build, risks due to design are better handled by the owner and the designer, and any differences from the design as in the Contract Documents will be a modification to the contract. If you’re doing Design-Build, where the contractor will also do the design, then obviously the risk of design issues will be shared, but making this successful requires a good contractor and a good, flexible owner. Design-Build can work very well, but it’s obviously not possible to know for sure what something will cost when you start because you, well, don’t have a design.

            Another risk to consider that’s best placed on the owner though this is less of a problem for governments: the business case for the development drying up, or other funding problems. If the developer loses funding, as things stand now the contractor has already been paid for what they’ve built up to that point. However, consider if the contractor only gets paid at the end and the owner goes bankrupt halfway through construction. Now the contractor has never seen a dime and has to get in line with other creditors from an underwater owner. Again, this is a risk probably handled better in other ways than putting it on a construction contractor.

            Or, consider that if an owner decides halfway through that they don’t want to complete the project (this could be either private or government), even if they’re not bankrupt: what happens here at a 100%-paid-at-the-end project? The obvious solution is that the owner pays for the half-completed building, but how do you determine the completion percentage at that point? Also, what if the contractor was counting on the full value for whatever reason? Could they have a course of action to force the owner to pay for the completed building at the end even though they may have decided they no longer need it halfway through? If the owner is paying on a scheduled basis based on construction completed to that point, everybody can just turn around and walk away with little litigation–again, the risk of funding problems or business case problems stays with the owner, who’s better positioned to know and mitigate them.

            * I want to emphasize that this is very risky for the contractor as well, since walking away from a contract might kill their company since their performance bond company will probably drop them like a hot rock after they do this, and they might never get another contract in the aftermath because nobody will want to take a risk on them. But if their proposed mod is cheaper than firing them and hiring somebody new, or if timeline is the overriding concern, they probably know they can get away with it.

            Edit to add: Apparently New South Wales in Australia explicitly forbids what you’re proposing:

            All contractors doing construction work or providing goods or services as part of construction work under a construction contract, have the right to receive ‘progress payments’ for work delivered.

            Contractors have a right to progress payments:…even if a contract states the contractor cannot claim progress payments.

            I don’t know if this is more general in Australia, or if this particular state is different. Reading between the lines, I think it is primarily aimed at preventing prime contractors from leaving their subcontractors holding the bag. Now, governments pass laws all the time that are bad ideas, so it’s not like I’m trying to claim this proves this is a bad idea, but I post it as food for thought.

          • ana53294 says:

            I recently read this description of how the Madrid metro managed cost overruns.

            According to Spanish law, it was decided that the contracts would be fixed price, but with a bill of quantities, so that any additional work could be easily priced, and agreed promptly with the contractors.

            There is nothing in US law that prevents from doing this. So why are not cost overruns negotiated before awarding the tender?

            There are other things, such as having in-house engineers in charge of such a project (no external design firm); separating design and building; awarding contracts separately, and only valuing cost 30%, that seem to work pretty well.

            And as far as I know, none of this would be illegal in the US.

    • CatCube says:

      NB: I just quickly skimmed the article, and will probably read more deeply after getting home.

      While I fully believe that the arguments given about the Green New Deal are stupid (the GND is ridiculous on its face, but that’s a CW discussion), turning down this proposal is probably a good idea for Chicago. Simply put, I think his cost estimates are bonkers, and that’s before the fact that the City doesn’t have the slightest legal ability to let him start digging in short order. There is almost nothing about the EIS process that isn’t a frustrating waste of time and money, but it’s federal law. The courts will skull-drag the city government for allowing construction to start before that process is finished.

      Setting the procedural problems aside, It’s all well and good for Musk to pinky-swear to do it on his own dime for $1bb, but what happens when costs blow past that (which is very likely)? If Musk abandons the tunnels after this thing turns out to be uneconomic, who’s responsible for them? Recall that in 1992, there was a flood that cost the city about $1.95bb due to already-existing tunnels that are left over from the last tunnel-building craze in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Plus, now you’ve got yet another tunnel to dig around if an actual feasible proposal comes up.

      If Musk delivers a fully-developed design (or he had one and I missed it)–that is, he’s got most of the contract drawings completed, not a bunch of concept sketches–then we can evaluate whether this is a good idea. I’ll bet that most other engineers here can verify that there’s a great deal of distance between initial concepts and final design. One of my favorite aphorisms is “design is a process of one damn thing after another” since what seemed simple in concept turns out to have a bunch of epicycles that make it a lot more complicated than you thought. Another one is “every hole is an adventure.” This proposal has got both of those working against it here.

      Also, this isn’t software; you can’t build something close to what you want and then iterate. Whatever exists in the drawings when the first truck full of concrete is discharged into that tunnel is pretty much exactly what the city is going to get. If it’s half-assed and insufficient at that point, there’s almost no way to turn it into something good. The fact that the The Boring Company’s last demonstration didn’t live up to the hype should be very concerning in civil works. If they can’t even do it in a demonstration it’s hard to see how they’ll pull a rabbit out of their hats at full scale.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Thanks for the details. In my own field there is a lot of “free is the worst price” so I should have realized it could be the case here, too.

    • Clutzy says:

      1 billion dollars seems about 10 billion short of the likely cost. Im from Chicago and both anti-Chicago and anti-Musk, but the socialists don’t really make much sense here. The problem with the idea is that it has about a 5% chance of working, not that a Loop-ORD instant connect isn’t a theoretically good idea.

  41. Plumber says:

    Not that I needed much prodding, but this essay on how living within but near the western border of a time zone versus living near the eastern edge of one influences behavior makes me even more convinced that “Daylight Savings Time” is a vile practice (and we need more time zones).

    • LHN says:

      If the study is actually reflecting a real phenomenon, then the DST process may be inadvertently improving governance by effectively shifting everyone an hour west right before Election Day.

      Though I suppose ideally you’d want to move that extra hour of potential sleep from Saturday night to Monday night.

    • fion says:

      Thanks for sharing. I thought it was a shame they didn’t mention Europe. Most of Europe is on one time zone, all the way from Poland (or NE Norway) to Spain, or approximately 40 degrees difference in longitude (about the difference between New York City and Denver, Colorado). Obviously there are cultural differences between Poland and Spain, which would make a rigorous study harder, but I wonder if some of those cultural differences are because of the time difference.

  42. Murphy says:

    Anyone mind if I vent a little?

    So… I’m sitting here in the UK. Listening to the UK parliament debate.

    We’re now mere weeks away from brexit and it’s like a slow motion crash. First you’re on a cruise liner when as part of some power play the captain decides to hold a vote on where the boat should go. Many of the passengers hate the captain and think it’ll be funny to vote that the ship should pile-drive into the side of an iceberg.

    Plus there’s some of the… less gifted passengers who’ve been reading stories about how icebergs are the best place ever and how boats floating is bad.

    So, first, you’re standing on the deck and you see the captain and crew in a lifeboat rowing away as fast as they can….

    but… there’s still some people left at the helm and the iceberg is miles away and you assume they’re not literally insane.

    But then people assigned to steer keep resigning and leaping into lifeboats…

    Shortly after the vote the Brexiters kept insisting that they’d pull dozens of trade agreement out of their arse in 2 years… they’ve managed nothing.

    but they seem to now be dealing with that… by redefining success. Whatever bad shit happens they’re redefining as their goal all along.


    And worse still: the circular brain-damaged logic every fuckup is just another sign that we should ramp up the power to the engines while keeping aim at the iceberg.

    And that if things turn out badly… that it’s all the fault of the people who were insufficiently enthusiastic about hitting the iceberg.


    And in 2 weeks it’s not even clear that EU citizens living in the UK will be able to walk into a hospital and get medical care and UK flights being able to fly over EU airspace and land at EU airports will be at the sufferance of EU charity.

    The government has been bribing companies to stay… but then forgetting to make the agreements binding but handing over the money.

    They’ve been locking themselves into mutually exclusive promises then relying on magic and wishes to insist that it’ll all work out.

    The government has failed to make any plans, the people given the job to make plans keep quitting and everything is literally nothing but braindead slogans.

    But people seem convinced that there’s some kind of magical force that will make everything just tick along without any real change and make everything turn out OK.

    Large numbers of people seem to be consistently spectacularly stupid over long periods of time.

    Anyway. That’s why I’m losing much faith in my fellow humans as sentient entities with more sense than bowls of porridge.

    • John Schilling says:

      Yeah, this has been amazingly fun to watch from a safe distance. Parliament is still voting today on whether to “accept” a no-deal Brexit, right? Which means May gets her marching orders to go beg the EU for an extension on Article 50, and I don’t see how Britain staying in Brexit Limbo isn’t a ha-ha-we-win scenario for the EU for as long as they can milk it along so they probably get it. And then stay in limbo because the EU has no reason to ever approve a deal that isn’t asymptotically close to “London gets all of the costs and none of the benefits of EU membership”. But that can’t last forever.

      So either the British people are told to go back and vote on Brexit again, as many times as necessary until they get it “right”, or they eventually crash out with a no-deal Brexit.

      And all of this was foreseeable two years ago, so the May government is manifestly incompetent for not having spent two years coming up with the best possible plan for a no-deal Brexit. Both because that was likely to happen, and because the only possibility for an acceptable deal would come from negotiators who could point to the no-deal Plan B in their left hand as a credible alternative. The only way this isn’t incompetence is if it was part of a cynical plan to punish or frighten the British people into voting “properly” when they’re sent back for a second Brexit referendum, in which case I’m not sure we should be calling the UK a democracy any more.

      I don’t suppose you have any reserve Monarchs you could swap in to run the state at least until this gets settled?

      • Nick says:

        Can someone explain to me why the relationship between the EU and its member states is so adversarial? Like, maybe I’m being really naive here, but if Saskatchewan were petitioning to be accepted as a 51st US state, or California were trying to leave, would it look at all like this?

        • Murphy says:

          for most states it isn’t really. In many countries the EU is pretty popular.

          but the UK has effectively been subject to a 30 year PR campaign by the daily mail and similar blaming all evils in the world on unspecified “EU regulations” which are typically entirely fictional.

          It’s why brexiters shout a lot about “eu regulations” but can’t ever seem to answer when you say “what EU regulation are you most looking forward to being free of”




        • LHN says:

          Given the previous precedent, I suspect California trying to leave would look much more adversarial. The EU has a procedure for withdrawal. The United States doesn’t. While that doesn’t make peaceful secession quite impossible given sufficient time, effort, and a compliant Congress that doesn’t mind losing a major Pacific naval base (among many other assets of national importance), it’s basically unimaginable for it to happen on the basis of a single razor-thin referendum.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          It’d look about a thousand times worse. You’re breaking up a political entity, so the central authority is going to impose maximum pain, or else everyone making up the political entity is also going to be looking for a sweetheart deal. If the UK can back out of the EU while retaining all the benefits of EU membership, why can’t Portgual, or Italy, or…you know, it goes on and on.

          It’s that “retain the benefits of EU membership” that’s the kicker here. The UK decided to heavily integrate and harmonize a whole lot of stuff with the EU going back decades, and undoing that takes time. Or you can just do the hard reset.

          There’s also the problem that the EU has all sorts of obviously insane beliefs, and when insanity meets reality, hard feelings usually ensue.

      • Murphy says:

        I mean back after the vote I thought it was a poor choice … but it’s gone from “poor” to “hey, I wonder what happens if we try just nobody holding the steering wheel at all and just leave our fate up to the gods”

        Normally the UK government pulls the thumb out and gets on with shit. But they just haven’t.

        It doesn’t even seem like the EU has been maximally mean/unreasonable… which they could have been. They’ve just stuck to fairly sane/reasonable options… but the Brexiter politicians promised their voters that they’d get all the benefits of EU membership without any costs or downsides, taking everything and giving nothing in return.

        It’s like a prisoners dilemma where one person promises their side full defection with no cooperation and that the other players are gonna keep cooperating forever because ♫Ruuuule Britannia♫ .

        it’s on a par with trump and it “and make mexico pay for it” stuff.. only on steroids.

        Like if a state tried to cede from the USA when it comes to federal taxes, federal laws, the constitution, freedom of movement of people born in other states into that state etc… but still wanted federal highway funding, wanted their own citizens to have free travel, free trade etc etc etc.

        Then threw a hissy fit and called it “sabotage” when the federal government goes “you’re free to go.. but you’re gonna be on your own and if you want free trade afterwards your options for terms are equivalent to these other countries over there we have trade agreement with and we’re not gonna give you free money”

        • Clutzy says:

          I disagree. The EU seems to me to have been extremely petty in negotiations. A deal 10x better than the May deal should have been the EU’s opening bid.

          • Radu Floricica says:

            First priority for EU is for this not to be pretty. It would be insanely dangerous to let it.
            Second, and at a distance, is for UK to.still be a part of EU, as much as possible – either through a deal or be revoting.

          • Murphy says:

            What, exactly do you honestly believe the EU should have offered but didn’t?

          • Clutzy says:

            100% No-Tariff trade using WTO guidelines + a simple reciprocal visa arrangement with relatively open travel. Plus some mild guarantee demands regarding the Ireland border.

          • ana53294 says:

            0% tariffs could easily be offered, and they won’t solve almost anything.

            Most trade barriers between developed countries are non-tariff related. There is the case of Germany banning noisy lawnmowers; Spain had very strict legislation on what chocolate is, and others. In each case, EU legislation was made that was stricter than the least strict country and less strict than the strictest country.

            So the UK, a country of noisy lawnmowers, had to make slightly less noisy ones, and Germany couldn’t ban them anymore.

            The EU has also made exceptions for its own members; for example, the EU allows wooden pallets to not be treated by international phytosanitary standards. Every developed country (including the US) has very strict phytosanitary standards on wooden pallets.

          • Clutzy says:

            If those laws are a problem, the EU should have made repealing them a condition for joining the EU. That it seeks to preserve such thing is an indication of its wrong priorities.

          • ana53294 says:

            And it did. They established common rules for all these things.

            The UK does have all the similar laws to the EU right now. But the whole point of Brexit was being able to make its own rules. So what will be the point of Brexit, if the UK just keeps using the same standards as the EU, without being able to have a say in them?

            There is also the issue with the enforcement of those laws. Who makes sure that the UK doesn’t go back to making noisy lawnmowers? Who will check compliance?

            If the UK is not subject to the EU Court of Justice, how can the EU make sure that the UK body that inspects lawnmowers doesn’t ignore noisy ones?

          • The Nybbler says:

            Free trade does not require that Germany accept noisy UK lawnmowers. UK companies can make noisy lawnmowers, sell them domestically and to the US and Brazil and whoever else doesn’t mind noisy lawnmowers. Free trade requires only that they are allowed to sell quieter ones to Germany just as German companies do.

            Obviously there’s lots of room for chicanery here, like Germany claiming there’s some ineffable difference in German-made lawnmowers that British lawnmowers simply cannot meet. But those should be solvable short of imposing common domestic standards on trading partners.

          • Clutzy says:

            And that is why the fundamental problem is EU intransigence. These are middling issues that trade partners hammer out as they appear, and they rarely appear if you are not governing insanely with respect to your lawnmower laws.

          • ana53294 says:

            Germans have a right to quiet lawnmowers, Spain has a right to chocolate made with actual cocoa fat and not vegetable fat, and the UK has a right for chickens without chlorine.

            The only reason to lower those standards is to get something in return.

            The EU and the UK will eventually hammer out those details. But what is the starting point of these negotiations?

            Japan-EU, for example, started with WTO rules, and they slowly and reciprocally made accomodations for each other.

            The UK will be outside of the EU. So this means they start with WTO rules, right? Because they can’t start where they are right now, which is being a member of the EU.

          • Clutzy says:

            Its more rational to start from where they are, and then EU/UK negotiate the little changes and concessions. Like how you would do in any normal negotiation.

          • hls2003 says:


            Sorry to be going in two threads at once. This is interesting. I am not sure I see your point on regulations. Currently, the British presumably meet EU standards and can sell goods there. After a hard Brexit, presuming they are still making the same goods to the same specifications, they should still be able to sell them there, unless the EU decides not to permit them. Is permitting the continued importation of British goods which do conform to EU standards part of the offered EU deal?

            Or conversely, one complaint I hear from UK MP’s is that they are concerned the EU will change standards without consulting them. Which is a legitimate concern I suppose, but presumably only to the extent that the changes themselves are smokescreens for tariffs. For example, common WTO complaints are that “regulations” are put in place that only domestic manufacturers can meet (e.g. “This lumber cannot have been shipped more than 200 miles or else its carbon footprint is too high.”) Do you expect the EU to punitively alter its regulations in that way to specifically disadvantage British goods following a hard Brexit? Is this something the UK should be concerned about? If so, that seems less reasonable to me. Basic hygiene and safety standards that are not punitively directed seem more to me like “well, if you meet them, come on in; if not, stay out.”

          • ana53294 says:

            The WT provides for two years of the same market access as now, so they can negotiate a proper trade deal. So yes, it is part of the deal.

            The issue is not whether the laws are the same. The issue is who determines whether the laws are actually enforced or not.

            The UK could have the same laws as the EU on lawnmower noise, but be very lax about enforcing them. The agency responsible for checking it could just ignore it and not enforce the law.

            Plenty of countries have very strict laws, but then they don’t actually follow them. Adding melamine to milk or making plastic rice is not legal in China, and they still do it, and contaminated goods regularly arrive to the EU. So the EU needs to inspect Chinese goods.

            So what do Germans do? If the UK becomes a third party member, they will inspect UK lawnmowers the same way they inspect Chinese ones to ensure compliance with EU law. Having to go through the same paperwork China goes through is presumably not what the UK wants.

            So there are two options to avoid goods being stopped at the border to ensure compliance.

            a) The UK and the EU mutually recognize each other’s institutions as valid for inspecting goods and ensuring quality. But these recognitions could be easily revoked at the drop of a hat.

            b) The UK agency that ensures compliance with the laws obeys a mutually agreed arbitration tribunal, or the EU Court of Justice. In practice, there would be no difference between those. Besides, the EU is unlikely to set a special arbitration court to settle such disputes with the UK. So the EUCJ it would be.

            Its more rational to start from where they are, and then EU/UK negotiate the little changes and concessions.

            “Where they are” is the UK being a member of the EU, and it will stop being so. And as soon as the UK leaves, “where they are” is WTO member status.

          • hls2003 says:


            Yes, I follow you. I expect that is part of what the Brexiteers were complaining about being subject to EU bureaucrats. But it seems to me that your option (a) is viable, and not subject to the same complaint. I would have expected that might be a point that the EU could concede to ease the transition. Why not trust the British regulators? They’re adequate now, they should still be adequate 18 months from now to assess agreed-upon standards. The issue comes, I expect, if and when the EU regulations and UK regulations diverge. But again, this doesn’t seem insuperable. As long as the regulations for proper EU certification are public knowledge, they can presumably be tested for, if there is an agreed-upon testing body. Maybe this is one where the UK should have offered (did offer?? I don’t know how the negotiations went) some amount of cash to pay for an EU liaison to make sure the UK regulator is up-to-date on new regulations, but only for industries and/or manufacturers who want to sell into the EU. Maybe a per-change basis cash payment or something.

            I agree with you that if you want to monitor for compliance, somebody has to do it. It’s unclear that somebody has to result in the UK regulator being treated like the Chinese.

          • ana53294 says:

            Well, at the moment, the WT recognizes each other’s courts, and the UK would still have to obey EUCJ precedent.

            The so-maligned backstop is about maintaining same laws.

            In the scenario where the “backstop solution” would apply, the UK in respect of Northern Ireland will maintain specific regulatory alignment with the EU.

            To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and to ensure that Northern Irish businesses can bring
            products into the EU’s Single Market without restriction, Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules that are indispensable for avoiding a hard border, namely:

            legislation on VAT and excise in respect of goods

            legislation on product requirements

            sanitary rules for veterinary controls (“SPS rules”)

            rules on agricultural production/marketing

            state aid rules

            The EU’s Customs Code will also continue to apply in Northern Ireland within the overall context of the
            Single Customs Territory between the EU and the UK.

            So the Withdrawal agreement does provide all those things. The EU is not being unreasonable. They recognise the UK’s rules and courts; they just ask them to be bound by EUCJ precedent and by EU law.

            Which is what Brexiteers don’t want.

    • Lambert says:

      This is like, the CW-est thing in Britain right now.

      It’s fucking Budget Day today and nobody even cares, is how big and controversial all of this is.

      I’m happy to slag off Her Majesty’s Government here, but can we please wait for a non-integer thread.

      Edit: 123.25 is up now. Can we go there to point colourful language in a Westminsterly direction there now?

    • Clutzy says:

      We’re now mere weeks away from brexit and it’s like a slow motion crash. First you’re on a cruise liner when as part of some power play the captain decides to hold a vote on where the boat should go. Many of the passengers hate the captain and think it’ll be funny to vote that the ship should pile-drive into the side of an iceberg.

      To me it appears roughly the opposite. Your on a cruise liner and the captain and the officers hold a vote on to whether they should keep going straight into an iceberg (which they greatly prefer), the occupants vote no and say turn starboard. The captain jumps ship and the first mate (who also prefers the iceberg) says, “aha we can turn to port!” Of course, at port is a different, slightly smaller iceberg. When that is rejected the first mate throws up his hands and says, “the passengers are unreasonable lets turn off the engine and see where the current takes us.”

  43. Scumbarge says:

    Question about healthcare!


    this is a five minute crash-course-like simplified take on “fraternal societies”
    1: in the ~1920s a bunch of people would pool money for medical care, often retaining the services of a doctor.
    2: doctors would compete for these spots for the reliable income
    3: the AMA was right peeved by the low fees, and the of indignity of doctors having to grovel to the working class, and lobbied for the government to step in.
    4: it did! in britain, the NHS crowded these out because people being forced to pay for “free” medical care wouldn’t also join a society
    5: in the US, the AMA was given control over medical licensing and were quick to make them more restrictive, and sanction doctors who worked for lodge practices.
    6: now medicine is expensive and everything sucks.

    So: Is this a reasonably accurate picture of things? If so, is there any realistic path forwards to the days of yore?

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Depends on what percentage of medical services a doctor or a small clinic could provide. This is money you’d pay for insuramce, so when you also need an mri, you’d pay out of the pocket. It’s not really viable anymore for full services.

      This being said, the most interesting proposal I heards was to separate boring, repetitive, established healthcare from the newer, expensive, complex stuff that can only be done in a hospital by a team of specialists. And set different domains and payment sources for them.
      The first works community based, and also simply payed by the state, possibly with fixed prices. It’s a sistem that responds pretty well to.industrial style management.
      The second, let it fly. Free market, competition, insurance etc. Hell, even insurance would look more like actually be insured and less likeca useless and expensive middleman.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      That sounds like medical co-ops.

      Realize that medical wages have risen a lot over the past century. Lowering them is very difficult. You have to offer something in return for lower wages. “I don’t have to deal with insurance companies” is one possible carrot, but doctors in the US already have that choice by working for a large employer or hiring billing specialists.

      You will have a hard time finding countries that aren’t the US that have ever lowered medical costs, outside of exogenous events like Greece’s economy collapsing. What they have done successfully is stopped costs from rising very fast, which really pays off if you apply it year after year for 40 years. And hey, even the US managed to keep costs flat for a short period of time.[1] But shoving costs down is an entirely different challenge.

      [1] And HMOs were despised for it, and stripped of their power to do so.

  44. mirrorandscale says:

    I’m doing a blog series in anticipation of Israeli Knesset elections in April. There will be articles explaining: the basics of Israel’s style of parliamentary democracy, specific quirks of the modern Israeli election law and process, the various population groupings of the Israeli electorate and the different political parties running in this election. I’ll also be writing articles looking at the elections from the perspective of various Israeli and international political interests, examining and analyzing how they should best act to achieve their policy goals. Would welcome anyone’s feedback- either those familiar with Israeli political system who have seasoned criticism or those unfamiliar who can provide ways that the blog could be clearer in its explanations and structure.

    Also want to note that this is my first official blog. I’ve been inspired by Scott’s writing for quite a long time and its one of the things that has motivated these efforts. Would likewise be open to any feedback about any aspect of how my analysis and writing is presenting itself. This is definitely a work-in-progress.

    Here’s the link to the blog:

    Here’s an email address for any feedback: