Open Thread 143

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 – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. No matter how many times I advertise it, people somehow never figure out there’s an SSC podcast (no extra content, just someone reading the blog posts). And in case you prefer robots to humans (not judging you), now someone’s made an automated version of the same thing.

2. Deiseach, Matt M, Missingno, TheAncientGeek, and toastengineer have served their sentences and are unbanned. If you should be unbanned but can’t post, let me know and I’ll try to figure out why. I’ve also banned a few extra people who deserved it. Spambots and randos don’t get due process, but people with more than 10ish comments who get banned are all on the Register Of Bans with explanation. If you seem to be banned but aren’t on there, let me know – it’s probably a spam filter problem.

3. I’ve also updated the list of people who are banned from IRL meetups. These are vague, don’t use full names, and don’t list offenses – out of sensitivity to the fact that these people haven’t been convicted by any court and I’m not trying to sentence them to Googleable Internet shaming. The people on there generally know what they did, so if you see your name on there and are shocked, it may just be someone with the same first name + last initial as you; message me and I will tell you. If you’re banned and I see you at a meetup, I’ll assume you didn’t notice you were banned, and politely ask you to leave. If you refuse, then I will have to resort to Googleable Internet shaming to make sure everyone else is adequately informed/protected, so please leave.

4. A reader has proposed a redesign for SSC. Please take a look at the mockup (it doesn’t have ads because they’re hard to add to the mockup, but imagine it did) and then vote on whether you think it’s better or worse.

5. I’ll be at the Bay Area Winter Solstice celebration tonight, hope to see some of you there.

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1,004 Responses to Open Thread 143

  1. kipling_sapling says:

    In a recent column, Ross Douthat describes the Chinese system as a “peculiar blend of Maoist dogmatics, nationalist fervor, one-party meritocracy and surveillance-state capitalism.” What do you think of this description?

  2. Etoile says:

    House-buying question (US):
    Is the following advice sound or not? Should I ignore it?

    NOTE: I’m conscious that a lot of things about a house are surface-level things you can fix; the following already accounts for this.

    All of the advice I’ve been getting as I start my house search basically tells me to:
    1) Approach it from an abundance mentality: keep looking until you fall in love with it and such.
    2) “If it goes before you’re ready, if wasn’t your house”.
    3) Offer below the selling price/negotiate/bargain on the selling price aggressively, because the seller wants to sell.

    However, I’ve seen houses that look good disappear before I can even go see them, or so quickly that I don’t have time to think about making an offer. It seems to be a seller’s market. Moreover, while more houses will come on the market after Christmas, they will also be more expensive.

    So it seems like if I follow the advice above, all I’m going to net myself is as imperfect a house as I’m seeing now, but for more money. So should I take a house that doesn’t fit me for various reasons — space, number of bathrooms, size of common spaces — knowing that nothing better will come along?

    Thank you!

    • Well... says:

      Where are you trying to buy a house? (What part of what country?)

      How desperately do you need to buy a house right now? (I.e. if your search drags on for another 3, 6, or 12 months will you be OK?)

      How much DIY/renovation type stuff are you willing to put into a house?

      My first house wasn’t a fit on paper, but it “felt” right when I went to look at it and I made an offer that day. We ended up really loving that house, and I later discovered that a lot of things about it I wouldn’t have taken any notice of beforehand eventually became some of my favorite things about that house, and are now included in what I’d insist on in any future house I bought.

    • Aftagley says:

      Well, let’s look at those rules. My first house I:

      1. Fell in love with it at first sight.
      2. Waited around 1-2 months before something I liked came on the market.
      3. Offered approximately 10% less than the asking price and got it.

      I was happy with literally every aspect of the transaction, loved the house and made a killing when I finally sold it. All the rules you listed above are true. You don’t want a massive financial burden/responsibility hanging over your head for the next 5-30 years that you’re only kind of ok with. If you’re absolutely desperate for housing, that’s one thing, but if you’re somewhat stable I’d say there is no downside to waiting until something clicks.

    • Matt M says:

      2008 aside, housing markets are largely local. In terms of whether it’s a buyers or sellers market and how soon you may need to react, that’s going to be very specific to your local market, and nobody here is qualified to give you advice on it (unless they’ve recently purchased in that same market)

    • DragonMilk says:

      Who on earth is giving you this advice?

      1) ???? I can only rationalize this as since you’re going to sink a lot of your funds into an illiquid investment for a long time, you better not regret it? But falling in love means the broker can tell that you really want the house
      2) If it goes before you’re ready, it means someone else offered a price that the seller accepted. What is this about being your house or not? Regret again?
      3) This is entirely market-dependent. If you avoided (1), you can take the posture of noting all the deficiencies that you’ll have to put money into, and then say you can therefore offer X for the house. Don’t be afraid to do so – any bid is a win for the broker and the broker will pass it along to the client. We had a 800k bid on a house we were listing for $995k, and the broker passed it along.

      Again, local market matters a lot on the final point. The other two points seem ridiculous

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      As everyone says, it depends on the local market.

      My mother always told me “buy new from the builder. You will get the house exactly as you want it, the roof is new, the A/C is new, everything is under warranty and no one will ever pay less for the house than what you buy it for.” Obviously that last part was before 2008, but it’s generally true. And it was true for me in my last house, as we built that in 2004 and sold it for a large profit a few months ago. That said, I am a suburban dweller, so there’s constantly new housing developments going up. Not so much if you’re talking about the Bay Area.

      We just finished building our new house in August. I like it very, very much. We, by which I mean, “my wife,” got everything exactly the way she wanted it, down to the color of the grout in the bathrooms. I got every room wired for gigabit ethernet. And I got my own game room, with a reclining leather loveseat, a 65″ 4k TV and a minifridge full of beer within arm’s reach. Life is good.

      • EchoChaos says:

        If you can afford it, that’s definitely the best option. My wife and I are building a custom home right now and it’s also a delightful, but somewhat stressful, experience.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Building new didn’t cost us anything more than buying an pre-existing home.

          Is your new home part of a community or a one-off? I could see it being more if one were to buy a plot of land and build a home on it, but my home is in a subdivision, so it’s not full custom. We picked the floor plan we wanted and then got to customize everything inside of it.

          The main thing building new costs you is time. We signed the papers last November and didn’t move in until August.

          • EchoChaos says:

            My new home is a very weird one-off.

            I own a very large lot that had part of a section that a developer wanted in order to square off the lot he was developing. So I sold that part to the developer and offered him the opportunity to build my house.

            He’s been absolutely fantastic, coming in dramatically under budget and ahead of schedule.

            But that’s because he’s an experienced builder/developer who mostly does his own work and took ours on as a project because he knew us personally and already had a project next door.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          This is a very rosy picture of “new from the builder”. Or, more charitably, “stressful but rewarding” is what it looks like when the process goes well.

          The flip side is that, if you go looking in the “buy from the homeowner” market, some of those that you pass on immediately because they have major issues like foundation problems or generally shoddy construction? That could have been your “new from the builder and you are locked into arbitration” house.

          We have friends who built a great house from a great builder in a great neighborhood and they were still trying to get contracted items completed two years after move-in.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I guess that’s true, but in my case we were one of the last homes in the development, so I’d already seen their work. We also joined the FaceBook group for the development homeowners and talked to them, and they were all happy with the construction and had no horror stories. Plus, you can (and should) watch the home while it’s under construction. I had my friend who is a builder walk through the home a few times during construction to look for any problems, and he didn’t see any.

          • hls2003 says:

            My view may be skewed, because I’ve litigated several such disputes, but my opinion is more on HBC’s side here. Building can be fine if you get a reputable builder and budget a bunch of extra time and money for punch list items and get pretty lucky and have a backup plan to complete work if the builder fails to do so properly. Many builders work on a bit of a financial knife-edge, and you’re putting a lot of confidence in that builder’s longevity, solvency, and honesty.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I guess that’s true, but in my case we were one of the last homes in the development, so I’d already seen their work.

            That can work out great.

            It can also mean that their regular crews have moved onto the next development and your house gets built by completely different subcontractors. Or supply prices go up and they are trying to still turn a profit. Or, or, or …

            I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from building a home, but it’s absolutely no guarantee of anything. Overall, if you don’t know what you are doing, it’s probably better on average to buy an existing house, because you have more information about the house, as it, you know, already exists.

            Having a friend who is a builder, especially if your GC knows this, is a really great thing that is decidedly not true for most people.

          • Nick says:

            Not saying I doubt HBC or hls or anyone here, but man, if this whole system is so screwed up, why does anyone build their own house? Is it because they don’t know the dangers? Is it because they just want it that badly? How is some other building company not making a killing by charging a little more to not completely screw you over?

          • acymetric says:


            I’m not HBC, but it can be either of not knowing the dangers or wanting it that badly despite knowing the dangers depending on the person. Some people who realize all the problems feel they can deal with them and it will be worth it, some people have the money or living situation where it isn’t a problem.

            Building a house can be very rewarding, it is just important to know that a) costs may turn out higher than initially expected, b) you may not get quite what you wanted and/or spend a lot of time/money litigating to get what you wanted, and c) you need to be in a situation where the date that you move into you’re new house is entirely flexible because there is a good chance it will not be completed “on time”, and a decent chance that it isn’t even close.

          • AKL says:

            How is some other building company not making a killing by charging a little more to not completely screw you over?

            I wish this were a thing (or at least a thing accessible to me).

            I suppose a builder could pitch you “yes, we’re not the cheapest BUT we won’t screw you over” but… how could you possibly evaluate that claim? The only way I can think of is to hire an architect with extensive first hand experience with all local builders to help you solicit and evaluate bids.

            And my guess is that there is a “tier” of builder that only works with architects / professionals, charges more, and doesn’t nickel and dime, but that they have no incentive to work with or market to owners without a professional intermediary. After all it’s probably a lot more annoying to work with highly invested amateurs than professionals with a level of detachment, and building rep with architects is a lot more valuable than building rep with a random person who might, one day, have a friend who also wants to build a house.

          • hls2003 says:

            [I]f this whole system is so screwed up, why does anyone build their own house?

            There are good reasons to build. Location is often the most important part of a home; if you find land in the desired location but no house, then you’ll need to build. If you want something specialized in your house, then you are unlikely to find an existing home matching that and you should build. Sometimes it is more cost-effective, if the local market gets out of control, or if your desired features would require substantial structural modifications to “normal” houses – sometimes it is cheaper to build once than to tear down, retrofit, and rebuild. It ensures you can design it just the way you want, rather than having to accept someone else’s plans or retrofit a less-ideal structure (which, if you’re hiring a lot of additions/alterations out to a contractor, can be effectively a miniature version of every problem you’d encounter building anyway).

            Is it because they don’t know the dangers? Is it because they just want it that badly?

            Probably in part. Most people go into a contract optimistic. They like the builder, the builder likes them, they trust each other, the builder plans on a smooth profitable project and the homeowner plans on a beautiful new home. This probably works moderately well more often than not. You get a negatively skewed sample by looking at litigated matters. But building a home is a long complex project, and nothing ever goes quite according to plan. I think most people consider the things they expect to go wrong, and plan for them, but don’t know all the universe of possible issues. (To borrow from the Iraq war, the “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.”) So the homeowner may think about the building permits and inspections, but may not consider how a two-week delay can combine with unexpected bad weather to cause a six-month wait, which results in an extra $20K in rent while you’re waiting, which also means the contractor’s interior subs are committed on another indoor project in the meantime, which means another wait for scheduling… there are just a lot of moving parts, and it really helps to have a significant surplus budget of both time and money to deal with the time and cost overruns. Or the contractor may have figured out his margins when bidding, but runs into issues on another job that pinch him financially, which the homeowner doesn’t know about going in, so he can’t absorb a delay, and so his subs lien the property, and now your construction escrow is refusing to give out funds, but the GC can only pay the subs by getting a draw from your escrow. These aren’t necessarily dealbreakers, but there’s a lot more to go wrong than “look at house, hire inspector, buy house” because there are many fewer steps. I would build in the right situation, but I would certainly constrain my budget to ensure that I can afford a ton of bad surprises.

            How is some other building company not making a killing by charging a little more to not completely screw you over?

            A couple reasons, IMO. First, remember that it’s not all about “bad builders.” There are tons of “bad clients” out there who either through malice or ignorance don’t understand realistic building standards and will hold up half a million in funds over a cabinet installation that they think is 1/4 millimeter off level (though well within industry standards) or because they changed their mind about the paint and want the whole thing redone at no extra charge or whatever. So if you are going to be the builder that is always on time and always completes work perfectly, you’re not going to be a little more expensive. You’re going to be a lot more expensive, to the point that very few folks will hire you going in. I know of a large corporate law firm that, upon completing a transaction for a client, simply delivered a one-line invoice with a multi-million dollar number. If the client challenged it, the law firm’s response was “if you don’t believe our services were worth it, then pay only what you believe is fair; but we will never work for you again ever if we’re not paid in full.” They usually got paid. I suppose a builder could do something similar if a customer started being unreasonable. But it takes a gigantic capital base to be able to sustain that; and you need to already be the king of the mountain in terms of reputation to get customers. The industry generally isn’t that well-funded and customers aren’t so price-insensitive. I’ve heard of some road-building companies that operate on the model of “fast and good” but vastly expensive, to finish off quickly municipal projects stalled due to complications of government-lowest-bidder contractors. Why not hire them all the time? Because their model doesn’t work financially to do the first 80% of work, just that last push.

            This is related to the other issue, that most of these are very large one-time transactions, not iterated, so other than by reputation, game theory suggests it’s hard to avoid defections by either party. The customer is making, for them, a gigantic life-changing purchase. They want everything how they want it and for the price agreed, change orders and delays and unexpected hiccups be darned. The contractor is also making a big commitment, but it’s not their only iron in the fire, and they have to arrange a dizzying array of trades and specialists along with their other duties. Every extra moment they spend on this project is one that they’re not making money and missing out on the next job. To a certain extent, once the contract is underway, it’s pretty zero-sum; it’s a recipe for conflict, and while it’s not inevitable if everyone’s acting reasonably and in good faith, it’s a risk.

          • EchoChaos says:

            The only way I can think of is to hire an architect with extensive first hand experience with all local builders to help you solicit and evaluate bids.

            Interestingly, I went into my project with a builder known but not an architect, and I choose my architect this exact way.

            They cost nearly twice as much ~$30k v. $15k for the lowest bid, but they were able to explain in detail how they knew the particulars of what we were trying to build and why that extra cost was justified and interfaced with the builder well.

            We can’t know for sure if the cheaper guy would’ve been as good, but our architect was great.

          • Garrett says:

            As someone who’s been around home remodeling my whole life and recently took out my first self-drafted building permit: people everywhere are cheap.

            Look – there’s nothing that says that you have to get a bad house when freshly-built. However, the same considerations that apply everywhere else apply here, too. Just because you don’t know what corners can be cut doesn’t mean that they might not be.

            There was (maybe still is) a home construction company around here that advertised itself as the best price per square foot. Do you think that they are going to be doing the very best finishing work? If a joist is found to be warped, do you think they are going to order/wait for a replacement, try and twist it into shape, or just bang that sucker in with a few extra nails?

            There can be a lot of fit-and-finish stuff which is easy to skimp on. But also an emphasis on speed of construction can lead to nails going through plumbing, cabinets not mounted level, etc.

        • DragonMilk says:

          I’ve been told that right now, if you don’t have pre-existing relationships, the good contractors are taken, so unless you spend a lot to join their wait list, you’ll probably get a “bad” contractor, on average.

          It’s been recommended to me that it’s better to wait for the next housing downturn and rent in the meantime before going the building route.

          Again, depends on neighborhood!

      • DragonMilk says:

        Welcome back!

        Edit: Saw you started down-thread…did you get an e-mail notification of unbanning? Otherwise how did you know that it happened?

      • FrankistGeorgist says:

        My mother, who is lucky enough to warrant otherwise rational people turning superstitious in her presence, bought the house I grew up in from an architect/builder couple who had designed and built their dream home at great expense but had to be torn away at the last minute to attend to family or something elsewhere and needed the money now. Contractors and electricians who came to the house all marveled at the meticulous and well-done work. In contrast, the house I recently bought has yet to have a contractor come from the basement without some choice words for whoever did the previous work.

        So, a good grift if you can swing it is to poach someone’s dream house.

    • profgerm says:

      There’s some good advice so far, and it does depend on how desperate you are to get in a house (rental contract up?). It’s useful to know your negotiables and non-negotiables; maybe you absolutely need a quiet home office or a basement, but a downstairs half-bath is a take it or leave it luxury.

      One extra bit of advice that worked for me: look for open houses on odd nights. This tends to be the sign of a desperate seller, and if the house works out, you might get a good deal. My seller had one buyer back out last minute, but they already had a house contracted in a new town- they really needed to sell, and because of that I ended up negotiating below list price and a new AC, in a relatively hot neighborhood. Based on the comps after we bought, the seller could’ve gotten an extra 10-20K if they’d waited maybe a week, but we showed up that night and let them know we were serious (I think having a good realtor helped us here).

      However, because I did jump on this house being 90%+ perfect, I gave up having a basement. That would’ve been ideal, but the rare houses with basements in my area missed out on other more crucial factors.

      • One suggestion …

        In my experience, the realtor will ask you how much you want to spend. That’s the wrong question from your standpoint, since how much you want to spend depends on what you can get for the money. But it may be the right question for a realtor who is getting a commission that is a fixed percentage of the sales price and would therefor like to find you the most expensive house you are willing to buy.

        The right question, in my opinion, is “what features do you want?” You then get the Realtor (or Zillow) to find you houses that meet your requirements and look at the price. If they are all out of your price range you scale back your requirements. If they are on the low end, you consider whether there are less essential features that would be nice and see what it costs to add them.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          In my experience, the realtor will ask you how much you want to spend. That’s the wrong question from your standpoint, since how much you want to spend depends on what you can get for the money. But it may be the right question for a realtor who is getting a commission that is a fixed percentage of the sales price and would therefor like to find you the most expensive house you are willing to buy.

          I have worked with a realtor on three house purchases. In the move to Lexington, they were providing me with useful local information. In the previous cases, the value they added in exchange for their 2.5% was nearly nil. When possible, the seller should use the cheapest service that will take photos, put a realtor box on, and create an RLMS so buyers can find you via Zillow, Redfin, et al. Listing with Redfin itself is a decent option for this.

    • Etoile says:

      Don’t know if anyone is still following this thread, because the new open thread is up, but thanks everyone for the good advice.
      In case anyone is looking for “closure” on their comments, I’m in an urban area that has constant new building and new people coming here; I’d rather not be any more specific. Housing prices will probably increase.

      My ideal is to get a house ASAP. I’m in a fairly flexible rental situation, up to maybe 2 months; then I gotta “gerrada there”.
      Re: loving the house – I don’t have to tell the agent I love it (because then they won’t give me a good deal); I was more asking for a private strategy. I know it is to my advantage to APPEAR dissatisfied with everything, but more for myself: do I have to come to terms with a moderately uncomfortable living situation because I won’t find anything better?

      Finally, my budget isn’t that big; I don’t have much expertise or connections in construction, the building trades, or anything like that, or an exact understanding of EXACTLY WHAT I WANT; I’m actually quite flexible on layouts and features. As such, I’d be poorly positioned to build from scratch. But I’ll keep all that advice under advisement for future homes – thank you!

      • DragonMilk says:

        On the private point – unless you’re certain of economic benefit, you’d better at least like sinking your money into an illiquid investment for a long period of time (appreciation should at least exceed the 5% brokerage costs!)

      • I know it is to my advantage to APPEAR dissatisfied with everything

        That’s probably an overstatement.

        On the one hand, it is to your advantage to point out any problems that lower the value of the house. On the other hand, the willingness of the sellers to accept your offer instead of waiting longer in the hope of something better may in part depend on whether they like you, and appearing too negative on a house they think of as theirs may make that less likely.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Have you heard of the secretary problem? It would suggest to reject or pass by the first 37% (1/e) that you look at (out of the total number you could look at in the time you have before you have to make a decision, I guess) then go with the next one that’s better than what you’ve seen so far.

      • Etoile says:

        I’ve heard of it. Depending on what you consider “first” – “first house you’ve seriously cosidered?” I’ve already done that.

  3. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    “Teaching a dog to imitate you involves a series of demonstrations to the dog until she understands that there is a ‘rule’ to follow. The protocol goes like this: you yourself must perform a trick that the dog knows, then say ‘Do it’, followed by the verbal cue to do the trick. Repeat with a variety of other known tricks, randomly. The dog will eventually come to realise the rule: that ‘Do it’ means ‘Do the thing I just did.’ You can then ask the dog to learn new tricks by imitating you.”

    Dogs and cats open doors. Some of them are using latches, and I think that’s evidence of imitation.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Dogs and cats open doors. Some of them are using latches, and I think that’s evidence of imitation.

      Related: dingoes have evolved wrists that rotate, because parents with this mutation have more surviving pups in a human-built environment.

    • Machine Interface says:

      We have had several kittens that learned to use the cat-door (which is more challenging than you’d think for a cat to figure, apparently) by observing the adult cats use it and then trying to do the same thing.

  4. jermo sapiens says:

    The mainstream view in biblical archeology is that to the extent the exodus happened, it would have happened around 1200 BC. This is based on the bible placing the hebrews in the city of Ramses (found near Tamis in present day Egypt). However, there is very little evidence of an exodus during that period.

    However, there is evidence of a semitic people living in Avaris a few hundred years earlier. There is evidence for these semites leaving Avaris very abruptly. Avaris is right next to the city of Ramses, so the theory goes that the bible spoke of the city of Ramses to use a contemporary name (at the time of writing) for the geographical location, and not the name that was contemporary with the events discussed. This makes sense: if I was telling a story that happened in New Amsterdam, I might just call it New York to keep things simple for the reader.

    What’s more, there is a tomb in Avaris which is purported to belong to Joseph, as it includes a large statue depicting a non-Egyptian person of great importance with a multi-colored garment.

    I dont think this topic is too CW for this thread, but if I’m incorrect I apologize.

    • Two McMillion says:

      The text of Exodus says that they built the city of Ramses, not just that they were located near it. Now it’s possible that more then one city with that name, or the city was called one thing when it was built and renamed later, but “built a city kind of near Ramses” is not what the text says.

      It also says they built Pithom, and we don’t know where that is.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Thanks, that’s an important point. I dont think that invalidates the theory, but it does weaken it. The crux of the exodus is that a Semitic people were enslaved by Egypt and managed to escape towards Canaan. If there is evidence of that happening a few hundred years earlier than previously theorized, it should be taken seriously.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        Sure, but if the history books 800 years from now claim George Washington built Washington DC that wouldn’t invalidate the existence of George, the city, or the American Revolution. Seems like picking nits unless you’re super focused in on the question of whether the Bible is 100% factually accurate.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      The beginning of the New Kingdom, ~1525 BC, is the traditional context for Exodus. I think the oldest reference is Diodorus Siculus, who wrote his Library of History in the late first century BC. This was picked up by Josephus (Jewish Antiquities) in the late first century AD, where he mis-translates “Hyksos” to “shepherd kings.”
      Circumstantial evidence for Joseph being a historical person comes from the fact that a Pharaoh of either the West Semitic 14th Dynasty or Hyksos 15th had the name Yaqub-Har, implying that someone named Yaqub/Jacob had become very prestigious in his predecessor’s time.

      A problem with Diodorus’s claim* is that it contradicts the Bible by collapsing its account of Egyptian oppression of foreigners over the first 80 years of Moses’s life into a single event, as well as attributing the construction of the Jerusalem Temple to him. However, there is one point in the 18th Dynasty subsequent to Ahmoses I’s defeat of the Hyksos where we can find circumstantial evidence for Exodus. That would be the death of Thothmoses II, whose mummy has plague scars and who may have ruled for as little as 3-4 years. His widow Hatshepsut left monuments claiming to have expelled the Hyksos, even though Hyksos rule had been ended by her ancestor Ahmoses I.

      *40.3: “In ancient times a great plague occurred in Egypt, and many ascribed the cause of it to the gods, who were offended with them. For since the multitudes of strangers of different nationalities, who lived there, made use of their foreign rites in religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the ancient manner of worshipping the gods, practised by the ancestors of the Egyptians, had been quite lost and forgotten. 2 Therefore the native inhabitants concluded that, unless all the foreigners were driven out, they would never be free from their miseries. All the foreigners were forthwith expelled, and the most valiant and noble among them, under some notable leaders, were brought to Greece and other places, as some relate; the most famous of their leaders were Danaus and Cadmus. But the majority of the people descended into a country not far from Egypt, which is now called Judaea and at that time was altogether uninhabited. The leader of this colony was one Moses, a very wise and valiant man, who, after he had possessed himself of the country, amongst other cities, built that now most famous city, Jerusalem, and the temple there, which is so greatly revered among them. He instituted the holy rites and ceremonies with which they worship God; and made laws for the methodical government of the state.”

    • Etoile says:

      I started reading a book called “Jews, God and History” by Max Dimont.

      It seems as though in the 1960s, when the book was written, people were more confident in Exodus being real than they are now, and thought that a people called the Hyksos were in fact the Jews from the Exodus. I haven’t looked into this claim much, but it’s at least intriguing.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        It just seems to me that the bible was not written as a work of complete fiction. It feels more like it’s meant to be a historical text, with many stories having been part of an oral tradition before being written down, and where remarkable events are attributed to God.

        So I wouldnt be surprised if there is a very real historical basis for the exodus, even though some of the details of the story as written are incorrect.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          FWIW, I think a historical Exodus is probably the best way to explain Jewish monotheism/henotheism. In the ancient world the strength and success of an empire was usually taken as reflecting the strength of its patron deity. Even at its height the Jewish kingdom was never more than a second-rate power, so claiming that their God was the top god, much less the only god, would seem pretty weird to most people. If you assume something like the Exodus, however, it makes sense that the Jews might interpret this as their God beating the Egyptians’, and since Egypt was one of the top-level nations, any deity which can overcome the Egyptian pantheon must be pretty darn potent…

          • jermo sapiens says:

            That definitely makes sense.

            What do we know about the religion of the Hebrews prior to the Exodus (also, does “Hebrew” derive from “Habiru”?)? Abraham is sometimes accredited with “inventing” monotheism, and the forefather of the Hebrews, but it is Moses who speaks to Yahwe (and the the term Yahwe is not used prior to this, I think…), although Yahwe presents himself as the God of Abraham to Moses.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The West Semitic term Habiru or ‘Apiru (“dirty”) is first attested circa 1740 BC, when Irkabtum, a king of Halab in Syria, “made peace with [the warlord] Shemuba and his Habiru.” In the 1400s BC, Idrimi, son of a deposed king of Halab, raised a band of Habiru to make himself king of Alalakh.
            It’s important to note that the Habiru were a social class, not an ethnicity. In the Tikunani Prism from Anatolia, dating from around 1550 BC, the names of 438 Habiru soldiers are given. The majority of them had Hurrian names, the rest being Semitic. In most areas, the proportions are reversed, with a majority being West Semitic but with Akkadian (East Semitic), Hurrian, and Indo-European minorities.
            In the Amarna letters, princes of Canaan writing to Ankhenaten provide the term with its most nuance: “Habiru” can mean “mercenary”, “armed criminal”, “day laborer” or “slave.”
            Compare Biblical use of the term: the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus, then appear in the rest of the Torah and Joshua as a rootless army until they settle down in Canaan/Israel. At this point, the term drops out of use in favor of the demonym “Israelite” (and later “Jew” for the people ruled by the House of David and during the Babylonian Captivity), except for when David becomes an outlaw with some Hebrews. The context is roughly the same despite implying that the Hebrews in Egypt all descend from Yaqub/Israel.

    • zoozoc says:

      Your basic premise explored in the film “Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus”. I thought it was a very interesting to watch. The film presents an alternative timeline of Egypt that would allow for the Exodus to occur and seems to line up with the evidence presented. Of course, it could simply be wishful thinking/ignoring evidence against such a timeline. Though the film isn’t afraid to quote mainline Egyptian scholars who completely reject the alternative timeline.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Yep, that’s where I got it from. I thought it was great. The guy is upfront about his biases but lets opponents speak (though, maybe he edits out their best points, it’s VERY hard to present your opponent’s case, even in good faith). I didnt link it because it’s behind a pay wall on youtube.

        My conclusion after watching it was that unless some of the facts he relies on are false (which doesnt seem to be the case), the other side has a very tough case to make. Not an impossible case, but a tough one.

  5. Two McMillion says:

    Other then religion, what are some truth claims you would view as pro-social falsehoods?

    • Nick says:

      I’ve written previously about pro-social falsehoods following a discussion by sam[]zdat. Though I’d say there’s a broader category of useful falsehoods.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Ask me again in a CW thread. There are lots I could name off the top of my head, all of which are very CW.

        EDIT: This was meant as a reply to @Two McMillion.

        • albatross11 says:

          I think the topic of socially useful lies/noble lies/”You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”-type lies is a worthwhile one to discuss, but it needs to be in a CW-allowed thread.

      • Two McMillion says:

        Does something like the Bohr model of the atom count as a useful falsehood? I’m not sure it should- it’s a simplification, not a deception.

        • Nick says:

          Epistemic status: off the top of my head

          It seems to me that there are a lot of things going on in science that can be called useful falsehoods (or useful fictions, which is maybe not the same thing). One kind is simplifications used as teaching or thinking aids; the Bohr model is sometimes called a lie-to-children. Another is generalizations of physical law, which don’t really hold all on their own outside of experimental setups contrived to isolate them, but which we’re pretty sure that together with all the other physical laws and what matter there is do constitute the behavior of things. Another is idealized values which don’t really pick out anything in the world, like speaking of the average weight of people when there is no Average Person to whom this weight belongs, and maybe no one in the world even has that precise weight.

          None is quite witchcraft as I or sam[]zdat spoke of it, but I’d say still falls in the broader category of useful falsehoods.

          • Two McMillion says:

            Reading that wikipedia article made me extremely angry that anyone would do such a thing.

          • woah77 says:

            Really? Simplifications which are inherently inaccurate but useful for instruction make you angry? I see a lot of value in producing models that are totally inaccurate but allow visualization of concepts that would otherwise be opaque to most. Now I would find it offensive for someone to base policy on a lie-to-children, but as an instruction tool it works just fine.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think a simplifying model is in a very different category than noble lies or “you can’t handle the truth” type lies. And in general, a good teacher will point out that what he’s teaching isn’t exactly right, but is a good approximation.

          • woah77 says:

            I agree that a good teacher would. I dispute that most teachers are such. Also, I think that the examples in the wiki article for science (V=IR, Chemistry, Physics), are all good ways to teach things. There should, imo, be an entirely different set of studies where one goes about disabusing students of the notions that these simplifications actually work out in the real world. For example: V=IR, demonstrated false by blowing up entire rows of resistors in spectacular fashion. Vagaries of reality are very much a lesson one needs to learn, but they aren’t necessary for first principles instruction (which is when lie-to-children type situations normally occur).

          • Two McMillion says:

            woah77, I agree with what albatross says. In high school my chemistry teacher said, “This [the Bohr model of the atom] isn’t exactly right, but it’s close enough for our purposes.” That’s teaching a simplification. It’s very different from, “You kids are too stupid to handle the real thing, so here’s a story your puny minds can make sense of.” It’s the framing of lying to people with weak minds that angers me, not an appropriately noted teaching of a simplification.

          • woah77 says:

            That’s fair McMillion. I think that a friend explained a physics major best as getting used to the professor going up to the board at the start of every semester and writing the key equation from the last semester on the board. “Remember this equation?” the professor would ask, and of course everyone would nod along. The professor would then cross it out. “That was wrong. It was a simplification that missed a lot of key details. We’re going to…” And proceed to teach a more detailed physics lesson.

            I think that science, in particular, is where this is useful. Morals, Ethics, Math, those should all be taught correctly, with full disclosure. But Science has resolutions of usefulness and teaching a 1 dimensional model before a 2 dimensional model, expanding complexity every time allows you to step into the complexity in a fashion that allows your understanding to build on itself.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Reminds me of my high school physics teacher, who told us, “If you ever turn in an answer giving a velocity faster than the speed of light, you will receive a zero on that question. No partial credit. Pretty much everything else I’m teaching you is approximate; that is absolute truth. Never claim anything can travel faster than the speed of light.”

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            @Evan Þ

            Assuming you were learning Newtonian mechanics and not special relativity in high school (if you were learning the latter, I’m jealous!), I don’t really love that philosophy. Yes, that’s a true fact; but the physics that makes it true isn’t a consequence of the Newtonian mechanics you’re learning. If no answer for that class is faster than c, that’s true not because of the calculations you do but because the teacher selects problems to make it so. You can easily come up with a problem for which the newtonian kinematic equations will return a velocity greater than c; what should one write as their answer for that?

            Of course, every physics problem I solved in high school dealt with velocities somewhere around human-typical ranges, i.e. so far below the speed of light that you’d have to be doing something quite seriously wrong to get an answer on the order of magnitude of c.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @thevoiceofthevoid , very interesting point. I wonder what he would’ve said if someone had pointed that out. He loves advanced physics enough that I’m sure he’d take the issue seriously – he once taught a special two-week seminar on quantum physics, with the textbook being the Feynman Lecture.

            (I think I recall hearing that he’d earlier taught another two-week seminar on relativity, but that was before my time. Yes, the main class where he had this homework policy was Newtonian.)

    • Randy M says:

      One category might be lay explanations for true phenomena. Like, “eat your carrots to keep your eyes healthy” even if carrots do nothing for visions but do provide some other essential nutrient.

      For a wider scale example, Climate change, if false, might be a pro-social falsehood if it motivates replacement of a carbon generating activity that has other negative externalities (ie, coal) with one cleaner in both CO2 and CO, acid rain, etc. (The above statement makes no claims about the actual validity of climate change or morality of lying to people for their own good).

      Ideas about the prevalence of beliefs, like, “Everyone will think less of you if you shoplift” may be prosocial, despite that it may be wrong, at least until proven wrong.

      Which is the crux of the problem, for a chain of “pro-social” falsehoods is only as useful as the most easily disproven one or two, because after then both your falsehoods and your truths will be doubted.

      • EchoChaos says:

        This also carries a large risk, which is that people will stop doing the pro-social thing if the untrue reason to do so is disproven.

        If you tell me that I should eat carrots because it’s good for my eyes, then I look into it and realize that’s not true, I may stop eating carrots and no longer get that other essential nutrient.

      • albatross11 says:

        Once you’ve spent the credibility of the respected voices in your society on noble lies and lying in a good cause and protecting the proles from knowing too much, it’s kind-of hard to get it back. When you’re trying to use those respected voices to tell parents that vaccines don’t really cause autism, or to tell voters that AGW is a real problem they should be willing to accept some short-term pain to address, it’s not a huge shock that lots of people doubt your honesty and wonder if this is another noble lie.

    • Machine Interface says:


      • Randy M says:

        Are you conflating “falsehood” with “abstraction” or do you have something else in mind?

        • Machine Interface says:

          I contend that the feeling of belonging to the same “tribe” as people you have never met, don’t actually know exist individually, but can induce the existence of, cannot be anything other than a delusion.

          I knew a conservative jesuit type who was of the opinion that any claimed community bigger than your family and than the immediate circle of people you actually knew personally and talked to was necessarily illusory.

          • Randy M says:

            But a belonging is mostly a shared belief. So the more widespread the belief, the more true it is.
            The fact that after New York was attacked, men far distant enlisted means to some extent they were in fact in the same tribe.

          • Aftagley says:

            I have personally been a part of several organizations/tribes where my membership in said group immediately evoked positive reactions among fellow members. Not just transnational benefits, but actual positive emotional responses.

            I guess you can call these kinds of associations illusory, but if I think they’re real, the person I’m interacting with thinks they’re real AND they are producing tangible results…

          • Statismagician says:

            That’s a particularly cynical position for a Jesuit, somebody who, unless I’m badly mistaken about how Catholic orders work, could simply show up any number of places all over the planet and get instant respect and/or acceptance from complete strangers due to his membership in their shared community.

          • salvorhardin says:

            Kurt Vonnegut famously calls these kinds of associations “granfalloons” and gives a bunch of other examples in Cat’s Cradle.

            I would agree with the “falsehood” part and dispute the “prosocial” part, but that discussion might be too CW for this thread.

    • One candidate is the belief that your vote matters. In a national election in a large country, the chance that your vote will affect the outcome is rather less than the chance that you will be hit by lightning this year. The refusal to accept the implications of that fact, typically along the lines of “if everyone did X,” provides some incentive to pay attention to issues and candidates instead of viewing the vote as the equivalent of cheering for your football team.

      Not enough incentive, given the difficulty of figuring out how you should vote, but at least some.

      • Matt M says:

        the difficulty of figuring out how you should vote

        Is this actually difficult?

        I understand how it theoretically *could* be. But in reality I’m not certain it is.

        • albatross11 says:

          Matt M:

          I think for many people, it’s easy to figure out which party/candidate has rhetoric more closely aligned with their beliefs. But it’s hard to figure out whether a given party/candidate has actually followed those beliefs well in power, or is competent to do so.

      • Aftagley says:

        In a national election in a large country, the chance that your vote will affect the outcome is rather less than the chance that you will be hit by lightning this year.

        I don’t understand this complaint/critique of democracy. Why does your individual vote mattering matter to you? The point of voting isn’t to unilaterally decide the outcome of the election but to register your support for a candidate/position.

        • Matt M says:

          Agreed. It’s like cheering at a sporting event. No individual person cheering honestly believes their individual cheer is the difference between the team hearing the audience cheer, and hearing no cheer. You cheer because you want to be a part of the group that is cheering, knowing that you are making only an incremental contribution to the total cheer.

          See also: Soldiers fighting a war. Do you think every individual storming the beaches of Normandy thought their own individual contribution was going to be the deciding factor in the overall outcome of the war? If not, were they stupid to have fought and was their contribution entirely wasted and pointless?

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Thank you for the metaphor! The “your vote doesn’t matter” camp has always struck me as not-even-wrong and you’ve put that instinct into words much better than I could

          • I’ve long offered the cheering analogy as an explanation of why people do vote.

            My point was that if you think of it as cheering for your team, the incentive to decide whether your team’s candidate will actually make a better president (or whatever) than the other candidate is weaker than if you think of your vote as affecting the outcome.

            Going back to sport teams … . Fans mostly don’t believe that their team is better in some objective sense, just that it’s theirs.

    • John Schilling says:

      Much of the popular mythology surrounding Democracy – probably most of it past the Churchill minimum – I think counts as a pro-social falsehood. Stuff like “every vote counts”, “anyone can grow up to be president”, and “no democracy has ever waged war on any other democracy”, obviously, but also the implicit underlying myth that voters choose good rulers at a rate significantly better than random chance and/or heredity.

      ETA: Ninja’d by Dr. Friedman, appropriately enough.

  6. johan_larson says:

    Are there works in the central repertoire of classical music where the percussionist really gets a workout?

    I went to a performance of Messiah yesterday evening, and I don’t think the timpani player even showed up for the first half. He may have swung his mallets for two of the movements.

    • Lambert says:

      Bolero, Leningrad, Reforging of Nothung, Anvil chorus.

      Orchestral percussion and brass (especially the lower end) involves a *lot* of counting. But the bits where you do play tend to be unforgettable.

      • Well... says:

        Maybe parts of the Carmen suite too? Not that clapping castinets or consistently playing one note per measure on a bass drum is necessarily a “workout” for a highly trained percussionist, but relatively speaking…

    • Well... says:

      Probably some of the more modern but still “central” works (e.g. Rodeo by Copland or Rite of Spring Stravinsky).

      • Matt M says:

        If you want to go even more modern than that, and stretch the definition of “classical” even further, you could look into some Frank Zappa. He always hired great percussionists and gave them a thorough workout. Ruth Underwood and Ed Mann in particular.

      • Dino says:

        Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” has a wonderful (non-trivial) drum solo at the end. Recommended.

    • Bobobob says:

      If I recall correctly, Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony has some major percussion.

      • Bobobob says:

        Plus, some of the more intensive passages of Parsifal.

      • Well... says:

        Oh yeah, that reminds me: isn’t piano technically a percussion instrument?

        • Aftagley says:


          If you’ve ever wondered how some guy gets a job playing the cymbals or gong (or any other seemingly low-skill intensive percussion instrument) in an orchestra, it’s almost certain that he’s a pianist in a piece that doesn’t require him.

          • AG says:

            Depends on the orchestra. Certainly, in my community orchestra, we’ve filled the ranks with everyone from the clarinets to the conductor, but at the high tier professional level, no way. Crash cymbals, in particular, take training! Even basic shakers are harder than they look, keeping a steady rhythm going for a long time.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Nielsen’s 4th (timps) and 5th (snare drum) symphonies; Britten’s ‘Young person’s guide to the orchestra’.

      Expand the search to take in the modernists and it becomes entirely too easy; just about everyone composing nowadays seems to suffer from obsessive-percussive disorder.

    • AG says:

      It depends on how many percussionists you have available. I’ve played pieces that weren’t strenuous on paper, but were when we had 2-3 players short of what the composer intended, so we were scrambling figure out who can cover extra stuff when (extra difficult if the various instruments are printed on separate parts, rather than consolidated score style). For most musicals, of course, you have two players max, one on kit and the other covering EVERYTHING ELSE.

      Your definition of “workout” also depends. There are plenty of pieces where, as you say, percussionists spend several movements tacet. But the few movements they do get to play could be dense, such as Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

      West Side Story Symphonic Dances
      In general Classical and Romantic Era symphonies tend to have at least a lot of timpani. Beethoven/ Tchaikovsky/Dvorak classics aside, Howard Hanson’s Symphony 2 had a movement of near-nonstop rolls that pushed my chops.
      The main Star Wars theme actually is a bit of a timpani workout.
      Generally, your romantic era dance-based classical pieces tend to get percussion-happy. Like this, or the famous Sabre Dance by the same composer. Ginastera’s Estancia is SO MUCH FUN.
      Likewise, traditional marches will have consistent snare+bass drum+cymbals, if but in a boring way.
      Golden Age of the Xylophone
      Xylophone version of Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle
      Latin pieces can bring a lot of percussion to the table. Marquez’s Danzon No. 2, or Revueltas’ Sensemaya.
      But yeah, the most famous percussion parts aren’t about frequency, it’s about being the highlight. Scheherazade, Symphony Fantastique, the tambourine part of Carmen, the glock on Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Pines of Rome, crash cymbals on Night on Bald Mountain, the xylo opener for Porgy and Bess, timpani and bass drum needing exact perfect sync in Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s all about the excerpts.

      (Fuck Bolero. You ain’t a real orchestral player until you hate that piece.)
      Also, don’t knock the Handel. The Hallelujah chorus is a great timpani part.

    • John Schilling says:

      The 1812 overture done right, if you include the gun crews in the percussion section. But do insist on cast-iron muzzle-loaders; quick-firing breechloaders are too easy, and if you use brass guns then that other section will try to claim credit.

      • Statismagician says:

        I’m morally certain there’s a joke about getting drummed out of the service in here somewhere.

  7. proyas says:

    Sometimes I watch YouTube repair videos for random things like electric ovens. It makes me realize that most manmade objects are actually very simple and operate on basic concepts. The only thing preventing one, smart person from learning how everything works is lack of time–there are too many different types of manmade objects for one person to have time to learn about. The result is our present, where technology might as well operate through magic from the perspectives of average humans.

    But will AGIs upend this state of affairs? Will one AGI know how every manmade object is manufactured, how its parts work together, and how it should be repaired? With vastly superior memories than humans, I would think so.

    But there’s an alternative: Future science and technology might get so complex that even some AGIs won’t be able to understand it. For example, only the planet-sized AGI optimized for physics modeling and related calculations will be able to grasp the theory behind time travel and the mechanics of how the time machine works, whereas to general-purpose AGIs doing things like managing continents on Earth, the time machine will require more brainpower to understand than they have available, meaning it might as well work through magic.

    Any thoughts?

    • AG says:

      “How it should be repaired” is a probability space with infinite solutions, though. The more limitations of what you have on hand to repair the thing, the less I feel that the AGI will be able to accurately gauge what level of fixing is “good enough” for most users, providing solutions that are too much effort, or (incorrectly) deciding that the resulting level of functionality post-fix is insufficient, and so calling it a loss. Here’s an example where different standards will judge the results differently.

      The other case is where the AGI might know how the object is manufactured, but not necessarily the why of its existence, because its function is something more subjective, like aesthetics, and so subject to Goodhart’s Law. The design of toys, for example. Knowing exactly how a Barbie is made doesn’t tell you how to optimize doll design, because are we optimizing for child-player or adult-collector happiness?

      AGI might know all of the syntax of a particular programming language and how it eventually relates to the physical states of transistors, but can it develop novel applications of that language, as opposed to just archiving a human’s explanation of their trick?

      • albatross11 says:

        Part of the design process for manmade objects involves making them work in comprehensible ways and making them repairable in relatively straightforward ways.

    • AlexOfUrals says:

      How do you know they’re all simple? A YouTube video will necessarily make things look simple, but it can gloss over arbitrary many details and you won’t know until you actually go and try to make the thing yourself, or at least read the appropriate textbook carefully. Although of course I agree that a smart human should be able to understand all the principles involved eventually, since they were invented by another smart human.

      About AGI, the singleton scenario assumes just one near-omniscient AGI, in which case of course it’ll be able to understand everything it understands. Barring that, it seems likely that we’ll have specialized intelligences, some more powerful than others, and the weaker ones won’t be able to understand everything the stronger ones invented.

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        How do you know they’re all simple?

        I have two, somewhat contradictory thoughts on that.

        1. All skills are “simple” once you have them.

        2. The art of engineering and science is very often to find a way to think about something that looks hard, so that it becomes simple.

        • AlexOfUrals says:

          My major point was that while you can learn how to fix cars or electric ovens on YouTube, it’s less true for jet planes and submarines and nuclear reactors. Because those are far more complex so the video will likely end up skipping over much more critical details and you don’t have one to practice so you won’t find out and the video’s author knows that which makes them even more likely to simplify things. Also, as Matt M noted a few comments below (not to be confused with Matt immediately below) “understanding the theory behind X” is not the same as “being able to fix X”. Depending on the level of understanding it maybe more or less difficult. And also neither is the same as “knowing how X is manufactured”.

          To your first point – every skill you have is easy as long as you’re doing it on what is ordinary/mediocre level for you. As soon as you’re trying to do your very best, every skill is hard. It’s just that in some skills (e.g. driving, assembly line work, typing) ordinary performance is almost always sufficient for an average person.

          • albatross11 says:

            One sideline: Anything you build that needs to be built, maintained, or reasoned about by humans needs to also be accessible to humans. That is, it needs to be possible for humans (albeit perhaps only very smart ones) to get their brains around how it works well enough to not only invent it, but also to figure out how to manufacture it, fix it when it breaks, diagnose its problems, and work out how it may/may not safely be used. (Contrast with some physical and biological systems which don’t have this constraint, and show it!)

            The usual way we do this is to have models of the system. All models lie, some models are useful–the trick is to work out which model you should be using to reason about the operation of the gadget. At one level of abstraction, a car needs to be “fed” gasoline to keep going. That’s not a very accurate model, but it works fine for a user who just needs to know to keep the tank filled. At another level, it burns gasoline to go–this is also useful but not quite right, even though it correctly tells you that cars produce exhaust that might smell or look weird if something’s wrong with them, and that’s dangerous to breathe in a closed-in space. At another level, it mixes air and gasoline together in an explosive mixture and triggers the explosions at the right time to move pistons. That’s a better model–it explains why the car needs an air intake and an air filter, why timing can be a problem, etc. That’s where my model of car engines tops out, but someone who’s studied them in more depth is going to have several more levels of model to draw on, of increasing complexity.

            And most of the time, you use the simplest model that works for your problem, and remember that it’s an oversimplification and have some idea of where it might break down. An electrical engineer has much better models of what’s going on inside a circuit than V=IR, but still will fall back on this simple model pretty often. A competent programmer has a much better model of what’s really going on inside his computer than the simple programming model of a single processor sequentially executing commands and loading from/storing to a flat array of memory, but that’s still the model he’s likely using most of the time when he’s coding.

            When there is no model that will serve and can be held in a human mind, probably you get something we can’t invent or use, the way you might train chimpanzees to use a computer system to communicate and control their environment, but they’d never be able to fix the computer if it broke or make very good predictions about its limitations. And perhaps we occasionally get things that almost nobody can work with, because it takes a one-in-a-million genius many years to become capable of understanding it well enough to do anything useful with it.

          • Matt M says:

            it’s less true for jet planes and submarines and nuclear reactors.

            Not that much less true.

            In the US Navy, maintenance on jet engines and submarines (even the nuclear reactors!!!) is performed by cheaper enlisted personnel, not the upper class college educated officers. Yes, they get “extensive” training (I believe “nuke school” is essentially the hardest to qualify for and most difficult/demanding curriculum in the entire enlisted ranks), but ultimately it’s still a task that is trusted to the lower-echelon of troop who receives largely technical training.

            I assume this is somewhat similar in the private sector as well. I don’t know exactly what training/qualifications are needed to become an aircraft mechanic for say, American Airlines. But I’ll bet it’s a hell of a lot less than what the people who design the planes need, or even the people who simply fly them…

          • woah77 says:

            An electrical engineer has much better models of what’s going on inside a circuit than V=IR, but still will fall back on this simple model pretty often.

            As one of these said engineers, most of the time that’s all I need. If a problem is more complicated than that, it’s probably RF related and I need to use a whole other set of rules to even begin.

            I want to second Matt M on maintaining even complicated machines: Most complicated machines are created from many simple machines working as a system. Systems are complicated, but very rarely does a maintainer need to understand the why of a system to understand the how of replacing a sprocket.

            I’m not sure that maintaining an aircraft in the private sector requires less education than the designer or pilot, but it certainly requires less experience. Also depends on the part of the aircraft. Wire harnesses do not require special training even when put on a plane (although a spacecraft might). Wing design does require special training.

      • Matt says:

        How do you know they’re all simple? A YouTube video will necessarily make things look simple, but it can gloss over arbitrary many details and you won’t know until you actually go and try to make the thing yourself, or at least read the appropriate textbook carefully.

        I’ve found, when using Youtube for automobile repair, it’s best to watch at least 3 videos before you begin. Inevitably, the guy filming skips a step (usually part of the re-assembly) for some reason and you want to make sure you have the ENTIRE procedure before you begin. Also, if they guy who takes apart engines for a living says that a portion of the process is difficult or tricky, be prepared to spend 5-10x as long doing it as it took him. Finally, get the right tools. If the guy says “this works better with a ball joint separator but I’m going to show you how to use a pickle fork and a hammer instead”, go ahead and go to Autozone to ‘rent’ a ball joint separator and save yourself the aggravation.

    • GearRatio says:

      I mean, is it that big of a deal if they know how it’s repaired? I know a guy who knows how to repair literally anything, he’s just a bunch of guys.

    • Well... says:

      You might say Youtube “knows” how to repair everything. All that really means is Youtube is a great tool for people to go learn how to repair something. If an AGI learns how to repair everything, that just means instead of going to Youtube, you go ask the AGI (who in a lot of cases might show you a video…maybe one uploaded to Youtube. Or more likely, the AGI is just the new controller behind Google/Youtube’s search and recommendation engine).

      Anyway, if your starting premise is “a surprising number of manmade objects are quite simple” I don’t think that gets you to “for the average person, technology might as well run on magic”. Or rather, I would say it gets you less and less to that each year as people become more savvy at looking up how to repair stuff on Youtube.

    • Matt M says:

      For example, only the planet-sized AGI optimized for physics modeling and related calculations will be able to grasp the theory behind time travel and the mechanics of how the time machine works

      To what extent do you really need to know the “theory behind X” to repair an X-machine?

      What percentage of auto mechanics do you suppose understand, at a deep and thorough level, the thermodynamics of the internal combustion engine? I’d assume very little. Most car repairs are simple enough and the process isn’t “first, learn chemistry and physics and be comfortable understanding why the car moves” but rather “check these five things that often break and make sure they aren’t broken.”

      You only need the MIT engineers for the 1% of edge cases of car repair, in which case you call up CarTalk I guess. Presumably, a time travel machine would be similar. People could be trained in how to make the most commonly needed repairs without needing to understand the core science behind how it works at all.

    • woah77 says:

      Speaking as an engineer: man-made objects (mechanical, electrical, etc) have to (for the most part) be assembled by a human. That means that assembly must inherently be “simple” (for a given value of simplicity). Most assembly follows certain best practices to make it maintainable (also by a human). That means it takes very few principle skills to be able to “maintain” most things. It’s also why you typically don’t see engineers calling for an electrician for their house.

      Being able to repair something, however, does NOT mean that you understand how it works. It doesn’t mean you understand how it broke. It is conceivable that we could make an AI that has the memory of every service manual for every device ever and could easily replace any broken component, but not be able to design a single device from scratch.

      Mistaking the ability to disassemble and reassemble something with understanding is an easy but non-trivial mistake to make. It reminds me of the scene in the Big Bang Theory where the car breaks down and Leonard asks if anyone understands a combustion engine. Everyone raises their hands. Then he asks if anyone understands how to fix a combustion engine and everyone looks defeated. The barrier there goes both ways. (This is, BTW, why some engineers design terribly unmaintainable equipment as they are so far removed from the execution of the manufacturing they never have to confront the realities of their choices.)

      • AG says:

        Yes, exactly. Is this hypothetical AGI able to save the astronauts of Apollo 13?

        • woah77 says:

          My argument on that one would be probably “No, but it could turn over the problem to a GAN that might be able to.” Now the smarts to know “I don’t have what this takes but X might.” That would be really handy.

      • albatross11 says:

        It is conceivable that we could make an AI that has the memory of every service manual for every device ever and could easily replace any broken component, but not be able to design a single device from scratch.

        This is basically the mechanical equivalent of the chinese box AI, right?

        • woah77 says:

          Upon looking it up, yes, essentially. My familiarity with the Chinese Room argument is a little lacking. Also, I left out the fact that service manuals are often woefully lacking in industrial machines, making the machine really only useful for a limited subset of machines made (realistically). Honestly, I foresee AI that is able to read a service manual an either do the repair or instruct someone to do the repair as a near term eventuality, but I also expect such an AI to call for engineers who designed the machine more often than most would like to admit.

  8. proyas says:

    Does anyone know of any research on the micro-climate effects of dam reservoirs? I ask because, when I visited the Hoover Dam, I expected to see plants growing along the shoreline of Lake Mead–a sort of “mini-terraforming” of the desert landscape–but instead it was just barren rock going into the water.

    If humans create a large body of water in an arid place, doesn’t a lot of it evaporate, leading to more cloud formation and rainfall in the area? Doesn’t the water soak into the soil from the shorelines, leading to plant growth that emanates out from the water as the years pass? Why didn’t I see plants at Lake Mead?

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      Uneducated guess: Dirt needs a lot more nutrients than just water to become soil that plants can grow on.

      • Well... says:

        I’m surprised by proyas’s report about the lack of plantlife along the shores of Lake Mead. The water in a dam reservoir is mainly from rain and runoff (right?), which is rich in all kinds of minerals and microorganisms that (I would assume) plants thrive on.

        • sharper13 says:

          My Speculation:
          The water level varies tremendously because it’s controlled based on how much water they want to keep behind the damn. Thus, the “shore” moves quite frequently.

          There are perhaps not many plants in the desert which can live both under water and out of water for extended periods of time not necessarily tied to regular seasonal factors.

          • Well... says:

            When I lived in the mountains an hour east of San Diego there was a park I used to go hiking and jogging in, which contained a lake whose water level fluctuated. (Not sure if it was dammed at one end or not; I never explored it or even bothered looking it up.) I remember, there was some plantlife (yellow reedy stuff) just around the shore. Much of it looked dead when the water was too low to cover the ground under it, but it would spring back to life when the water level rose. There was also moss or algae that would dry out but not seem dead when the water wasn’t high.

            Probably not quite as arid as the area around Hoover Dam, but still definitely desert, with iron-rich sandy soil, desert flora and fauna, high average temperatures, low rainfall.

        • CatCube says:

          The water behind a dam is from upstream of the reservoir. While you have *some* water coming in from the shores of the reservoir, obviously, the water coming in from the catchment area of the reservoir is a rounding area compared to the catchment area of the rest of the watershed. You want to put the dam at a “choke point” in terrain, which likely means that the watershed won’t be very wide at the point of the dam–looking at terrain on Google Maps, the watershed feeding Lake Mead *directly* is maybe 10-15 miles from the shore of the reservoir at its largest; compare to the 168,000 square miles for the whole watershed.

          The amount of water falling on an individual parcel of the upper Colorado watershed is small on average and highly variable over the course of the water year. However, the watershed is extremely large. This results in little water available in the winter and extreme flooding in the summer. The dam “evens out” this wide swing in flow to make a constant level available year round, which was the original impetus for the construction of the dam.

          Of course, they made divisions of the river using what turned out to be insufficient data, causing the mess we’re in with the water level in the lake.

          Edit: OK, I see with your response to @sharper13 what you mean. Your intended meaning wasn’t that the water coming over the shores of the reservoir was rich in minerals, etc., but that the reservoir has the minerals, etc. from upstream and is “washing” the shore with them, which makes a lot more sense than how I read it. Mea culpa.

          AFAIK, the kinds of stuff that thrives in wet/dry conditions like that likes “swampy” ponds during the wet conditions, not to be tens of feet underwater; in a canyon like Hoover, you’re not going to have “flat” areas to form this kind of terrain as the pool changes. However, I’m a lot less familiar with desert areas than forested, so I don’t know for sure.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      My uneducated guess is that there’s a poisonous accumulation of minerals.

    • Dack says:

      Doesn’t the water soak into the soil from the shorelines, leading to plant growth that emanates out from the water as the years pass? Why didn’t I see plants at Lake Mead?

      Being a man-made lake, meant to serve as a reservoir, it was naturally engineered not to leak. Soil was removed so that the shores would be bare rock; cracks, etc in the rock were “grouted”.,_rock_clearance_and_grout_curtain

      • CatCube says:

        The clearance and grouting they’re discussing is only at the dam itself, not the floor of the reservoir. You typically don’t do much more to the reservoir than clear trees so you’re not dealing with (more) trash for the next 40 years, plus whatever value you might get from the logging. In Black Canyon, this probably wasn’t a huge concern.

        The grouting they were doing was more to control uplift pressures on the dam (the grout curtain) and to prevent piping in the foundation rock (grouting of large voids, and the grout curtain helps here too). There’s not a dam on the face of the earth that’s engineered to “not leak” as that’s cost prohibitive. You just get the leakage to a point that’s acceptable and won’t wash out your foundation and deal with what remains.

        As a matter of fact, some leakage through the foundation drains is normal and its disappearance is cause for immediate concern, as that can indicate blocked drains that can cause various instabilities (rising phreatic surface leading to slope instability in an earthen dam; excessive uplift in a concrete gravity dam).

  9. kallewirsh says:

    Could I get input on the following:

    How could I best use a (German) Bachelors in Social Work to become an entrepreneur with a realistic chance of clearing >60k/year if…
    a) I place value on remaining active in the general field (no consulting for businesses, banks etc.)
    b) I don’t place to high a value on this, but have limited networks outside of SW and related local accademia
    c) a Masters program isn’t out of the question, but could be approached at maximum part time.

    I know this isn’t the most typical sort of question, but my usual Wells run dry these days.
    Ps: unlike most of my fellow social workers I have quite an affinity towards math and word (well, the German ones at least).

    • Drew says:

      I’m told that a good rule-of-thumb is that consultants should expect overhead (office rent, health care, employer taxes) to be 1-2x their salary. So, to take home $60k, your business should be bringing in $120k – $180k / year.

      A normal “work year” is 2000 hours, but since you’re consulting, you’ll have non-billable hours of “work” where you’re filing taxes, driving to clients, or trying to find new business. Let’s assume that somewhere between 50% and 75% of your time is billable.

      Depending on our assumptions, this means you’ll need to charge somewhere in the range of $80/hour ($120k / 1500 billable hours) to $180/hour ($180k / 1000 billable hours)

      If I were to do this, I’d position myself as a “Life Coach” and charge something like $120/hour, or $60/half-hour visit. That’s social-work adjacent, in that you’re helping people identify problems in their life, and helping them create plans to work around those difficulties.

      The good news is that this is probably a cheap-to-test experiment. Rent an office, place some ads, and focus on the fact that you can see professionals outside of their normal 9-5 schedule. This way you can get a taste for the work (on nights and weekends) while still being able to hold a more traditional job.

      If you get so many clients that you book your nights & weekends full, and the social work starts to interfere with your normal job, then you have an answer. If you get no clients, then you also have an answer.

      Plans (b) and (c) sound actively-harmful for a career. Don’t pay for a masters.

    • Garrett says:

      One possibility (I have *no* idea how big this market is) is figuring out how to manage the complexities of life for retired professionals.
      I had a patient near the end of his life who was kept at home by his wife. Everyone strongly recommended that the pt. be treated in a hospital or nursing home, but the wife wouldn’t have that. At the same time, she was more than willing (and financially capable) to hire professionals to come into her home to provide care there.

      They didn’t have have-a-doctor-live-on-premises money, but they certainly had self-pay daily scheduled medical visits with occasional nursing and doctor visits money. However, I ran into this issue where I had no known contacts to deal with this kind of problem. The whole healthcare system was set up to take patients to high-level facilities for care, not to get high-level care at home.

      Finding a way to wiggle yourself into that market might be able to work and fulfill a lot of that market.

  10. Aftagley says:

    Argument I’m currently having with a coworker: does listening to a book on tape equate having read said book? If not, what % of reading a book is having listened to it?

    My position is that it’s somewhere between 80-100% equivalent to reading the book, depending on how complex the material is. If it’s something that while reading I would have frequently paused reading to think about or gone back to reread certain passages multiple times, it’s likely a slightly different experience. Otherwise, it’s the exact same.

    The contrary position seems to be that the physical act of reading and the related ceremonies (IE turning pages, highlighting passages) are integral to the reading experience and without them you haven’t truly read the book. There may also be certain differences in how the brain processes visual vs. auditory information. In this case, hearing a book on tape would be around 20%-40% of reading the book.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      For absorbing information, it’s pretty similar, but I would expect some individuals to learn better by listening than by reading and vice versa.

      For learning how to write, reading is vastly superior. While English is a simple language (you dont really conjugate verbs, not like in French anyways), there are still some subtleties that are not apparent if you only listen to it (your vs. you’re, to vs too vs two), or even cases where the words are written similarly but sound very different (thorough, through, trough, …).

      I also think there’s something to be said for just learning how to read, and practicing that skill throughout your life. Your brain has circuits dedicated to converting visual symbols into thoughts, and these circuits should not be allowed to atrophy.

      • woah77 says:

        I’ve found that as I get older, I spend more time reading prose of a nonfictional sort, but listening to fictional prose. I believe this relates to how I read on a functional level where the dense prose of a novel would leave me struggling, but the generally low density prose of non-fictional and places like SSC allows me to read as fast or faster than I can listen.

        • AG says:

          Heh, I’m the other way around. I read fictional prose at blazing speeds, finishing novels in a few hours, but spend days on nonfiction books of the same page/word count, and much prefer more straight-forwardly non-fiction radio to shows that try to narrativize things.

          I find that jermo sapiens’ case can be reversed, as well, where writers can learn to write more effectively by hearing their text out loud. People learn grammar best by ear, not by eye.

          • Statismagician says:

            +1 to all of this.

          • rocoulm says:

            I find that jermo sapiens’ case can be reversed, as well, where writers can learn to write more effectively by hearing their text out loud. People learn grammar best by ear, not by eye.

            I guess it comes down to what you mean by “learning how to write”. It sounds like he’s talking about learning to write in a second language; in this case studying written work is almost tautologically the best way to learn to write.

            Of course, for a writer to become better at, for instance, composing dialogue, they’ll get more practice with that sort of grammar by listening to people speak.

    • Etoile says:

      I tend to view it as having read the book. Of course you might miss a visual pun or two (e.g. “Sam Vines felt like a class traitor wearing such a fancy breast plate. Nevertheless, he put on the gilty armor.” [approximate quote].) But I don’t know who has time to sit and ponder deeply and make notes and highlight passages. I always want to but don’t have time, so I just read it. I have a pretty good memory, so that has to do.

      • Don P. says:

        I’ve only experienced the Harry Potter books on tape, and I had an interesting conversation with a friend who had read them as books. There’s a character “Kreacher” (spelled as such in the books), which is of course pronounced “Creature”. From the audio books, I had no idea (until I saw a reference elsewhere) that his name was not simply “Creature”. I mentioned this my book-reader friend, and it turned out that he had totally missed the pun.

        • Etoile says:

          I had these sorts of experiences with Terry Pratchett, which is where my above (approximate) quote is from.
          ACTUALLY, I ALSO had a reverse experience. I was reading another Pratchett novel with a character named “Brutha” who was a monk. It wasn’t until I listened to the audio book, read in British, that I realized that “Brother Brutha” sounded like “brother brother”.

        • CatCube says:

          I…actually missed that until right now. When you said it.

      • DavidS says:

        ‘It was gilt by association.’ iirc

      • Placid Platypus says:

        Isn’t that just a regular pun? I’m not sure what part of it you’d miss just hearing it in an audio book.

    • Randy M says:

      Hearing? No.
      Listening? Yes.

      Just as with written text I can skim portions, with audio I can tune them out.
      Now by the nature of our senses and faces and so on, when reading we’re more likely to be giving the text undivided attention than when listening–indeed, that’s one of the advantages of an audio book, it opens up the ability to multitask with mindless activities like exercise. But if those other activities aren’t so mindless, then the amount understood–let alone retained–will be diminished.

      I don’t think the sensory modality is entirely immaterial to the ease of learning even controlling for the amount of focus given–some ideas my appeal more visually or aurally. But if hearing is wholly unsuitable for comprehension then lectures are useless, no?
      Of course, passive absorption is not a great strategy for retention, and lectures alone are a poor teaching method–but (and I’ve lost track of other hands by now) the same is true for reading without reflection, note taking, discussion, application, etc.

    • acymetric says:

      I’m not sure it quite makes sense to look at it in terms of “% of having read the book”, and of course it varies from person to person and book to book. That said, I would probably put it closer to 40% than 80% in most cases, going with that framework.

      • Aftagley says:

        For me at least, here’s my breakdown:

        0% – knows nothing about the book.
        10% – has read a summary of the book. Knows the basic plot arc and major themes.
        30% – has seen a movie based off the book.
        45% – has seen a movie based off the book that is incredibly faithful to the source material.
        100% – has read the book.

    • FrankistGeorgist says:

      I take great pleasure in reading books aloud when I have the time – but I tend to get phlegmy for some reason doing that and it’s hard to sustain. I similarly enjoy hearing things read to me in person, so maybe I’m maximally inclined to think of audiobooks as equivalent to reading something myself.

      It is true that when reading I find myself completely lost sometimes because I have apparently blacked out from boredom and have to go back. Similarly, audiobooks can fade into the background. In many ways I find the being-dragged-through quality of Audiobooks preferable and have finished more books that I would have stopped if I was only reading them. It’s easier to drop back into the conversational quality of an audiobook for me than to skip ahead a few pages to pick it back up and see if things get interesting. So I actually rank Audiobooks slightly higher if I take it from a “getting your numbers up” perspective. Not all texts demand one’s full attention frankly. I’m a much bigger consumer of nonfiction now that I can listen to it.

      I also walk as much as I can, so audiobooks have the advantage on my time there.

      I also listen to audiobooks because the sound of language is frequently the thing that thrills me. Enough that I can listen to stuff that doesn’t interest me at all, like Sherlock Holmes, because Stephen Fry was reading it and I’m a sucker for his voice.

      Based on your breakdown I would put audiobooks in the 70-90 range, depending on how invested I am. I would rank reading a physical book equivalently. Not always perfectly. Couldn’t tell you a thing about Bless Me, Ultima or Under the Volcano but I’ve definitely read them. Listened to some awful biographies for book clubs and could sadly recount much more about those. But I also don’t really value memory so I’m not perfect even on books I’ve read/listened to more than once.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Your description suggests you and your coworker have different conceptions of what it means to have read a book. In a nutshell, yours seems to mean “read, as in Fundamentals of Physics“. His seems to mean “read, as in Canterbury Tales“. If the former, then we probably only care about absorbing the knowledge. If the latter, we may care about some subtle component of the experience of holding a tome in one’s hands. By the latter argument, I also imagine a distinction between reading the paper as a dead-tree artifact at a corner cafe, and reading it at the same cafe on a laptop screen.

      I never highlighted passages, out of a sense of preserving the artifact. Have I never read a book, by your coworker’s thinking?

    • helloo says:

      Unless you have perfect memory and wisdom, I don’t think reading a book is 100% of “reading the book”.
      The percent will depend on the complexity and length as mentioned, but even for most short stories, I wouldn’t put this above 90%.
      The question then becomes – are people closer to having “photographic memory” or “audiographic memory” (like the story of Mozart being able to recreate songs from listening to it once)?

      One other thing to consider is that listening to a book is MORE than just reading.
      It’s the textual information + the contextual language of the speaker + the addition/lack of imagination from listening than reading it.
      Technically reading also has the visual context, but I can’t think of many besides puns and white spaces, and those typically aren’t very big variables in understanding something.

      Edit: Another thing to consider is whether listening to something replaces the voice in your head (well one of them) that may appear when you read something. And whether that’s better or not.

    • I’m currently recording an audiobook of my Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life. One problem, which will apply to some other books but not to most, is that it has graphics in it—fewer than in an econ textbook, but still a fair number. I intend to include a pdf with the figures, so a sufficiently committed listener can listen to the bits that depend on them someplace where he can look at the pdf, listen to the rest while at times and places when he can’t. But I expect most will treat it as a purely verbal text, recognizing that there are some bits where they will be unable to entirely follow the argument due to not having the figures in front of them.

      For the first group, listening should be pretty much equivalent to reading, although it’s less convenient to check back in an audiobook for something you realize you didn’t understand. For the second group, listening will be substantially less than reading. Hopefully some of them will find the experience interesting enough so that they will want at some point to go back and read the printed (or ebook) version.

      • Well... says:

        As a reader of your blog, I was thinking about your graphics issue. What if you wrote extra bits describing the graphics, the way you might do for a blind person? If you could share a link to one of those graphics, I’d be happy to take a stab at demonstrating what I mean by writing a description for it.

        BTW, when you record your audiobook I hope you use a compressor. I tried listening to Harald in my car and it was nearly inaudible even with the volume turned all the way up.

        • Matt M says:

          Yeah, part of me wants to say that ideally, if the graphic is a key piece of the point you are trying to make, the accompanying text should probably already be describing it anyway.

          If not, you should add something like “As the accompanying chart shows, X is happening and Y is not happening” or whatever the main takeaway of the chart is. Perhaps this is obvious to me because I once worked in management consulting where “Explain, in words, what the point of this chart is and what it is showing/proving” is a routine matter that is nearly always expected.

          • Well... says:

            Same goes for me for that second paragraph.

            For a nonfiction audiobook I’d just break the fourth wall and say something like “The book version has a graphic here, which I will try to describe: imagine an X and Y axis both originating at zero and terminating at 100. From the origin, a line runs diagonally upward and to the right. The line isn’t perfectly straight, but zig-zags. The key takeaway is there’s a relatively huge zig — a local high point before the line juts back downward — at Y 32, X 51. So after that the line dives back down to Y12, X 60, but recovers, eventually terminating after some more minor zig-zags, high in the upper right corner where X and Y both equal 100. The high point is what I will discuss next.”

            Now, that’s for a relatively simple chart, but I bet I could come up with helpful descriptions for more complicated figures as well.

          • Matt M says:

            Eh, I’d say even that is way too in depth. There’s really no need to go as far as to provide every necessary detail such that people can mentally “re-create” the graph in their minds.

            Just ask yourself “Why did I put this graph here? What point is it making?” and tell people the point. Keep it to one or two sentences. “The accompanying graph shows that from 1970 to 1999, although federal education spending increased by an average of 5% per year, SAT scores remained roughly flat.” Simple. Easy. Proves the point.

          • Aftagley says:


            If people care, they can find and look at the graph on their own time. The number of people who will a) care about the specifics of a graph and b) have the capacity to recreate a graph mentally from auditory information won’t be a large enough cross section to be worth accommodating.

          • Well... says:

            Yeah, that’s probably true. I’m just personally kinda OCD when I read books, and I tend to pore over the figures in detail even if I probably don’t need to. (To where my inner Ed Tufte comes out and I start evaluating them for chartjunk etc.) So if I was listening to such a book I’d want a description that would let me pore over the figures with my mind’s eye instead. But yeah, maybe that’s just me.

          • Thanks all for the comments.

            My graphics are not showing data. They are things like an indifference curve/budget line diagram showing how your optimum changes as a price changes. I doubt a verbal description would help. I already have verbal versions of the arguments in the text, but part of the point is the way in which the diagram can show you something not immediately obvious from a verbal argument.

            For anyone curious about what the figures look like, they are a subset of the figures from my Price Theory; Hidden Order is basically a rewrite of the earlier book designed to convert it from a textbook to a book for the intelligent layman interested in learning economics. Price Theory is webbed.

            Were you listening to the version of _Harald_ on my website, or the version sold by Audible? For the latter, they specify the range of volume acceptable. For the former, I could easily change it. Playing it on my desktop, it seems plenty loud enough, but that’s a very quiet environment.

          • Well... says:

            I think I downloaded it from your website.

            What you’ll want to use is a compressor, not just boosting the volume.

          • What do you mean by a compressor?

            The two audio programs I work with are Sound Studio and Audacity. Both let me renormalize or increase volume. Why isn’t that sufficient?

    • Take the opposite case, if you’re reading the transcript instead of listening to the podcast, how much do you lose? You miss the intonation and some of the context. In contrast I can’t think of anything you lose if you’re listening versus reading, assuming you are really listening. So around 95%.

    • Well... says:

      I don’t know, but for fiction the percentage is surely higher.

    • Etoile says:

      Someone made a point that the effect on writing is gone when reading.
      I think reading an individual book and listening to it on audiobook is equivalent.
      However, from the point of view of e.g. child development, I wouldn’t let my kids replace sight reading with JUST audiobooks.

    • urm0m says:

      As a girl, I listened to audio books every night. I’d check them out from the library (on cassette in those days) and listen to them before I’d fall asleep. Listening to stories read aloud in a dark room is magical. These days, I listen to a lot of books and podcasts when I’m walking or running. Combining the audio reading with physical tasks that don’t take a lot of cognitive work lets me ‘read’ 5x more books than I normally would.

      I think aural storytelling/listening is incredibly satisfying and I personally retain more when I hear books than when I read them – with the exceptions being super technical books where I often need to highlight or scribble notes in the margins to help me reference the material again later, or certain books that have sentimental value for me and I just enjoy holding them while I’m reading them.

      • Randy M says:

        Bravo on the user name if you just signed up, apologies if it’s preexisting.

        • urm0m says:

          I’m am new here, thank you! Long time reader, just signed up to comment this week. I have two teenagers and am reminded regularly of my ‘urm0m-ness’. I’ve embraced it.

  11. ana53294 says:

    Has anybody else noticed a general trend of webs getting worse with ads from a PC?

    I use an adblock, but I keep encountering some ads that go through, and aren’t just annoying, but cover the content, and make it impossible to read anything. They are impossible to close (since even after closing it, I see a white square). Playing with the zoom also doesn’t help. It’s happening in livejournal, for example.

    Also, as the experience from a PC worsens, it gets better with a phone. I don’t see the awfull text-covering banners on my phone. Websites have gone better for phone access, too. Is this a general trend or just something particular to the sites I like to read?

    SSC has very nice, unobstrusive ads. I wish more websites were like that. And, because Scott curates them, I actually check them out in case there’s something interesting, whereas in every other webpage, I just click through them as fast as I can to get rid of them.

    • Randy M says:

      I don’t use adblock, but I do avoid sites with obtrusive ads. I’ve stopped going to smbc site after some recent irritating ads.

      • Nick says:

        Are you not just subscribed to smbc via rss? O_o

        • Randy M says:

          Never did figure out the rss thing. :/

          • Nick says:

            Unsolicited advice: Sign up for a service like Feedly. You can search for feeds and subscribe to them. Feedly does the work of regularly checking the feeds and aggregating all the new content in one place for you; when you check it, it will serve up new content you haven’t read yet.

            I have the impression rss feeds have been sidelined in recent years, but I still find them indispensable. They’re definitely better than checking sites willy nilly or trying to remember everyone’s update schedule.

          • urm0m says:

            I second Nick’s recommendation for Feedly. I’m a huge fan. They have a good phone app, too.

          • Theodoric says:

            I third the recommendation for Feedly. Both the website and the app work well for me. It is the best replacement for Google Reader.

        • helloo says:

          But what about the voties? Or does that go through the feed to.

    • Aftagley says:

      I haven’t noticed this trend, but as someone who once made a paycheck creating internet content, I don’t use adblockers. Maybe websites are just getting better at creating a negative experience for people who use adblock?

      • I don’t use it on my work computer where I can’t install extensions, and it’s certainly worse without adblock.

      • ana53294 says:

        I block adblock for websites I visit regularly and don’t have invasive ads. The issue is, it’s starting to become impossible to access some sites without an adblock, as ads become ever more obstrusive.

        • albatross11 says:

          FWIW, I block ads and will leave almost any site that prevents adblockers from working, unless I actually want to subscribe. Being shown ads is no big deal, but the tracking and the occasional malware is unacceptable.

          • Nick says:

            I try to cooperate with sites that cooperate with me; I turned adblock off on Youtube, for example. But some sites are damn near unusable with adblock off. Fandom (formerly wikia) and patheos are the absolute worst here.

            I still have issues with incognito detectors like the NYTimes’. Someone here linked me a way to disable that, but I couldn’t find the link later.

          • Randy M says:

            Youtube has gotten bad. Ads in the list of videos, 2-3 ads before ‘monetized’ videos, some of which are long but skippable, others of which can’t be skipped, ads below the videos, and a decent chance for ads in the videos put in by the author.

            I’m pretty sure by this point using it for music is a worse ratio than radio.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            I noticed when they got rid of the yellow “ads will pop up at this timestamp” indicators, being replaced by “Ad in 5… 4… 3…” where the “skip ad” box pops up. I’m 95% certain that the sole purpose of this change was to hide a ramping up of the number of mid-video ads. I vaguely remember a time when the worst you’d usually get was a closeable banner popping up 15 seconds into the video; now I’m pretty sure there can be as many as 3 mid-roll ad breaks in a 10-minute video, with up to 2 ads apiece! And if I could just see at a glance a yellow bars every 3 minutes, I might watch something else or turn on my adblock, but with the new system you won’t know until they’re upon you. All in all, seems to be getting more like spotify ads.

    • Skeptical Wolf says:

      I have definitely noticed the PC part of this trend, and adblock makes things better rather than worse.

      It seems like we’re stuck in a negative feedback loop. Malvertising and overtracking make it dangerous to browse without adblock, but the ad networks that are most susceptible to those problems pay better than the ones that do reasonable curation.

      The most promising solution I’ve seen is to have some sort of trust system for ads that’s respected by the ad blockers. But there’s no one involved with both a direct incentive to set that up and the trust from the other actors necessary to get it off the ground. The advertisers can try it, but it’s far too late for them to ask for any trust from either the consumers they’ve been abusing or the adblock makers they’ve been trying to litigate to death. The ad blockers can try it, but curating trusted vs untrusted ads gets expensive and neither consumers nor advertisers seem willing to pay them for the service. Consumers can try it, but lack the scale and resources necessary to do it well.

      And so we’re left with the current situation: Web advertising gets increasingly horrible, invasive and dangerous as advertisers slash costs and chase the shrinking market segment that doesn’t understand why they should be running adblock. And sites are left either losing advertising as a revenue model entirely or begging their customers “please whitelist us”.

      I miss the banner-ad supported web of the 90s, but it seems to be mostly gone and I don’t see a way to bring it back without making major changes to the current situation.

      • Lambert says:

        >ome sort of trust system for ads that’s respected by the ad blockers.

        Privacybadger seems to work ok for that.
        It disables tracking software, which includes the vast majority of dodgy ads.

    • sfoil says:

      I use not only an adblocker, but a more whitelist script blocker (NoScript) which gets rid of most of that stuff, although it often requires some (simple) configuration when accessing a site for the first time.

      • AG says:

        Yes. I use NoScript+Privacy Badger, and don’t have an adblocker. Sometimes that means experimenting with what to enable in order to see what I want, and for some streaming websites I still see ads, but I have yet to meet an invasive ad structure I couldn’t NoScript my way around, because they have really obvious domains I can disable.
        This has gotten around most paywalls, too.

  12. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Can anyone explain the theory and practice of how money worked for Soviet enterprises? I more-or-less get it on the consumer side–rather than giving everyone identical fixed rations, you give them money and let them choose how to spend it given the goods you make available.

    But on the production side, it’s not clear how a money system interacted with central planning. I’ve tried to look this up online, but I still have a ton of questions. These aren’t necessarily the exact right questions but hopefully

    Did enterprises need to pay money for their planned inputs, or only for unforeseen needs? Did they also have to pay their workers out of the enterprise’s funds? And did they get fixed allowances of money, or was it based on proceeds of selling the goods they were assigned to produce? If the latter, did these prices have a ‘profit margin’ built in? What happened if an Enterprise went bankrupt–or, for that matter, became highly profitable?

    • Radu Floricica says:

      I was too young to know it first hand, but from my dad’s stories it looked like it was a pretty standard economy. Money still ruled everything. It’s just that there were too many controls to also call it “free”. Prices, production targets…

    • Anatoly says:

      >I more-or-less get it on the consumer side–rather than giving everyone identical fixed rations, you give them money and let them choose how to spend it given the goods you make available.

      I’m not really sure why you’d phrase it this way. On the consumer side people did not get equal amounts of money (which one might think they would based on your “instead of identical fixed rations”). Different jobs came with very different salaries, plus there was an extensive system of additional perks that came with some jobs and not others. I have personal and family experience of living on the consumer side, so feel free to ask more questions (I write more below on the producer side, but that’s based on general knowledge and reading, not personal experience).

      >Did enterprises need to pay money for their planned inputs, or only for unforeseen needs? Did they also have to pay their workers out of the enterprise’s funds? And did they get fixed allowances of money, or was it based on proceeds of selling the goods they were assigned to produce? If the latter, did these prices have a ‘profit margin’ built in? What happened if an Enterprise went bankrupt–or, for that matter, became highly profitable?

      Imagine you’re the “director” (analogous to head, CEO, etc.) of a factory that produces shoes. Your budget is managed centrally and in theory everything you produce is planned centrally. You get a “plan” of how much input material you get from suppliers, and you appear in their “plans” accordingly. You’re supposed to produce X pairs of shoes and distribute them to stores, probably not directly but via regional distribution centers. You pay suppliers for materials and the stores pay you for shoes, but whether actual money is exchanged, I think, varies in different times of the Soviet economy; but accounting-wise, your budget is updated with these expenditures and revenue. Payroll for your workers is not mixed with your expenditures and revenue; it comes separately once a month on the payday and immediately distributed. The planning agencies keep track of whether you’re profitable or unprofitable, considering all these (and including payroll). If you have high losses, you’ll have some explaining to do at the Ministry or the regional government office, and you might be replaced; if you have high profits, you might be rewarded with a modest bonus for your workers or other perks; but the actual profit of course accrues to the state budget. Come planning season, you’re going to use your cachet, connections, bribes etc. to work out the best “plan” for your factory for the next year that you can. If you’re able to produce more shoes than the plan allowed for, this is probably good for you, but you’ll be responsible for running around and convincing your suppliers to supply more material, assuming they can. The whole system is shot through with huge amounts of corruption, nepotism, substantial and perfunctory bribes, etc. There’s a shortage of nearly everything all the time, including shoes. You and other well-placed people at your factory will work hard to divert some of the output directly to friends, relatives, relatives of friends etc. These will normally not be actually stolen, they’ll be sold at the official price, but they won’t get to the shops. The same story repeats in the distribution centers and the individual shops.

      • Aftagley says:

        If you have high losses, you’ll have some explaining to do at the Ministry or the regional government office, and you might be replaced; if you have high profits, you might be rewarded with a modest bonus for your workers or other perks; but the actual profit of course accrues to the state budget.

        Interesting, and thanks for writing this, but what does profit or loss even mean in this kind of system? If I am guaranteed X amount of supply at a previously agreed upon price and have in turn guaranteed Y number of shoes, also at a prearranged price, how can I maximize profit?

        Isn’t profit just whatever percentage the central planners decide to give me? (assuming I don’t allow enough theft/poor production quality to prevent me from reaching my mandated quotas)

        • Anatoly says:

          Maybe your plan looks like this:
          – you get X tons of material from suppliers, at such-and-such price
          – 10% of it is allowed to be lost because the process is not 100% efficient at using all of it, because it’s foreseen that some of it will not pass quality control etc.
          – you produce Y pairs of shoes using the remainder of the material and pass it on to distribution at such-and-such price
          – you’re allowed Z rubles to spend on maintenance and upgrade of your equipment
          – payroll is such-and-such; other kinds of overhead is accounted for
          (operating a canteen… very modest spot bonuses for exemplary workers… small cash for things like red flags and balloons to buy so your workers can waive the flags and launch balloons during official marches on holidays… etc. etc.)
          – here’s your overall budget, A planned expenditures, B planned revenue, C=B-A planned profit.

          Some ways for you to increase profit while remaining within the planned economy system:
          – increase output Y. You’ll have to increase X by working out extraneous deals with the suppliers. The deals are theoretically above-board and beneficial to your suppliers (you’re helping them increase their profit) but involve you or your planning guy going around and doing a lot of vodka drinking and underhanded negotiations.
          – that 10% of planned bad inputs was a wild overestimate you managed to insert into
          your plan via connections, so you’ll now get more Y without even increasing X
          – same with the Z on maintenance/upgrades

          But I don’t know that you’re very motivated to increase profit beyond what was planned, really. You’re certainly not getting any serious personal financial benefit out of it. You do get more cachet, more weight to throw around, a newspaper does a story on your achievements and higher-ups will read it, etc. But more likely you’re spending most of your time trying to explain why you didn’t produce Y shoes because of plausible reasons, or doing creative accounting to hide the fact that you didn’t, while also fighting for various perks for yourself and your factory.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Thanks! That helps a lot.

        A follow-up: did enterprises have any say in who their employees were, or did they just get assigned workers by the state? And, assuming they could not fire people at will, what options for discipline did they have available?

    • TJ2001 says:

      It depends on the “Phase” of the Soviet system – as during Stalin’s rule they were FAR more command/control and invested in the success of their various 5/10/15/20 year plans. So for example – the Soviets nearly exterminated the entire whale population on earth even though there was basically zero demand for whale products in the USSR because nobody wanted whale meat and sperm oil had been supplanted by petroleum oil products.

      It seems like as time progressed – they were marginally more willing to accept “Private” sale and purchase of things where the buyer and seller negotiated the price. For example – private sale used cars in the 1980’s Soviet Union could bring 2x or perhaps 3x the cost of new due to long wait lists and high demand. That sort of thing would have got you executed during Stalin’s rule though.

    • AlesZiegler says:

      Great question, and I am sure fruitful area for historians to inquire about. Complications, variations and complexities were immense. But, with massive oversimplification, there were two sectors of production:

      1) Market sector, partly legal, partly illegal (exact line between what was allowed and what wasn ́t varied with times and places), consisting of small enterprises which had little access to credit and were heavily constrained in available methods and scope of raising capital, but otherwise functioned just like legal or illegal enterprises in liberal democracy.¨

      2) Government owned sector. Wages of government employees were mostly by directives of the central government, which is of course not different from many public workers in liberal democracies. What was different was that government workers formed majority of the workforce, at least in “classical” soviet regimes. Note: workers in agricultural “collectives” should be counted among government workers, since their autonomy was heavily restricted.

      Things and services that in liberal democracies are produced by the private sector generally were not given away for free but sold, for prices set by the central government. State owned enterprises got materials, or generally inputs other than labor, from other state owned enterprises according to qoutas set by the central government. If production quotas were not met, managers might face some form of disciplinary action, ranging from being sent to gulag to being less likely to be promoted or given some perks. But I suppose that sometimes state owned enterprises paid other state owned enterprises for materials in money, genuinely not sure how widespread it was.

      In any case, state owned enterprises needed money to pay wages. They of course got those money from proceeds of sales. If those had fallen short of their wage bills, they didn´t go bankrupt, communist governments generally strived to ensure that workers are not fired (being unemployed without valid cause was a crime) and that wages are paid, outside of famine conditions. They achieved that via credit system – state owned bank (there were more of them) had simply given a loan to state owned enterprise whose revenue from sales failed to cover its wages or other expenses. De facto defaults of those loans happened, and they also might have disciplinary consequences for involved managers.

      Oh, and state owned enterprises also paid taxes into central treasury.

      State accounts were secret and opaque, most definitely no quarterly or yearly or ever public accounting statements of state owned enterprises could be expected.

      3) Foreign trade. This was an important concern for communist governments, who strived for an autarky of an Eastern bloc and for increasing their forex reserves. Here I am going to draw on an example of Czechoslovakia, since I suspect other communist countries worked somewhat differently in this respect. Many of consumer goods of best quality that Czechoslovak state was capable of producing were sold primarily to the West, and in the country were available mostly on black market.

      It was illegal to own foreign currency in large quantities, and exchanges were illegal. If you needed some foreign currency for specific purpose, e.g. for your family vacations in Yugoslavia, you had to apply for a grant, which was given or denied based on whether you had been a good comrade.

      Since at least from the 60s it became obvious that Western consumer goods are of superior quality to Eastern ones in almost every area, and the government wanted to reduce discontent and smuggling as well as obtain Western currencies from both inhabitants and tourists, special shops selling Western goods, called Tuzex, were set up, which accepted only special kind of money which you could get in exchange for foreign currency or, if you were good comrade, as grant, I guess; but in practice it was obtained mainly on a black market.

  13. jermo sapiens says:

    How far are we from creating a nuclear fusion reactor? I’ve heard it said that it is one of those things that’s always “20 years away”.

    What are the main technical obstacles? Do they seem to be solvable without game changing innovation?


    • k10293 says:

      I would recommend watching the entire video, but the second half of the NIPS 2017 keynote by John Platt (a principal scientist at Google) has some relevant information for you:
      Platt talks about the problem of making energy through fusion as well as his team’s efforts to help a particular nuclear fusion company. He also says that they hope to produce net energy either in 2019 or the near future although I don’t know if that has been working out.

    • proyas says:

      What are the main technical obstacles? Do they seem to be solvable without game changing innovation?

      One of the main technical obstacles stems from the fact that fusion generates large amounts of neutrons, which spray out from the source of the fusion reaction in all directions and collide with the interior walls of the reactor, damaging it at the atomic level (neutrons also hurt organic tissue, as you’ll discover if you research “Neutron Bombs”). No one has discovered a relatively affordable, neutron-resistant material could be used to line the inner walls of a fusion reactor, and I think there are doubts over whether it is even theoretically possible. Without such a material, fusion reactors would need to be periodically shut down so technicians could remove the crumbling inner walls of the reactors and replace them, which would drive up operational costs to the point that fusion would be too expensive.

      The required advances in materials science are so formidable that they could be called “game-changing.”

      • bean says:

        Without such a material, fusion reactors would need to be periodically shut down so technicians could remove the crumbling inner walls of the reactors and replace them, which would drive up operational costs to the point that fusion would be too expensive.

        You forget the bit where neutron activation means that the material is also immensely radioactive, and needs to be dealt with as such.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Yes, I’ve heard about that. One solution was to use Helium-3, which is apparently not found on earth but is abundant on the moon (the rocks absorb it from the solar wind or something). This documentary talks about it in great detail and is highly recommended.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Tritium is available on earth, and it decays to helium-3 with a half-life of 12.5 years. It is produced in fission reactors; this should be easier than going to the moon.

        • bean says:

          He3-D is technically aneutronic, but in practice, it’s not that simple. You’re going to get D-D side reactions, and I think some of those are neutronic. Worse, you’re forming tritium from them, and the D-T reaction is very neutronic. Long ago, I did a bunch of analysis of He3 reactors, and to get the numbers I wanted (fictional setting) I ended up making some very optimistic assumptions about tritium being pulled out of the reaction.

          • John Schilling says:

            Unfortunately, the D-T cross-section is so much higher than the others that if significant fusion is happening at all, any tritium is probably being burned before you can hope to extract it. And producing very energetic neutrons half the time.

            Possible workarounds are He3-D fusion with a large excess of He3, or a two-component system (e.g. colliding-beam fusion) where the D component doesn’t have enough energy to burn on its own.

          • bean says:

            Unfortunately, the D-T cross-section is so much higher than the others that if significant fusion is happening at all, any tritium is probably being burned before you can hope to extract it. And producing very energetic neutrons half the time.

            I was well aware of that at the time. But this was before I discovered Excel, so I was doing the math by hand, and really didn’t want to work out a third set of reaction conditions for this to solve that problem. (The first died when I discovered it was too hot and generating a lot more power in X-rays than it was producing through fusion.)

      • Lambert says:

        What kind of lifetimes for these walls are we talking about?
        If you made them out of panels designed so they can be replaced using a robot arm, could you reduce the downtime to a minimum?

        Probably make them out of some kind of composite where the structural part has low cross-section and the shielding part isn’t structural.

        Obviously people have already thought long and hard about these things.
        It’d be an interesting field to go into if I didn’t care about job security.

        • proyas says:

          My guess is that the interior walls of the reactor would still need to be made of a super-expensive material to capture energy from the fusion reaction for non-trivial lengths of time. The economics of frequently replacing the interior walls and also earning $0 from selling electricity because the reactor is shut down probably don’t work out.

          • Lambert says:

            I think most of the plans for fusion power right now are to just get raw heat out.
            Use your coolant to boil water, use the superheated steam to drive a turbine.
            Bonus: use a coolant with a high neutron cross section. Can’t embrittle a liquid.

            Figure out how to reprocess/recycle the walls in a hermetically sealed, unmanned environment. Maybe melt, powderise then re-sinter? Even just a nice long recrystalisation/annealing might do the trick until there’s too much transmuted stuff in there.

            Almost all machines have some downtime. If you can swap out the necessary walls in an hour once a week, that’s <1%.

    • Loriot says:

      For what it’s worth, I read an article in a popular science magazine 10-15 years ago, arguing that the barriers to practical fusion power are far higher than commonly imagined (to the point of requiring unobtanium) and that it is extremely unlikely to happen in the forseeable future. Which is especially notable because it is the exact opposite of the usual bias of the magazine.

      I don’t remember the details, but some of the problems cited include the fact that we have no idea how to make materials that can withstand the neutron flux required for sustained operation, and that a practical reactor would have to breed its own tritium, due to tritium being rare in nature.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Yes, the neutron issue has been discussed above. Does that mean though that absent the neutron issue we can sustain fusion reactions such that fusion can become a reliable energy source?

        • It’s a reliable energy source at present. You just have to put the fusion reactor a sufficient distance away.

          92 million miles seems to do it.

        • viVI_IViv says:

          Even without the neutron embrittlement issue, AFAIK no reactor prototype has ever achieved energy break-even. The main issue is that magnetically confined plasma is difficult to control: it tends to become turbulent, which means that fusion occurs sporadically at random spots where the density and temperature are high enough for enough time. In order to deal with this you need to make the reactor bigger, or use more powerful magnets (but without using more electricity to power them up, which means that they must be more efficient), or try your luck with unconventional reactor geometries instead of the standard toroidal tokamak. None of these is a solved problem, and it’s questionable whether it could be technically and economically feasible.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I’ve heard it said that it is one of those things that’s always “20 years away”.

      It used to always be 30 years away. We really are making progress!

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Unfortunately not it was just my memory of the 20/30 year figure that was faulty. But that’s a good read on the topic, so thanks.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          I, also, have failed to respect Poe’s Law. I figured it was actually a typo.

          Always 30, always 20, what’s the difference, anyway?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            (just kidding)

          • thomasbrinsmead says:

            Twenty years is close enough to convince funders of technology to invest in research and development, but far enough away for those spruiking the technology to move on to other jobs before their earlier overoptimistic, self-serving forecasts have been demonstrated to have been incorrect.

    • ITER, the most substantial attempt so far, is scheduled to begin experiments in 2035:

      So I really doubt it’s 20 years away, barring some completely unexpected event.

      • phi says:

        While ITER is certainly the most substantial in terms of sheer *size*, the design of the reactor also matters. It seems likely to me that other smaller projects will beat ITER to the punch. For example, the proposed ARC reactor, or General Fusion’s project. (Both are designed to breed their own lithium, and General fusion has a very clever solution for preventing neutron damage.)

    • Eric Rall says:

      The physics for commercial magnetic-confinement fusion reactors is pretty much solved as of the 2000s, but there are pretty huge engineering challenges left. The two biggies are 1) neutron radiation, which Proyas already brought up, and 2) getting the required magnetic field density for an energy-profitable reaction.

      The standard answers for neutron shielding are water and various lithium compounds. Hydrogen is a decent neutron-absorber, and when it captures a neutron, it turns into deuterium (which is both stable and useful). Lithium splits into Helium-4 (also stable and useful) and Tritium (which you need anyway as fuel) when it catches a neutron. And Oxygen-17 isn’t particularly useful, but it’s stable. A water-based neutron shielding system is also a handy way of capturing useful energy output from the reactor: the energy of the absorbed neutrons heat up the water, and using hot water to make electricity is a solved problem.

      It’s important to note that this is only a partial solution, and the remaining part of the problem is a really, really big challenge. You need to put the water blanket inside something solid, and all the good candidates for what to make that something out of are things that will become both brittle and radioactive over time as they absorb neutrons. Shutting down the reactor, replacing the inner wall periodically, and disposing of the old material as radioactive waste is possible, but expensive.

      Field density is a problem of how things scale up. With both a conventional reactor design and conventional materials, you need a really enormous reactor to get the required field density for a viable commercial reactor, about 2x the linear dimensions, 8x the volume, and 16x the weight of the largest currently-operating research reactor. Biting the bullet and scaling the reactor up also compounds the neutron absorption problem: the bigger the reactor, the more shielding needs replacing and disposal, and the more work it is to take it apart for replacement.

      I know of three major ongoing prototyping efforts for magnetic-confinement fusion (I know less about recent work in inertial confinement fusion, and electrostatic confinement (Polywell) relies on several unsolved research problems in high-energy physics breaking the right way to be viable): ITER, MIT/CFS Compact Fusion, and Lockheed Compact Fusion.

      ITER is a big, multinational, government-sponsored project that intends to bite the bullet and scale up the design and materials of existing research reactors to the required size. It’s currently under construction, and is projected to be fully operational in 2035 (partial operation starting in 2025). I’ve been hearing about ITER since the mid-1990s, and it seems to be continually falling behind schedule (probably due to the difficulties of coordinating funding and planning between all the major governments chipping in to the project).

      MIT/CFS is also using conventional reactor designs, but is trying to solve the field density problem by using newer and better superconductors (YBCO or REBCO instead of NbTi and NbSn) instead of scaling up the reactor vessel. The smaller vessel makes the neutron absorption problem more manageable (less material to replace, easier to take the reactor apart for maintenance) and vastly reduces the costs. They’re commercially funded and are currently doing component-scale testing on their magnet design. Once that’s complete, they’re planning on starting construction on a half-scale proof-of-concept prototype in 2021 (completing ~2025), then moving on to a full-scale pilot plant unless the prototype turns up major unexpected problems. They’re pretty new (incorporated in 2018 and got their major funding this year), so their schedule hasn’t had much of a chance to slip yet.

      Lockheed’s project uses an unconventional reactor design (cusp confinement instead of toroidal confinement), which they expect to scale up to the required field density at roughly the same scale as MIT/CFS. They’re on their third or fourth small-scale prototype, and their original announced schedule from 2013 (technology demo within a year and a full-scale prototype 5 years after that) has been and gone, but the project still seems to be going on. I’m guessing from that that they’ve discovered problems with their reactor design that constitute major setbacks but not definite showstoppers.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Thanks. Im amazed at the pool of knowledge available in the SSC comment section. Better than Google, and (AFAIK) Scott is not selling my data to advertisers!

      • Eltargrim says:

        And Oxygen-17 isn’t particularly useful, but it’s stable.

        Oxygen-17 has one particular use: NMR spectroscopy. O-17 is the only NMR-active isotope of oxygen, but has very low natural abundance. Depending on the level of enrichment, O-17-labelled water currently costs anywhere from 200 to 1600 USD/g. Relatively inexpensive O-17 would be very appreciated by the field.

        Obviously it’s a niche case, but O-17 is particularly useful in that niche.

      • hls2003 says:

        I know nothing technical about it, but I remember reading a (layman level) science article about magnetized target fusion using molten lead as both confinement chamber and compression tool – creating a shock wave in the molten metal to compress injected plasma. Googling shows me results for General Fusion but I don’t know if there are others attempting the same approach. Apparently one of the benefits is that it largely eliminates the neutron breakdown problem by using the circulating lead for confinement.

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      fusion is an attempt at by-passing a political problem by solving a nigh-impossible engineering challenge instead. That makes the question pointless, because even if the engineering part works out, the political by-pass part will almost certainly fail.

      The political problem being that the astro-turf campaign fossil fuel interests set in motion to sabotage the existential threat to their buisness model that is the fission reactor has grown roots in a lot of peoples souls and made them pretty darn argument resistant.

      .. and yes, it was astroturf. Natural gas tycoons and coal lobbying orgs literally funded anti-nuclear weapons campaigners who were very sick of being ignored and beaten up by MPs to go after a softer target instead, which worked insanely well. In the present day, it mostly keeps going because the core personel cannot recant and maintain any self-respect whatsoever. If they admit, even in the dark night of the soul that they were and are wrong about fission power, they are the villains of the tale who are directly responsible for something on the order of at least one third of all cummulative CO2 emissions, and millions of dead from air-pollution.

      … General problem that. Anti-vax. Global warming denialism. Other examples too culture-war to bring up. How, exactly, are we supposed to deal with people who have argued themselves into becoming activists for causes that are, not to put too fine a point on it, Fucking Evil? I have seen people being brought to understand points, the understanding of which required them to find a new livelyhood. The classical saying is correct. It is difficult. I cannot do it. But it can be done, I have seen it done.
      But.. How, the ever loving heck are we supposed to get people to recant stances that have lead them into Damnation? In the secular sense that their admitting error is going to shatter their belief in their own self-worth?

      • Aftagley says:

        How, exactly, are we supposed to deal with people who have argued themselves into becoming activists for causes that are, not to put too fine a point on it, Fucking Evil?

        I think this is a fascinating question that I would strongly advise you to repost in a fractional thread.

      • Natural gas tycoons and coal lobbying orgs literally funded anti-nuclear weapons campaigners who were very sick of being ignored and beaten up by MPs to go after a softer target instead, which worked insanely well.

        Interesting and not implausible. Can you point me at evidence?

        Along analogous lines, I’ve wondered how much of the political pressure for greenbelts around British cities is funded by landowners in the cities whose rents are pushed up by the resulting scarcity of urban land. Also how much of the pressure in poor countries against “economic imperialism,” i.e. foreign investment, is funded by local capitalists who don’t want to have to compete with foreign capitalists for their labor supply.

        So far as your specific examples, I have an old blog post pointing out an analogous problem on the other side of the climate controversy.

  14. Eric T says:

    I have a particularly brilliant 6th grade student who just polished off the completed works of HP Lovecraft, and asked me for “More books like this, but maybe something more modern.” After some discussion I uncovered the things she liked were the idea of that unknowable horrors/a large scary universe out there that might kill us all type of vibe. Any suggestions? Not a big horror guy. She reads at the level of like a high school senior, but she is 12 so she’s not going to be enjoying much that is too overtly complex or deals with concepts she just hasn’t encountered yet.

    • johan_larson says:

      Try the Milkweed Triptych. The eidolons the British warlocks bargain with are very Lovecraftian.

    • Gossage Vardebedian says:

      Thomas Ligotti.
      Laird Barron’s first couple books.

      • Nick says:

        I have Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. They’re good, but most of them aren’t very Lovecraftian. I remember in the intro essay VanderMeer says that Ligotti’s early work was influenced by Lovecraft and his later work not so much—though, having only read a few to date, I can’t say how accurate that is.

        • SystematizedLoser says:

          @Nick I’ve read Songs/Grimscribe (which combines Ligotti’s two earliest collections), as well as Teatro Grottesco.

          Of the two, Songs/Grimscribe is definitely the more Lovecraftian, but it’s variable. “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “Nethescurial” are both close to retellings of actual Lovecraft stories; “The Sect of the Idiot” is also basically a mythos story. In general, Ligotti’s writing in Songs/Grimscribe has the sort of denseness that many people describe as Lovecraftian.

          Teatro Grottesco is, stylistically, much less Lovecraftian. The prose tends to be more stripped down, and the stories often have humorous elements.

          In my experience, when people talk about things that are Lovecraftian, they are usually referring to stories that ape the aesthetics of Lovecraft (tentacles, cults, forbidden knowledge, purple prose, etc.). Usually, Ligotti generally doesn’t go for that mode in the way that, e.g., Laird Barron does. I find that Ligotti does manage to be unsettling in a way that Lovecraft at his best was.

          @ Eric T: “The Gig Economy” ( is an online novella that is one of the best neo-Lovecraftian stories I’ve encountered. It might be too mature for your student; I’m not sure.

    • Two McMillion says:

      The Laundry series by Charles Stross.

    • Anatoly says:

      Just started reading _John Dies at the End_, enjoying it so far. It’s got a modern Lovecraftian vibe shot through with humor.

    • ManyCookies says:

      There’s some great SCP wiki articles that explore Lovecraftian themes, and they’d be more bite-sized. Off the top of my head: SCP-3930, and SCP-3200, SCP-2935, and SCP-1050 are good and can work well alone. SCP-3000 is great but probably needs context, SCP-3125 and its tale series is imo the most well executed Lovecraftian by far but definitely needs familiarity with SCP.

      I’m not sure how well the standalones work without seeing SCP before. Perhaps introduce her to the SCP wiki and be like “There’s definitely some neat Lovecraft articles here, if you like the concept I’ll share them”?

    • Kuiperdolin says:

      Rendez-vous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke kind of touches on the themes you mention in a non-horror way.

    • MorningGaul says:

      ZeroHPLovecraft’s “the gig economy” is a short online-story which I’d describe as “Lovecraftian, but adapted for the 21st century”.

    • thomasbrinsmead says:

      There’s plenty of ” unknowable horrors/a large scary universe out there that might kill us all type of vibe” in the ongoing series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And they have the added bonus of a much more realistically believable back-story and plausible, detailed, physics, including an huge corpus of secondary supporting literature set in the same universe, with as much drama, controversy, excitement and conflict over the core epistemological and existential theme that you could ever wish for.

    • albatross11 says:

      Gaiman’s Sandman comics are often dark and quite good. There’s not a lot of sexual content in them, but there is some, if that’s a problem–they were written for adults.

  15. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    The larger point is that I’ve never heard of people being trained in how to be a boss– not a leader, a boss.

    I recently posted this to Facebook.

    Two inspiring comments and a little Yiddish.

    Tell me about excellent bosses.

    “The most capable leader I know distinguished himself in his first year on the job by listening all the time. It sounds like such an easy thing to do, eyes/ears open and mouth shut, but I have never seen anyone else do it so conspicuously. I suspect his employees are going to be more willing to tell him when his ideas are not working than would be the case with a typical boss.” —eiras

    “Twenty years ago I had a boss who used to say, “I don’t care if I’m right or not; I just want things to work.” I kind of dismissed this as a bit of management-speak verbiage until I realized he meant it. It wasn’t until he moved on and I met his successor who had to be right and if things worked, well, that would be okay but mostly let’s focus on the part where I am right.

    Like everyone, my old boss was capable of having bad ideas; unlike almost everyone, he was okay with hearing why a bad idea was bad and hearing suggestions to improve it or to scrap it altogether.

    As a result, I’ve since followed him through a couple of organizations and now work with him as a consultant.

    Back to the subject at hand: somewhere I encountered the useful Yiddish adjective farpotchket, which describes something that used to be mildly messed up but now, as the result of well-intentioned efforts to improve it, is now really messed up.” — ricochet biscuit

    • Etoile says:

      My bosses have had pluses and minuses, but not terrible ones. Here are some things I’m grateful for from my various bosses (these are pulled from several people; some of the people with one good point suffered for lack of the others).

      -Knowing when they were out of their depth and when to let their team use their subject matter expertise on a project rather than micromanage the work.
      -My boss while I was pregnant was extremely understanding of everything associated with it – medical appointment, maternity leave, etc. I was grateful because I’ve read about some terrible behavior from bosses on that front.
      -Including me in meetings; letting me present to the customer/executives/bigwigs and generally expressing trust in my judgment.
      -Leveling and sharing information with me about what was going on with the project/budget/customer/company: the lack of this at other jobs was frustrating.

    • Nornagest says:

      somewhere I encountered the useful Yiddish adjective farpotchket, which describes something that used to be mildly messed up but now, as the result of well-intentioned efforts to improve it, is now really messed up.”

      That’s a great word.

    • TJ2001 says:

      Honestly – data wise – being willing to quickly “Error correct” is the one single attribute that separates “Bad” leaders from “Good” ones.

      It’s pretty crazy to consider that in “Decision theory” – the best executives do a little worse than 50/50 on the initial “Making the right decision” question. Literally flip a coin. That’s just the reality of limited information.

      What sets the best executives apart from all the rest is that the “Best” executives are trying to learn whether the decision is the right one and take intentional action to correct bad decisions as quickly as possible. The “worst” executives are the ones who double down on bad decisions.

      And Nancy – I agree with you. The “Good” leaders certainly stand out and are the sort of people I want to work for.

    • sharper13 says:

      Lots (entire sections at Amazon) of “How to be a Manager”-type books out there, some tied to organizations who also train bosses.

      On of the absolute best is “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman & Greg McKeown which essentially covers how to be a good boss rather than a bad boss, based (mostly) on real-world studies.

  16. carvenvisage says:

    If you’re banned and I see you at a meetup, I’ll assume you didn’t notice you were banned, and politely ask you to leave.

    @scott @scott alexander

    Considering the things that people are on the list for, it isn’t prudent to explicitly commit to allowing 1 free gatecrash. To the kind of person who pushes boundaries and crosses lines- that you’re trying to keep out, it can come across as an invitation.

    If you do do it, then you should at least make a point of telling meetup organisers to report it to you if it happens, so that at least it isn’t once per seperate organiser.

    • Well... says:

      Did Scott ever say what kinds of things those people are on the list for?

      What are those things? (I’m curious.)

      • AG says:

        I know with one of the people on that list, it was a history of being the abuser in their relationships, so they wanted to stop enabling that person from picking up new partners from the meetups.

        • Well... says:

          That means a very different thing if they were a casual couple than if they were, say, married with kids. Also depends a lot on what is meant by “abuser”.

          Also, are these meetups really places where people go to “pick up” sexual partners?!

          • beleester says:

            I won’t link, to respect Scott’s wish to not provide additional Googleable Internet Shaming for these people, but Thing of Things has a post on Brent D which is trivial to search for.

          • Reasoner says:

            Also, are these meetups really places where people go to “pick up” sexual partners?!

            Where else did you expect people to pick up partners… SSC comment threads?

          • Well... says:

            I have no idea who Thing of Things is, two minutes on DDG didn’t turn up anything useful, and that’s about as much time as I’m willing to put into it.

            I’m not actually interested in rubbernecking about this one case anyway; I was more curious what kind of behaviors in general would get someone banned from a meetup, and since violent criminal behavior seems like an obvious grounds for a ban, whether there are non-violent, non-criminal behaviors that would get someone banned. It’s hard for me to imagine that too many SSC people would engage in violent criminal behavior, which meant people must be getting banned for the other kind. And since that kind is less obvious and maybe inherently more open to interpretation I was curious what it was.

          • cassander says:


            At the DC meetup, the most common reason for banning is insufficient enthusiasm during the sacrifices. It feels harsh, but one must have standards. We also don’t look kindly on people who forget to bring the donuts to the orgies when it’s their turn.

          • albatross11 says:

            On the upside, in the rationalist community, finding a virgin to sacrifice to Moloch is pretty easy….

          • Nick says:

            Remind me never to attend the DC meetup!

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            You don’t like donuts, Nick?

          • Aftagley says:


            Wait, you go to the DC meetups? Awesome. I’ve probably met you!

            Out of curiosity, can you provide any context to that email that went out this morning? Kindness of the invite notwithstanding, I was, shall we say, nonplussed at seeing a NYE party invitation where a “plush palace for a cuddle puddle” was prominently advertised.

          • Randy M says:

            I have no idea who Thing of Things is, two minutes on DDG didn’t turn up anything useful, and that’s about as much time as I’m willing to put into it.

            Thing of Things is Ozymandias’ blog, it’s on the blogroll.

          • Well... says:

            *Having now read about Brent D, and the stories of the women he was involved with* Wow, I practically live in a King of the Hill episode compared to some people. Different universes. I thought this was going to be about somebody attending a meetup and getting overly drunk and breaking furniture or something.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


            *Having now read about Brent D, and the stories of the women he was involved with* Wow, I practically live in a King of the Hill episode compared to some people. Different universes.

            Most of America is in the same universe as Arlen, Texas and the Bay Area ain’t, I tell ya what.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            At the DC meetup, the most common reason for banning is insufficient enthusiasm during the sacrifices. It feels harsh, but one must have standards.

            You sacced a land, cassander.

            Not only that, it was already tapped.

          • cassander says:


            I’m one of the hosts, so we almost certainly have met, but I’m terrible with names. You should let be know who you are at the next one.

            As for the post, I’m out of town for the month, but our policy has been to let anyone in the community who wants to advertise use the list to do so. We’ve not really discussed the content of any events, but my attitude on the subject would be to encourage rather than discourage more taboo events precisely because they’re harder to find or advertise if you’re not already on the inside of those sorts of communities.

    • TJ2001 says:

      Lets give Scott the benefit of the doubt on this one. Remember his professional credentials and his day job…

      If he says somebody is banned from real-life interaction of a meetup – it’s going to be for a VERY good reason…. Like say for example they are a serial killer serving prison time or so forth…..

      • profgerm says:

        Considering the history of what gets Scott online abuse, it’s much more likely to be something related to political or sexual discourse.

    • viVI_IViv says:

      Considering the things that people are on the list for, it isn’t prudent to explicitly commit to allowing 1 free gatecrash.

      He didn’t say that he’ll allow 1 free gatecrash. He said that if he catches one of these people gatecrashing, he’ll politely ask them to leave before making a scene, and if they don’t then he’ll make a scene. Seems preferable to making a scene on sight, since most meetups happen at public places where you want to avoid causing disturbances.

      In any case he can’t kick people out of a public establishment, so if any of these people still want to stay and ruin the meetup for everybody with their drama, they can still do it, but possibly Scott knows them and assumes they won’t behave this way.

    • Reasoner says:

      Considering the things that people are on the list for, it isn’t prudent to explicitly commit to allowing 1 free gatecrash. To the kind of person who pushes boundaries and crosses lines- that you’re trying to keep out, it can come across as an invitation.

      Yeah, I would have said I’m within my rights to publicly shame them if they show up once, but in practice let them off with a warning if it seems like it was an honest mistake.

  17. fsoc says:

    You are designing a rating system for a website which allows users to showcase their work. Ratings have a large influence on how prominently a users work is shown on the website, so users have an incentive to [a] inflate ratings of their own work and [b] deflate ratings of other users work, somehow. Assume that measures to prevent multiple accounts per actual person are in place.

    How do you go about this?

    • DragonMilk says:

      Ranking a random sample of works (not your own) from 1 to N

    • EchoChaos says:

      It certainly depends on how the content is supported. If it’s paid access, then only allow reviews from verified purchasers (or only use them for display at least). Paying to review your opponents is probably a high enough barrier.

      If it’s free access, then a reputation system for reviewers is probably necessary, with banning for content contributors whose reputation for reviews falls too low.

      • Radu Floricica says:

        Pay proof plus ubiquitous reviews work very well for Uber. But getting to a high rate of reviews is not trivial.

        For anything else I’d just assume it’s not possible to stop gaming reviews, if the stakes are high enough. So I’d keep the actual scores opaque and have unpublished ways to check and auto-ban offenders.

    • Lambert says:

      0-5 stars.
      Ratings are fed into a big black box of ML which spits out a final ranking, optimised for ad revenue or some other proxy for the bottom line.

    • KieferO says:

      Make it like a stock market: each view of an item costs a small “transaction fee” which is split between the author and all of the “owners” of the piece. Each user is also given the option to upvote (buying) or downvote (shorting) items using the same currency, possibly in various denominations, with earlier votes offering higher leverage than later votes. There are a buncha details that I’m leaving out like: balancing the asymmetric incentives for buying and shorting. Making sure that the administrators have a way to act as a central bank to mitigate the impact of rushes and panics and stuff. And tuning the timescales so that old content ages out, but that works that are easy to consume don’t dominate. Also: if it were popular enough/people cared enough, users would absolutely try to pull stupid stuff like cornering the market on cute dog pictures or something.

    • Ms. Morgendorffer says:

      I don’t think getting a nice signal from aggregating ratings is generally doable. Even with your assumption, you can’t prevent users from coordinating (if only via tribalism) so you’ll at least be vulnerable to review bombing. Every mechanism trying to select who can rate (having a minimum number of post, number of work published, having consumed the rated work enough, what have you) can be gotten around easily or will be a huge entry cost for new users, preventing the community from growing.
      I’d look at how Steam tries to solve the problem: mitigate the use of ratings in how you showcase works by using curators, filters by genre, tags, ‘people who played this game also liked:..’, arbitrary queues, ML suggestions etc. Also, if applicable, providing positive and negative comments, recent and legacy, with non falsifiable context like number of hours played when the comment was written, whether the game was bought or given, other reviews by the same author.
      Essentially acknowledging Goodhart’s law and limiting the use of explicit measures so they don’t become targets.

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      How do you go about this?

      Three ratings:
      – “What is this garbage?”
      – “I don’t like it” and
      – “Even so…”

    • sharper13 says:

      A set amount of ratings “points” per participant who meets some sort of minimal threshold, which they can re-allocate at will. The key here is that they have a set amount of influence, so to rate one thing highly, they have to not rate something else. So as an example, 100 points to spend, but can grant at most 5 points to one rating target.

      If you want to reinforce the ratings of the people who seem to represent the community (and add group-think a bit), then periodically you could give people known to rate well additional points to spend. i.e. The people who rated the top 100 (or whatever) positively get an extra 10 points to spend.

      Under the covers programmatic prevention of ratings actually impacting if the target of the rating has already rated the giver of the rating points, or anyone else who has rated the giver of the rating points. (Doesn’t completely remove the possibility of off-site agreements to rate others highly, but reduces the likelihood. Probably also need to look for rating circles, similar to how Google looks for artificial linking patterns).

  18. johan_larson says:

    If you liked From the Earth to the Moon and The Man in the High Castle, you’ll probably like the current TV series For All Mankind. It’s about the space race, with the twist that in this one, the Soviets beat the US to the moon, and NASA has to play catch-up.

    I’ve only watched the first few programs, but I really like what I’ve seen so far.

    Of course, it’s only available on Apple TV+, so you’ll have to sign up for yet another video service. Sorry, Plumber.

    It seems a bit off that all the FAANG companies have paid streaming video services, except for Facebook.

    • Nick says:

      It seems a bit off that all the FAANG companies have paid streaming video services, except for Facebook.

      Don’t give them ideas!

    • helloo says:

      Wait, the Soviets DID beat the USA to the moon.

      The main thing that the USA won was the first human to set foot on the moon.
      But a lot of the other major firsts before then were Soviet’s – first satellite, first animal/human in space
      NASA was playing catchup (or at least it felt like that) for a long time.

      • KieferO says:

        Looking back on it, I think that the space race wasn’t to see who could be first to land humans on the moon, but to see who could do something monumentally impressive that the other side couldn’t top. I don’t know if that is how it was seen at the time (though it means we get to take Kennedy’s “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” line seriously), but given that each side had the opportunity to make its case for moving the goalposts something like it was certainly the format de facto.

  19. afiori says:

    Hi, first time commenter 🙂 I was curious whether there are already organized meetups in Europe around next spring.

  20. A1987dM says:

    (I already wrote a version of this comment but it’s stuck in moderation, probably because of too many links. Trying again without links.)

    After reading the discussion about Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and whether she’s a “real” physicist in the previous open thread, I started playing around with bibliometric data, and after a while I realized that I hardly know anyone with an Erdős number greater than 5.

    Erdős co-authored with Daniel J. Kleitman, who co-authored with Sheldon L. Cooper, who co-authored with Floyd W. Stecker, giving him an Erdős number of (at most) 3. Stecker has had plenty of co-authors, giving them all an Erdős number of at most 4. Pretty much every single high-energy astrophysicist in the world co-authored either doi:10.3847/2041-8213/aa91c9 or doi:10.1088/1475-7516/2016/01/037 (or both) with several of Stecker’s co-authors.

    Brian May’s Erdős number is at most 6, even without cheating by including his popular science book:
    F.W. Stecker (3) → Jean-Loup Puget (4) → Michael Rowan-Robinson (5) → B.H. May (6).

    My own Brian May number (I mean the academic one — I don’t even know whether I have a finite musical one) is 3:
    M. Rowan-Robinson (1) → Tomotsugu Goto (2) → me (3). Most high-energy astrophysicists in the world have a May number of 4 via one of the two papers mentioned above.

    Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s Erdős number is at most 5, e.g.
    S.L. Glashow (2) → Steven Weinberg (3) → Lee Smolin (4) → C. Prescod-Weinstein (5).

    (I can’t be bothered to figure out the separation between Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and myself or Brian May.)

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      Small world.

      In chess these numbers are more interesting, because you actually have to beat somebody. So it maps at least a little bit onto playing strength.

      For the record I have a Kasparov number of 3.

    • viVI_IViv says:

      According to Wikipedia: “As of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3. In contrast, the median Erdős number across all mathematicians (with a finite Erdős number) is 5, with an extreme value of 13.[15]”

      As noted in the comment above, the network of scientific collaborations, like all social networks, is a small-world graph with hubs (ironically, not an Erdős–Rényi random graph), hence you get the “six degrees of separation” phenomenon. This study finds an average distance of 3.18 between researchers in all fields whose publications are indexed in a certain database of “high impact” journals. The average distance was about 4 when Erdős died, I expect average Erdős numbers to be lower than 4 at that time because Erdős was a major hub in the network, but since he died 24 years ago, average Erdős numbers have been increasing.

      • A1987dM says:

        That Wikipedia page refers to which most likely contains plenty of overestimates, e.g. James W. Cronin’s Erdős number is listed as 6 but actually cannot possibly be more than 5 because he co-authored plenty of papers with plenty of F.W. Stecker’s co-authors.

  21. nano says:

    Hi, I’m nano. I’m an occasional reader of this blog but a first time poster. Please be gentle with me

    • Milo Minderbinder says:

      Longtime reader and recent commenter myself. Welcome!

    • DragonMilk says:

      We are forced to be gentle in these visible open threads! It’s usually in the hidden ones that banworthy talk commences!

    • blacktrance says:

      We are delighted that you’ve chosen to donate your organs to the Slate Star Codex commenter potluck!

      • johan_larson says:

        Has the blood-in/blood-out proposal been ratified yet, or is it still stuck in committee?

      • aristides says:

        Now I’m wondering the legality of a bunch of people creating a potluck for kidneys. Ten healthy people With matching markers agree that if one of them needs a kidney, the other 9 of them will draw straws and the short straw donates the kidney. My guess is that it would be unenforceable, and there would be a small adverse selection problem, but it would solve a problem without money changing hands of it was legal.

    • broblawsky says:

      Welcome aboard!

    • S_J says:


      You’re a small guy. I need a scanning-electron microscope to see you.

      (If ‘nano’ refers to this computer program instead of physical size, I would like to say that I find the program very useful, when the need arises.)

  22. hito says:

    Anyone here read Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans by Melanie Mitchell? I was already pretty much totally unconvinced about the probability of an intelligence explosion, but gosh it feels like she just administered a death blow to the idea that AIs current animal-like abilities have anything to do with intelligence. Fantastic book.

    • GearRatio says:

      I would like it if you would summarize it for me so I could think about it without reading it. I’m pretty short on time this yuletide season, but I like to know things!

      • hito says:

        It’s kind of hard for me to summarize quickly, but a rapid best attempt: she starts with the history of AI techniques and explains how stuff like conv. neural nets work today. But the (in my view more interesting) backswing of the book focuses on all of the shortcomings with the powerful techniques today. For example, all of these powerful object recognition algorithms are vulnerable to adversarial attacks (change one pixel and you can make it think whatever you want), do a horrible job generalizing outside the training set, and tend to be way off when they’re off. Natural Language Processing is trying to brute-force Winograd Schemas using Google search result numbers to guess the correct answer, which is clearly going to hit a ceiling far belong any sort of “intelligence”.

        Over and over, we see that AI power is correlated with significant brittleness, and we see that understanding of metaphor and abstraction is critical to human thought. She also raises some interesting hints that the embodiment hypothesis might be broadly correct, and existing with a physical body that has some ability to perform micro-experiments on the world might be a key component to generating intelligence.

        Overall, it seems like a.) we’re very very far away from any sort of general machine intelligence b.) if one is created, the necessary complexity is likely to mean it loses some of the machine-like attributes it has along the way – why should we suppose an AI will still be able to add as fast as a calculator, or be able to recursively self-improve like current animal-like AIs? A pair of brain surgeons can’t take turns doing brain surgery on each other to make one another better at brain surgery, because brains are extremely complex and interconnected in ways that don’t lend themselves to a single numeric quantity of “intelligence” that can be optimized – it seems likely that any sort of machine general intelligence will necessarily acquire these same attributes in the process of becoming intelligent.

        • GearRatio says:

          I wonder how she’d respond to the idea that an AI, if limited by general competency as she thinks it might be, would still be better at talking to other computers. Like, it doesn’t have to be good at math if it can farm the problem out over wifi and get it back real fast, creating the illusion that it’s good at math.

        • broblawsky says:

          I have difficulty believing that an AI would lose the ability to do math efficiently – or perform other mathematical tasks – just because it achieved general intelligence; it could still maintain separate, non-sentient programs for mathematical tasks. I can believe that abstraction might be necessary for general intelligence, though. Do you think the book makes a good argument for that principle?

          • viVI_IViv says:

            I have difficulty believing that an AI would lose the ability to do math efficiently – or perform other mathematical tasks – just because it achieved general intelligence; it could still maintain separate, non-sentient programs for mathematical tasks.

            Indeed. An AGI would still be able to use a calculator, and in fact the calculator would be embedded in it even if it is a separate module than the “core” of the AGI, which means it could probably use it much faster and more precisely than we do. Ditto for things like databases, search engines, symbolic inference engines, and so on.

            The real issue is how to get to an AI that can use such tools.

            I can believe that abstraction might be necessary for general intelligence, though. Do you think the book makes a good argument for that principle?

            If anybody wants more references, you can start from “Deep Learning: A Critical Appraisal” by Gary Marcus, or “Theoretical Impediments to Machine Learning With Seven Sparks from the Causal Revolution” by Judea Pearl.

            If you prefer books intended for non-technical readers, then “Rebooting AI” also by Marcus and “The Book of Why” also by Pearl. I haven’t read either, but I assume they explain the same concepts in a more accessible format.

            Deep learning proponents, while rejecting Marcus’ “deep learning is over” vibe, largely agree that deep learning has indeed the issues that Marcus and Pearl identify, but they are trying to solve these issues within the framework of deep learning itself. Time will tell whether their approach is viable. You can watch this recent talk by Yoshua Bengio about what he’s working on.

        • BlindKungFuMaster says:

          All the weaknesses you describe are ultimately a result of the restricted training data that current systems are trained with. NLP-systems are trained with text, it is obvious that they will lack understanding of the world.

          Will this still hold true, when the systems reach the capacity to leverage multi-modal data including video, text, robotic interaction, etc?

          Human intelligence as measured by IQ is causally connected to brain size. Size seems to be a feature that would be really easy to optimize in a computer system.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            All the weaknesses you describe are ultimately a result of the restricted training data that current systems are trained with.

            I don’t think this is really accurate. Yes, restrictions on training data are an issue but I don’t think it’s anything like the biggest one.

            The existing neural nets have zero understanding of what they are doing. They can identify pictures of dogs, but the word dog has no meaning for them. They are simply very specialized tools.

            Imagine giving a person with a prodigious memory a very large table of numbers. Each number has a corresponding set of characters associated with it in the table. The sets of characters are frequently repeated in the table. The person is given the task of returning the appropriate set of characters when a particular number is given.

            That person could come up with some ruleset of their own devising what they would return. This would allow them to return one of the desired sets of characters even for novel numbers they had never seen before.

            No matter how many numbers they go through, they aren’t going to understand what “adjouryuinyyuibuniybuniubibibnyyin“ means. Not even if you teach them that it is equivalent to “jhboihihbihnihsihniyihttddsssyikklpikjhgsf”.

            Neural nets are like that, except they don’t have a person in them.

          • The Nybbler says:

            This is just the problem of Searle’s Chinese Room. We don’t know what “understanding” is in this sense. There’s no person inside your brain either; all it’s doing is taking electrical and chemical signals from the outside, doing something with them, and producing other electrical and chemical signals. Yet you would probably claim you “understand” what a dog is.

          • viVI_IViv says:

            Will this still hold true, when the systems reach the capacity to leverage multi-modal data including video, text, robotic interaction, etc?

            Even today you can train on videos, which include audio tracks and subtitles. Google has plenty of compute and Youtube videos to play with.

            Robotic interaction, however, is still an issue, and it’s likely going to remain an issue for a long time: you can’t interact with a physical robot faster than real-time, and you can’t cheaply run experiments with millions of robots to parallelize training. No big data, no deep learning.

          • viVI_IViv says:

            @The Nybbler

            This is just the problem of Searle’s Chinese Room. We don’t know what “understanding” is in this sense.

            We do know, however, that this is not understanding, or if it is, it is something totally alien to human understanding.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Obligatory Wittgenstein bullies nerds about language being usage. It never occurred to me until literally yesterday that “hello” doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a word you use to greet people or draw attention to yourself. Other greetings have a meaning in addition to their usefulness, like “good morning:” you’re wishing the other person has a good morning, but it also serves the same purpose as “hello.” But “hello” is just a word used to complete a task (greeting) with no understandable meaning, yet all this time it never occurred to me that I didn’t understand what “hello” meant.

          • BlindKungFuMaster says:

            Modelling video data is still quite far out of reach.

          • John Schilling says:

            It never occurred to me until literally yesterday that “hello” doesn’t mean anything.

            It is I believe derived from “hail”, in the “hailing frequencies open, captain” sense. So the original meaning is “I desire to initiate communication” – though in modern usage that is I think weakened to “I am available for communication”.

          • Lambert says:

            What I don’t get are all the ones like Servus and Ciao that are derived from ‘I am your slave’.

          • Nick says:

            @John Schilling
            You don’t have to guess, you have the Internet. It looks like it’s unrelated to hail. The etymology given is Middle English halouen “to shout in the chase,” from High German halon, holon “to fetch.” ETA: Hail by contrast seems to be from Old Norse heill “health, prosperity, good luck.”

          • HeelBearCub says:

            This is just the problem of Searle’s Chinese Room. We don’t know what “understanding” is in this sense.

            It never occurred to me until literally yesterday that “hello” doesn’t mean anything.

            I think these are both actually great examples that illustrate, rather than disprove, the point I am trying to get at.

            Understanding is emergent. It’s bottom up. Thus language is emergent from the rest of our condition. Hello means exactly what you use it to mean. We can just as easily use other words like “hey” or “yo” or apparently meaningful but not actually conjunctions like “What’s up”, “How goes”, etc. I know someone in a discord I frequent who uses “tttttttttttttttttt” to mean hello (because that is the key he has mapped to push to talk). You don’t need to understand the meaning of the word to use it. You use it and the meaning is continually emergent.

            Neural nets are top down. They start with a “meaning” that is externally defined. These meanings aren’t emergent from usage. That’s what makes them subject to adversarial attack, the actual emergent meaning is completely obscured. The adversarial attack actually reveals what the emergent meaning would be, if there was anything that was actually utilizing the true meaning that emerges from the neural net.

            And yes, the idea of seeing faces in trees is similar to the same problem, but is still shows how the sense of “face” is emergent. Two eyes, nose, mouth … that has importance to most living creatures.

          • The Nybbler says:


            Adversarial images show that machine perception is different than human perception, but I don’t think they show that machine understanding is different. Humans can make category errors where they key in on irrelevant features too.

          • Randy M says:

            Adversarial images show that machine perception is different than human perception, but I don’t think they show that machine understanding is different. Humans can make category errors where they key in on irrelevant features too.

            Perhaps we should consider the old saw about tomatoes in the fruit salad. Have the test of understanding not grouping objects according to labels given by people, but identifying a usage of objects according to features they posses. Nevermind identifying the koala correctly, which items in the picture do you put behind the bars at the zoo, which do you sell tickets to, and which do you build parking garages for?
            Of course, that’s a harder test. Reminds me of writing tests for students back in the day that would test understanding even if they had access to the book.

            That’s probably not an easier test, though.

        • Reasoner says:

          She also raises some interesting hints that the embodiment hypothesis might be broadly correct, and existing with a physical body that has some ability to perform micro-experiments on the world might be a key component to generating intelligence.

          This always seemed implausible to me… say more?

          • viVI_IViv says:

            This always seemed implausible to me… say more?

            I haven’t read this book, but as far as I understand, the embodiment hypothesis is often argued along the following lines:

            1) In order to be effective at a wide variety of tasks, an AI must have a general model of the physical world, at least at the level of the intuitive physics knowledge that humans have.

            2) In order to be useful, this model must be causal rather than purely correlational: it must allow to make predictions of the type “If I do X, then Y is likely to happen”, instead of just “If X has been observed, then Y is likely to be observed”. The difference is that in the latter case you can’t determine whether X causes Y, or Y causes X, or they are both caused by a latent cause. Most modern deep learning approaches (but not all DRL approaches) are correlational.

            3) Because of reasons (e.g. identifiability of causal Bayesian networks), in general you can’t learn the causal structure of a process by passively observing it. You need to perform interventions (or at least observe clearly marked interventions designed to eliminate all your uncertainty about the model).

            4) Therefore, the AI needs to perform experiments in the physical world in order to learn a causal model of it, or at least it needs to observe somebody performing lots of experiments carefully tailored to the uncertainty within the AI model. The latter is probably unpractical, therefore the AI need a physical body to perform its own experiments.

            A possible counter-argument is that we may know enough of the causal structure of the physical world to make accurate simulations of it, therefore the AI could experiment within a simulator, which would be faster, cheaper and safer.
            The counter-counter-argument is that we are not actually good at making accurate and general simulations of the physical world: they are limited in scope and variety and they have numerical inaccuracies which the AI can exploit to achieve non-physical regimes: e.g. if you take a standard video game physics engine, put a simple robot in it and train a DRL agent to make it walk, it will often learn to do things like abusing the joint constraint solver or ODE integrator to get free energy. You can make the simulator more stable, accurate and varied but at some point it becomes an effort like coding facts into Cyc: it doesn’t scale.

          • Reasoner says:


            it needs to observe somebody performing lots of experiments carefully tailored to the uncertainty within the AI model. The latter is probably unpractical

            Why is this considered impractical? Heck it wouldn’t even necessarily need to observe the human doing them, it could ask the human how they’d turn out.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      … that AIs current animal-like abilities have anything to do with intelligence.

      Current AI’s abilities have just as much or as little to do with intelligence as the cognitive abilities of insects or amphibians. Which may or may not be connected to the fact that current deep learning architectures have a comparable number of parameters to insect or amphibian brains.

      This doesn’t tell us whether future systems with >10, >100 or >1000 times the number of parameters will show abilities that have anything to do with intelligence.

  23. Snickering Citadel says:

    Say there’s an intelligent alien species that lives underwater. They have arms. They have evolved to live under pressure fairly deep in the ocean. They can’t swim all the way to the surface, the lack of pressure destroys some of their organs. What kind of technology would they be able to make?

    Some things that seem like it would be hard for them to make: fire, chemistry (the chemicals would float away. Maybe there are ways around this.) gunpowder, heating up metal in order to make tools, making glass, steam engines, electricity. Also some tools would rust.

    • Well... says:

      Depends what celestial body they’re on. Are there hot vents at the bottom of these oceans? Do any of these vents leak gases as well as heat? This might allow for the development of metal tools, glass, steam engines, and electricity.

      Depending on what other materials are around, they could make a sort of water gun.

      They could also use bubbles to great effect, as dolphins do. Or mud, used similarly.

      Obviously stone and shell tools are within range.

      Other technologies are possible too depending on what nature’s already endowed them with in their bodies. (E.g. bioluminescence, fine motor in dextrous limbs, etc.)

    • bullseye says:

      Their tools wouldn’t rust, because you need fire to make metal. I figure they’d be stuck in the stone age.

    • AlexOfUrals says:

      Agriculture and writing are two world-changing technologies that most likely would be available. From there, it depends on whether they can find some way to manufacture metal underwater or not. I didn’t think there’s any, but apparently Well… says it can be done under certain conditions. If they can’t do it, they are stuck in the stone age. Even if they can though, power generation still seems like an issue. Going from using domestic animals and tapping hot vents for power all the way to nuclear, without any intermediate sources, doesn’t seem impossible, but rather unlikely.

      Also, I believe there’s some theories that the ability to better extract calories from food via cooking was crucial for us to evolve big brains. If so, without fire they’ll be that much less likely to become very intelligent in the first place.

      One advantage over early humanity they’ll likely have is long-distance communications from the very beginning of civilization – they’ll be able to use sound for it, which can be generated and focused even with the most basic tools.

      • From there, it depends on whether they can find some way to manufacture metal underwater or not.

        Conceivably they could find native copper that was now underwater, or meteorites. That isn’t going to give them much metal, but could give them a little and the idea of trying to find ways of making more.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I’ve seen the notion floated that they might be able to do 3D printing with their own bodies– this adds some possibilities, though I’m not sure how far it can plausibly be taken.

      Suppose they don’t have to do it all by themselves– there’s a land-dwelling species with tech so they get some metal from sunken ships and garbage. How far can they take that? Could they use scavenged metal to eventually have their own capacity to mine and work metal?

    • James says:

      Not a direct answer to your question, but it may interest you to know that John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes is about such a species invading earth.

  24. Akrasian says:

    I’m finally going to Read The Sequences. What should I know going in? Are there important critisisms of it I should read as well?

    • Shion Arita says:

      Probably a bit of a controversial take, but a lot of the conclusions reached about A.I. in there are less well-evidenced than the rest of it.

      My relationship with Yudkowsky’s work is kind of odd in that I am almost completely on board with the things that he says, with the exception of things he says about A.I. Which is strange, because that’s his ‘main’ thing.

      • aristides says:

        AI is far from my area of expertise, so take this with a grain of salt, but my impression is that his AI writings just aged poorly. He started sequences in 2006 and was asking questions few had thought of at the time. His answers largely seem to be incorrect now, but when he wrote them, they were plausible. A lot changes in 13 years in the AI world.

        • Reasoner says:

          I agree. The frustrating part is that lots of people in the rationalist community still seem to take his writings as gospel.

          (That’s not to say you shouldn’t read the sequences, just consider Eliezer’s perspective as one probably incorrect perspective instead of the One True Perspective.)

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      Be suspicious of the individual psychology studies cited, and take careful note of whether the overall point being made depends on their validity or not. Many of them have failed to replicate, or so I understand.

      Cultivate a spirit of tolerance. Eliezer has a strong personality that some love (I do) and some hate, but either way some of his quirks can wear on you at such great length. Feel free to take breaks.

      If you read the quantum physics sequence (you don’t absolutely have to), read the original one on LessWrong. The editing job on that particular sequence in the Rationality From AI to Zombies ebook is a disaster. It deletes several chapters of arguments in favor of MWI, while leaving in all the polemics about how non-MWI believers are dumb and irrational, making Eliezer look like more of a crazy ranter than he is.

      If you’re religious, be prepared to have your faith seriously shaken, I’m not kidding about this. (But in my case this was because of the general state of mind it put me in, not because of the explicitly anti-religious arguments, which aren’t particularly interesting.)

      Be aware of the Read the Sequences website, created by Said Achmiz, which is convenient for on-the-go reading and less painful to use than LessWrong itself.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        If you’re religious, be prepared to have your faith seriously shaken, I’m not kidding about this. (But in my case this was because of the general state of mind it put me in, not because of the explicitly anti-religious arguments, which aren’t particularly interesting.)

        Your mileage may vary on this one. I’m quite religious and the Sequences didn’t particularly shake my faith at all. As noted, Yudkowsky’s anti-religion arguments aren’t especially interesting – they’re nothing that you haven’t seen before in, say, Dawkins or Hitchens.

        • The Pachyderminator says:

          What Yudkowsky offers that Dawkins and Hitchens don’t, in my experience – and it could be be that I’m very idiosyncratic in this respect – is an extremely rhetorically effective exhortation to question all of your assumptions, to dig all the way down to the roots of your beliefs and ask what rent they’re paying. It’s probably true that I was ready to do this anyway on a barely subconscious level, and reading the Sequences only catalyzed a reaction that would have taken place anyway, one way or another. But still. A sound theist cannot be too careful of the books he reads.

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          They were a decently large part of my process of deconversion; partly because I hadn’t seen Dawnins’ or Hitchens’ anti-religion arguments before I started reading the sequences. However, for a religious believer who’s already seriously considered the reasons for and justification or lack thereof of their belief in God and came out still believing, I agree that the sequences probably wouldn’t push you into atheism.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            A perverse metaphor that occurs to me: the Sequences are the Mere Christianity of rationalism.

            To be specific: insofar as you can judge apologetics empirically, by the number of converts made and the number of nominal believers whose faith was strengthened and deepened, Mere Christianity is possibly the greatest work of Christian apologetics of the twentieth century. Any critiques of it by intellectuals are, in a way, irrelevant. Eliezer’s work hasn’t reached quite such a wide audience yet, but it’s amusing to imagine a future where Eliezer is known to all as an equal and opposite C.S. Lewis. Three Worlds Collide could be the anti-Perelandra and HPMOR the anti-Narnia.

          • Skeptical Wolf says:

            But what would be the anti-Screwtape Letters?

          • AG says:

            More importantly, what is CS Lewis’s equivalent to EY’s screed against onions?

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            But what would be the anti-Screwtape Letters?

            Maybe Professor Quirrell trying to teach Harry the Dark Arts (of rationality and otherwise) in HPMOR?

          • Nornagest says:


          • quanta413 says:

            Wait, does he only mean eating onions alone or with or on top of other things?

            I’m not sure he’s serious though.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @quanta413, my read is that he thought he was serious… until his wife showed up in the comments on Facebook saying “Yes you do like onions, when I disguise them!”

            (no link because Facebook is, among other things, a memory hole.)

          • Aapje says:

            I wonder what Eliezer thinks the Dutch are signalling when they eat raw herring with diced raw onions?

          • The Nybbler says:


            “Not tonight, I had a haddock.”

            (Herring is cheaper)

          • AG says:

            To be honest, I don’t like the taste of raw onions, either. I do, however, love cooked onions cut into small pieces. A food documentary also recently alerted me to making raw onions edible via marinating in an acid. (You do need to make sure that it’s just the acid, though. Using a balsamic salad dressing didn’t work that well, because the oil would insulate the onion from the vinegar.)

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            Can confirm, a chopped raw onion marinated in vinegar is one of the core components of a great cucumber salad. The cup of sugar mixed in with the water and vinegar is definitely helping as well, though.

          • Randy M says:

            I don’t eat raw onions like an apple; they’re basically a condiment. When I was younger, I couldn’t stand them, but now they can be for me the absolute best part of a taco or nachos.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            Seconded on onions as a condiment, primarily on tacos and hot dogs. Red are ideal for this, but I’ll use white or yellow if I have them lying around.

            Also, raw white onions are a core component of the garbage plate, Rochester’s signature food.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Raw onions, thinly sliced, are also absolutely wonderful in a banh mi.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I agree with Chevalier Mal Fet; the Sequences barely shook my faith at all because I’d seen most of their arguments before. Looking back over the past eight years, I think his exhortation to question my assumptions actually strengthened my faith in the long run.

          • Nick says:

            Yeah, I was having these arguments since I was like 13. When religion came up in the Sequences, my reaction was often as not, “Is this all you’ve got, man?”

        • Jaskologist says:

          I wonder how much relies on reading the Sequences all at once (and thus being beaten by sheer force of personality) as opposed to in bits and pieces. I did bits and pieces, and so as I hit the parts on religion (maybe those are linked more often?), what mostly stuck out to me was how often he gets basic facts wrong. For somebody who was supposedly raised a devout Jew, he doesn’t seem to even know Hebrew. After seeing enough of those, it made me skeptical of the rest.

        • aristides says:

          I would say Yudkowski was easier to read than Dawkins or Hitchens, so I’ve read more of his arguments then those two combined. It probably helps that Yudkowski doesn’t specify talk about religion, he attacks all prior beliefs roughly equally. His values are so far removed from my own that even though my faith was shaken, it stood firm in the end. Very good to read to cultivate a little empathy towards atheists.

          • Reasoner says:

            I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to have read a lot of a particular author and can’t spell their last name 🙂

          • Aapje says:

            Technically he didn’t claim to have read a lot by Yudkowsky, merely twice as much as from the other named authors. Two times a little can still be a little.

          • Dacyn says:

            @aristides: I’m not sure what you mean by “Yudkowsk[y] doesn’t specif[icall]y talk about religion”, he often uses religion as a go-to example. It’s true that in these cases he generally doesn’t really attempt to make a strong case against religion, since his focus lies elsewhere.

      • Two McMillion says:

        If you’re religious, be prepared to have your faith seriously shaken, I’m not kidding about this. (But in my case this was because of the general state of mind it put me in, not because of the explicitly anti-religious arguments, which aren’t particularly interesting.)

        The Sequences increased my faith. I found myself reading large chunks of them, nodding in agreement, and then coming to the part where he says, “And therefore Christianity is false” and thinking to myself, “Are you crazy? It’s the exact opposite; it means Christianity is right!”

        This is a common experience for me upon reading Atheistic bloggers.

        • woah77 says:

          I relate to this greatly. There have been many times where I read something to the effect of “And we need to be more charitable to our opponents and adversaries. Therefore we should renounce religion and attempt to model more ethical behavior.” And I nod along until renouncing religion and go “Wait what? This is exactly what my faith preaches. If anything this means religion is a better model for ethical behavior.”

          I get that accepting an entity beyond one’s comprehension is hard, but even ol’ lobster man got that there are exceptional pro-social effects from religion.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            I get that accepting an entity beyond one’s comprehension is hard, but even ol’ lobster man got that there are exceptional pro-social effects from religion.

            I dislike the implication that atheists simply find it hard to “accept” God. I accept the validity of relativity and quantum physics* despite the math being fairly “beyond my comprehension” and the interpretations counterintuitive. The issue with God is that the universe just doesn’t look like what I think it would look like if He were real and not just a prosocial fable. As I elaborated on in a previous OT, useful != true.

            ETA: However I’m totally with you on charity toward your opponents being a good thing, whether you’re hearing that advice from a 2000-year-old book or an eccentric dude from Silicon Valley.

            *within the ranges they return sensible values, provisionally until someone develops a Theory of Everything that unifies them and works on black holes

          • quanta413 says:

            I get that accepting an entity beyond one’s comprehension is hard, but even ol’ lobster man got that there are exceptional pro-social effects from religion.

            Faith in God is fundamentally different. Having once believed in God but now not believing, I can tell you that’s really not the issue for me.

            I agree there are obvious pro-social effects though for most religions. Not always a good sort of pro-social (i.e. the ingroup bias can be severe enough that it’s a net loss in some cases), but pro-social nonetheless.

          • woah77 says:

            (i.e. the ingroup bias can be severe enough that it’s a net loss in some cases)

            Ingroup Bias can only be a net loss if your society isn’t homogeneous. As was pointed out in the X-risk thread by An Firinne, diversity for its own sake isn’t actually a good thing. A strong ingroup bias can easily out weigh the loss if the group is sufficiently large.

            I dislike the implication that atheists simply find it hard to “accept” God.

            I meant no disrespect. I just often encounter God portrayed as a caricature “magic man in the clouds”, which not only fails to capture how he is portrayed, but also what the descriptions of him contain.

            I have often found many atheists I have interacted with regard all religions/faiths as detrimental to society, completely ignoring the historical significance of how religion also kept an international society from completely falling apart for most of the last 1000 years. Given, the last 100 years have seen an incredibly unprecedented rise in secularism, the trend of religion being crucial for maintaining society should not be so quickly cast aside.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:


            I just often encounter God portrayed as a caricature “magic man in the clouds”, which not only fails to capture how he is portrayed, but also what the descriptions of him contain.

            I was a practicing Catholic for the first half of my life, so I’m quite familiar with what the descriptions of Him contain. I’ll admit I haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover, but if prompted I could probably paraphrase most of the main Gospel stories told in the Liturgy of the Word.

            I have often found many atheists I have interacted with regard all religions/faiths as detrimental to society, completely ignoring the historical significance of how religion also kept an international society from completely falling apart for most of the last 1000 years.

            Are you arguing that religion is true, or simply useful? The latter does not imply the former. If you want to argue the utility of religion: I have no evidence as to whether an alternate history without religion would have produced a better or worse society than the one we live in today. Therefore I go with my prior that believing things that aren’t true is usually detrimental. If you’re trying to argue the truth of religion, then bringing up its supposed utility does little to convince me. An analogy from upthread: The Bohr model is useful for teaching some basic concepts of quantum physics to students. For sake of argument, let’s assume it’s the best way to teach it to high school students. That still doesn’t mean that planet-like electrons are actually orbiting the nucleus at fixed distances!

      • Viliam says:

        If you’re religious, be prepared to have your faith seriously shaken, I’m not kidding about this. (But in my case this was because of the general state of mind it put me in, not because of the explicitly anti-religious arguments, which aren’t particularly interesting.)

        Seems to me that the imporant part is the emphasis on Reductionism. Like, instead of debating whether god exist, just tell me what it is made of.

        Now obviously anything composed of smaller particles already feels somewhat un-godlike. I mean, if you assume some kind of “spiritual atoms” making “spiritual molecules” out of which a “spiritual organism” can be composed… well, it seems like the only difference from the usual stuff is adding a weird adjective in front of it. It is basically an alien built from dark matter, not what modern people imagine as a god.

        On the other hand, a vague homogenous mysterious substance, that also magically happens to think and feel and act, without being composed of any internal parts… well, if you have read and understood the “mysterious answers to mysterious questions”, you are already inocculated against this way of thinking.

    • nano says:

      Yes, mainly that the author is an obviously smart guy who should never be used as a style guide, or perhaps be used as an anti-style guide if possible

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      I think A Human’s Guide to Words is one of the best sequences; it majorly refined the way I think about language and doesn’t rely on any outdated psychology studies or niche beliefs about AI. Essentially, it’s an explanation of how people actually use language that all seems obviously correct in hindsight, but still novel and interesting.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I have two of my own, never before published. Here’s the first, which is epistemological.

      Consider our faculty of sight. It works pretty well within the range it’s designed for. But we know it has some edge cases it can’t handle. If you look at a stick in a glass of water, it you will wrongly see it as being broken. You don’t get around that by squinting harder, you get around it by using your other faculties to feel it, manipulate it, and reason about the stick, finally concluding that sight simply doesn’t give accurate information in cases like this.

      The Sequences (correctly) identify our faculty of reason as a flawed, evolved system. They then propose to solve this by squinting harder. They continue to rely on the assumption of Reason as this transcendental insight into Universal Truth which can do everything, but they have no justification for doing so, and considerable reason not to. Your ability to reason is a system which evolved for a specific set of problems, just as your eye evolved for a specific part of the EM frequency, your feelings evolved to help you survive in certain ways, and cultural norms evolved to help the group survive. None of these can be expected to work outside of the original environment.

      You could as easily (and I think more reasonably) take all the Sequences about the bugs in our reasoning module and conclude that we need to balance our use of Reason with the other faculties at our disposal, as we would with the stick in the water. You could adopt other metaphysics that justify Reason as a sensory organ that detects Platonic Truth (note that people like Aquinas could do this in their system, and were probably tempted to, but still didn’t). I don’t think Rationalism justifies the decisions to just throw more Reason at the problem until it’s solved; I think instead that Yudkowsky was a very smart child who was smarter than everybody around them, so that’s the world he’s comfortable playing in.

      • Nick says:

        If you look at a stick in a glass of water, it you will wrongly see it as being broken. You don’t get around that by squinting harder, you get around it by using your other faculties to feel it, manipulate it, and reason about the stick, finally concluding that sight simply doesn’t give accurate information in cases like this.

        I actually had an argument once on SSC about the stick in water example, using the analogy in the same way. Frustrating argument.

      • hls2003 says:

        This also seems somewhat related to Plantinga’s line of argument in Warrant and Proper Function.

      • Dacyn says:

        I think the word “Reason” is being a little sneaky here. I take EY’s answer to the issues you gesture at is best encapsulated in “Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom“, where he says:

        Here’s how I treat this problem myself: I try to approach questions like “Should I trust my brain?” or “Should I trust Occam’s Razor?” as though they were nothing special—or at least, nothing special as deep questions go.

        So, EY’s epistemology is fundamentally based on reasoning “not in a special way”. Notice that “I should trust my brain” and “I should trust Occam’s Razor” cannot possibly be theorems of logic, for there are no premises to derive them from. Instead he must be saying essentially that they appeal intuitively to him (if he thinks about it “not in a special way”) and that is why he believes them.

        I think for EY “reasoning” basically means “the stuff that goes into an epistemology”. Now you want to talk about “Reason” as some abstract force which would only be part of this stuff. I do not see what distinction you are drawing. The logic/intuition dichotomy is a common one but it seems to be not what you mean here.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        You could as easily (and I think more reasonably) take all the Sequences about the bugs in our reasoning module and conclude that we need to balance our use of Reason with the other faculties at our disposal, as we would with the stick in the water.

        I don’t think I understand this. What do we have besides reason? I mean, obviously we have feelings and intuitions and values and desires – but the Sequences don’t recommend ignoring any of those, and we need reason to guide us in using them.

        • woah77 says:

          We have Reality. Reason has errors (due to predictive models and prescriptive models assigning significance where none should exist). You need to compare your Reason against Reality to validate it.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            Well…yes. But that’s the whole point of the Sequences. Repeating it is hardly a critique of them.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I’m definitely not claiming to have an answer; this is a big, ongoing topic in philosophy. I am however, fond of the Anglicans’ formulation of a three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, which all uphold and critique each other.*

          I agree with Yud that our reasoning faculties are flawed; that’s why I find it so disappointing that his solution is to pile the Reason higher, which I believe just multiplies the errors. This is a problem we encounter in all kinds of areas, and our usual fix is to balance one imperfect system with another, letting the strengths of one fill in where the other is weak. I don’t think Yud succeeds in establishing why his solution succeeds in working around the flaws he describes, or even demonstrates that he really understands the deeper problem.

          * An aside: “Scripture” can be more broadly understood as “Divine Revelation.” The men who “invented” science were using a model very much like this. They saw Scripture as one book written by God, and Creation as another. So they essentially decided to apply the same model to the physical world, using a triad of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. The success of the Scientific model so far is a testament to the robustness of this approach.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            EDIT: It occurs to me that the “culture war-free” open thread might not be the best place for my passionate takedown of Christianity. Relocating my thoughts to a top-level post in the new hidden OT.

          • Dacyn says:

            Sorry I didn’t see this until now. I think my response is not as CW as u/thevoiceofthevoid’s so I will post it here.

            Scripture and tradition are only useful sources of information to the extent that they are trustworthy. But that means they can’t be used to evaluate their own trustworthiness. As I explained above, EY’s solution to analyze such fundamental and potentially circular questions is to proceed as though they are “nothing special” — basically use intuition, together with tools we have developed so far (like Occam’s razor which we already accepted based on intuition).

            I know Mormons advise potential converts to read their scriptures and then see if they feel a “burning in their soul” or something like that (don’t remember exact phrasing). From that perspective, one might be disappointed that EY did not experience such a thing, and therefore does not place scripture on the same fundamental epistemological level as Occam’s razor which intuitively appeals to him.

            But I know most Christians think Mormons are weird, so I’m not exactly sure what else you wanted to happen here. Maybe you want strong social pressures to cause people to treat scripture and tradition as fundamental to their epistemology?

            I do agree that EY appears to have a tendency to distance himself from others in the process of forming his beliefs, which is perhaps not wholly healthy. (I would say that you should only distance yourself from others when the others turn out to be wrong, as in the case of religion 😛 )

      • thevoiceofthevoid says:

        They continue to rely on the assumption of Reason as this transcendental insight into Universal Truth which can do everything…. You could adopt other metaphysics that justify Reason as a sensory organ that detects Platonic Truth (note that people like Aquinas could do this in their system, and were probably tempted to, but still didn’t). I don’t think Rationalism justifies the decisions to just throw more Reason at the problem until it’s solved…

        I feel like you’re talking about the kind of “Reason” that Yudkowsky explicitly disavows–the “sit in your armchair with the blinds closed and try to think up profound Platonic Truths about the universe” variety. Instead, he very clearly advocates the “Actually go outside and look at the thing you’re trying to reason about, from multiple angles if possible” brand of reasoning. Which…seems like a pretty good way of figuring stuff out to me.

        You could as easily (and I think more reasonably) take all the Sequences about the bugs in our reasoning module and conclude that we need to balance our use of Reason with the other faculties at our disposal, as we would with the stick in the water.

        What particular “other faculties at our disposal” do you think we ought to use, and when and why do you think they’re better than Reason at determining the state of reality?

        • HeelBearCub says:

          I feel like you’re talking about the kind of “Reason” that Yudkowsky explicitly disavows–the “sit in your armchair with the blinds closed and try to think up profound Platonic Truths about the universe” variety.


          I’m not sure about blinds closed, but he does an awful lot of “If you just know HOW to think the secrets of the universe will unfold before you” opining. It’s consistent enough that I encountered it very early on in my forays into the sequences. Near future adolescent student old super rationalists who can correctly divine the proper answers to fundamental physics problems just by thinking really hard about them. Immediate guesses about what kind of tree is outside a random persons window (I don’t think that’s actually in the sequences). Stuff like that.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            Near future adolescent student old super rationalists who can correctly divine the proper answers to fundamental physics problems just by thinking really hard about them.

            I remembered that story, I had a similar “yeah right” reaction to it on first read. Just looked it up again, the two posts are The Failures of Eld Science and Class Project. Though I definitely agree that solving quantum gravity in a month is…implausible, it’s somewhat justified. First off, it’s a fictional parable, probably not intended to be taken completely literally. If Eliezer thought quantum gravity could be solved in a month I’m sure he’d have spent a month at some point trying to solve it. (Well, maybe he did but was unsuccessful. Or just decided it was less important than AI alignment and Harry Potter fanfiction.) Specifically, it’s set in a universe where a theory of quantum gravity is implied to have been found based off the experimental results available today. The students were trained in relativity and QM, and presumably had access to that modern experimental data.

            Second, Einstein actually did revolutionize physics over a short time by thinking really hard about it, so it isn’t entirely unprecedented. It’s implied that the students were trained “to bring order out of scientific chaos” by solving open problems rather than just manipulating existing knowledge, whereas the scientists of Eld were not. Whether such training would actually be effective at turning teens into Einsteins…that’s a matter of debate.

            Immediate guesses about what kind of tree is outside a random persons window (I don’t think that’s actually in the sequences).

            I have no idea what you’re talking about, and don’t remember reading anything like it? So I can’t really respond to that.

            I don’t deny the general trend of “Thinking rationally will do everything short of literally giving you superpowers.” Actually, now that I say it I feel like he’s definitely referred to rationality as a “superpower” at some point. But I do think he’s consistently in support of making sure your reasoning is in line with reality.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m not sure about blinds closed, but he does an awful lot of “If you just know HOW to think the secrets of the universe will unfold before you” opining.

            Yeah, this. I don’t recall whether it’s original to Yudkowsky, but I encountered early and often the meme that a superduperintelligent AI would be able to deduce all the laws of physics from three frames of video. Maybe not literally closed blinds, but barely peeking through the corner.

          • Randy M says:

            There’s a little bit of a difference between the notion that a super intelligence can deduce great truths with mere rationality and a couple obvious axioms, and the idea that a properly trained human mind can do something similar.
            Having said that, I believe neither.

          • Dacyn says:

            @HeelBearCub: By “Immediate guesses about what kind of tree is outside a random person[‘]s window” I think you are referring to this. But the point is not that you can solve the problem without looking at the tree, but that your reason does not completely shut down in face of it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this message.

            @John Schilling: It is a Sequences post. Like Randy M, I’m skeptical of the argument in that post, but think that claiming something would be true for an AGI is different from claiming it would be true for a human, since we’ve never seen an AGI. So, like Shion Arita above, my advice would be to read the Sequences but be skeptical of the AI parts.

          • Rowan says:

            You say “I’m not sure about blinds closed, but…”, but it seems to me that that makes all the difference. Zero times anything is zero, 0.01 times anything can be anything; it might be overly ambitious or optimistic, but even at worst it’s a different class of error than a proponent of pure armchair reasoning is making.

        • Dan L says:

          It’s not quite a steelman because I actually believe it, but I’d argue that a sufficiently-reinforced version of the argument Yudkowsky’s CEV is making is basically Reichenbach’s vindication of induction: the “Reason” in question is not guaranteed to be justified, but it is guaranteed to do at least as well as the best possible alternative: and this all call “good enough”.

    • strangepoop says:

      Speaking personally:

      Eliezer has probably thought of the first few counterarguments you come up with even when it seems like he’s obviously missing an important point.

      I’ve wasted a lot of time that way, especially given all the criticism that’s available. For the metaethics sequences especially, I thought it was making very clear errors in several places, but after the fifth reread and lots of interaction (I wish there was a lesswrong stackoverflow) I realized I failed to understand a subtle point because I read out of order or because I missed a few key lines or certain statements were under emphasized or I had a problem with the tone etc.

      I think it might be useful to make a list of common points of tension, where the tendency is not just to be confused by, but reject the argument entirely—every one of which I’ve come around to the LW side eventually (which might sound like a bad sign, but it’s interesting that the arguments are very specific and inside-view), some random examples:

      Allais paradox: I’m very glad the community took forever to get behind this (there are 3 articles and you can see Eliezer a little frustrated at the end, but the exhausted boldface there was very helpful), it certainly took me several tries.

      Torture vs Dust specks: this is one that I swallowed quickly because I was already leaning that way, then I read some very interesting rejoinders in the comments which had some very clean refutals themselves, and while lately I’m slightly skeptical, the claims as made stand.

      Quantum and Many Worlds: since I had some background this one was easier. In some quantum thermodynamics experiments for example, any Maxwell’s demons that are modeled are automatically sneakily assumed to be MWI-ish; I remember students’ confusions where the demon’s brain entangled with a state of the world elicited a “but don’t you have to perform the measurement, cause a collapse, to count as knowledge” objection.

      Newcomb’s paradox: Newcomb caused much emotional thrashing, starting from “obviously two box” to “isn’t even consistent” to “obviously one box” to “depends on how you define it” to “irrelevant magic crap” to “Newcomb will slay Moloch” to “Newcomb might solve ethics” to “Newcomb’s at least provides useful insights in interactions between intelligent things”. Reading Drescher’s Good and Real helped a lot, especially all the variations.

      Functionalism/Zombies/Reductionism: I’ve vacillated a lot because this is close to the Hard Problem, but only between 90% and 99% credence in the major claims. It helped that I’d been exposed to these ideas before.

      Free Will dissolved: didn’t make sense until I read it in order with a fresh mind. Always seemed like it was falling short of its claims even if useful.

      Words: hard to disagree here, and yet like many others (including Scott) this was one of the most useful reads, and in hindsight, especially relevant to metaethics.

      Metaethics: a bunch of separate claims that I’m too lazy to go into but this was the most helpful for me (and hardest to understand, some bits are still confusing), because it addressed common patterns Traditional Rationalists fall into, possibly because of “too much” atheism—some version of nihilism or non-cognitivism. Weirdly, properly studying logic helped to keep levels separate, as Eliezer recommends.

  25. bzium says:

    Would it be correct to say that the biblical Eve was ur-mom?

    • Eric Rall says:

      I don’t think so: Eve predated the founding of the city of Ur by several generations. I’m not sure exactly where the dawn of Sumerian civilization lies in the Genesis chronology, but I’d expect it to be after the Great Flood (Noah was 9 generations down from Adam and Eve) but before the Tower of Babel (Nimrod was Noah’s great-grandson).

      • HeelBearCub says:


        Just not sure how many heads it went over.

        If IQ is genetic, I guess ur-mom wasn’t too bright either…

        • Sanchez says:

          It looks like Eric got the joke, as he is responding to bzium with a joke of his own.

        • Randy M says:

          If IQ is genetic, I guess ur-mom wasn’t too bright either…

          Ur-mom’s so dumb she got tricked by a snake.
          Ur-mom’s so gluttonous, she never saw an apple she wouldn’t eat.
          Ur-mom’s so hairy, when Ur-dad saw her, he said “whoa, man!”

          • Aftagley says:

            “Let’s move ur-mom out of the wind,” tom said evenly.

          • Aapje says:

            Ur-mom was so high-maintenance, she cost Ur-dad a rib out of his body*.

            * In Dutch, this is a saying that is equivalent to saying (something cost someone) “an arm and a leg”.

  26. Ouroborobot says:

    I have an office politics / career dilemma. I work on a 4 person data engineering team, within a larger analytics department. I’m both the youngest and newest team member, though I have the most formal education and experience in the field. About a month ago I was promoted to senior over my coworkers after making my case for a promotion and letting my boss know I felt undervalued. While a little awkward, everyone took this in stride since they know I’ve taken the lead on overall architecture, solve the toughest problems, mentor the whole department, and generally do awesome work.

    Flash forward to this week. Our director announces another promotion, and to my shock it’s the team member whose work is by far the worst. He’s a fine coworker, and usually “gets things done” from the customer perspective, but I always have to police his work for antipatterns, cargo cult nonsense, and lack of basic standards. I know this is going to be terrible for morale. I feel insulted, because it makes it seem like all the effort and stress I put in is pointless if someone can earn the same thing yet work at a much lower standard. It totally nuked my motivation. My other teammates will rightly be super upset, as both do better work, and one is also a great leader and organizer himself. I believe this misstep happened because both my boss and his boss are basically “people managers” who aren’t technically skilled and can’t tell good work from bad, and this coworker has been working on a death march project for some time that for political reasons has been pumped up as a success. I want to tell my boss he just made a colossal misstep, and I’m concerned we’re going to lose people over this. Should I say something? Keep my mouth shut? Is my perspective unrealistic? I’m leaning toward just shutting up since the ship has sailed, but I’m weirdly bothered by this.

    • Wency says:

      I don’t know how it helps you to say anything. It sounds like they haven’t solicited your input (or anyone else’s); if they wanted to know what you thought, they’d ask. And there’s no way they can walk back their decision now. So best case, they ignore you, worst case they consider this to be ungrateful insubordination and it also leaks to your co-worker that you’re undermining him.

      If you think your work experience is headed downhill for the foreseeable future, maybe start leveraging your promotion to look for a new job.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Assuming everything you are saying is correct and represents the entirety of the story, then you should probably be putting together your resume. You may not fit the culture and it may not fit you. You may not know how to read the political landscape in that environment, and that can mean long term unhappiness. Plus, the boss can’t read their team (again, if what you say is true).

      Potential mitigating factor, if this is an “up or out” style firm, and the person promoted was long in the tooth at the Jr. Level, it may just represent that they have paid their dues. But then, you shouldn’t be surprised by this, so the first paragraph still applies.

      Second mitigating factor is the possibility that you aren’t nearly as good at being in a position of leadership as you think you are, and actually have no idea what positive factors lead to this person’s promotion.

      What you do not do is go tell your boss, unbidden, that their promotion decision was a bad one. What you do is very much based on how accurately you have a handle on how your boss likes to do things. There are many possibilities here, and what path you take very much depends on who they are, and how good the relationship between you is.

      • Ouroborobot says:

        Thanks, I guess my biggest concern is whether this will ultimately break up the team. I’m more concerned one of the other guys will quit and would probably approach it by mentioning concerns about morale. I will very likely go with the overwhelming concensus to say nothing, however. It does hurt my own motivation to keep going above and beyond, but I do feel like my value is recognized and like my job. I also have no illusions of being a great people person – I would say I’m a leader in a technical sense only.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          It does hurt my own motivation to keep going above and beyond

          1) Welcome to life. Don’t expect your employer to be fair or the world to be just. That isn’t how things work. However, the biggest mistake you could make would be to get too cynical. That will hurt you more in the long run. The way I tend to think of it is “Everyone owns their own business, they just don’t know it.” Once you realize that you own your own corporation, and that you decide every day whether you want to deliver your product based on the agreed terms (or potentially fold the business) it increases your sense of autonomy.

          2) If you really want to improve this situation for your self, try understand the motivations of your boss first. What were their reasons for their decision? How can you use that information to maintain or increase the value of your team’s product? If you can help the boss work to head off a morale problem that impacts productivity, that should be something they appreciate. Again, a realistic assessment of your boss and your relationship to your boss is extremely helpful.

          3) Always remember that ultimately, somewhere, this is a sales problem. If no sale is made, no one gets paid. And usually the best way to make sales is to make happy customers (within limits).

      • Deiseach says:

        Yeah, I don’t know. To me it sounds like there are two different reasons for the promotions: one is Ouroborobot, who got promoted on the “can make the clickety-boom-bang things go clickety-boom-bang” and the other is the co-worker who got promoted for the “can schmooze the customers” reasons.

        Ouroborotbot can’t schmooze the customers and co-worker can’t make the clickety-boom-bang, but you need both types for different roles. If the roles are the same, and it is important to make the clickety-boom-bang happen in those roles, then it could well be simple incompetence/lack of technical skills.

        But if he’s saying that both his boss and his boss’s boss are “people managers” not engineers, that sounds like people managing is important, and that could be why after a technical promotion there’s a non-technical promotion.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          The other possibility is that the person who got promoted is great at making the thing go “clickety-boom-bang”, but our robotic friend doesn’t realize that this is more important than elegant or proper design. I’ve seen both.

        • Ouroborobot says:

          Believe it or not I’m actually good at the clickety-boom-bang and also one of the best at working with and understanding customer needs. The coworker who was promoted isn’t known for being particularly good at either. As best I can figure after another day of reflection, he got promoted purely on tenure. In conjunction with my promotion it sends two different messages about how to get ahead, but I guess that’s fine I suppose.

    • Say nothing. Your bosses know that they can’t judge the technical skill of their employees. They’ve decided to make decisions despite that. They’re not going to change their minds based on anything you say. Let them live with the consequences. If you’re still angry, I would suggest writing an anonymous letter to the higher-ups at the company explaining the situation.

      • brad says:

        > If you’re still angry, I would suggest writing an anonymous letter to the higher-ups at the company explaining the situation.

        Agree with the rest, but this is a bad idea. If you want to go out in a blaze of glory, sign the letter. If you want to stick around, skip the letter. An anonymous letter has no upside and considerable risk.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Agreed, if you must write the letter, write it at home. On paper. Then burn it unsent.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Does being a “senior” actually mean anything? I’ve worked in several roles where “senior” doesn’t mean anything more than “you are somewhat competent and you have been here for awhile.” That you weren’t even asked for input prior to this promotion being handed out indicates, to me, that this more a payscale bump than an actual responsibility boost.

      I also don’t know your work structure, but senior analyst does not mean that management really wants your opinion on these kinds of things. It’s also way too late to do anything about it. There’s basically no value in lodging an objection.

      • Ouroborobot says:

        I guess part of what bothers me about this is that at this company it’s supposed to, in theory. I’ve certainly worked at a few other places where it was purely longevity-based.

    • Eric Rall says:

      If you don’t start looking for a new job as others have suggested, take a good hard look at what you can do to increase your perceived value to your non-technical boss and grandboss. A lot of this will depend on their particular personalities and management styles, so you’ll have to pay attention to what they say and do to pick it out, but here’s some general tips that tend to work most places:

      1. Volunteer for tasks and projects that are perceived to be both difficult and important by the higher-ups, but which you are confident of your ability to handle.

      2. Keep your boss regularly appraised of what you’ve accomplished, what you have still left to do, and what challenges you’re facing or anticipating. When in doubt, err in favor of underpromising and overdelivering. This helps your managers understand what you’re doing, and it helps them do their own jobs better (since they’re now in a position to better explain to their bosses where the project is and what the risks are).

      3. Quantify the business value of what you’re doing as best you can, and present data visually (charts and graphs) whenever practical. “Refactored this piece of code to be more memory efficient” is an explanation only other technical people will appreciate, and is vague to the point of meaninglessness even then. A much better explanation would be something like “Reduced memory usage by 12%, allowing us to handle more customers without buying more hardware”, combined with graphs of memory usage vs number of customers before and after your change.

      4. Pay attention to what your boss and grandboss panic over. If the same kind of problem keeps coming up repeatedly and being treated as urgent, try to think of a technical solution to make it easier to fix or less likely to happen. They’re probably getting heat from the higher-ups for these problems recurring, and if you can hand them a solution they didn’t think to ask for (and it works), they’ll have absolutely no problem understanding the value of your work.

    • blipnickels says:

      Have you considered the possibility that you’re wrong? Could you learn something here?

      Did this guy know the project would be politically important? I mean, the customers like him, the managers need to like him, it seems likely he knew the project would be important. Did you know beforehand? If so, why weren’t you working on that project?

      You seem very confident in your technical skills. Are you sure those are the only, or even most important, skills for your position? I mean, if this is really as bad for morale as you say and could lead to 1-2 people leaving the team, your ability to safely and effectively communicate this to your boss is WAY more important than any technical decision you make this year. But you don’t seem confident in either whether you should communicate this or in your ability to do so effectively.

      Could you just ask your boss the following: “Hey, I know X got promoted recently. It kind of surprised me because his code isn’t the best. I’m not disagreeing, I just figure you’re seeing something that I’m not and I’d like to learn what that is”.

      I’m not saying to do that but I’m not saying not to. Specifics will depend on your relationship with your manager.

    • Ouroborobot says:

      Thanks to everyone who replied! I think I’ll be keeping my mouth shut and seeing what happens and how I feel about this after cooling off for a while.

    • aristides says:

      I work HR, so I’ll tell you what I’ve heard hiring managers look for in promotions. There are 2 main types of promotions, there are to supervisor roles or to retain valuable talent with a raise. If it is to a supervisory role, technical ability is the least important factor. I have seen countless times great technical workers that can’t cut it as a supervisor. Often they endlessly criticize others work, and then do more of it themselves rather than lead others to do better. Is the promotion is to a supervisor, you are evaluating the wrong qualities. If it’s not, than you might be right that it was a bad decision. It’s possible they are grooming him for future leadership, but in general, it sounds like a bad move.

      • acymetric says:

        I have seen countless times great technical workers that can’t cut it as a supervisor.

        I think this is true often enough that it can just be assumed in most cases without strong evidence to the contrary. I think it is especially true for technical people, but is pretty true basically everywhere. The best welder isn’t necessarily the guy you want to be the team leader on the floor, either.

        • EchoChaos says:

          is pretty true basically everywhere.

          The short of it is that leadership is a skill and that skill is weakly correlated with other skills at best.

          It’s also often easier to train a leader in technical skills than it is to train someone with technical skills in leadership.

          • acymetric says:

            You might just file this under “leadership” but ability to communicate with other departments/other managers is a big part of it. We’ve all witnessed technical people (programmers, engineers, probably others) launch into long winded technical explanations in response to a question where a short, simple, very non-technical answer is needed.

    • Skeptical Wolf says:

      There’s a lot of “your boss is probably right, they’re probably better than you think they are” going on in this thread. I recommend being very skeptical of this perspective. Managers promoting people who are not the best contributors on a team is very common and “because the manager sees something uniquely beneficial that the other people on the team all miss” is a much rarer reason for this than “because politics”. It’s worth double checking your perceptions and making sure they’re still accurate, but “boss knows best” should absolutely not be your prior in situations like these.

      The good news is that teams learn to route around damage like that, particularly in cases like you’ve described where the newly promoted person was already a member of the team. Teams rarely change how they interact with peers just because a job title changed.

      The best thing for you to do right now is support the team members who didn’t get the promotion. Thank them for their contributions in team meetings, tell the boss about good things they’re doing, etc. This does not mean undercutting the newly promoted member – that’s the last thing you should do. The promotion decision has been made and isn’t going to be walked back. You need your boss to see you as the “team player” here, and complaining about another person’s promotion will seriously damage that perception.

      Also, polish up your resume. If this goes badly, there are multiple ways that the team could transform into one you don’t want to be on (by the other people leaving, or by the political conflict escalating). Those transformations tend to self-reinforce, so if things start going seriously in that direction your best choice is to bail out to a better company. Cultivate the team members you like as potential references for this purpose.

  27. helloo says:

    Non-Euclidean is used as a somewhat non-descript Lovecraftian themed adjective that typically means ominous and vaguely wrong.

    But non-Euclidean can also describe a mathematical concept, very briefly summarized as geometry not on a flat plane(s).
    And if we loosen that to simply appearing to have straight lines that aren’t …well straight, then we can see some examples of this.

    One of the more famous examples is the Parthenon at Athens, though could be described as “super-Euclidean” or reverse optical illusion, where distortions and non-straight architecture were used to make it even “flatter” than it would have been.

    There’s numerous optical illusions that do this to some extent or another, though I’m only really aware of this done on a building level is the Australian Customs Service building
    Another “example” I had thought when writing this, is not in architecture at all, but in a shounen battle manga of all places, where some henchmen wore patterned uniforms that made them hard to discern and focus on for both the reader and presumably the protagonist.

    Assuming that this can be done not just with optical illusions and perspective tricks but through breaking of reality and minds, does it somewhat match/refine or vigorous disagree with what you think of the term Non-Euclidean?
    What are some other examples that come to mind?

    • beleester says:

      When non-Euclidian is used as a Lovecraftian descriptor, I’m typically picturing places that are bigger on the inside than the outside, corridors that loop around in impossible ways, lines where you get a different length every time you measure them, that sort of thing. A building where you can’t draw a map of it because you’d need to draw the map on a torus, or a mobius strip, or something weirder.

      “It hurts to look at” or “the lines look wibbly-wobbly” doesn’t necessarily mean non-Euclidean to me, especially if it’s hurting your eyes for a perfectly ordinary reason like the offset black and white on the Australian building. I would use a different Lovecraftian adjective – twisted, or unsettling, or horrifying, or something like that.

      That said, I can think of a few optical illusions that qualify. The Escher staircase is proper non-Euclidean architecture – if your hidden temple has that, you’re definitely doing something terrible to space-time.

    • Lambert says:

      There’s some noneuclidean games and game engines out there, if you want to see what it’s like.
      Rogelike on the hyperbolic plane
      Piecewise euclidean engine/demo

      • johan_larson says:

        If top wraps around with bottom and left wraps around with right, you’re playing on a torus. People have been doing that since at least Asteroids, and possibly some versions of Spacewar.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Yes, the original Spacewar was toroidal space. And Einstein would note that even if it weren’t toroidal, it wasn’t flat because it had gravity.

          • Dacyn says:

            I mean, Newtonian mechanics also has “gravity”, which is at least as similar to real gravity as game mechanics. And Newtonian space is Euclidean.

        • Lambert says:

          Topologically, it’s non-euclidean but it is, at all points (except maybe the corners?) locally euclidean.

          I think a distinction needs to be made between nonsimply connected manifolds (maybe I actually mean noncontractible spaces. IANAT), locally noneuclidean manifolds and spaces with singularities.

          Asteroids is in the first category, the hyperbolic roguelike in the second (ok, it’s discrete so you can argue about how meaningful the term ‘local’ is) and CodeParade’s world and Portal are in the third.
          Note that Portal leaves its singularities ‘naked’, doing nothing more than add a orange or blue colour while CodeParade hides his in archways and especially the pillar in the room with the Stanford Bunny.

          • Kindly says:

            The description “locally noneuclidean manifolds” doesn’t make sense. A manifold is by definition something that is locally Euclidean. Maybe you want to say something about curvature?

          • Lambert says:

            A manifold is locally *homeomorphic* to Euclidean space. It can still be curved or nondifferentiable or whatever.

            What I’m trying to say is that there’s a difference between environments that are only topologically weird and ones that are geometrically weird.

            In terms of gameplay this translates to whether the funkyness of the space changes how you move around or only how you navigate longer distances.

            Like how on an asteroids-esque torus world, you still move around as if you were on the Euclidean plane, but you know the opposite edges of the map are connected.

          • Dacyn says:

            For the record, a sphere is probably the easiest example of a simply connected manifold that isn’t contractible.

    • John Schilling says:

      What are some other examples that come to mind?

      Heinlein’s “And He Built a Crooked House”. And the TARDIS, obviously.

      More generally, I’m with beleester. Lovecraftian “non-Euclidean” architecture means literally non-Euclidean; something that physically can’t exist in three Cartesian dimensions, and can’t exist on a human scale in the weakly-curved space-time we actually live in. Merely unsettling optical illusions need not apply, and there had better be no real-world examples for me to point to.

      • Dacyn says:

        Well, mathematicians would call four-dimensional space Euclidean and a sphere non-Euclidean, despite the fact that the former can’t exist in Euclidean 3-space and the latter can. Though I can see a motivation for your definition as well.

  28. theredsheep says:

    This is just a PSA for all you effective-altruism types (and anyone else, really) to consider donating platelets. It’s not something I was familiar with myself until recently, but platelets are in very high demand, and have a very short shelf life (five days, per Wiki) so there’s a constant need. The blood donation center I went to today said they value a platelet donation three times as much as a standard blood donation. When I went in today, they had the option to draw blood from me at the same time they did platelets, but elected not to because the draw technique involved is less effective for extracting platelets than the one for platelets alone. I gather that it’s a question of whether the donor chooses to let them puncture both arms for the standard platelet procedure; if I’d only let them puncture one, they’d have asked to get blood at the same time because they wouldn’t get good-quality platelets out of me and different-size needles are involved, or something. So they wanted more platelets enough to forego a whole bag of blood.

    Platelets can be donated far more frequently than blood–so frequently that, if you do it as often as possible, you’re at risk of getting venous scarring like a junky (or so claims Wiki). Despite this, platelet donations are rare, because the procedure to get them is time-consuming and mildly to moderately unpleasant, depending on your personal tolerances. I’m going to describe my experience today; I gather it’s fairly typical.

    I went in, did the typical interview (no, I don’t have sex with men, have hep, etc.), and lay down in a reclining chair. I got set up with Netflix (which the center provided, on a good-sized screen) and watched the first ten minutes of The Last Jedi–mostly from morbid curiosity–while the tech fussed around with getting the machine set up, cleaning my arms, etc. This was the most nerve-wracking part of it–I kept waiting to feel a needle go into me, but there was always one more thing to do. She put a needle in my left arm, then fiddled around with getting things set up before putting another needle in my right, and starting the draw. The machine sucks blood out of one arm (my right), filters it to extract platelets, and pumps it back into the other arm. After a few minutes, the needles stopped hurting–they just felt like foreign objects lodged in my arms.

    I was effectively immobilized for the duration of the procedure. I could move my left thumb to handle the remote, but my arms had to remain resting on the cushions. My right hand was tied up squeezing a ball at roughly five second intervals, and was tired within half an hour. All told, I was stuck frozen in place for almost exactly two hours. I know this because I checked the time remaining on the craptacular movie. Two hours is slightly longer than average, I think.

    After about an hour I started feeling weird, sort of tingly around the lips, and a bit out of it. This was a sign of calcium deficiency–the machine removes calcium for some reason–so I alerted the rech, and she gave me a pair of Tums. I felt better, though not 100%, within five minutes. As time passed, the sensation returned, along with a bit of hypothermia, which is also normal. They chucked some blankets on me, and gave me more Tums. Shortly after, they removed the needles, and I was allowed to sit in place sipping a Dr. Pepper while I watched the remainder of Rian Johnson’s trainwreck. I got up at the start of the closing credits, roughly twenty minutes after the needles came out, but I think I could have got up sooner. After that I shuffled over to a table, ate some cookies, and rested before driving off to get a proper meal.

    It’s now been two hours since they took out the needles, and I feel a bit weak, but not terrible. I can take the bandages off my arms in another two hours, but shouldn’t exert myself for the next couple of days. All in all, I would summarize the experience as a pain in the ass, but hardly unbearable. I was able to distract myself reasonably well with an absolutely terrible film whose plot had already been spoiled for me. I recommend you research your entertainment options ahead of time, if you donate platelets yourself. You will not be able to do anything beyond stare at a screen. Just bear in mind that this is one kind of charity where individual donations are essential. If Bill Gates decided to tackle America’s platelet supply issues, he personally would be able to donate no more than I did today. Give it a shot.

    • Noah says:

      First, on behalf of a relative who’s needed platelets, thank you.

      > platelets are in very high demand, and have a very short shelf life (five days, per Wiki) so there’s a constant need.

      Has anyone gone through and actually evaluated the demand for various blood products? Does supply exceed it? Does the marginal donation actually give platelets to someone who absolutely needs it, does it increase the probability of someone getting them where they might help, but aren’t essential, or do they get flushed down the drain?

      >If Bill Gates decided to tackle America’s platelet supply issues, he personally would be able to donate no more than I did today.

      Sure, but he could pay people for their platelets. Yes, this is currently illegal, but he could try to lobby for the laws to change or set up a black market platelet operation.

      • theredsheep says:

        I honestly don’t know about the details of use; I took their willingness to forfeit blood for platelets, and the large amount of money dumped into getting blood in general, as a sign that it’s damn important to somebody. But it’s only fair to note that American medicine is full of weird boondoggles and perverse money-sinks.

    • SamChevre says:

      Can verify first-hand that you can end up with needle scars from platelet donation–I have them, and have had to explain them several times. (The fact that they are all in one place makes it easier.)

      Second platelet donations as a good way to do good.

      One warning, though–be attentive to how the return needle arm feels, and insist that something is wrong if it feels funny. The last time I gave platelets (almost 20 years ago), the needle wasn’t quite entirely in the vein–and I ended up with what looked and felt like a severe bruise from elbow to wrist, which took months to resolve fully.

      • theredsheep says:

        Did you get your scars from donating too frequently, and do you know how far you have to space them out to avoid the scarring? I’d love to help again, but I’d like to avoid junkie-arms.

        • SamChevre says:

          I don’t know: I donated most months for several years. I assumed the scarring is from the fact that the needle stay in much longer. It has never really caused any trouble, and isn’t that noticeable–it’s maybe a half-inch of the inside of my elbow (the big vein lines).

      • acymetric says:

        I have zero scars from platelet donation. I’m sure something makes them more likely. That said…

        One warning, though–be attentive to how the return needle arm feels, and insist that something is wrong if it feels funny. The last time I gave platelets (almost 20 years ago), the needle wasn’t quite entirely in the vein–and I ended up with what looked and felt like a severe bruise from elbow to wrist, which took months to resolve fully.

        This is 100% true. Happened to me last time I donated (and after it happens they make you wait long enough that I never bothered again. Was pretty uncomfortable though, and gross looking.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      I think, like whole blood donation, I’m permanently banned on grounds of having spent a year in England in 1990. Thanks, parents.

      (Anyone know a way around this other than visiting England? I’d like to give blood for some potential personal health reasons…)

      • johan_larson says:

        My sympathies. I’m banned for life myself for a false-positive test for Hep C back in the nineties. I went to some trouble to try to clear my status, and was told doing so is simply impossible. The rules around blood donation are just incredibly strict.

    • EchoChaos says:

      Since I am type O and I am a sickle cell match, they prefer my whole blood to my platelets (I’ve asked), but I donate every 8 weeks like clockwork.

      It’s an easy and relaxing way to help save someone that takes an hour of your time and means the world to them.

      • Liam Breathnach says:


        Just want to express my appreciation to you and everyone here who donates blood. I had a number of urgent transfusions when my liver failed twice. I have two young girls and I am so glad to be here for them.

    • JustToSay says:

      I want to add another thank you to everyone who donates blood. Thank you. It was a necessary part of the medical care that saved my child’s life.

      And this reminds me of a question I have.

      I’m AB+ and when I’ve donated, they’ve said, “Hey, thanks a ton, but we’d really rather have your plasma if you can swing that sometime.”

      But one time I read an article citing the NHS that says plasma (directly donated or taken from whole blood) from some AB+ donors can actually increase the risk of complications in the transfusion recipient.

      An important use of AB+ blood is in the production of fresh frozen plasma. Fresh frozen plasma is not produced from donations by women due to antibodies that can be produced during pregnancy that may cause a life-threatening condition in the patient receiving their plasma. This means that we only produce fresh frozen plasma using donations from male donors.

      I can’t find information about this from the American Red Cross or anything, but I don’t think this restriction holds in the US. At least, they know my blood type and keep asking me to donate blood and plasma. I don’t want to give them blood that will hurt rather than help someone. And I’m not inclined to give blood if they’re going to throw it out but don’t like to advertise that fact for fear of reducing other donations.

      Does anyone more knowledgeable than me know what’s up with this? Should I donate or not?

    • Epistemic_Ian says:

      On the subject of blood transfusion, you might want to be aware that there’s evidence that they don’t improve outcomes at all.

      • theredsheep says:

        You article doesn’t go that far; it says they’re not helpful under certain circumstances, and in some cases it’s hard to tell. Its conclusion: This isn’t to say that transfusion is useless—just that it’s not nearly as useful as people used to believe. “I firmly believe that transfusions save lives,” Hébert said. “I transfuse in my practice all the time, just a little less than I used to.”

        If your trauma case has lost massive amounts of blood in a bike wreck, a transfusion is most certainly helpful.

  29. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Random historical fact: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had a puppy named literally Hitler (pictured on left; the spaniel pup on the right is Rommel).

    • Aapje says:

      Wing Commander Guy Gibson of the Royal Air Force had a male black Labrador retriever called N*gger. The dog liked to drink beer and was the mascot of No. 617 Squadron.

      The dog was hit by a car and died on the day of the ‘Dambusters’ raid on several German dams, a mission headed by Gibson. This famous mission used bombs that skipped over the water surface, to get past the torpedo nets protecting the dams. The success of the mission was confirmed to HQ by sending the Morse code for ‘N*gger’.

      This operation was commemorated in the 1955 movie ‘The Dam Busters,’ in which the dog played a prominent role. This has made the showing of the movie a fraught affair in more recent times, with censorship to remove the offending word. Some versions cut parts of the movie, creating continuity errors. Other, American versions used dubbing to change the name of the dog to ‘Trigger.’

      Peter Jackson has been working on a movie/miniseries remake for over a decade (based on a Stephen Fry script), which may or may not happen and which may or may not change the name of the dog. Jackson has said that Gibson sometimes used to refer to the dog as ‘Nigsy,’ so that might be his solution.

      PS. Apparently, the proper name of the dog is censored here.

      • The Nybbler says:

        If I were him, I’d never refer to the full name of the dog… except in the Morse Code. Never miss a chance to slip shit past the radar.

        • Aapje says:

          I wonder to what extent ‘universal culture’ has spread this meme that the specific word and words similar to it, which ultimately merely mean black, are pejorative.

          Scott himself seemed to struggle with the question whether universal culture is actually good or merely more successful by appealing to people.

  30. thevoiceofthevoid says:

    Welcome to anyone who might have come here from the recent installment of Wait But Why’s series on politics! (This will instantly get buried, but maybe if someone does a control-F for “wait but why” or “waitbutwhy” they’ll see it.) Since this is the “culture-war-free” thread (i.e. the publicly visible one where discussion of hot-button political topics is banned), we may want to postpone discussion of that particular article until the next, hidden open thread.

    • Emma_B says:

      What did you think of it? For my part, I found it intersting but seeminly naive (and sometimes just plain wrong) but my understanding of politics is extremely limited.

      • thevoiceofthevoid says:

        I loved Tim’s style as always, but in SSC terms, he goes full-on mistake theory. While I tend to agree that people who are thinking more higher-mindedly about politics do tend to be motivated by a desire for a more perfect nation/community/world, there are unfortunately a good number of two-monkeys-one-banana situations in politics. He touches on this with the “circles of concern” section, but kind of glosses over what happens when there’s truly a zero-sum game. Tim implies that high-minded conservatism reminds us to “not forget about” the community level and high-minded progressivism reminds us to “not forget about” the global level, but unfortunately sometimes you have to make a decision that directly trades off between those. Local autonomy or federal authority on issue X? Raise federal taxes to fund Y project, or leave more money in the hands of individuals? And so on. In Tim’s “what is / what should be / how to get there” division of areas of debate, the nasty disagreements are in the “what should be” category, and by framing things as “climbing the mountain together” he overlooks some fundamental disagreements about which mountain to climb.

        However, the high-minded metaphors aren’t too far off (he acknowledges zero-sum tug of wars), and the core high-rung / low-rung distinction seems to perfectly capture the difference between e.g. political debates here on ssc (the ones that don’t lead to an array of bans, at least) and those on a youtube comment section. Tim’s journey out of “Political Disney World” reminded me of my own transition from “Yay Republicans, Boo Democrats!” to “Huh, I disagree with each party on some major issues, maybe I’m a libertarian or something.” And cartoon weak man machine and motte and baileys were wonderful.

        Which parts did you think were just plain wrong?

        • Plumber says:

          @thevoiceofthevoid >

          “…Which parts did you think were just plain wrong?…”

          Seemed too optimistic about education leading to moderate views, when usually the educated are more partisan than average.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            That’s not quite what he’s arguing. Tim hypothesizes that more higher-minded thinking probably leads to more moderate political views, and that isn’t the same as more education. In “The Some Actual Science Agrees That We Suck at Politics Blue Box”, he explicitly acknowledges that people with greater educational attainment can be more partisan:

            So for controversial science-related issues that were not politically polarized, more education meant less dogmatism—which seems intuitive. But when the science-related controversies were politically (or religiously) polarized, that correlation went away, and their beliefs simply lined up with their tribal alliance. In our terms: well-educated people are likely to be high-rung thinkers…until the topic is politically or religiously polarized, at which point they drop down the ladder and become obedient partisans like anybody else.

            This study from the Pew research center seems to agree: the number of people with mixed political views decreases with higher educational attainment as the number of “consistently liberal” [meaning progressive/Democrat-aligned here] people goes up. (Number of conservatives remains about constant.)

            So, there’s no real proof of Tim’s “St. Louis Arch” theory, but if you think education != higher-mindedness then there’s no real disproof either. I think he simplifies a bit too much; I suspect higher-mindedness leads to more agreement on “what is”, similar distribution of “what should be”, and a more uniform spread on “how to get there” (as well as more zany ideas off the traditional spectrum). Of course I don’t have any evidence of that besides anecdote either.

        • Reasoner says:

          It may be that there are situations which are inescapably zero sum, but lately political rhetoric in the US has been about finding a zero sum framing for every situation. Thinking creatively about the possibility of positive sum solutions is sorely missing in my opinion.

          • Aapje says:

            IMO, lots of this is because the concerns of the other side are simply dismissed. I think that is largely orthogonal to zero sum or positive sum.

            If the desires of the other side are simply dismissed, you see deleterious effects for both zero sum and positive sum thinking. In the former case, you see a desire for silencing and otherwise disempowering people. In the latter case, you see that people try to find positive sum solution for all people whose concerns they see as valid, which then ignores a lot of concerns.

        • Emma_B says:

          “by framing things as “climbing the mountain together” he overlooks some fundamental disagreements about which mountain to climb.”
          I love the way you put it!

          “Which parts did you think were just plain wrong?”
          Like Plumber, I was unconvinced by the idea that higher-minded thinking leads to less partisanship, because I read that higher IQ/education is frequently associated with more polarized opinions. More generally, I’m not convinced that there is really a hierarchy of thinking as described by Tim. For me he is describing difference of personnality, attachment to in group versus attachment to truth, but not a hierarchy. That being said, it is in fact mainly a quibble on semantics. Coming from a leftist background, I was especially interested by the parts on the value of conservative thinking.

          I also love Tim Urban’s writing in general, which I always find very interesting, funny, and engaging. Like Scott, Tim Urban gives the impression of both an extremely intelligent and extremely nice person, which is a wonderful combination! I prefered previous Wait but Why posts to the current serie but it is largely just because I am not very interested in politics.

          My personal political transition is similar to Tim Urban’s but probably less marked, from a leftist/ecologist point that I kind of absorbed and never really examined, to a current position which is still globally leftist/ecologist but with major disagreement of some important issues.

          • Aapje says:

            because I read that higher IQ/education is frequently associated with more polarized opinions.

            My interpretation of the science is that education + intelligence both increase the ability to rationalize, where less educated and/or less intelligent people have a more difficult time to reconcile data that conflicts with their model.

            However, more educated and/or more intelligent people presumably also have more complex models. Then again, complexity is not the same as accuracy.

            If the external or internal incentives are strong to disbelieve the truth*, more educated and/or intelligent people may be more, equally or less likely to believe the truth. This may depend on a lot of variables, including how strong the incentives are, what kind of incentives they are, the quality and quantity of rationalizations that people are presented with, etc, etc.

            * There is also a difference between what people believe and what they say.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            More generally, I’m not convinced that there is really a hierarchy of thinking as described by Tim. For me he is describing difference of personality, attachment to in group versus attachment to truth, but not a hierarchy.

            Hmm, interesting point. Personally I guess the series has the somewhat hidden assumption that you want your beliefs to align with reality (or at least, should want that). This seems blindingly obvious to me–if you care about things that exist in reality, especially if you ever want to attempt to change reality for the better, then you sure as heck oughta have a model of reality that’s actually accurate.

            I can, however, see how “oh, I care more about maintaining my social status and friendships more than lofty ideals of truth” could seem like a reasonable tradeoff to some. But I don’t think it’s a good idea, even if you really don’t care at all about Truth for Truth’s sake. Once you give up on an accurate understanding of the world around you, how do you know that the things you do actually further the interests of yourself and your in-group, that your actions aren’t actually counterproductive towards your goals?

            Of course, there are situations where being fully forthcoming with belief that don’t match your group’s is a bad idea. But as Aapje mentions, there can be a difference between what you believe (or suspect) and what you say. Hopefully not too much of a difference is required!

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      FYI I found this post not by ctrl-f but by scrolling. I didn’t know there was a Wait But Why series on politics and I’m probably going to read it now.

      • thevoiceofthevoid says:

        Haha yeah, after over a year of radio silence (except for occasional tweets and such) Tim Urban has descended from his mountain to continue his time-honored tradition of posting short-to-medium illustrated books as a series of articles on his blog website. As usual, I’m really enjoying them so far.

    • Randy M says:

      I like the bit on censorship and charting thought profiles. Very colorful.

      • Randy M says:

        But dang, people accuse Scott of being long winded? That got long and repetitive by the end. Clearly it’s not meant to be binged.

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          Yeah, I think that’s probably part of why it’s coming out a chapter at a time. Makes more sense to reiterate for an audience that read Part 1 a month or two ago.

  31. Alex Zavoluk says:

    Is there a mockup for the redesign that includes comment threads? Those seem like most important thing to me, since they’re currently somewhat hard to follow and suffer more from being in a narrow space.

  32. Dacyn says:

    Since we are talking about redesigning the layout, and since I don’t know if there is a better way to submit a bug report: I use the “Reverse order [of comments]” feature, but whenever I post a comment, the comments get set back to the default order. I have to go to the top, hit “Reverse order” again, and then search for the comment I just posted, in order to continue reading with reversed comments. This seems like undesirable behavior.

    • albatross11 says:

      IMO the most useful feature would be an automatic way to search on peoples’ names, and get back posts in chronological order (last 10, last 25, last 50, etc.). This is really useful for maintaining a consistent reputation on the site, which is a major incentive for lots of people to add value. (That is, I assume that even if, say, John Schilling is in a really bad mood today and feels like doing some shitposting to stir up trouble, he would prefer to maintain his reputation as a consistently smart and interesting poster.)

      • Nick says:

        One thing to keep in mind is that there are tradeoffs to making users’ posts more searchable. It makes it easier to dig up regrettable things people have said, for instance.

    • CatCube says:

      @eigenmoon posted a workaround that I think is superior to the “Reverse Order” link on the page, as you can just hit it wherever you are on the page and it doesn’t mess with the URL (so you can hit enter to go back to your posted comment):

      User side solution for the comment order:

      WordPress doesn’t let me paste this as a link, so here it is as text. Create a new bookmark, paste this as the URL:


      Click on the bookmark to flip the order.

      Back to me: I keep saying that I’m going to learn how to use Tampermonkey to run this code automagically when I visit an open thread, but I’ve got other irons in the fire (LS-Dyna, now) and I don’t have time to figure out why “just copy this into a script” doesn’t work.

      • Dacyn says:

        Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be working… it works for the first few comment threads and then the subsequent ones appear to be in a random order (which is different when I reload the page). Thanks anyway,

  33. caryatis says:

    Scott, have you considered listing a geographical area along with the first name of the person banned? Especially with names as common as Michael and Robert…

    • Reasoner says:

      I also wanted to highlight the fact that all of the in-person bans appear to be indefinite? Maybe that was a deliberate and considered choice, but if not… people do change. If it’s been X years since someone did something bad, and they appear to be contrite about the bad thing they did in the past, maybe it’s OK to give them another chance? Same reason prison sentences are not always lifelong.

  34. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I’m in the middle of Walter Jon Williams’ _The Accidental War_, and there’s a plausible financial crisis which may be of interest. It’s the fifth book in his Praxis series. I’d call it decent rather than spectacular, but it’s interesting enough that I’m still reading it.

    • J Mann says:

      Thanks – I didn’t know there was another one out!

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      He apparently consulted with experts to craft it.

      • Matt M says:

        Given how generally unsuccessful the designated “experts” are at forecasting and diagnosing economic indicators/outcomes, I’d be pretty interested to know which supposed experts he consulted.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          The collapse is the result of bad/fraudulent investments coming to light, followed by bankruptcies, unwillingness to lend, unemployment, and riots.

          So far as I know, the experts in the real world failed to realize how much there was in the way of bad investments.

  35. Murphy says:

    re: the mockup, any samples of how comments would be formatted?

    Currently they nested comments get mangled on small screens. If the new version fixes that then it’s got my vote.

    • onodera says:

      Yes. This, please. I don’t read the comments only because they grow frustratingly narrow.

      Nix the avatars and let the boxes keep their full width if you’re on mobile (so they are shifted and not shrunk). Horizontal scrolling is torture on PCs, but great on phones.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        My web UI skills are becoming out-of-date, but there are adaptive layouts that do exactly stuff like that when the screen becomes sufficiently narrow.

      • Eric Rall says:

        Nix the avatars and let the boxes keep their full width if you’re on mobil

        Ideal, if practical, would be for the avatar to live inside the comment box next to the author name and timestamp lines. That way, the avatar’s still there, but it isn’t taking horizontal space away from the comment body text.

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          That seems like a good solution, there’s plenty of room on the right for the name and timestamp to be pushed over.

      • Nick says:

        I’m fine with avatars disappearing if the screen width is thin enough, but I like my avatar, dammit, and I want it to stay on wider widths.

    • albatross11 says:


      Reading the comment threads on a cellphone is pretty-much hopeless. I wish there were a way to toggle between the common indented thread view and some view that just gave you a number for how far into the thread you were, like [ 3] or [14] or something. That would also be nice for comments that go past the nesting limit.

  36. Emma_B says:

    Would anyone here be interested in an exchange of French-English conversation?

    I am Emma, a 46-year-old French woman who lives near Paris, France. I lived in the USA for two years but it was quite a long time ago. Now my spoken English has deteriorated horribly, and I would like to work on it. I’m looking for someone who would be interested in English/French conversation exchanges. I was thinking for example of Skype discussion sessions where we would alternate the two languages.

    I like SlatestarCodex obviously. More generally, I enjoy science (I am a professor of genetics in one of Paris’Universities). I also love literature, I am specially found of science fiction, and nature.

    If you think that you might be interested, please email me at !

    • Murphy says:

      Bot test given the name[websitename]@gmail email address and bio that would fit on almost any community:

      ROT13: grfgvat grfgvat ner lbh n uhzna?

      • Emma_B says:

        Hum, I do realize that my message was quite a bit on the bland side ( I deliberately cited common interests because they seemed to me easier to discuss), but I can promise that I’m not a robot and I am reasonably certain that I would be able to pass the Turing test!

        And yes, this email adress is the one I made to suscribe to SSC a few years ago, not my primary email adress, is that really shocking?

        (Also I clicked Report instead of Reply to your message by mistake -and then I clicked Report for mine when trying to undo the Report, oops).

      • bzium says:

        Eh, should’ve asked about the thing with the turtle.

    • Reasoner says:

      I’m not keen on learning French, but I just wanted to say you sound cool and I hope you stick around 🙂

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Seconding this. What’s it like being a female STEM professor in Parisian academia? We outsiders tend to stereotype French academics as being on the cutting edge of nonsense, and your experiences as a professor of genetics would be a very interesting contrast.

        • Ant says:

          Maybe the outsiders should use a lot less stereotype then. If your reference are about French sociologist, they were active at the same point in time as the separate but equal doctrine. What would you think of someone who bases its view of current USA politics with the politics of the USA in the 60 (in fact, it’s even worse because those sociologist seem to be far more influential in the USA than in France, and their influence in the USA seems very limited).

          Now, there are a lot of nonsense in France (psychoanalyst and homeopathy are still very popular, GMOs are banned), but I wouldn’t look for it in academia, and especially not in STEM academia.

  37. urm0m says:

    First-time posting, long-time reader of SSC, which I originally found through a link on Hacker News to the post I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.

    Glad to be here.

  38. TracingWoodgrains says:

    Are there any Bay Area meetups the week of Christmas? I’m going to be spending the week there, and it would be cool to meet some of the rationalist community while I’m around.

  39. bean says:

    Biweekly Naval Gazing Links Post:

    NTDS, the Naval Tactical Data System, was the first operational seagoing tactical information system, capable of sharing contacts across a task force.

    Two years ago, I visited the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, and have finally gotten around to putting up a review.

    The saga of Billy Mitchell and his battle with the Navy over airpower in the 1920s continues with a look at the first of the famous bombing tests.

    Lastly, my investigation of modern aerial weapons continues with short-range missiles, mostly Maverick and Hellfire.

  40. Matt M says:

    I’d like to use my first comment since the end of my temporary ban to petition the Great And Powerful Scott to rescind the indefinite ban of dick (as well as the others who are in “indefinite” status).

    While I have no desire to completely re-litigate the moderation decisions of three months ago, there is one particular anecdote I’d like to share that, as far as I know, was never brought up:

    The very first post Scott cites as evidence of the need to ban dick was essentially a contentless personal attack… against me. What’s notable here is that if you scroll along, you can see that this did not lead to an acrimonious back and forth between he and I, or anyone else. Everyone just let it go and proceeded with the debate at hand.

    But not only did we all “get over it” right then, but a couple weeks later (in OT 135.75 to be precise), I solicited advice from the SSC commentariat in troubleshooting and seeking a solution to my slow Wifi speeds in my house. Of all the people who responded, the one who was the most helpful, repeatedly offering new and updated advice and being very patient with my ignorance of the topic was… dick.

    To me, this is not evidence of a community in dysfunction. This is evidence of a community functioning very well indeed. The fact that even the most spirited participants in the steel-cage CW brawls can get together after the match and help each other with their household problems is really important and good. In the context of a broader society where tribal opponents are increasingly treated as bitter and vindictive enemies, it apparently did not occur to dick to withhold his expertise and assistance to me (or worse, to sabotage me with bad advice), nor did it occur to me to ignore his advice, or suspect he might be deceiving me in some way.

    Had dick been banned immediately after insulting me, he wouldn’t have been around to help me with my WiFi, and I’d be all the worse off for it.

    In conclusion: SSC needs more dick. (sorry, couldn’t help myself on that one).

    • J Mann says:

      Seconded. I’d love to see both dick and Conrad Honcho back – I think they were both trying to follow the guidelines, can improve, and were both interesting voices.

      • Aftagley says:

        I could go either way on Dick, but if put to a vote, I would cast a ballot maintain Conrad Honcho’s indefinite banning.

        I realize this sounds uncharitable, but I did not enjoy reading his discourse.

        • EchoChaos says:

          I am curious if this is biased by where you are coming from left/right bias-wise.

          I found dick far more of a … dick than Conrad was, but I am more similar to Conrad politically, so that may be part of it.

          I would desire that both be unbanned.

          • Aftagley says:

            I am curious if this is biased by where you are coming from left/right bias-wise.

            That’s a real possibility, I admit. That being said, I don’t have a generalized “ban all the people I disagree with” outlook, so it’s not just an ideological thing. Maybe if people cross a line, I’m more willing to forgive/ignore it if they tack closely to my biases?

            I found dick far more of a … dick than Conrad was, but I am more similar to Conrad politically, so that may be part of it.

            I disagree, but can’t think of a good way to explain my reasoning without doing a rehash of their posting history. This seems mean since they can’t defend themselves and would involve rehashing the posts that got them banned, which is likely a bad idea. In short: I found Dick to be too fond of snark but ultimately harmless while Conrad Came across like he harbored extreme dislike or even hatred for me and people I care about.

          • EchoChaos says:


            Maybe if people cross a line, I’m more willing to forgive/ignore it if they tack closely to my biases?

            Yeah, that was my thought. Scott has admitted he has such a bias and is intentionally more lenient on lefties, which might make you examine if that is affecting you as well.

            I disagree, but can’t think of a good way to explain my reasoning without doing a rehash of their posting history.

            I also don’t want to rehash their post history and am not really arguing with you. Just food for thought.

          • Nick says:

            I can only speak personally here, but I didn’t find dick’s snarking harmless; I was genuinely bothered by it. (Someone’s surely noticed that I’m in every discussion of these bans, and haven’t once said I want dick back.) If you think dick is ultimately harmless and Conrad hateful while I think the opposite, I’d say our perceptions are getting colored pretty strongly.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Yeah, that was my thought. Scott has admitted he has such a bias and is intentionally more lenient on lefties, which might make you examine if that is affecting you as well.

            Potentially I am misunderstanding you, but I think you don’t understand what Scott meant by this. It has nothing to do with his personal biases.

            Or at least nothing direct.

          • acymetric says:


            I can only speak personally here, but I didn’t find dick’s snarking harmless; I was genuinely bothered by it. (Someone’s surely noticed that I’m in every discussion of these bans, and haven’t once said I want dick back.) If you think dick is ultimately harmless and Conrad hateful while I think the opposite, I’d say our perceptions are getting colored pretty strongly.

            I’m going to be honest, I can’t really see an argument for allowing Deseich’s posting style but banning dick’s that doesn’t begin and end with which one you agree with more.

          • quanta413 says:

            I’m going to be honest, I can’t really see an argument for allowing Deseich’s posting style but banning dick’s that doesn’t begin and end with which one you agree with more.

            I can. Deiseach is a more distinct voice. Her politics are actually distinct from either mainstream in the U.S. or of SSC (although maybe her politics are totally ordinary in Ireland; hell if I know).

          • albatross11 says:

            I think the further away people are from either your views or other views you’ve understood and accepted as “this is a common way to look at the world that makes some sense even if I think it’s wrong,” the more their posts are likely to seem crazy or evil or like trolling.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m going to be honest, I can’t really see an argument for allowing Deseich’s posting style but banning dick’s that doesn’t begin and end with which one you agree with more.

            Deiseach is IMO much better at drawing the line between “this is wrong and I will explain in great and contemptouously entertaining detail what is wrong with it”, and “you are a bad, bad person for saying this, and I will now insult you for it”. Not perfect, and her first banning was for a self-admitted severe violation of that standard, but better than most. That’s an important distinction if you’re going to attempt civil discussion of controversial ideas some of which are wrong.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Deiseach is IMO much better at drawing the line between “this is wrong and I will explain in great and contemptouously entertaining detail what is wrong with it”

            I strongly disagree with this. In my opinion, she is nearly unparalleled here in her contempt for people, rather than just ideas. A few of our full blown nihilists probably have her beat. She is also good with language, so the contempt for people can be obliquely couched, but it is still usually present.

          • John Schilling says:

            A few of our full blown nihilists probably have her beat.

            Are you counting yourself among their number? Because you’d be near the top of my list of posters that I sense holding other posters here in contempt. But the ability to, as you say, “obliquely couch” the language is critical. People who hold each other in contempt can sometimes nonetheless communicate fruitfully, if they steer around direct personal attacks and the like. You can usually do that. So can Deiseach. Some people can’t.

        • broblawsky says:

          I might have agreed with you once, but not after Conrad started spouting off Pizzagater/Sandy Hook truther nonsense.

          • Ms. Morgendorffer says:

            @broblawsky : Question. I’m a huge fan of conspiration theories. If I ever find the will to compile a review of what I consider are interesting takes on a specific one (like pizzagate or Sandy Hook) and do an effort post, will you just deride me as an obvious far-right nutjob or will you report & ask for my lifetime ban?

          • Lambert says:

            I think there’s a difference between things like ‘The Queen, a public figure, is a lizard person’, ‘NASA, as a group staged the Moon landings’, and ‘These particular private individuals impacted by Sandy Hook are making things up.’

            The latter is going around and accusing people of some quite serious things.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I think you might be misremembering how that went down. I was talking about the best ways to debunk conspiracy theories. I have never believed Sandy Hook was a hoax: my method of debunking the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory was to look at the underlying facts Alex Jones used (guy behaves weird in video) and explain how it does not support the theory that he’s therefore faking having had a child die.

            We’re on the same page on this one. Sandy Hook: 100% real tragedy, and all I was talking about was better ways of making sure Alex Jones’ audience understands that.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Ms. Morgendorffer

            I go to a couple of meetups where conspiracy theories are a fairly common topic, including the vexed questions of what counts as a conspiracy? A conspiracy theory?

            Anyway, I think a deep dive into a conspiracy theory would be a good topic.



          • Lambert says:

            I’m diasappointed that those links didn’t go to meetups for people who believe that there’s insufficient evidence to conclude that the city of Philadelphia exists.

          • Ms. Morgendorffer says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz
            Thanks, well noted.

          • Aftagley says:

            I have to admit, I didn’t expect Conrad Honcho to chime in during a discussion as to whether or not Conrad Honcho should be unbanned. 10/10 twist ending.

            My previous statements nonwithstanding, welcome back!

          • AliceToBob says:

            @ broblawsky

            I’m fairly sure that’s a dishonest description of what Conrad H said.

            And, at the very least, if you’re going to dump on a banned commenter, you should provide a link the content you’re dumping on so that people can verify your claim for themselves.

            Edit: I see above that Conrad replied to set the record straight.

          • Randy M says:

            I have to admit, I didn’t expect Conrad Honcho to chime in during a discussion as to whether or not Conrad Honcho should be unbanned. 10/10 twist ending.

            I’d say 9/10. The real twist would have been if he supported the continued banning.

            (please remind me to do this if I am ever indeterminatedly banned then reinstated without fanfare)

          • LewisT says:

            I’m diasappointed that those links didn’t go to meetups for people who believe that there’s insufficient evidence to conclude that the city of Philadelphia exists.

            Those people are more interested in Bielefeld.

          • broblawsky says:

            I’m extremely disappointed in this turn of events.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I promise to be nice. I’ve turned over a new leaf. Just a big soft cuddly teddy bear over here.

          • broblawsky says:

            I’m not going to get baited into this argument on the CW-free thread.

        • quanta413 says:

          I think both should probably stay banned. At least for another several months.

          Although often interesting, both Dick and Conrad both behaved unacceptably way too often as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t enjoy reading either of them on average (except on threads about wifi or Dungeons and Dragons or whatever; on bread-and-butter culture war stuff here they dragged stuff down way too often).

          And neither was nearly as clever as Deiseach either.

          • albatross11 says:

            That’s the problem–Deiseach is just a really entertaining person to read, which lets her get away with bad behavior that would get others permabanned. It’s like the way the star quarterback gets away with mouthing off to the coach but the third-string offensive lineman who tries the same thing gets kicked off the team.

    • Atlas says:

      Well said/Thirded.

    • Randy M says:

      In conclusion: SSC needs more dick. (sorry, couldn’t help myself on that one).

      If this makes it to the survey, I really hope context is provided, otherwise I can see the vote going against him due to confusion on the question and concerns over the commenters gender balance.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        SSC does need more chicks.
        (This statement becomes confused with the “how ethical is it to eat chicken?” debate.)

        • Statismagician says:

          I believe pet ownership anticorrelates with depression, and chicks are both inexpensive and very cute…

        • urm0m says:

          New chick here! Happy to share my chick-thoughts on all manner of topics.

        • Etoile says:

          Chicks with bricks come; chicks with blocks come; chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come!

          • SamChevre says:

            Too awesome not to say,

            I would read it on a bus!

          • albatross11 says:

            [Queue posts from all the parents who’ve read Dr Seuss to their kids so many times, we’ve memorized them.]

            (You’d be surprised, the many ways, I change, on different colored days.)

    • Plumber says:

      @Matt M,


    • DragonMilk says:

      Maybe Scott’s Christmas present to be them will be a 666hr probationary period?

    • Aron Wall says:

      I have no opinion about dick specifically, but I would personally prefer it, if the default ban for a first time offender who has substantively contributed in the past, and whose offense is not completely beyond the pale, were generally of finite duration rather than indefinite.

      I think that people are frequently taken by surprise by bans, and that the ideal system ought to generally offer at least one chance for reformation for commenters who have shown that they also have the ability to contribute positively. There were actually a lot of interestingly edgy commentators who went a little too far a couple times and are now gone forever. IMHO, metaphorical capital punishment should be reserved for repeat offenders, for commenters whose very nature destablizes the forum, and for those who commit truly mortal sins like threatening to doxx people.

      Maybe Scott could also, by popular demand, make it an explicit rule that Deiseach can say whatever she likes and it’s okay, because the pros outweigh the cons. Explicit double-standards are underrated. I would also support David Friedman and suntzuanime (if the latter ever comes back here) being officially registered on the list of immortals.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I think that people are frequently taken by surprise by bans

        It’s called a reign of terror for a reason.

        Maybe Scott could also, by popular demand, make it an explicit rule that Deiseach can say whatever she likes and it’s okay, because the pros outweigh the cons. Explicit double-standards are underrated. I would also support David Friedman and suntzuanime (if the latter ever comes back here) being officially registered on the list of immortals.

        If I allowed myself to honestly respond to this suggestion, this community would get smaller by one in an arbitrary amount of time.

        • Aron Wall says:

          Fair enough. For what it’s worth, that last paragraph was much less seriously meant then my first suggestion.

          Also, if anyone immortal got too uppity, Scott would have a pretty obvious solution—first make them mortal again, then ban away! 😉

    • BBA says:

      I’ve surprised myself with how easily I shift from attacking someone in one thread to cooperating with them in the next. This may or may not be a good thing, in a time when you can lose your job for getting along with the hated enemy… I’m going to say it’s good now, though I reserve the right to turn my controversial opinions up to 11 and leave in a huff at any time.

      • Nick says:

        I try to be nice to people who I’ve been, uh, short with recently; depending on what you mean by attacking and cooperating, I don’t think you’re necessarily unusual there.

      • Matt M says:

        In a realpolitik sense, I think modern society actively encourages something resembling “seize upon opportunities to publicly be nice to the (more acceptable elements of) the enemy tribe in order to prove you aren’t some hyper-partisan extremist.” And I think a place like SSC, that tries to present itself as a largely neutral field wherein the dominant tribe is supposed to be grey, passively or implicitly encourages that even further.

        Which is bad if people are only doing it as a strategy to advance their CW goals, but good if they’re just doing it to not be a jerk. Without telepathy it’s probably impossible to know which is which in any given case, so I try to just assume good intentions here.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Hi Matt, glad you’re back and glad to be back myself. Scott, in his infinite mercy, has unbanned me. I hope that applied to dick to.

      I promise to be good now. I’m a new man! A changed Honcho! Nothing but flowers, sunshine and charity charity charity from here on out!

      To those of you I offended, I sincerely apologize. And Aftagley, I do not hate you or anyone else on this forum. I like you all very much and missed you a lot.

      • EchoChaos says:

        Welcome back.

      • Nick says:

        Welcome back, Conrad.

      • albatross11 says:

        Welcome back!

      • Matt M says:

        I, also, am endeavoring to “clean up my act” a bit to avoid an additional ban.

        I would actively appreciate community assistance in this. If you see me post something that you think might get me banned, please reply and say “Hey, this might get you banned, you should probably delete this comment” and I probably will.

        • Nick says:

          I always tried to push back when I thought you were saying ridiculous things. Was I not doing this enough? Was I not clear? I’ll try to be blunter about it in the future.

        • Plumber says:

          Glad to see you back Matt M,

          In retrospect of some ill thought previous posts of mine I don’t know how I’ve avoided a ban myself, so I doubt I have any good advice on that score, but I do request not using [blockquote] for deeply “nested” subthread ‘ (especially long quotes) ’cause those are too narrow to read.

          Otherwise congratulations on the fiance that plays boardgames with you, that’s a previous gift!

        • HeelBearCub says:

          If you see me post something that you think might get me banned

          Allow me to offer that this is, in my opinion, precisely the wrong way to think about it. For whatever that is worth.

        • quanta413 says:

          I think it could be easier for you in one way but harder in another. If you write something short and snarky, just delete it before posting it. I don’t remember you writing many giant flaming screeds. So on the one hand, there’s not much time for you to realize “wait, there is not much content here”. But on the other hand, you don’t seem to have a burning desire to go on a rant very often.

          • Matt M says:

            Honestly, one of the biggest difficulties for me here is that I have a *really* hard time predicting which sorts of comments will trigger a ban and which won’t. If I were to make a list of my “Top 20 worst comments”, I don’t think any of the ones that Scott has cited as examples of why I needed to be banned would make it, IMO.

            I’m not trying to complain about that. It’s Scott’s site and he can do what he wants. He owes me nothing. Just makes it somewhat tricky when it seems pretty non-intuitive as to what triggers a ban and what doesn’t.

      • J Mann says:


      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Thanks everyone, and thanks for all the supportive comments over the past few months. I didn’t actually go anywhere, I still read everything, I was just unable to tell you all how wrong you are about everything 😉

        • Nick says:

          I hope you enjoyed the Christmas songs thread from last week.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            There was a Christmas songs thread!?

            I no longer have time even to skim every open thread (the days when they were short enough and my time abundant enough to read every open thread are long gone), and I hate that it means I miss out on things like this.

          • Nick says:

            @Chevalier Mal Fet
            Here. You’ll have to just hide the giant IQ thread that spawned inside of it to get to the rest of the discussion.

          • Randy M says:

            You’ll have to just hide the giant IQ thread that spawned inside of it to get to the rest of the discussion.

            Ah, this is the most SSC thing ever.

            Other than, perhaps, the number of people chiming in to the ACC thread to point out that they actually aren’t opposed to extinction.

      • AliceToBob says:

        Wow. Welcome back!

      • Plumber says:

        Glad to see you back Conrad Honcho,

      • quanta413 says:

        Welcome back. I look forward to your flowers.

        Do us a favor and try some trick like writing some of your more strident responses in notepad or word first and then waiting an hour. Then edit them to be nicer before posting.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          This is a very good idea. Thank you. I know you weren’t super thrilled about me coming back but I promise to make it up to you by delivering quality posts in a not unpleasant tone.

        • Nick says:

          Evergreen advice. It’s also worth emphasizing that if you (generic you) regret something you say after saying it, take it back. Use the strikethrough button on it, if you’d rather not pretend you never said it.

    • aristides says:

      I’ll add that I’m against lifetime ban except for obvious spam and trolls (indefinite is fine since it might encourage more reflection). Do make sure to hold Dick, Conrad Honcho, and even my favorite commenter, Deiseach, on a shorter lease, and add 3 more months to the bans if necessary.

    • AliceToBob says:

      Welcome back, Matt M.

      Striking this out, since a lot seems to have changed since the start of this thread.

      Re dick, I think it’s a nice sentiment, but it seems too messy to keep track of whether someone has adequately counterbalanced their crappy behavior/comments with their nice behavior/comments. It almost certainly wouldn’t be a scalable policy.

      I wish there was some way to “resurrect” commenters, something easy to verify, and high-cost for the “petitioner”. Donations to a registered charity, for example. But I suspect such a policy would require more effort in terms of moderation/verification than is available.

  41. outis says:

    Has anyone here seen Richard Jewell? Anyone interested in seeing it? If an acquaintance invited you to see it, what would you think?

    • Randy M says:

      I would like to see it eventually; I’ve seen two positive reviews of it on Youtube. But then, I watch more movie reviews than I do movies these days.

      If an acquaintance invited you to see it, what would you think?

      That they weren’t clear on my stance of the value of a movie ticket, but had good taste.

    • Plumber says:

      @outis >

      “…If an acquaintance invited you to see it, what would you think?…”

      If anyone other than my wife would now ask me to see a movie together with them I would think it very odd, the last time I saw movies with friends and/or co-workers was in the ’90’s, when poets studied their rules of verse while ladies rolled their eyes.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I would like to see it: Eastwood is an outstanding filmmaker. I’m a little confused about the final question – I go to the cinema a lot (it’s more or less a requirement for my job, and I love film anyway, hence having said job) and would never really think it was anything unusual for someone to invite me to see a film, unless it was porn or something.

    • Matt says:

      I definitely want to see it.

    • POGtastic says:

      I just saw it and really liked it, but I appear to like it for very different reasons than the critics.

      Gur cybg vf cerggl fgenvtugsbejneq naq cerqvpgnoyr, zbfgyl orpnhfr rirelbar xabjf gung Evpuneq Wrjryy jnfa’g gur obzore. Gur SOV ntragf ner rlrebyy-jbegul, nf vf Byvivn Jvyqr’f ercbegre punenpgre. Vafgrnq, gur cbjre bs gur zbivr pbzrf sebz cynlvat jvgu bhe rkcrpgngvbaf bs jung n cebgntbavfg vf. Jr’ir orra envfrq gb rkcrpg pbzcrgrapr sebz bhe cebgntbavfgf. Vs gurer’f nalguvat ceriragvat gung cebgntbavfg sebz orvat rssrpgvir be fbyivat uvf ceboyrzf, ur qrnyf jvgu vg va nobhg unys na ubhe bire gur pbhefr bs gur nep naq xvpxf nff. “Jbj, punenpgre tebjgu!” Jr’er nyfb jvyyvat gb flzcnguvmr jvgu njshy crbcyr vs gurl jva n ybg naq ner cbegenlrq nf gur nagntbavfg.

      Evpuneq Wrjryy vf abar bs gur nobir. Ur vf fb hapunevfzngvp naq haflzcngurgvp gung gur qbzvanag rzbgvba V jnf srryvat va gur zbivr jnf “Lbh QRFREIR gb or ybpxrq hc sbe guvf, lbh’er gbb fghcvq naq cnffvir gb rkvfg.” Naq gura V jnf znqr gb srry nfunzrq bs gung rzbgvba. Gurer vf qrprapl naq qvtavgl gurer, naq abobql tvirf n fuvg orpnhfr ur’f sng, fghcvq, naq ernyyl veevgngvat. Naq vg znxrf zr guvax nobhg nobhg ubj znal bgure crbcyr ner gerngrq yvxr gung rireljurer – “Lrnu, lbh’er evtug, naq lbh’er orvat gerngrq ernyyl hasnveyl, ohg lbh’er htyl naq fghcvq, fb lbh qrfreir vg.”

      Gur pevgvpf’ erivrjref frrz gb jnez gb Evpuneq nf flzcngurgvp, naq V qvqa’g. V sbhaq uvz nf ybngufbzr ol gur raq bs gur zbivr nf V qvq ng gur ortvaavat. Gur cbvag bs gur zbivr, gb zr, vf gung gung hasnvearff vf ubeevsvpnyyl uhzna, naq jr arrq gb qb orggre, zlfrys vapyhqrq.

  42. FishFinger says:

    My life is stuck in a rut. It goes on and on, I don’t know what I want, on and on, I don’t know if I want it.

    Some people say that they got unstuck after they took recreational drug X, went to country Y, read book Z, got slapped really hard in the face, etc. Relatively short experiences that put them back on track.
    Any experience with similar interventions? I can’t really afford travel at the moment.

    • zluria says:

      This will sound trite, but it’s a cheap option that helped me:
      A long talk with my dad. When I was stuck with my MA thesis and felt like a failure, I decided to quit the program, but I wasn’t sure what to do professionally. My dad listened patiently, and then suggested I speak to a different professor and change my thesis topic. I did, and the new topic was a success.

      So to summarize: ask your parents for advice, and listen to what they have to say.

    • Aron Wall says:

      zluria’s recommendation is good.

      As someone who went to St. John’s College and studied Great Books as an undergrad, I can tell you which of the more philosophically-oriented classics seemed most likely to change the lives of my classmates after reading them. In chronological order, they were (books in parentheses are suggested starting points but in each case you could continue with more if you feel led to do so):

      * Plato (Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Symposium, Apology, Crito)
      * Aristotle (Nicomachian Ethics)
      * Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, John)
      * Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling)
      * Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil)

      Runners up might include: Homer (Illiad, Odyssey), Augustine (Confessions), Descartes (Meditations), Pascal (Pensees), and Hume (Treatise of Human Nature). I didn’t ever do their Eastern Classics Master’s program, but my best friend did, and he recommended Confucius (Analects) to me, which is also very good. I’ve also read a few of the Hindu and Buddhist classics, but if you want to know which ones are most likely to cause a change of life direction, you’ll have to ask somebody who is more familiar with their use.

      Of course, it’s quite possible you only need to read ONE of these books to have your life-changing experience, but unfortunately I can’t tell you which one it is in advance!

      • FishFinger says:

        I read some of those authors, and I would say they helped me see some things in a different way…
        …it’s just so slow. I feel like I’m accruing wisdom at an extremely slow rate, like I have an xp penalty in some RPG. It always feels like I’m just one step away from some great insight that will turn my life around, but it just keeps escaping me.
        I know it’s naive to wish for an instant cure, a singular life-changing experience…but some people swear that’s what happened to them.

      • Statismagician says:

        Oh, another Johnnie – hi there. I’d add Kant, if you happen to read German or you’re willing to fight the truly unfortunate translations available.

    • Sortale says:

      The school of Life seems to help me and people I know, give it a try?

      Unlikely to make you change your behaviors though, just make you more likely to accept what is happening.

      or just sit down for 5 minutes [by the clock ] write down what’s bugging you, then rank them, then just do the top 3 most urgent things?

    • TJ2001 says:

      I would start by taking a serious analysis of yourself and your situation.

      Here is the key question – “Am I stuck because of Me or am I stuck because of Them?”

      If you are stuck because of You – you have to “Fix” you before you can become “unstuck”… Because you always take you with you.

      If you are stuck because of “Them” – you can change jobs or move someplace else and there will be a different “Them”…

      So for example – if you are stuck in a rut because your company hires capable people and then grinds them into nubs – find a new job.

      If you are stuck because you don’t have the right qualifications to promote higher or have a defeatist attitude – then do what you need to do about that.

      But last – be honest. Contentment comes from within. Nobody else can make you content. If you have a spouse that makes a lot more money than you or young kids in school and want them to be involved with sports or dance or whatever – there are going to be professional trade off’s.

      Good luck.

      • PedroS says:

        This sounds a little like some things I have read about Lobsterman*’s “Self-authoring” psychological self-improvement method. From what I have read, that method could be interesting for OP

        * Lobsterman refers to a famous Canadian Psychology professor who is either lionized or reviled depending on one’ s stand in some CW issues. His name may be banned here for CW reasons, but he has been referred around here previously as Lobsterman due to a contentious claim in one of his books comparing the role of serotonin in humans to its role in lobsters. I hope the clues are enough to identify him and obscure enough to prevent yet another discussion about him.

        • TJ2001 says:

          Actually it primarily came out of the Despair Inc’s satirical “Demotivational” calendars….

          I forget exactly what month – but it said something along the lines of:

          “When the only common thread running through all your failures is yourself”

          And I was like “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha That’s Rich! Yourself!!!
          oh wait.

    • Purplehermann says:

      Take a long walk/hike by yourself, no phone, no music, no books, just you, your body, nature, and your thoughts for a day or two or longer.

      • Witness says:

        On this note, I have personally experienced some major positive attitude shifts since I started walking regularly (about a mile and a half per day at the most).

        Probably other kinds of exercise can help as well if your current situation isn’t conducive to nature hikes, but I recommend trying to get outside if you aren’t already.

    • Randy M says:

      There’s some good advice given previously.
      Right now I’m reading A Guide to The Good Life, a short overview of Stoic philosophy, which addresses the question and you might find it helpful. It’s not revolutionary for me, but it is temporarily motivating and I was also feeling a bit out of sorts.

      Also, exercise, sleep, and some sunlight will help if you’re just feeling a bit burnt out and neglecting your biology.

    • Erusian says:

      I’d recommend trying to listen to your emotions. You obviously want something you don’t currently have. People who have everything they want are called content. Figure out what that thing is. The easiest way is to figure out what thinking about makes you feel the most despair/in a rut. If you think about how you’re not really achieving anything and that drives you to despair, then you lack purpose, for example. Good friends or a therapist can help.

      From there, it’s mostly an engineering problem. Figure out how to insert that into your life.

      (PS: What’s that video about?)

    • DragonMilk says:

      Mind sharing age and how long you’ve felt this way?

      • FishFinger says:

        It’s hard to say. I’d say at least 1.5 years (when I graduated from my MA program), although it’s been getting worse recently.

    • Etoile says:

      Echoing zluria’s advice to talk to a parent, but wanted to give you a chick’s* perspective in case you’re a woman.
      I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed about lots of things, and two big sources of stress for me were connected to my mom:
      1) feeling as though she judged or disapproved of me in how I am approaching some big things in my life, e.g. how I’m raising my kids, and
      2) gaps in what I knew about her history with my dad to gauge whether I could rely on my perceptions of their relationship as a model for my own relationship with my spouse.

      I spent a pretty long time with her recently, and we stayed up many of the nights just talking. I know not everyone can do that with their mom. But after this, I felt like we arrived at a new place of mutual understanding and esteem, and she told me a few personal things about herself that, though not negative or earth-shattering or anything, were new to me and gave me more confidence in some of my own life decisions. It felt like a wall which existed was gone, and made me more confident as both a spouse and a parent.

      So YMMV of course, but that’s a thing that was good for me when I was in a different sort of “rut”.

      *See later thread about Dick.

      (Edit: minor typo/formatting fix for the footnote)

    • Orpheus says:

      Try getting into something new, like learning to draw, learning to play an instrument, or lifting.

    • urm0m says:

      Hey FishFinger – I’m new here so I don’t know much about you or your situation, but I went through something similar this year, and I’ve been through it at other points in my life as well. I think it’s important to recognize that these periods of stagnation are actually important for us to “germinate” and determine the next phase of our lives/careers/relationships. The fact that it’s uncomfortable is actually a good thing, and if we can embrace it, some good can come of it. If you spend all your time fighting the malaise, you’ll end up exhausted and even more frustrated because it takes time for us to work out (consciously and subconsciously) what we want/need to do next.

      All that said, there are things that have helped me with my own process – aside from trusting the process itself:

      1. Travel if at all possible. Even if it’s just a road trip inside your own state. Try to get yourself physically out of the routine that you’re in so you can see and experience new things in new ways.

      2. Write, daily, by hand if at all possible. Preferably in the morning when your brain is fresh. Do it in a stream-of-consciousness way, and don’t worry about making it interesting or useful. Just do it for at least 6-8 weeks and see how your thinking starts to clarify.

      3. Spend some time alone. Get bored, and see what happens. You may be surprised by lightning striking when you are in state of creative neutrality.

      I’m sorry you’re struggling right now. I’m coming out of my rut but it’s been a hell of year for me, and I have all the empathy for you.

    • AliceToBob says:

      @ FishFinger

      It might help if you could elaborate on your situation. What do you mean by “stuck in a rut”? What are examples of things you’ve wanted and then given up on?

      There are many good suggestions here, but it seems unlikely there’s a general solution that would apply to most people. I don’t know if I’ll have anything valuable to add, but your elaboration might help others offer better advice.

      • FishFinger says:

        Basically I am not sure if I am on the right life path right now. I thought I’d know by now, but I am still plagued by doubt. This causes me to stay firmly in the center of my comfort zone and live a repetitive life.

    • FishFinger says:

      I didn’t want to spam this thread, so I’ll just say it here:

      Thanks for everyone who posted advice here – you’ve told me several things I’ve never really considered. I really appreciate it.

  43. zardoz says:

    [Post 4 reviewing Business Adventures]

    Previously: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3

    Chapter 4 is about insider trading. Prior to the twentieth century, insider trading was not a crime, and many respectable figures made a lot of money on it.

    Public opinion in the US started to turn against the practice in the twentieth century. However, it took a long time to get actual regulations on the books against it. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 prohibited fraud in connection with the purchase or sale of a security, which was a start. By 1942, the Securities Exchange Commission had the “10B-5 rule,” which stated that no stock trader may use any scheme to defraud or “make any untrue statement of a material fact or… omit to state a material fact.”

    When the 10B-5 rule was created in the 1940s, nobody seemed to think that it applied to insider trading. However, judges later ruled that it did, in a series of cases. This chapter is about the first such case, the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company case.

    Texas Gulf had been conducting aerial surveys in the Canadian Shield, “a vast, barren, forbidding area of easten Canada.” Apparently their airplanes had discovered some “geophysical anomalies” indicating the presence of electrically conductive material in Canada. It sounds kind of like Star Trek when I write it out like that, but it was very real. The company called the site Kidd-55.

    They did some exploratory drilling on the site, and found promising results. Like with a lot of the technology described in the book, the mechanical technology seems very familiar, but the communications technology seems impossibly primitive. In order to communicate their progress back to headquarters, people had to keep travelling back and forth between the drill sites and telephones in nearby towns– even when that required travelling miles through seven foot snowdrifts.

    As the company did more exploratory drilling in the Kidd-55 area, they became more and more convinced that there was a huge ore deposit at Kid-55. Excited Texas Gulf executives started visiting the drill sites personally. Various people began to furtively buy shares in the company, and give out tips to others as well. Despite the excitement, the company issued a press release that was subdued. Then, a few days later, right after a meeting of the board of directors, it issued another press release that described the find in much more optimistic terms.

    In the subsequent trial, a lot of complicated points were discussed: whether the first press release was misleading, the exact behavior of various people who bought stock at various times, and so forth. One of the more interesting points to me was the question about whether company employees who had bought stock right after the second press release had done anything wrong. Because of how slow the communications technology of the day was, a director who bought shares right after the news had been revealed would still be buying before most Americans could possibly become aware of it. Therefore, the SEC took the position that even several hours was not enough time. Although the original trial exonerated most of the defendants, this was reversed on appeal. In the end, the courts basically ended up taking the SEC’s position.

    Overall, I thought this chapter was somewhat weaker than the previous ones. While it seems clear that Brooks approves of the SEC’s position, he doesn’t really justify it very well. Instead, he chooses to focus on the actions of individual people– a more journalistic and less analytical style. I don’t think it works well here, because the individual characters just aren’t very memorable or interesting. The approach he used in the chapter about the income tax, where he builds a case for his position, would have been more appropriate.

    Insider trading is still a somewhat unsettled area of the law. Jon Eisenburg writes, and I agree, that “insider trading law is one of many examples of Congress providing no meaningful guidance and the courts largely inventing the law.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the courts got it all wrong, but it does mean that interpretations have tended to shift over time.

    There is a bill which the House passed recently that would provide more written guidance about what the law should be. The bill may or may not become law, of course.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Not my personal experience, but it may be possible to learn interesting things about companies if you work a suicide hotline.

      • Incurian says:

        You might also have the opportunity to influence those companies rather significantly.

      • Reasoner says:

        Was feeling depressed about my company’s prospects, called a suicide hotline, now I’m feeling depressed about the stock price as well. Thanks Nancy Lebovitz 😛

      • zardoz says:

        Wow, this one went to a dark place. The stock market isn’t that depressing, is it?

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        In other news, Morgan Stanley analysts today downgraded XYZ Corp. from “sell” to “jump”.

  44. Majuscule says:

    At a recent meetup two of us realized we’d independently watched the same random video about recreating historic oil paints.

    Kind of chirpy, intense YouTuber, but her research is solid:
    Recreating Historic Paint Colors

    Interesting because there are a number of 19th c. colors that can never truly be duplicated because we now know they’re toxic, unstable, unsustainable, etc. Or because they contained actual Egyptian mummies.

    Also I’m wondering if anyone else reading SSC randomly watched this, in which case I will wonder what the algorithms are up to.

  45. johan_larson says:

    So it looks like there’s quite a disconnect between the games played by people with board games as an adult hobby, and the games I remember playing as a child and seeing in the homes of my friends. I remember seeing lots of Monopoly, The Game of Life, Scattergories, Boggle, Scrabble, Battleship, Clue, Uno, and Axis&Allies. None of those seem to be popular with board game geeks, except maybe Scrabble, but that’s sort of a hobby of its own.

    But if we were to go looking for points of overlap between gamer geeks and the mass market, where might we find it? Can we do better than Diplomacy?

    • kupe says:

      Settlers of Catan perhaps?

      • Matt M says:

        Yeah, I think Catan is definitely the answer, depending on whether something like Apples to Apples/Cards Against Humanity counts as a “board game” or not (but those are certainly enjoyed both by geeks and mass market alike)

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I haven’t played any of those “children’s” board games in a long time (some of them, never), but I do have a few friends who are into the “adult hobby” board games, and I’ve occasionally tried to play such games with them.

      One thing that most such “adult hobby” board games (and all so-called “Eurogames”) have in common is that they are stupendously boring. (The appeal, as near as I can make out, is that certain people enjoy a certain sort of “abstract optimization puzzle”, if you like… there’s very little “action” or “excitement”.)

      This would explain the lack of overlap between the categories you allude to.

      • John Schilling says:

        One thing that most such “adult hobby” board games (and all so-called “Eurogames”) have in common is that they are stupendously boring. (The appeal, as near as I can make out, is that certain people enjoy a certain sort of “abstract optimization puzzle”, if you like… there’s very little “action” or “excitement”.)

        I wouldn’t consider Settlers of Catan to be an “abstract optimization puzzle”, at least not by any standard that wouldn’t also scoop up e.g. Monopoly. And it’s at least moderately active and exciting for most of the game, unlike the horrible endgame (i.e. >50% of the game) slog of Monopoly as usually played.

        And I recall there was some discussion about this a few OTs ago, trying to attribute the difference to “Eurogames” vs “American hobby games”, which I don’t think really works because too many counterexamples in both categories.

        But I do think you are on to something, in that to be a family game that gets buy-in from children the game needs A: an immersive theme that it takes reasonably seriously, and B: frequent and necessary interaction with the other players. Monopoly, for its many sins, never lets the players forget that they are trying to corner the Atlantic City real estate market. And it never lets them forget that there are other players who aren’t just scoring points on a parallel track, but are e.g. paying them rent.

        There are definitely Eurogames that don’t do that, and as such turn into abstract optimization puzzles that you happen to be trying to solve at the same table as some other people, and the one who does so first is the “winner”. Splendor has been fairly well reviewed, and it gets regular play at our club, but it only gives lip service to the “you are a renaissance-era gem merchant” theme; you’re just collecting red, white, blue, green, and black cards and tokens of various costs and values. And, while there is an element of competing for the same resources, it is possible to win while completely ignoring the existence of other players.

        Settlers of Catan, though, is at least as firmly grounded in Settling Catan as that other game is in Monopolizing Atlantic City. And the trade mechanic effectively forces regular interaction among all the other players. It isn’t alone in these virtues, either. So I think the older games, most of which are fatally flawed in their own ways, are best left for A: dead or B: families with very young children.

        • Randy M says:

          So I think the older games, most of which are fatally flawed in their own ways, are best left for A: dead or B: families with very young children.

          If you’re old enough for Monopoly, you’re old enough for, say, Kitchen Rush, or Fabled Fruit, or Sushi Go, or Tsuro, or Carcasonne, etc.
          But kids do seem to honestly enjoy monopoly, even after experiencing more stimulating alternatives, or at least mine will drag out Cat- Puppy- or Horse- opoly when given the chance. I think part of it is that children like collecting things, and like an opportunity to screw over their peers without punishment.

          Speaking of screwing over peers, Lifeboats is a great game if you want the Monopoly experience of breaking up couples and ruining family parties, in a good way. It’s a game that relies on public voting to move survivors towards an island, and resorted in my mother voting her own pawns be eaten by sharks rather than have to choose between her children last time we all played.

        • Civilis says:

          Settlers of Catan, though, is at least as firmly grounded in Settling Catan as that other game is in Monopolizing Atlantic City. And the trade mechanic effectively forces regular interaction among all the other players.

          To add to this, if you want more player interaction than just trading, there are a number of games that feature player conflict without the enjoyment killer that is player elimination.

          Small World, mentioned below, is a fairly quick comic fantasy territory control game.

          Our group recently found and enjoyed Tyrants of the Underdark, which is a bit longer and more serious and adds light deck building mechanics to the territory control.

          The Downfall of Pompeii is an older card and tile management game, which can get surprisingly competitive. Make sure you provide the appropriate sound effects when the volcano consumes your opponent’s pieces!

      • Randy M says:

        all so-called “Eurogames”) have in common is that they are stupendously boring

        I don’t find this to be the case, but perhaps by stupendously boring you mean lack suspense and/or fail to emulate an engaging theme, in which case the criticism is often merited.

        On second thought, I’m trying to think of a pure Euro game that I really enjoy and failing. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing Settlers or Ticket to Ride but that they don’t excite me or cause me to care about them when not playing.
        But many good and exciting modern board games incorporate many Eurogame elements.

      • mendax says:

        (The appeal, as near as I can make out, is that certain people enjoy a certain sort of “abstract optimization puzzle”, if you like… there’s very little “action” or “excitement”.)

        I recommend this article as a means of classifying boardgames by the goal of each school of design.

        As an overview of where this post is going, here are the design schools and associated core priorities that will be discussed:

        Ameritrash School ~ Drama

        German Family School ~ Engagement

        Eurogame School ~ Challenge

        Wargame School ~ Realism

        Abstract School ~ Minimalism

        • Vermillion says:

          That’s a really interesting article, thank you!

          For my own list of games (95% just between my wife and I) I’d like to recommend Lost Cities, a really excellent 2 player set collecting game.

          I’m also a big fan of Power Grid, which is a lot of fun and incidentally has one of the best catch up mechanics I’ve seen. It can get a little math heavy for turn planning but it’s possibly to still do well without paying too much attention to that.

          My favorite party game has always been Mafia, but I recently played Secret Hitler (not CW, that’s just the game name!) and that’s got a lot of potential for hijinks, should be a fun family holiday game (I have a weird family)

          I’ll also second Tyrants of the Underdark, as a really excellent area control deck builder hybrid, maybe my favorite all around game if I think about. Mmm I really want to get that expansion now…

          • Civilis says:

            Much as I like Power Grid, and the auctions and territory mechanics do mean it doesn’t fall into ‘multi-player solitaire’, it’s not one I recommend too much for groups with mixed veteran players and relative new players.

            It has the problem that unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s readily possible to fall into one of several states where it’s impossible for you to catch up, and it’s hard to tell because the very visible in-game catch up mechanisms only deal with a certain type of falling behind. The catch-up mechanic doesn’t help less experienced players in the endgame, it helps the players with experience manipulating the catch-up mechanic. If you don’t have enough power plants that power enough cities (as opposed to merely expensive power plants) or you’re competing for fuel or all your possible build sites are too expensive you may be locked out of victory a couple of turns before the end and never know it.

          • sharper13 says:

            If you like Mafia/Secret Hitler, try The Resistance: Avalon. The game play ends up similar, but because everyone keeps participating until the end of the game, we tend to like it more.

    • Plumber says:

      Risk is the best board game I know of.

      DUNGEON! was okay.

      Castle Risk was excellent.

      Invasion Earth, Car Wars, OGRE and GEV were fun but too complex.

      • Evan Þ says:

        Yay, another fan of Castle Risk! My favorite part was the European theme, but I thought the “castle” mechanic let games often end far too fast when another player takes an Admiral to attack your castle or a territory right next to it. In the end, though, I still liked it better than normal Risk.

      • Randy M says:

        I still remember the first time we played Castle Risk, Probably on New Years or something, around twenty five years ago. My dad was the master of Risk in the household, and would regale us with the stories of playing when he was little, and the fabled incident of someone knocking the board flying in excitement when he was young. Anyway, the lessons of the old version had stuck with him, and his borders were well fortified… but his seaside castle was not, and I took him out of the game very early with one well timed admiral card. He was flabbergasted. Intergenerational memories like that are probably one of the best reasons for keeping out of date classics around in this time of cardboard churn.

        Risk 2210 is another excellent version you in particular might like. Who wouldn’t like to invade the moon and build sea colonies?

    • Skeptical Wolf says:

      Mass market games that can have real appeal for board-game geeks:
      – Chess / Go / Checkers
      – Axis & Allies
      – Clue (the Master Detective version is the best one for this purpose and has recently been reprinted)
      – Risk (I prefer almost any variant to the base game. Risk 2210 and Godstorm both add more flavor along with rules to keep the game from running too long).

      More “serious” games that are still approachable for kids or new board gamers:
      – Small World
      – Dominion
      – Downforce
      – Any Mayfair railroad game (Iron Dragon is my favorite and Martain Rails plays fastest, but any of them can work)
      – Settlers of Catan
      – Ticket to Ride (I’m not personally a fan of this one, but I now a lot of groups use it for this purpose)

      Cooperative games that let the hardcore gamers help everyone else out so that the whole group has fun:
      – Sentinels of the Multiverse
      – Pandemic
      – Mysterium
      – Shadows over Camelot (works fine with or without the traitor, without is usually best for a newer group)
      – BattleStar Gallactica (if your group enjoyed the show)

      Lightweight games that engage kids and newbies with gameplay and appeal to geeks with theme and humor:
      – Smash Up
      – Munchkin
      – Red Dragon Inn
      – Illuminati

      Games I just love too much to not mention here:
      – Revolution
      – Aeon’s End

    • Bugmaster says:

      Dominion (sans the expansions) is a good gateway drug.

      • C_B says:

        I love Dominion, it’s probably my favorite tabletop game, but my experience playing it with less experienced players is that it makes a uniquely bad gateway drug compared to other popular Euro-style games like Catan.

        The crux of the issue is that the outcome of a game of Dominion involves very little random chance except in mirror matches. Thus, if a stronger player plays a bunch of games against a weaker player, the stronger player will win nearly every time, often by a landslide, often in such a way that the weaker player has to spend several turns just going through the motions even though it’s clear there’s no way they’re going to win (or else they might just choose to concede instead). This is extremely unfun for the weaker player.

        Games like Catan that involve significant randomness and dice-rolling can be more fun for weaker players because even a significant skill differential will only result in maybe a 60%-70% winrate for the stronger player, and Catan’s endgame is swingy enough that it’s not usually clear who’s going to win until the last turn or two.

        If you want a deckbuilding game that’s friendlier to new players, I recommend Ascension or Star Realms, both of which introduce randomness by having the cards available for purchase (the equivalent of Dominion’s “Kingdom”) come up one at a time from a shuffled deck, rather than being a consistent, shared pool of options that largely doesn’t change over the course of the game. This allows you to get “lucky topdeck” situations where you can purchase a strong card and deny it to your opponents just because it happened to come up for you.

        • Civilis says:

          Machi Koro (the original) isn’t a deck building game, but it has a card market with all the cards available from the start. It uses a dice mechanic to randomize which buildings pay off, which has a similar effect. It also avoids the ‘single-player multiplayer’ trap by having cards that pay off based on other players dice rolls (or steal from other players), so noticing what other players are doing becomes more important. Some of this is an artificial sense of conflict, but it at least feels when someone takes from you.

        • d20diceman says:

          I’m a massive Dominion fan, have 8 expansions at this point, but I agree that Star Realms is the better introduction to deckbuilding. It’s great that Star Realms (with an expansion) has a “co-op vs a boss” option, which reduces the “hey, want to lose to me a bunch of times in a game I know and love that you’ve never played?” factor.

    • Matthias says:

      Well, Diplomacy is the pinnacle of gaming, so we can’t do better.

      But snark aside, just look at anything that won Spiel des Jahres.

      German mainstream games are one of the big historic influences to the modern resurgence or cardboard based entertainment. The Settlers of Catan was one of them. (But it’s not a game you should be playing today. We have better.)

      I also quite like Acquisition. It’s an American game.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        AIUI the Spiel des Jahres is supposed to be the game that a family who buy one new board game per year should buy.

        The most recent winner is Just One, which is a word-guessing party game somewhat in the vein of Taboo or Articulate. That certainly could have mass-market popularity. Codenames (2016 winner) and Concept (2014 top 3) fill a similar niche and have been extremely popular with non-“gamer” members of my family.

        If we go back a bit more, Catan, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride have all been winners and had a reasonable amount of mass-market success, particularly Catan (which won in 1995).

        If we go back even further, the second Spiel winner ever, in 1979, was Rummikub!

        (The award is given to a game released in Germany in the last year- Rummikub had been sold elsewhere for a while first).

    • Rachael says:

      Board gaming as a hobby has only really taken off in the last 20 years or so, so most of the games adult gamers play now didn’t exist when we were kids.
      The recent games that are popular among adult gamers have evolved to be well-balanced and reward skill, which isn’t the case for most of the mainstream old family games you list.
      These days there are kid-approachable games that are better quality and more enjoyable for adults too, but because there are so many of them, it’s hard for any of them to become as ubiquitous as Monopoly or Game of Life.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Catan and Ticket to Ride have already been cited as “hobby games” (as opposed to the mass market games you listed) that you might find in a non-gamer’s house. I’ll add Carcasonne, Hanabi, For Sale, No Thanks, and party games like Apples to Apples, Balderdash, Time’s Up (and the whole subgenre of “edgy card games” like Cards Against Humanity or Exploding Kittens, though gamers tend to not be as keen on those).

      And don’t listen to people who tell you eurogames are boring. Some people find them boring, some do not, and some find some of them but not all of them boring (and they’re certainly less boring that spending 8 hours finishing a game of Monopoly because you play the rules wrong like most people). Try them and decide for yourself. Eurogames do have player interaction, most of the time, but it tends to be indirect interaction of a non-destructive nature — which doesn’t mean that these games are necessarily peaceful; anyone who has played Carcasonne, Ticket to Ride or Puerto Rico with players who truly know what they’re doing and are playing to win know how cutthroat these colorful and unassuming games can be.

    • Well... says:

      Does chess count? That’s probably the only board game I could say I was ever “into”.

      • johan_larson says:

        My impression is that people play chess either rather seriously or not at all. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who played many different tabletop games regularly, and one of them was chess.

        • Well... says:

          I must be one of those rare in-between people then. I played correspondence chess a lot in my early 20s and basically always had a game going, would check in on my games whenever I was in front of a computer, but I was never serious enough to do exercises or play in tournaments, etc. Although I could consistently beat most of my friends, whenever I met a truly serious player there was no contest, and I never aspired to get to that level. When playing chess all the time became slightly inconvenient I stopped.

          I haven’t played now in a few years but have thought about setting a chess board on my desk at work.

          I’ve never been interested in the “board game hobby” thing your OP is about though.

        • EchoChaos says:

          This pretty much guarantees people pouring out of the woodwork to tell you this exact thing, but yeah, I do this.

          Chess is a great game especially for two players, but when more than two are needed, modern tabletop games fill that nicely.

        • Chalid says:

          I do like chess a lot, but playing against your phone is a pretty close substitute for playing against a human. In many ways, it’s better. That’s not true of most good board games.

        • I don’t think I’ve met anyone who played many different tabletop games regularly, and one of them was chess.

          There was a household I spent a week with once (long story). They played, at least, Stratego and Avalon Hill board games.

          At the time, the older son was the under 21 chess champion of the U.S. and the younger the under 14 chess champion (by memory–I don’t swear that 14 and 21 are exactly the right categories).

        • Wency says:

          When board gamers get together to play board games, they never want to play chess, in my experience.

          But if I’m at a bar with my wife or a non-gamer friend/relative, and they have a chessboard, I’ll pull it out and they’ll often play with me. I’ll try to go easy on them, playing in “social mode”. I guess a lot of gamers don’t enjoy chess in “social mode”, but I’d still much rather do this than play Uno or something.

          Non-gamers often hate learning the rules to games. If I pull out a super-light game like Exploding Kittens, they’ll say “I don’t know this” and not really want to learn. But because every educated person knows the rules to chess, you can pull it out and start playing immediately.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            But because every educated person knows the rules to chess, you can pull it out and start playing immediately.

            Eh, not really.

            It’s a little like saying we can play 1v1 basketball because we both know the rules.

            If you know how to actually play chess, and I just know the rules to chess, we won’t be playing chess. You’ll doing the dad vs. 4 year old version of boxing.

          • Well... says:

            +1. That’s a good point, HBC.

          • johan_larson says:

            But because every educated person knows the rules to chess…

            Do they? In my experience the typical person knows how the pieces move, but even pretty nerdy fellows sometimes miss some of the finer points like castling and en-passant captures if they never played the game seriously.

          • Wency says:

            @HBC: Fair criticisms here. Though I’m not great at chess, just good enough to always beat the sort of person who plays the game now and then but has never thought hard about strategy or tactics (which is ordinarily the sort of person I’m playing). So maybe I only need to reduce my effort by 50% to make the game fairish, more like dad sparring with his 13-year-old.

            This might just mean playing my moves quicker or focusing more on the conversation with someone else at the table. Maybe drink my beer faster than my opponent and pay more attention to the football game on the screen. I can do this and have a good time. Perhaps a more skilled player would have to reduce his effort by 90-95%, which is likely more annoying. I’m also not too concerned with the purity of the game; chess was made for man, not man for chess.

            But again, the game “social chess” is competing against in this scenario is likely something like Uno, so it’s not a high bar.

            The point about castling is fair, as it would ordinarily happen in a large percentage of games, but how often is en passant relevant? In my experience, playing people roughly at my skill level, maybe 1 game in 10. At a casual level, chess plays fine without these rules.

          • Nick says:

            Perhaps a more skilled player would have to reduce his effort by 90-95%, which is likely more annoying. I’m also not too concerned with the purity of the game; chess was made for man, not man for chess.

            A common approach is to introduce a handicap. Take one of your own pawns away, or a minor piece, something of that sort.

          • Aftagley says:

            Chess is one of those games where I’m instantly suspicious if anyone offers to play it with me. I treat people offering to play chess with me like people who want to start “friendly” games of poker or pool or something else where skill differential is an unknown but almost-certainly extant variable.

          • sharper13 says:


            Go is much easier to handicap and actually get a fairly even game than Chess is, and the rules for Go are pretty simple, but the depth of strategy is also very high.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      I remember seeing lots of Monopoly, The Game of Life, Scattergories, Boggle, Scrabble, Battleship, Clue, Uno, and Axis&Allies. None of those seem to be popular with board game geeks, except maybe Scrabble, but that’s sort of a hobby of its own.

      Axis & Allies is not considered an obsolete game by adult board gamers, the way Monopoly is. It’s considered “Ameritrash” (not pejorative, oddly enough!), a genre of games that focus on conflict, theme and plastic miniatures rather than abstract mechanics with a bias against conflict between players (and wooden components) like Eurogames.
      Ultimately this is a false dichotomy, but there’s a kernel of truth to it: Catan is not a Eurogame by this definition, but European designers do produce lots of game derided as “multiplayer solitaire.”
      Wargames are another niche, closer to Ameritrash than Euros, but more “adult”/realistic with cheaper components. If you’re old and male enough to be thinking of Avalon Hill wargames played on paper hex maps, there’s more to it than that: IMO the pinnacle of the genre is Here I Stand, which educates you about the relations between European states (England, France, Spain/HRE, and the Ottomans) and Christianity* during the late Renaissance/Age of Exploration. This is a game some teachers have used in lieu of a textbook on the first half of the 16th century and gotten feedback like “I had no idea all these famous people were alive at the same time.” (eg the Reformers, the conquistadors, Michelangelo, Henry VIII…)

      *It’s a six-player game where one player controls the Papacy and another the Protestants while the other four are playing a wargame with exploration and other elements).

      • Machine Interface says:

        For modern wargames, I’ll add that not all these are heavy and complex games. Academy Games has published several light wargames (1754: Conquest, 1775: Rebellion, 1812: The Invasion of Canada, 878 Vikings: Invasions of England), which not only are easy to handle and have a relatively short playing time, but also are a rare case of design that works well with a variable number of players (typically 2 to 4).

        Another very well liked light wargame is Memoir 44. Sekigahara is bit more front heavy but also really smooth once you’ve played one or two games.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Here I Stand is technically impressive but not actually fun.

        (Twilight Struggle is much more interesting, as it has about the same educational qualities with different topics–and a very similar but improved core mechanic–but is actually an entertaining game.)

    • DragonMilk says:

      Plug whenever board games come up; I find it odd how little overlap there are in the games people typically play and what’s on Board Game Arena:

      7 Wonders, 6 Nimmt, Stone Age, Dice Forge, Puerto Rico, Carcassone, etc.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        7 Wonders is a well-designed game. It can in principle be expanded to much more than 7 players with the expansions, yet a turn takes the same amount of time whether there are 3 players or >7. Since downtime is the enemy of board games with variable player counts, this is not an accomplishment to take lightly.
        There are also massively multiplayer Catan games that modified the rules to achieve the same thing. Everyone plays the phases simultaneously and can trade with the player to their right, their left, and the 3 across from them during the trade phase. The only constraint is the these rules can only be played at a large rectangular or multiple rectangular tables in a snaking pattern.

        • Matt M says:

          I’ve never played the “real” Seven Wonders, but I do play Seven Wonders Duel with my fiancé pretty frequently. I find it to be decent, but a bit unbalanced. Both the science and military win-modes seem quite rarely achieved, and in general I feel like the best strategy is simply to be maximally reactive to the available cards in play (which is to say, to have no real long-term strategy whatsoever)

          • DragonMilk says:

            Duel is a totally different game imo, and much harder.

            Is your fiancee (btw, 2 ees for girls, 1 for guys is my understanding) much of a gamer? I created an issue where my wife does not game and I introduced her to Takenoko because i figured it’s a cute panda thing, and she says she only wants to master it…which I consider to be a pretty dumb game.

          • Matt M says: