Problems With Paywalls


I hate paywalls on articles. Absolutely hate them.

A standard pro-business argument: businesses can either make your life better (by providing deals you like) or keep your life the same (by providing deals you don’t like, which you don’t take). They can’t really make your life worse. There are some exceptions, like if they outcompete and destroy another business you liked better, or if they have some kind of externalities, or if they lobby the government to do something bad. But in general, if you’re angry at a business, you need to explain how one of these unusual conditions applies. Otherwise they’re just “helping you less than you wish they did”, not hurting you.

And so the standard justification for paywalls. Journalists are providing you a deal: you may read their articles in exchange for money. You are not entitled to their product without paying them money. They need to earn a living just like everyone else. So you can either accept their deal – pay money for the articles – or refuse their deal – and so be left no worse off than if they didn’t exist.

But I notice feeling like this isn’t true. I think I would be happier in a world where major newspapers ceased to exist, compared to the world where they exist but their articles are paywalled. Take a second and check if you feel the same way. If so, what could be going on?

First, paywalled newspapers sometimes use a clickbait model, where they start by making you curious what’s in the article, then charge you to find out.

Here are some articles I’ve seen advertised recently (not all on paywalled sources): “Why Trump’s Fight With Obama Might Backfire”, “This Tech Guru Has Made A Shocking Prediction For 2020”, “Here’s Why Men are Pointing Loaded Guns At Their Dicks”.

I didn’t wake up this morning thinking “I wonder whether men are pointing loaded guns at their dicks, and, if so, why. I hope some enterprising journalist has investigated this question, and I will be happy to compensate her with money for satisfying this weird curiosity of mine.” No, instead, I was perfectly and innocently happy not knowing anything about this, right up until I read the name of that article at which point I became consumed with curiosity, ie a feeling that I will be unhappy until I know the answer. In this particular case it’s fine, because the offending website (VICE) is unpaywalled. I go there and after reading through nine paragraphs attacking “MAGA dolts”, in the tenth paragraph I get the one-sentence answer: there’s a meme in the gun community that any time someone posts a picture with their gun, amateurs will chime in with condescending advice about how they should be holding it more safely, so some people post pictures of them pointing loaded guns at their dicks in order to piss these people off. I feel completely unenlightened by knowing this. It has not brightened my day. It just removed the temporary itch of curiosity.

Some people critique capitalism by saying it creates new preferences that people have to spend money to satisfy. I haven’t noticed this being true in general – I only buy shoes when I need shoes, and I only buy Coke when I want Coke. But it seems absolutely on the mark regarding paywalled journalism. VICE created a new preference for me (the preference to know why some people point loaded guns at their dicks), then satisfied it. Overall I have neither gained nor lost utility. This seems different from providing me with a service.

They have an excuse, which is that this is how they make money. But what’s Marginal Revolution’s excuse? I saw this link in an MR links roundup. It was posted as “5. Why men are pointing loaded guns at their dicks.” So obviously I clicked on it, and here we are. But what is MR’s interest in making me click on a VICE article and read through nine paragraphs about “MAGA dolts”?

I can’t really blame them, because I did the same thing for years. I posted links posts, I framed the links in deliberately provocative ways, and then I felt good about myself when my stats page recorded that thousands of people had clicked on them. Sometimes I would write the whole thing out – “Here’s an article about men pointing loaded guns at their dicks – it’s because they want to criticize what they perceive as an excessive and condescending emphasis on trigger safety in gun culture” – and then nobody would click on it, and I would interpret that as a sign that I had failed in some way. I was an idiot, I apologize to all of you, and I have stopped doing that. I urge other bloggers to do the same – we gain no extra money, nor power, nor readership by being running-dogs for VICE’s weird ploy to trick people into reading its stupid articles. But as long as bloggers, Facebookers, tweeters, etc aren’t following good Internet hygiene, the very existence of paywalled sources will continue to be a net negative for the average Internet user.

This isn’t just about obvious clickbait like men pointing guns at their dicks. “Why Trump’s Fight With Obama Might Backfire” feels exactly the same to me. I don’t want to know more ephemeral garbage about Trump which may or may not affect his polls 0.5% for a week before they return to baseline. I don’t want to get more and more outraged until my ability to relate to my fellow human beings is shaped entirely by whether they’re a “MAGA dolt” or not. And yet I find myself curious what’s in the article!

(Trump’s fight with Obama might backfire because independents like Obama more than Trump, and the tech guru’s 2020 prediction was that Trump will lose. You’re welcome.)

Second, paywalled articles become part of the discourse.

Last week’s Wall Street Journal included an opinion column, Lockdowns Vs. The Vulnerable, arguing that statistics show the coronavirus lockdowns do not really prevent the coronavirus, but do disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people. It’s already gotten retweeted a few dozen times, including by some bluechecks with tens of thousands of followers.

Do you want to figure out exactly what statistics it uses and check whether they really show that lockdowns don’t prevent coronavirus? Too bad – the article is paywalled and you cannot read it without paying $19.50/month to the Wall Street Journal. I personally suspect that this article is terribly wrong, possibly to the point of idiocy. But I can neither convince others of this, nor correct my own potentially-false first impression, without paying the Wall Street Journal $19.50 a month. Which I don’t want to do. Partly because it is bad value, and partly because I don’t want to reward them for publishing false things.

Newspapers publish articles – factual and opinionated – intending them to enter the public square as a topic of discussion. But if the discussions in the public square have an entry fee, the public square becomes smaller and less diverse.

It also becomes more of an echo chamber. Probably conservatives subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and liberals subscribe to the New York Times. So if conservatives post articles from the Wall Street Journal, liberals can neither benefit from the true ones and change their own opinions, nor correct the false ones and change conservatives’ opinions. If you can’t even read the other side’s arguments, how can you be convinced by them?

Third, newspapers make it hard to guess whether you will encounter a paywall or not. Some of them raise a paywall on some kinds of articles but not others. Some of them raise a paywall if you’re linked in from social media, but not if you’re linked in from Google (or vice versa). Some of them raise a paywall if it’s your Xth article per month on a certain computer, but not before.

The end result is you can’t just learn to avoid the newspapers with paywalls. If you clearly knew which links were paywalled or not, you would just never click on those links, and not waste any time. Since any given newspaper has like a 25 – 50% chance of being paywalled whenever you read it, you get the variable reinforcement strategy that promotes frustrated addiction. And since at any given moment you are desperate to click on that link and find out Why Some Men Are Pointing Loaded Guns At Their Own Dicks, you will, like a chump, click it anyway, only to howl with rage when the paywall comes up.

This usually isn’t a deliberate misdeed; newspapers understandably want to give people limited access so they can decide whether or not they want to subscribe. But some forms of this do seem deliberate to me. Like when they let you read the first two paragraphs and get emotionally invested in the story, and then surprise you with a paywall in the third (I think this is why you need nine paragraphs of filler before getting to the one-sentence curiosity-satisfier). Or when they wait five seconds before a paywall message pops up, for the same reason.

Fourth, and most important, paywalled newspapers make it hard to search for information on Google. When I was trying to gather statistics on coronavirus to figure out how fast it was spreading, I noticed that the top ten or twenty relevant search results for a lot of coronavirus-related queries were paywalled articles. Because articles will make you wait several paragraphs/seconds before the paywall comes up, I couldn’t just quickly click on something, see if it had a paywall or not, and then move on to the next one. Instead, a search that would have taken me seconds if all paywalled sources ceased to exist ended up taking me several frustrating minutes.


There are some simple steps we can take to fix this.

First, search engines should give users an option to hide paywalled articles from results. I realize how big a shitstorm this will cause, and I plan to enjoy every second of it. If they can’t make this happen for some reason, they should at least display a big red $$$ sign in front of paywalled articles, so users know which links will give them information before they waste a click on them. If Google refuses to do this, Bing should do it to get a leg up on Google. If both of them refuse, DuckDuckGo. If all three of them refuse, sounds like they’re providing an opening for some lucky entrepreneur.

Second, browser or browser-extension designers should figure out some way to automatically get links to display whether they’re paywalled or not. Maybe something like this already exists, but I can’t find it.

Third, bloggers (and social media users) should stop deliberately frustrating their readers. Stop posting tantalizing links like “Why Men Are Pointing Loaded Guns At Their Dicks” without further explanation! If you find the dick-gun phenomenon interesting, post the link plus a one-sentence summary. If someone wants more than the one-sentence summary, they can click the link, but I’ve done A/B testing on this and it never happens.

Fourth, bloggers (and social media users) should preferentially link non-paywalled sites. I realize this is not always possible, but most major stories are important enough that at least one non-paywalled outlet will be covering them.

Fifth, until the browser extension comes through, bloggers (and social media users) who do need to link a paywalled site should let readers know it’s paywalled. For example, Lockdowns Vs. The Vulnerable [PAYWALLED] or [$$$] Lockdowns Vs. The Vulnerable. This will save readers a click and hopefully make bloggers think about what they’re doing and whether it’s really necessary.

I’m making a commitment to do 3, 4, and 5 from now on. If I ever change this commitment, I’ll let you know. If you notice me slipping up, please point it out (nicely) and I’ll try to correct myself.

Book Review: Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind


Julian Jaynes’ The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind is a brilliant book, with only two minor flaws. First, that it purports to explains the origin of consciousness. And second, that it posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind. I think it’s possible to route around these flaws while keeping the thesis otherwise intact. So I’m going to start by reviewing a slightly different book, the one Jaynes should have written. Then I’ll talk about the more dubious one he actually wrote.

My hypothetical Jaynes 2.0 is a book about theory-of-mind. Theory-of-mind is our intuitive model of how the mind works. It has no relation to intellectual theories about how the mind is made of cognitive algorithms or instantiated on neurons in the brain. Every schoolchild has a theory-of-mind. It usually goes like this: the mind is an imaginary space containing things like thoughts, emotions, and desires. I have mine and you have yours. I can see what’s inside my mind, but not what’s inside your mind, and vice versa. I mostly choose the things that are in my mind at any given time: I will thoughts to happen, and they happen; I will myself to make a decision, and it gets made. This needs a resource called willpower; if I don’t have enough willpower, sometimes the things that happen in my mind aren’t the ones I want. When important things happen, sometimes my mind gets strong emotions; this is natural, but I need to use lots of willpower to make sure I don’t get overwhelmed by them and make bad decisions.

All this seems so obvious to most people that it sounds like common sense rather than theory. It isn’t; it has to be learned. Very young children don’t start out with theory of mind. They can’t separate themselves from their emotions; it’s not natural for them to say “I’m really angry now, but that’s just a thing I’m feeling, I don’t actually hate you”. It’s not even clear to them that people’s minds contain different things; children are famously unable to figure out that a playmate who has different evidence than they do may draw different conclusions.

And the learning isn’t just a process of passively sitting back observing your own mind until you figure out how it works. You learn it from your parents. Parents are always telling their kids that “I think this” and “What do you think?” and “You look sad” and “It makes me feel sad when you do that”. Eventually it all sinks in. Kids learn their parent’s theory-of-mind the same way they learn their parents’ language or religion.

When in human history did theory-of-mind first arise? It couldn’t have been a single invention – more like a gradual process of refinement. “The unconscious” only really entered our theory-of-mind with Freud. Statements like “my abuse gave me a lot of baggage that I’m still working through” involves a theory-of-mind that would have been incomprehensible a few centuries ago. It’s like “I’m clicking on an icon with my mouse” – every individual word would have made sense, but the gestalt would be nonsensical.

Still, everyone always assumes that the absolute basics – mind as a metaphorical space containing beliefs and emotions, people having thoughts and making decisions – must go back so far that their origins are lost in the mists of time, attributable only to nameless ape-men.

Julian Jaynes doesn’t think that. He thinks it comes from the Bronze Age Near East, c. 1500 – 750 BC.


Jaynes (writing in the 1970s) was both a psychology professor at Princeton and an expert in ancient languages, so the perfect person to make this case. He reviews various samples of Bronze Age writing from before and after this period, and shows that the early writings have no references to mental processes, and the later ones do. When early writings do have references to mental processes, they occur in parts agreed by scholars to be later interpolations. If, with no knowledge of the language itself, you tried to figure out which parts of a heavily-redacted ancient text were early vs. late by their level of reference to mental processes, you could do a pretty decent job.

I don’t speak fluent Sumerian, so I am forced to take Jaynes’ word for a lot of this. It’s even worse than that, because Jaynes argues that other translators sometimes err and translate non-mental terms in mental ways. This is an easy mistake for them to make, because most cultures, once they got theory of mind, repurposed existing language to represent it. Jaynes makes a convincing case for why this would happen, and convincingly argues for why his interpretations are truer to the spirit of the text, but it does mean you can’t double-check his work by reading the works in translation.

Jaynes spends the most time talking about the Iliad, with good reason – it’s the longest Bronze Age work we have, and in many ways it’s a psychodrama, focusing as much on the characters of Achilles, Hector, etc as the plot itself. It came together piecemeal through the efforts of Greek bards between about 1100 and 800 BC, finally reaching a canonical version in the mouth of “Homer” around 700 BC – the period Jaynes says theory of mind was starting to evolve. Jaynes uses it to trace the development process, showing how older sections of the Iliad treat psychology in different ways than newer ones.

So for example, a typical translation might use a phrase like “Fear filled Agamemnon’s mind”. Wrong! There is no word for “mind” in the Iliad, except maybe in the very newest interpolations. The words are things like kardia, noos, phrenes, and thumos, which Jaynes translates as heart, vision/perception, belly, and sympathetic nervous system, respectively. He might translate the sentence about Agamemnon to say something like “Quivering rose in Agamemnon’s belly”. It still means the same thing – Agamemnon is afraid – but it’s how you would talk about it if you didn’t have an idea of “the mind” as the place where mental things happened – you would just notice your belly was quivering more. Later, when the Greeks got theory of mind, they repurposed all these terms. You can still find signs of this today, like how we say “I believe it in my heart”. In fact, you can still find this split use of phrenes, which has survived into English both as the phrenic nerve (a nerve in the belly) and schizophrenia (a mental disease). As the transition wore on, people got more and more flowery about the kind of feelings you could have in your belly or your heart or whatever, until finally belly, heart, and all the others merged into a single Mind where all the mental stuff happened together.

The Iliad uses these body parts to describe feelings despite its weak theory of mind. Its solution for describing thoughts and decision-making is more…unconventional.

Suppose Achilles is overcome with rage and wants to kill Agamemnon. But this would be a terrible [idea]; after [thinking] about it for a while, he [decides] against. If Achilles has no concept of any of the bracketed words, nothing even slightly corresponding to those terms, how does he conceptualize his own actions? Jaynes:

The response of Achilles begins in his etor, or what I suggest is a cramp in his guts, where he is in conflict, or put into two parts (mermerizo) whether to obey his thumos, the immediate internal sensations of anger, and kill the king, or not. It is only after this vacillating interval of increasing belly sensations and surges of blood, as Achilles is drawing his mighty sword, that the stress has become sufficient to hallucinate the dreadfully gleaming goddess Athene who then takes over control of the action and tells Achilles what to do.

Wait, what?


As you go about your day, you hear a voice that tells you what to do, praises you for your successes, criticizes you for your failures, and tells you what decisions to make in difficult situations. Modern theory-of-mind tells you that this is your own voice, thinking thoughts. It says this so consistently and convincingly that we never stop to question whether it might be anything else.

If you don’t have theory of mind, what do you do with it? Children don’t have theory of mind, at least not very much of it, and more than half of them have imaginary friends. Jaynes has done some research on the imaginary friend phenomenon, and argues that a better term would be “hallucinatory friend” – children see and hear these entities vividly. The atheoretical mind is a desperate thing, and will comply with any priors you give it to make sense of its experiences. If that prior is that the voice in your head is a friend – or god – it will obediently hallucinate a friend or god for you, and modulate its voice-having accordingly.

I know some very smart and otherwise completely sane evangelical Christians who swear to me that God answers their prayers. They will ask God a question, and they will hear God’s voice answer it. God’s voice may not sound exactly like an external voice, and it may give them only the advice they would have given themselves if they’d thought about it – but they swear that they are not thinking about it, that their experience is qualitatively different than that. And these are normal people! If you’re a special person – a saint or mystic, say – and you actively court the experience by fasting and praying and generally stressing your body to the limit – then the voice will be that much louder and more convincing.

There are even whole forms of therapy based on this kind of thing. In Internal Family Systems, the therapist asks the patient to conceptualize some part of their mind (maybe the part that’s producing a certain symptom) as a person, and to talk to it. I know people who swear that this works. They approach their grief or anger or anxiety, and they get a clear image of what “he” or “she” looks like, and then “he” or “she” talks to them. Usually he/she tells them some appropriately psychological sounding thing, like “Hello, I am your anxiety, and I’m only inflicting these fears on you because we were abused as a child and I want to make sure nobody ever abuses us like that again”. Then the patient talks to their anxiety and hopefully strikes a bargain where the patient agrees to take the anxiety’s perspective into account and the anxiety agrees not to make the patient so anxious all the time. Some people swear by this, say it’s helped them where nothing else can, and absolutely insist they are having a real dialogue with their anxiety and not just making up both sides of the conversation.

Most of the people who seem to really like IFS have borderline personality disorder. And borderline people are also at the most risk of dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality). Multiple personality has two main risk factors: borderline, and somebody suggesting to you that multiple personality disorder might be a reasonable thing to have. For a while in the 80s, psychiatrists were really into multiple personality and tried diagnosing everyone with it, and sure enough all those people would admit to having multiple personalities and it would be very exciting. Then the APA told the psychiatrists to stop, people stopped talking about multiple personality as much, and now the condition is rarer.

A few years ago, someone rediscovered/invented tulpamancy, the idea of cultivating multiple personalities on purpose because it’s cool. People who try to do this usually succeed. At least they say they’ve succeeded, and I believe they think this. I think their internal experience is of talking to a different entity inside of them. Also, I have a friend who writes novels, and one time she created such a detailed mental model of one of her characters that it became an alternate personality, which she still has and considers an important part of her life. She is one of the most practical people I know and not usually prone to flights of fancy.

I also have less practical friends, friends who are into occultism. They tell me they sometimes make contact with spiritual entities. I believe them when they say they have these experiences. I believe them when they say that they were not purposely guiding their Ouija board to say whatever it said. I don’t have any friends who are cool enough to have gone through the whole procedure for summoning your Holy Guardian Angel, but from what I read, completing the ritual directly does tend to leave you with an angel who hangs around you and gives you advice. I believe the people who say this is their experience of completing the ritual.

I conclude that giving yourself multiple personalities is actually pretty easy under the right circumstances. Those circumstance are a poor theory of mind (I think borderlines are naturally bad at this) and a cultural context in which having a multiple personality is expected.

Jaynes says ancient people met both criteria. They had absolutely no theory of mind, less theory of mind than the tiniest child does today. And their cultural context was absolutely certain that gods existed. Just as we teach our children that the voice in their mind is them thinking to theirselves, so the ancients would teach their children that the voice in their head was a god giving them commands. And the voice would dutifully mold itself to fit the expected role.

Here Jaynes is at his most brilliant, going through ancient texts one by one, noting the total lack of mental imagery, and highlighting the many everyday examples of conversations with gods. Every ancient culture has near-identical concepts of a god who sits inside of you and tells you what to do. The Greeks have their daemons, the Romans their genii, the Egyptians their ka and ba, and the Mesopotamians their iri. The later you go, the more metaphorically people treat these. The earlier you go, the more literal they become. Go early enough, and you find things like the Egyptian Dispute Between A Man And His Ba which is just a papyrus scroll about a guy arguing loudly with the hallucinatory voice of his guardian spirit, and the guardian spirit’s hallucinatory voice arguing back, and nobody thinking any of this is weird (people who aren’t Jaynes would wimp out and say this is “metaphorical”). Every ancient text is in complete agreement that everyone in society heard the gods’ voices very often and usually based decisions off of them. Jaynes is just the only guy who takes this seriously.

Turn on what Terry Pratchett called “first sight and second thoughts” and try to look at the Bronze Age with fresh eyes. It was really weird. People would center their city around a giant ziggurat, the “House of God”, with a giant idol within. They would treat this idol exactly like a living human – feeding it daily, washing it daily, sometimes even marching it through the streets on sedan chairs carried by teams of slaves so it could go on a “connubial visit” to the temple of an idol of the opposite sex! When the king died, hundreds of thousands of men would labor to build him a giant tomb, and then they would kill a bunch of people to serve him in the afterlife. Then every so often it would all fall apart and everyone would slink away into the hills, trying to pretend they didn’t spend the last twenty years buliding a jeweled obelisk so some guy named Ningal-Iddida could boast about how many slaves he had.

If the Bronze Age seems kind of hive-mind-y, Julian Jaynes argues this is because its inhabitants weren’t quite individuals, at least not the way we think of individuality. They were in the same kind of trance as a schizophrenic listening to voices commanding him to burn down the hospital. All of it – the ziggurats, the obelisks, the pyramids – were an attempt to capture not individual humans, but those humans’ daemons – to get people to identify the voice in their head with the local deity, and replace their free will with a hallucinatory god who represented their mental model of society’s demands on them. In the best case scenario, the voice would be interpreted as the god-king himself, giving you orders from miles away. Jaynes argues the Bronze Age was obsessed with burials and the afterlife (eg the Pyramids) because if you had internalized the voice in your head as Pharaoh Cheops, the voice wasn’t going to go away just because the actual Pharaoh Cheops had died hundreds of miles away in the capital. So even after Pharaoh Cheops dies, as far as all his subjects can tell, he’s still around, commanding them from the afterlife. So they had better keep him really, really happy, just as they did during life. Jaynes presents various pieces of evidence that the main function of pyramids was as a place where you could go to commune with the dead Pharaoh’s spirit – ie ask it questions and it would answer them.

He has a similar explanation for idols. The Bronze Age loved idols. There were the giant idols, ones that made the statue of Zeus at Olympia look like a weak effort. But also, every family had their own individual idols. Archaeologists who dig up Bronze Age houses just find idol after idol after idol, like the ancient Sumerians did nothing except stare at idols all day. Jaynes thinks this is approximately true. Idols were either cues to precipitate hallucinatory voices, or else just there to make conversation more comfortable – it’s less creepy if you can see the person you’re talking to, after all.

Then, around 1250 BC, this well-oiled system started to break down. Jaynes blames trade. Traders were always going into other countries, with different gods. These new countries would be confusing, and the traders’ hallucinatory voices wouldn’t always know all the answers. And then they would have to negotiate with rival merchants! Here theory of mind becomes a huge advantage – you need to be able to model what your rival is thinking in order to get the best deal from him. And your rival also wants theory of mind, so he can figure out how to deceive you. Around 1250 BC, trade started picking up, and these considerations became a much bigger deal. Then around 1200 BC, the Bronze Age collapsed. It’s still not exactly clear why (some of you may have heard me give a presentation on this), though most guesses involve a combination of climate change plus the mysterious Sea Peoples. Whole empires were destroyed, their populations become refugees who flooded the next empire in turn. Now everyone was in unfamiliar territory; nobody had all the answers. The weird habits of mind a couple of traders had picked up became vital; people adopted them or died.

But as theory of mind spread, the voices of the gods faded. They receded from constant companions, to only appearing in times of stress (the most important decisions) to never appearing at all. Jaynes interprets basically everything that happened between about 1000 BC and 700 BC as increasingly frantic attempts to bring the gods back or deal with a godless world.

Now, to be fair, he cites approximately one zillion pieces of literature from this age with the theme “the gods have forsaken us” and “what the hell just happened, why aren’t there gods anymore?” As usual, everyone else wimps out and interprets these metaphorically – claiming that this was just a poetic way for the Mesopotamians to express how unlucky they felt during this chaotic time. Jaynes does not think this was a metaphor – for one thing, people have been unlucky forever, but the 1000 – 750 BC period was a kind of macabre golden age for “the gods have forsaken us” literature. And sometimes it seems oddly, well, on point:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.


One who has no god, as he walks along the street
Headache envelops him like a garment

Jaynes says that “there is no trace whatsoever of any such concerns in any literature previous to the texts I am describing here”.

So people got desperate. He says this period was the origin of augury and divination. Omens “were probably present in a trivial way” before this period, but not very important; “there are, for example, no Sumerian omen texts whatsoever”. But after about 1000 BC, omens become an international obsession.

Towards the end of the second millennium BC…such omen texts proliferate everywhere and swell out to touch almost every aspect of life imaginable. By the first millennium BC, huge collections of them are made. In the library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh about 650 BC, at least 30% of the twenty to thirty thousand tablets come into the category of omen literature. Each entry in these tedious irrational collections consists of an if-clause or protasis followed by a then-clause or apodosis. And there were many classes of omens…

– If a town is set on a hill, it will not be good for the dweller within that town.

– If black ants are seen on the foundations which have been laid, that house will get built; the owner of that house will live to grow old.

– If a horse enters a man’s house, and bites either an ass or a man, the owner of the house will die, and his household will be scattered.

– If a fox runs into the public square, that town will be devastated.

– If a man unwittingly treads on a lizard and kills it, he will prevail over his adversary.

And then there are the demons. Early Sumerians didn’t really worry about demons. Their religion was very clear that the gods were in charge and demons were impotent. Post 1000 BC, all of this changes.

As the gods recede…there whooshes into this power vacuum a belief in demons. The very air of Mesopotamia became darkened with them. Natural phenomena took on their characteristics of hostility toward men, a raging demon in the sandstorm sweeping the desert, a demon of fire, scorpion-men guarding the rising sun beyond the mountains, Pazuzu the monstrous wind demon, the evil Croucher, plague demons, and the horrible Asapper demons that could be warded off by dogs. Demons stood ready to seize a man or woman in lonely places, while sleeping or eating or drinking, or particularly at childbirth. They attached themselves to men as all the illnesses of mankind. Even the gods could be attacked by demons, and this sometimes explained their absence from the control of human affairs…

Innumerable rituals were devoutly mumbled and mimed all over Mesopotamia throughout the first millennium B.C. to counteract these malign forces. The higher gods were beseeched to intercede. All illnesses, aches, and pains were ascribed to malevolent demons until medicine became exorcism. Most of our knowledge of these antidemoniac practices and their extent comes from the huge collection made about 630 B.C. by Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Literally thousands of extant tablets from this library describe such exorcisms, and thousands more list omen after omen, depicting a decaying civilization as black with demons as a piece of rotting meat with flies.

…and angels, and prophets, and all the other trappings of religion. When the gods spoke to you every day, and you couldn’t get rid of them even if you wanted to, angels – a sort of intermediary with the gods – were unnecessary. There was no place for prophets – when everyone is a prophet, nobody is. There wasn’t even prayer, at least not in a mystical sense – as Jaynes puts it, “schizophrenics do not beg to hear their voices – it is unnecessary – in the few case where this does happen, it is during recovery when the voices are no longer heard with the same frequency.”

The Assyrians invented the idea of Heaven. Previously, Heaven had been unnecessary. You could go visit your god in the local ziggurat, talk to him, ask him for advice. But word went around that gods had retreated to heaven – some of the stories even use those exact words, blaming the Great Flood or some other cataclysm. The ziggurats shifted from houses for the gods to e-temen-an-ki – pedestals that the gods could descend to from Heaven, should they ever wish to return.

By 500 BC, the ability to hear the gods was limited to a few prophets, oracles, and poets. Jaynes is especially interested in this last group – he cites various ancient sources claiming that the poets only transcribe what they hear gods and goddesses sing to them (everyone else wimps out and says this is metaphorical). For Jaynes, the Iliad starts “Sing, O Muse…” because the poet was expecting a hallucinatory Muse to actually appear beside him and start singing, after which he would repeat the song to his listeners as a sort of echolalia.

Jaynes ends by referencing one of my favorite ancient texts, Plutarch’s On The Failure Of Oracles. Plutarch, writing around 100 AD, is not a skeptic. He believes oracles work in theory. But he records a general consensus that they don’t work as well as they used to, and that some day soon they will stop working at all. Jaynes believes that as the theory-of-mind waterline rises, fewer and fewer people hear the voices of the gods. By the Golden Age of Greece, it was so difficult that only a few specially selected people placed in specially numinous locations could manage – the oracles. By Plutarch’s own time, even those people could barely manage.

The last oracle to fade away was the greatest – Delphi, perched atop a fantastic gorge as if suspended between Heaven and Earth. Jaynes tries to give us an impression of how important it was in its time; important people from all over the classical world would make the pilgrimage there, leave lavish gifts, and ask Apollo for advice on weighty matters. He thinks that the oracle’s fame protected it; if a cultural validation is an important ingredient in god-hearing, Delphi had the strongest and best. Its reputation was unimpeachable. Still, in the centuries after Plutarch, its prophecies became rarer and rarer; the Pythia’s few divine utterances became separated by more and more incoherent raving. Finally:

As part of [the Emperor Julian’s] personal quest for authorization, he tried to rehabiliate Delphi in AD 363, three years after it had been ransacked by Constantine. Through his remaining priestess, Apollo prophecied that he would never prophesy again. And the prophecy came true.


The real Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind is like my edited version above, except that wherever I say “theory of mind”, it says “consciousness”.

Jaynes has obviously thought a lot about this, and he’s a psychology professor so I’m sure he’s heard of theory of mind. Still, I am so against this choice. Consciousness means so many different things to so many different people, and none of them realize they’re talking past each other, and it’s such a loaded term that any argument including it is basically guaranteed to veer off into the fantastic.

Did he literally believe that the Sumerians, Homeric Greeks, etc were p-zombies? That there was nothing that it was like to be them? That they took in photons and emitted actions but experienced no “mysterious redness of red”? I cannot be completely sure. At times he refers to Bronze Age people as “automatons”, which seems like a pretty final judgment. But he also treats them as genuinely hearing, seeing, and having feelings about the hallucinatory gods who appear to them. The god-human interaction seems like it involves the human being at least minimally conscious. But if Jaynes has a coherent theory here, I must have missed it.

I think he is unaware of (or avoiding) what we would call “the hard problem of consciousness”, and focusing on consciousness entirely as a sort of “global workspace” where many parts of the mind come together and have access to one another. In his theory, that didn’t happen – the mental processing happened and announced itself to the human listener as a divine voice, without the human being aware of the intermediate steps. I can see how “consciousness” is one possible term for this area, if you didn’t mind confusing a lot of people. But seriously, just say “theory of mind”.

Jaynes seems aware of this objection, which he summarizes as “the Bronze Agers did not lack consciousness, they just lacked the concept of consciousness”. His retort is that in some cases, the concept of a thing is the same as the thing itself – he suggests baseball as an example. This seems a little sophistic to me. If somebody told me that Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have a word for “consciousness”, I would be surprised but not stunned – it seems like a strange word for a rich and ancient language to lack, but weirder things have happened. If somebody told me that Chinese people didn’t even have the concept of consciousness until it was introduced from the West, that wouldn’t shock me either – sometimes I think half of philosophers don’t even have the same concept of consciousness I do, and I can imagine the Chinese carving up the world in very different ways. But if someone told me that Chinese people were not conscious, I would dismiss them as a crank. So I can’t accept that having consciousness and having a concept of consciousness are exactly the same thing, and I continue to think “theory of mind” is better here.

The other major difference between my rewrite and Jaynes’ real book is that Jaynes focuses heavily on “bicamerality” – the division of the brain into two hemispheres. He believes that in the Bronze Age mind design, the left hemisphere was the “mortal” and the right hemisphere the “god” – ie the hallucinatory voice of the god was the right hemisphere communicating information to the left hemisphere. In the modern mind design, the two hemispheres are either better integrated, or the right hemisphere just doesn’t do much.

I am not an expert in functional neuroanatomy, but my impression is that recent research has not been kind to any theories too reliant on hemispheric lateralization. While there are a few well-studied examples (language is almost always on the left) and a few vague tendencies (the right brain sort of seems to be more holistic, sometimes), basically all tasks require some input from both sides, there’s little sign that anybody is neurologically more “right-brained” or “left-brained” than anyone else, and most neuroscientific theories don’t care that much about the right-brain left-brain distinction. Also, Michael Gazzaniga’s groundbreaking work on split-brain patients which got everyone excited about hemispheres and is one of the cornerstones of Jaynes’ theory doesn’t replicate. Also, Jaynes says his theory implies that schizophrenic hallucinations come from the language centers of the right hemisphere, and I think the latest fMRI evidence is that they don’t.

(Also, Jaynes says his theory implies that demonic possession occurs in the right hemisphere. But some absolute madman actually put a possessed women in an fMRI machine and then exorcised her while the machine was running and although it showed some odd deficiencies in interhemispheric communication, it didn’t seem to show unusual right hemisphere activity. Imagine having to write that IRB application!)

I don’t think either of these issues fundamentally changes Jaynes’ theory. Just switch “consciousness” to “theory of mind”, and change the psychiatry metaphor from split-brain patients to dissociative-identity patients, and you’re fine.


But there’s another class of problem that Jaynes’ theory doesn’t survive nearly as well: what about Australian Aborigines?

Or American Indians, or Zulus, or Greenland Inuit, or Polynesians, or any other human group presumably isolated from second-millennium-BC Assyrians until anthropologists got a chance to examine them? If consciousness is an invention, and it didn’t spread to these groups, did these groups have it? If so, how? If not, why aren’t they hallucinating gods all the time?

I mean, some of these groups definitely have shamans and medicine men. I’m not saying none of them ever hear gods. But Jaynes claims Bronze Agers heard gods literally all the time, as a substitute for individual thought. Nothing I’ve heard from these people or the anthropologists who study them suggest anything like this is true. And these people also seem to be able to strategically deceive others, another key consciousness innovation Jaynes says Bronze Agers lacked. Or at least I assume I would have heard about it from some anthropologist if they weren’t.

I don’t have a good sense of how Jaynes would answer this objection. The most relevant part of the book is around page 135. Jaynes argues that bicamerality (his term for the hallucinatory gods) started with agriculture in the Bronze Age Near East, though there were scattered hallucinations before then. So plausibly the Inuit, aborigines, etc, were not bicameral. They are in a pre-bicameral state, where they have neither full subjective consciousness, nor clear hallucinations of gods. They may have flashes of both, or do something else entirely, or just be blank. Or something. The point is, if they were perfectly normal conscious people like us, then Jaynes is wrong about everything.

Maybe I’ve done some violence to Jaynes’ theory by rounding it off to “theory of mind” and emphasizing it as an invented technology? But he tries to really emphasize the inventedness of it in the first few chapters, talking about how it had to be built up by layer upon layer of well-chosen metaphor. As far as I can tell I relayed that part faithfully.

And I’m looking at the bulletin board on, and there’s a post by someone who met Jaynes before he died and asked him this question. They write:

On the About Julian Jaynes page it says he gave a lecture at the Wittgenstein Symposium in [Kirchberg]. I was there. It was a wonderful lecture. It is a pity that his work has not had a deeper impact. I still believe he was basically right (and certainly his prose was brilliant).

I did ask him, by the way, whether he thought it possible that the Aborigines in Australia were not conscious as late as the 18th or 19th century. He said he was not sure and that it would be worthwhile to investigate. Well, I never did and probably no one else [did].

So I don’t think I am misunderstanding him by making this criticism, and it sounds like he just bites the bullet and says maybe this was true. The main position on the forum seems to be that anthropologists weren’t asking the right questions as soon as they met uncontacted tribes, and so maybe they would have missed this. I find this hard to believe. It should be really easy to notice, and also the process of them learning Western theory of mind should leave some scars – at least one of them should say something like “that couple-year period when we all stopped hallucinating gods and became conscious – that was a weird time.”

Jaynes partisans are able to come up with a few anthropological works suggesting that the minds of primitive people are pretty weird, and I believe that, but they don’t seem quite as weird as Jaynes wants them to be. So the question becomes whether we would notice if some people worked in a pre-bicameral and pre-conscious way.

I’m tempted to answer “yes, obviously”, but for the counterargument, see this Reddit thread.

This guy thinks he “barely” had consciousness (in the Jaynesian sense), and it took him however many years to notice this about himself. It was just another universal human experience you can miss without realizing it! And notice how it was the culturally learned knowledge that other people worked differently which shifted him to the normal equilibrium. So maybe if there was some tribe like this somewhere, it would be easy to miss.

I’m also thinking of some cross-cultural psychiatry classes I had to take in residency. It’s well-known that some other cultures rarely get depression and anxiety in the classical Western sense. Instead, in the situations where we would become depressed and anxious, they get psychosomatic complaints, especially stomach pain. This happens to Westerners too sometimes, but in other cultures (eg China, Latin America) it’s by far the most common presentation. This seems similar to Jaynes’ argument that the ancient Greeks talked about feelings in their stomachs when we would talk about thoughts in our minds. I’m not saying these people aren’t conscious or have no theory of mind. But it seems like their theory of mind must be…arranged…differently than ours is, somehow. Or that cultural expectations about how these issues express themselves are shaping the way these issues express themselves, powerfully enough that you can just have whole cultures where depression the way we experience it isn’t a thing. See also this list of culture-bound syndromes. Make sure to read the discussion of Western culture-bound syndromes on the bottom – and make sure to spend a few moments considering what a politically-incorrect person might add to the list.

Even if I don’t accept all the stuff about hallucinatory Athena choreographing the Trojan War, the most important thing I’m going to take away from Origin of Consciousness is that theory of mind is an artifact, not a given, and it’s not necessarily the same everywhere. Much of the way we relate to our mind is culturally determined, and with a different enough cultural environment you can get some weird mind designs in ways that have real effect on behavior. Theory-of-mind-space is wider than we imagine, whether we’re thinking about ancient Sumerians or our ordinary-seeming neighbors.

Open Thread 155

This is the biweek-ly 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. There’s another virtual SSC meetup planned for June 7, special guest Steve Hsu, see here for details.

2. Comment of the week is this very long thread on the history of, with good contributions from a former Cracked writer, and some insights relevant to online media in general.

3. But also, the thread starting here about medieval perspectives on cynocephaly – that is, supposing there was a tribe of people with dog-heads somewhere in India, should they be baptized into the church or not? “It’s good to know that if we ever do encounter aliens, the theological spadework has already been done.”

4. And also, Aftagley reports from the DC protests.

5. You may notice the blogroll has changed – less Borgesian, more actually useful. Hopefully it will help people discover new writers worth reading – and let me know if I’ve made any mistakes.

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Bush Did North Dakota

Continuing yesterday’s discussion of fake news:

Guess et al says that 46% percent of Trump voters endorsed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Does this mean fake news is very powerful?

We can compare this to belief in various other conspiracy theories, as measured by the 2016 Chapman University Survey Of American Fears. About 24% believe there’s a government conspiracy to cover up the truth about the moon landing, 30% about Obama’s birth certificate, and 33% about the North Dakota crash.

This last one is especially interesting because there was no unusual crash in North Dakota when the survey was written. The researchers included it as a placebo option to see if people would endorse a conspiracy theory that didn’t exist. 33% of them did.

Before we make fun of these people, consider: there’s a strong presumption that surveys don’t contain made-up questions. There was no “don’t know” option included on the poll, just various shades of “agree” or “disagree”. In order to condemn the people who “agreed” that the government was probably covering up the crash, we would have to assert that the more correct answer was “disagree”. In other words, that people should have an assumption of trusting the government, until they get some specific reason to distrust it. You can make that argument, but it’s not obvious. You could also start from the opposite assumption, where the government is guilty until proven innocent.

To put it another way, suppose I gave you the following survey:


1. Sandy Hook
2. The coronavirus
3. Obama’s birth certificate
4. The North Dakota crash

…many of us would guess he was lying about the North Dakota crash, without a second thought. And if there later turned out to be no North Dakota crash, we wouldn’t feel particularly ashamed; under the circumstances we made the right choice. If you think the government is as untrustworthy as Alex Jones, well, there you go.

I’ve previously talked about a lizardman constant of 4% on polls. That is, it’s hard to get a poll result much lower than four percent for anything, because of respondents making mistakes or trolling. If 4% of people supposedly believe something, that doesn’t mean we need to be concerned about that fraction of the population, it just means that poll has it its floor and it’s hard to conclude what the real number is.

In the same way, maybe we can posit a North Dakota constant of 33%. This is how many people believe in conspiracy theories when there’s no reason at all to believe them, not even the flimsy reasons conspiracy theories usually provide. Sometimes, if there’s a lot of evidence against them, fewer than 33% will believe in a given theory. But if it’s just “Conspiracy! True or false?” – 33% will say true.

Let’s look again at that statistic from the Guess paper – “46% of Trump voters believe”. I think their source is this poll, which finds:

Overall 38% of Americans agreed with the claim, so Trump voters (46%) were not outrageously more likely than anyone else. Other groups unrelated to ideology were about equally likely to believe it (eg 45% of Hispanics).

Like the North Dakota question, this one had no “unsure” or “what the hell are you talking about” option, forcing everyone to feign agreement or disagreement. We see that the majority of agreement is lukewarm. 75% of Trumpists and 85% of Hispanics who believe Pizzagate only “probably” rather than “definitely” believe it.

I don’t think the evidence suggests Trump voters live in an outrageously different world from the rest of us. Instead, it suggests there’s a North Dakota constant of 33% – the number of people who will believe a conspiracy theory for no particular reason. It looks like about 10 – 15% more Trump supporters than predicted believe Pizzagate, probably because it attacks Clinton, and 10 – 15% fewer Hillary supporters than predicted believe it. But these are relatively small effects, and equaled by eg whatever mysterious thing is going on with Hispanics. In any case, it all averages out to about the predicted amount.

Why is this North Dakota Constant of 33% so different from the Lizardman Constant of 4%? I don’t know. Lizardmen seem like a pretty crazy conspiracy theory, but is Hillary’s involvement with Satanic pizza parlors really that much less weird? Sure, Pizzagate is more politicized, and that might make some difference – but then how come a full 24% of Democrats believe it, six times more than Lizardman’s Constant predicts?

One part of the story is that the lizardman poll offered “don’t know”, and 7% of people chose that. If, denied that option, those people would split evenly between yes and no, that brings us up to 7%ish pro-lizardman. But that’s still nowhere near 33%.

I think this is probably a story about low-information voters. If you imagine you’ve never heard about Pizzagate, and you read the question as written, it doesn’t sound too outlandish. Some Clinton staffers’ emails contained some code words. The pedophilia and Satanic abuse are pretty out there, but post-Jeffrey Epstein we all assume somebody’s doing some kind of creepy pedophilia stuff somewhere. Maybe if you don’t know anything about this, and you don’t have the strong priors about Satanic ritual abuse that you get from studying the history of those claims in the 80s and 90s, this one seems like a toss-up. Certainly it seems like more of a toss-up than a clearly-stated assertion that reptilian aliens rule the world. If your prior is “most conspiracy theory-ish things are probably true”, this sounds like the kind of thing that could be true, whereas you might balk at the lizardman statement.

Here’s another question from the same poll:

Who believes Obama was secretly born in Kenya? Lots of people – including 28% of blacks. I’ve been told again and again that birtherism is a racist conspiracy theory and no person could possibly believe it except as a way of dog whistling white supremacy. Yet here we are with 28% of blacks supporting it – and this isn’t a small sample either! I have no idea what these people are thinking, except that 28% is pretty close to the North Dakota Constant and maybe we should just write this one off.

I conclude we probably shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from specific statements like “X% of [GROUP] supports [CONSPIRACY THEORY]”, especially if X is around 33%. It’s probably just the North Dakota Constant. Likewise, we shouldn’t interpret Pizzagate’s high polling numbers as much evidence that fake news is very convincing – though you could still make an argument that fake news plays a role in transmitting believable conspiracy theories to people who are predisposed to believe them.

Of course, there are some high-information voters who still believe these things really strongly. I think they deserve a more complete treatment, which I want to give later. I think a preliminary sketch might look like: if you start with a prior on something being true, you don’t necessarily need much evidence. The North Dakota question suggests that conspiracy theorists start with a high prior on any given conspiracy being true. What remains to be explained is why some people stick to that prior even after they get more information.

Creationism, Unchallenged

How much should responsible news organizations report on stupid things?

If they don’t report at all, the stupid things go unchallenged. But if they report too much, then they signal-boost the stupid thing and give it free publicity (eg Donald Trump). Also, people who mistrust the media might reflexively support the stupid thing just because the media hates it (eg Donald Trump). Also, the more time you waste covering stupid things, the less time you have for real news (eg Donald Trump).

I recently read Causes And Consequences Of Mainstream Media Dissemination Of Fake News: Literature Review And Synthesis, which argues that the news might be covering too many stupid things right now. The authors note that “only 2.6% of visits to current affairs articles were to fake news websites” (though other sources suggest more) and that the mainstream press bears some responsibility for spreading inaccuracies beyond this small demographic. But they also understandably worry that maybe if the mainstream press wasn’t so aggressive in covering and debunking fake news, then fake news would go uncorrected.

When I think about this problem, I remember creationism.

In the early 2000s, creationism was Public Enemy Number…maybe not One, but somewhere in the top ten. If you’re old enough to remember the decade at all, you probably recall the key flashpoints. The Discovery Institute. Michael Behe. “Teach the controversy”. The Creation Museum. Of Pandas And People. That one anti-Richard-Dawkins rap song which somehow despite everything managed to be really good.

And you probably remember the efforts by “the reality based community” to spread awareness of the dangers of creationism – the xkcd comics, the petitions by 1400 scientists named Steve, the New York Times articles:

Frequency of the word ‘creationism’ in the New York Times as a percent of all words, source here but currently down

…yeah, the 2000s were a weird time. I’ve talked about this particular conflict already in my post New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed. Today I want to focus on another aspect.

All those creationists are still there. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 40% of Americans believed “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”, little different from 44% who believed it when they first asked in 1983 or the 46% who believed it in 2006.

And the Discovery Institute! They’re still there! You can read their very modern-looking website at Their blog has three new posts on creationism just from the past two days (eg A Hot Seller From Discovery Institute Press: New Book Offers Intelligent Design In A Nutshell).

Same with the Creation Museum! Last year they completed a $5.5 million upgrade, including a planetarium, “4D theater”, and a snazzy “Biblical authority exhibit”. And they still have their full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark (looking more and more prescient these days).

Same with Michael Behe! He’s still publishing! Last year he released his newest book, Darwin Devolves, which “gives a sweeping tour of how modern theories of evolution fall short and how the devolving nature of Darwin’s mechanism limits them even further”. Also, in case you wanted to read Behe’s opinions about the coronavirus, that is a thing you can do.

As far as I can tell, the creationists are putting in just as much effort today as they did in 2006. But the mainstream went from fiercely challenging them, to totally ignoring them. And the change didn’t help them at all. They haven’t won any major victories, or convinced any more people. If anything, they’re doing worse – nobody hears about them. Although the decline in media coverage hasn’t prevented people from being creationist, it hasn’t helped creationism spread or build clout either.

I see people using rivers of ink to fight the modern equivalents of creationists. Pizzagaters, flat-earthers, moon-hoaxers, QAnon, deep-staters, people who say the coronavirus is a bioweapon, Alex Jones. Are they sure it’s not equally useless? Equally counterproductive?

Even beyond that, I see people willing to legitimize any tactic if it gives them a leg up on this group – censorship, social shaming, no-platforming, changing social media from a free public square to a carefully-monitored walled garden. Spreading the cowpox of doubt, teaching people to optimize for solving easy problems in ways that make it harder for them to think about the hard ones. The justification is always the same – if we don’t tighten control, then facts and science will lose out to bullshit and denialism, and fringe ideologies will burst into the mainstream and overwhelm it.

If that were the only way to save civilization from anti-science barbarism, maybe it would be a worthwhile trade. But the experience of unchallenged creationism suggests maybe we can relax.

“My Immortal” As Alchemical Allegory


From Vox: Solving The Mystery Of The Internet’s Most Beloved And Notorious Fanfic. The fanfic is “My Immortal”, a Harry Potter story so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page, and articles about it in Slate, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian.

It’s famous for being really, really bad. Spectacularly bad. Worse than it should be possible for anything to be. You wouldn’t think you could get The Guardian to write an article about how bad your fanfiction was, but here we are. Everyone agrees that it must have taken a genius to make something so awful, but until recently nobody knew who had authored the pseudonymous work. The Vox article investigates and finds it was probably small-time author Theresa Christodoupolos, who goes by the pen name Rose Christo.

But this leaves other mysteries unresolved. Like: what is going on with it? Its plot makes little sense – characters appear, disappear, change names, and merge into one another with no particular pattern. Even its language is fluid, somewhere between misspelled English and a gibberish that can at best produce associations suggestive of English words.

All these features are unusual in a modern fanfiction. But they’re typical of alchemical texts, which are usually written in a layer of dense allegory. Might this shed more light on My Immortal? After spending way too long investigating this, I find strong evidence in favor. My Immortal is a description of the Great Work of alchemy. Its otherwise-inscrutable symbolism is a combination of three traditions: the medieval opus, the 17th century Rosicrucians, and the native German traditions encoded in Goethe’s Faust. We’ll start by going over these traditions, then delve into the text to unveil the hidden meaning.

First Source: The Medieval Opus

Medieval alchemy centered around the Great Work, or magnum opus, of creating the Philosopher’s Stone. The Stone is supposedly a substance that can transmute lead into gold and grant immortality. But scholars since Jung have also interpreted the opus symbolically, as a process of spiritual transformation. In this reading, the chemical processes are a metaphor for psychological processes, and the creation of the Stone represents the discovery of the true Self, similar to the Christian gnosis or Buddhist enlightenment. Descriptions of the opus tend to describe it as taking place in a series of stages, usually three: nigredo (blackness), albedo (whiteness), and rubedo (redness).

In the first stage (nigredo, “blackness”), you start with some kind of base matter. In the chemical allegory, this is usually lead. In the psychological version, this is the normal mental state, with all of its hangups and uncertainties. The seeker at this stage is symbolized by the raven, blackest of animals. He (the medieval system assumes a male seeker) must begin by confronting his unconscious mind, which takes the form of a dragon. The unconscious is full of bizarre and shameful repressed material, and the seeker’s instinct is to run away. Instead, he must slay the dragon, at which point the dragon rises again as an ally. The seeker then unites with the unconscious in the first “chemical wedding”, ending in a sudden revelation of blinding whiteness – the second stage of the Work.

In the second stage (albedo, “whiteness”), the base matter must be cleansed of its impurities. The seeker is analogized to a child in a baptismal font, or bathing in a stream, or [any of several other water metaphors]. Eventually it begins to shine with its own inner silvery-white light. When the dross has been cleared away, the seeker encounters a second representation of his feminine principle. He unites with the feminine principle in the second “chemical wedding”, and finally see his True Self as it really is.

In the third stage (rubedo, “redness”), the seeker has already discovered his True Self as a sort of distant guiding star, but has yet to relate it to the rest of his life or the everyday world. The otherworldy True Self must be united with the seeker’s worldly personality in the final and greatest alchemical wedding, often called the Marriage of the Sun and Moon, or the Marriage of the King and Queen, or [several other flowery metaphors], which joins all opposites into a final cataclysmic union – the Philosopher’s Stone. When this stage ends, the seeker is once again an ordinary person interacting with the ordinary earthly world, but now in a way fully integrated with his true Self. In some traditions, the work is cyclic, and the seeker begins again at the nigredo stage.

Some of this is already in canonical Harry Potter – the first book in the series was originally called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Rowling included a few alchemical “easter eggs”. In particular, she includes characters named after two of the three stages: Albus Dumbledore (= albedo) and Rubeus Hagrid (= rubedo). There is no character representing the blackness stage, probably because calling somebody “Nigerus” would be Problematic.

In order to turn Rowling’s half-assed name-dropping into a true alchemical allegory, My Immortal has to introduce the missing character with a blackness-themed name. Accordingly, its first sentence starts “Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way”.

Second Source: The Rosicrucian Writings

These were a series of anonymous pamphlets that took Germany by storm in the early 17th century. They purported to reveal the existence of a secret brotherhood of alchemists, the Rosicrucians, who had discovered vast mystical secrets and were going to disclose them any day now. According to the pamphlets, they had been founded by a hero-sage, Christian Rosenkreutz, who had traveled the world seeking wisdom. But Rosenkreutz was a bit too allegorical for anyone to think he was a real person. His last name was German for “Rosy Cross”, referring to a long tradition of alchemical symbolism in which one produced the Stone by uniting the Rose (the feminine? the spirit? the consciousness?) and the Cross (the masculine? the material world? the body?). The symbolism was a bit unclear, but it caught on, and soon all sorts of mystical groups were using a rose cross as their logo and claiming to be Rosicrucian-inspired.

The most famous Rosicrucian work was The Chymical Wedding Of Christian Rosenkreutz, which purports to be a story about Rosenkreutz getting an invitation to go to a castle for a wedding. But this is just the frame story for throwing a metric ton of inscrutable symbolism at the reader, as Christian successively encounters candle-lighting virgins, golden scales, white serpents, and a bunch of gates and towers. Everybody assumed there were deep mystical secrets contained in this, probably related to the alchemical wedding necessary to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone.

My Immortal wears its Rosicrucian themes on its sleeve. Most obviously, its author uses the not-exactly-subtle pen name “Rose Christo”. But also, the third sentence of the introduction is just “MCR ROX!” A quick check at the My Immortal Wiki tells us that MCR is supposed to be an abbreviation for “My Chemical Romance”.

I maintain that if you are writing a fanfiction of a book about the Philosopher’s Stone, and you use the pen name “Rose Christo”, and you reference a “chemical romance” in the third sentence, you know exactly what you are doing. You are not even being subtle. My Immortal is in part a modern retelling of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.

Third Source: Goethe’s Faust II

You know the story. A great alchemist, frustrated by the limitations of his mortal faculties, makes a deal with the Devil. The Devil will give the alchemist anything he desires. In exchange, if the alchemist ever knows a single moment of perfect happiness, he will die and the Devil will get his soul. Maybe you even know the followup: he covets an innocent maiden, Gretchen, and with the help of the Devil he gradually corrupts her until she chooses death over a life of sin.

All that is Faust Part I. Later in life, Goethe wrote the much weirder Faust Part II. A German scholar assures me that “nobody has any idea what it’s about”, except that it is definitely an alchemical metaphor in some way.

A brief synopsis: Faust, thanks to his pact with the Devil, has now become a powerful sorcerer and respected statesman. He decides that a cool thing to do would be to marry Helen of Troy (here called by her German name “Helena”) the most beautiful woman in history. The Devil (with the help of the Sibyl) helps him time-travel back to ancient Greece, where he meets Helena, seduces her, and brings her back to his own time. They have a child together, but the child dies, and in grief Helena departs Faust for the Greek underworld. Faust devotes himself to a different project – raising a new country out of the sea, which he will govern. The country-raising goes really well, and looking upon his new territory, Faust accidentally feels a single moment of perfect happiness. He dies, and the Devil takes his soul and drags him to Hell. Then a choir of angels show up and distract the Devil. While he is distracted, they carry Faust up to Heaven. There he meets all the women in his life – eg Gretchen and Helena – as well as the Virgin Mary. All of them are revealed to be aspects of the Eternal Feminine within himself (or something), and by recognizing this, he is redeemed and found worthy of salvation. The end.

My Immortal is full of symbolic wordplay (for example, did you catch that “MCR ROX” references not just the Chemical Wedding but also its end result, the Stone?) When it mentions that a character is Goth, or seems Goth, or does something in a Goth way, this is often a visual pun (Goth = Goethe) telling us that the scene has a parallel in Faust. We’ll go over some examples later.

Overall Structure

The canonical version of My Immortal is separated into two books of 22 chapters each. In occultism, 22 is the number of completion, especially in Kabbalah (where there are 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, 22 generations from Adam to Israel, and 22 paths on the Tree of Life), and Tarot (where there are 22 Major Arcana). So we can think of the book, like the Opus, as a double-traversal of the Tree of Life – first going up from Earth to Heaven, then returning to Earth again.

The medieval and Rosicrucian themes are mostly concentrated in the first half of the text, and consist of a series of thwarted traversals of the alchemical path. At the end of Part 1, a final successful traversal is completed. In Part 2, we segue to a scene-by-scene identity with Part 2 of Faust. More specifically:

Chapter 1 – 5: Alchemical Path 1, nigredo, albedo. Purification fails, seeker sinks back into prima materia.
Chapters 6 – 18: Alchemical Path 2, nigredo, albedo, partial rubedo. Second alchemical wedding fails, seeker sinks back into prima materia
Chapters 18 – 22: Alchemical Path 3, nigredo, albedo, rubedo. Second alchemical wedding partly completed, seeker remains in limbo state.
Chapters 22 – 39: Equivalent to Faust, Act II, Scene 3.
Chapters 40 – 44. Equivalent to Faust, Act II, Scene 5. Third alchemical wedding succeeds, Stone attained.

I realize these are very odd claims, so I want to demonstrate the flow of symbolism in each of these and compare it to that used in more traditional alchemical texts.


Chapters 1 – 5: First Path

In his papers on alchemy, Carl Jung writes “Great importance was attached to the blackness as the starting point of the Work”. The first sentence of My Immortal begins “Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way”.

But Ebony’s name isn’t just blackness. It’s a combination of all the different symbols of the nigredo stage. Let’s look at the rest of the Jung quote:

Great importance was attached to the blackness as the starting point of the Work. Generally it was called the “Raven”. In our context the interpretation of the nigredo as terra (earth) is significant. Like the anima media natura or Wisdom, earth is in principle feminine. It is the earth which, in Genesis, appeared out of the waters, but it is also the terra damnata.

I’ve bolded the relevant points. Unlike the albedo and rubedo characters, the nigredo character must be feminine. Her name references the Raven. More speculatively, damnata = Dementia? I think plausibly true. Her name is just a bunch of nigredo symbols strung together.

The nigredo stage begins with a black substance (sometimes identified with lead, the starting point for the transmutation) being placed in a vessel called “the coffin”. From Landauer & Barnes (2011):

The alchemists used a number of different vessels in their work and these vessels – variously known as alembic, coffin, egg, sphere, prison, and womb – particular to stages in the alchemical process. During the blackness of the putrefying Mortificatio, the vessel was represented as a coffin or prison

Each of the three paths in Part I of My Immortal begins with Ebony waking up in a coffin. For example Chapter 2: “I got out of my coffin and took of my giant MCR t-shirt which I used for pajamas”. Remember, MCR means “my chemical romance” and when it appears it usually tells us that we are getting an alchemical analogy.

The black substance in the coffin must then undergo a series of reactions, usually symbolized as interactions between a raven and dragon. Sometimes the raven and dragon are the same entity; other times they are different entities that must confront each other and unite. For example, from the Aurelia Occultae Philosophorum:

I am an infirm and weak old man, surnamed the dragon; therefore am I shut up in a cave, that I may become ransomed by the kingly crown. A fiery sword inflicts great torments on me; death makes weak my flesh and bones. My soul and my spirit depart; a terrible poison, I am likened to the black raven, for that is the wages of sin.

In Jung’s more psychological version, the raven is the seeker and the dragon is the seeker’s unconscious mind. The seeker must begin by confronting his unconscious and all the repressed material therein.

A typical alchemical illustration with raven and dragon. This one isn’t going so well for the raven.

In the first chapter of My Immortal, a raven-named character meets a dragon-named character:

“Hey Ebony!” shouted a voice. I looked up. It was…. Draco Malfoy!

“What’s up Draco?” I asked.

“Nothing.” he said shyly.

But then, I heard my friends call me and I had to go away.

The encounter with the unconscious begins the process of mortificatio. This is cognate with the English word “mortify”, and with good reason – the unconscious is full of all of our deepest and most shameful repressed desires. Herzer and Gillabel describe it like so:

In alchemy the dragon corresponds closely with what Jung called the Shadow. The Shadow is the name for a collection of characteristics and impulses which could be conscious, but which are denied. At the same time we recognize and see them in other people. Some examples of the Shadow are: egotism, laziness, intrigues, unreal fantasies, indifference, or being obsessed by money and possessions. The Shadow is the inferior being in us that desires what we do not allow ourselves because it is uncivilized, because it is incompatible with society’s rules and with the image of our ideal personality. It is all that what we are ashamed of.

When Ebony encounters Draco, she feels shame:

“OMFG, I saw you talking to Draco Malfoy yesterday!” [Willow] said excitedly.

“Yeah? So?” I said, blushing.

“Do you like Draco?” she asked as we went out of the Slytherin common room and into the Great Hall.

“No I so fucking don’t!” I shouted.

“Yeah right!” she exclaimed.

The work of the nigredo stage is to transmute this shame into acceptance and even love. Some sources describe this as slaying the dragon – but after being slain, the dragon rises again in a perfected form. Once the seeker is fully comfortable with their dragon, self and unconscious unite in the first alchemical wedding.

Just then, Draco walked up to me.

“Hi.” he said.

“Hi.” I replied flirtily.

“Guess what.” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, Good Charlotte are having a concert in Hogsmeade.” he told me.

“Oh. My. Fucking. God!” I screamed. I love GC. They are my favorite band, besides MCR.

“Well…. do you want to go with me?” he asked.

I gasped.

Draco invites Ebony on a date, where they will see a band Ebony compares to My Chemical Romance. In general, concert dates in My Immortal represent alchemical weddings. This particular concert is the wedding at the end of the first stage. We know this because the story describes Ebony’s clothing in detail at several points, and it is always some combination of black, white, and red. The particular colors at any given time indicate the stage of the Work being represented. In this case, when dressing up for the concert, Ebony says:”I painted my nails black and put on TONS of black eyeliner. Then I put on some black lipstick.” The only color is black – so she is still entirely in the nigredo stage.

At the end of the concert/date/wedding, Draco and Ebony go to the Forbidden Forest and have sex, representing the union of Ebony and her unconscious. This signals the end of the nigredo stage and the beginning of albedo.

Then he put his thingie into my you-know-what and we did it for the first time.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! ” I screamed. I was beginning to get an orgasm. We started to kiss everywhere and my pale body became all warm. And then….


It was…………………………………………………….Dumbledore!

Almost all descriptions of the beginning of albedo emphasize its suddenness. Jung writes that “the nigredo gives way to the albedo…the ever deepening descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes illumination from above”. Remember that Albus Dumbledore is the Harry Potter character representing albedo, even as Ebony represents nigredo. So as Ebony has sex with Draco (deepening descent into the unconscious), suddenly she sees Dumbledore standing over her.

The part where the seeker has sex with the dragon is canon.

But there are signs that the transition is not complete. Dumbledore interrupts her before she can have an orgasm; the union has been only partially consummated. And there are 21 marks between “was” and “Dumbledore” (20 ellipses plus one lone period), which is one short of 22, the mystical number of completion.

As we will see later, Ebony skipped a step – she did not kill the dragon before uniting with it. Therefore, the purification of the albedo appears as the hostile interference of a superego perceived as alien, rather than as a deliberate cleansing from within. Dumbledore admonishes Ebony for her disgusting sexual act and forces her and Draco to separate, ending the path.

Chapter 6 begins “The next day I woke up in my coffin. I put on a black miniskirt that was all ripped around the end and a matching top.” Ebony is back in the coffin, dressed in all black. She has returned to the very beginning of the Work.

Chapters 6 – 18: Second Path

In this section, Ebony retraces her steps. She meets Draco again. They have sex again. But this time, Ebony learns that Draco is in love with Harry Potter (nicknamed “Vampire” in this work), and breaks up with him angrily. This causes Draco to commit suicide – she has slain the dragon. Later, she learns that Draco has inexplicably come back to life (as the alchemical symbolism insists must happen) and is being held hostage in Voldemort’s lair. Recall again the description from Aurelia Occultae Philosophorum: “I am an infirm and weak old man, surnamed the dragon; therefore am I shut up in a cave, that I may become ransomed by the kingly crown”. She rescues Draco and has sex with him again. The path has been completed in full.

But she actually reaches the albedo stage earlier than that – at the moment Draco dies. Let’s go through the symbolism piece by piece:

We practiced for one more hour. Then suddenly Dumbeldore walked in angrily! His eyes were all fiery and I knew this time it wasn’t cause he had a headache.

“What have you done!” He started to cry wisely. (c dats basically nut swering and dis time he wuz relly upset n u wil c y) “Ebony Draco has been found in his room. He committed suicide by slitting his wrists.” […]

I started crying tears of blood and then I slit both of my wrists. They got all over my clothes so I took them off and jumped into the bath angrily while I put on a Linkin Park song at full volume. […]

I got out of the bathtub and put on a black low-cut dress with lace all over it sandly.

Dumbledore appears, again “suddenly”. He gives her the news of Draco’s death. Then Ebony slits her wrists. Compare to Hamilton’s The Alchemical Process Of Transformation:

Completion of the first stage is now experienced as a death, which is in fact a complete letting go of the old sense of self that was identified unconsciously with the earth nature. Images of fire and burning often accompany the images of death and endings. Now we are ready to enter the second stage.

Did you catch how Dumbledore’s “eyes were all fiery”?

Just as the nigredo stage should begin in a coffin, so the albedo stage should begin in a baptismal font. But a bathtub is a perfectly serviceable replacement – in fact, a raven in a bathtub is the same image used in this part of The Chymical Wedding Of Christian Rosenkreutz. A magic egg hatches a black bird, and then:

A bath colored with fine white powder had been prepared for the bird, which enjoyed bathing in it until the lamps placed beneath the bath caused the water to become uncomfortably warm. When the heat had removed all the bird’s feathers it was taken out.

When Ebony gets out of the bath, she puts on a “dress with lace all over it” – the lace is presumably white, so the dress is black-and-white, signifying that she has now attained both the nigredo and the albedo stages. Her current task in the Work is to purify herself, see through the falsehoods of the ego, and behold her true Self.

Ebony notices that Professors Snape and Lupin have been videotaping her naked in the bath. She accuses them of pedophilia and then “I took my gun and shot Snape and Loopin a gazillion times and they both started screaming and the camera broke.” This is the purification and the confrontation with the ego. The ego is analogized to a voyeur with a camera, recording everything we do, showing us our own nakedness. Ebony shoots the camera and breaks it. Compare to Dogen’s analogy of enlightenment to breaking a mirror.

Ebony’s next step should be a second alchemical wedding, this time with her animus.

The medieval alchemists (writing for their male readers) spoke of the anima figure, the feminine archetype within every man. The anima can appear as a hideous old hag, but if accepted, turns into a supernaturally beautiful young woman, the intended bride of the second alchemical wedding. Jung adds that every woman has an equivalent animus, the male archetype. Presumably he too starts out appearing ugly, but if accepted he transforms into a handsome young man.

Ebony’s dual animus is Hagrid on the one side, and Harry “Vampire” Potter on the other. She constantly conflates these two characters in bizarre ways; we readers are supposed to understand that they represent different facets of the same archetype, which Ebony cannot integrate. For example, when Harry comes in in Chapter 12, Ebony says “I THOUGHT IT WAS HAIRgrid but it was Vampire.” Later, she will constantly refer to them by a combined names like “Hairgrid”, “Hargrid”, or even “Hahrid”.

Ebony externalizes the negative aspects of her animus as Hagrid (note the “Hag”, which she cannot bring herself to say), canonically the ugliest person at Hogwarts. Hagrid is everything she hates: prep, not Goth, and “fucked up”. She externalizes the alluring aspects as Harry, canonically rich, famous, and attractive. Ever since Twilight, the archetypal animus figure – the alluring, supernaturally beautiful, mysterious male – has been the vampire, so Harry becomes “Harry ‘Vampire’ Potter”.

There’s more. In My Immortal, Harry has a pentagram-shaped scar. The pentagram is an alchemical symbol, but there’s some evidence that it’s not what’s really involved here. Earlier in the story, Ebony describes Draco as “wearing white foundation and messy eyeliner kind of like a pentagram (geddit) between Joel Madden and Gerard Way.” Later she uses the same device: “My voice sounded lik a pentagram betwen Amy Lee and a gurl version of Gerard Woy”. I think we are supposed to infer that, as a Satanist, she is uncomfortable with naming the Christian symbol (the cross) and so replaces it with a Satanist symbol (the pentagram). So plausibly Harry has a cross-shaped scar.

This is significant because a few paragraphs later, when Ebony is in the hospital after her wrist-slitting injury, Hagrid comes and offers Ebony a bouquet of roses. Harry (the cross-bearer) is the same person as Hagrid (the rose-bearer). Ebony needs to recognize them as different aspects of the same animus, the united Rosy Cross, so she can behold her True Self. Let’s see how she does:

Hargrid came into my hospital bed holding a bouquet of pink roses.

“Enoby I need to tell u somethnig.” he said in a v. serious voice, giving me the roses.

“Fuck off.” I told him. “You know I fucking hate the color pink anyway, and I don’t like fucked up preps like you.” I snapped. Hargrid had been mean to me before for being gottik.

“No Enoby.” Hargrid says. “Those are not roses.”…He suddenly looked at them with an evil look in his eye and muttered Well If you wanted Honesty that’s all you haD TO SAY! .

“That’s not a spell that’s an MCR song.” I corrected him wisely.

“I know, I was just warming up my vocal cordes.” Then he screamed. “Petulus merengo mi kremicli romacio(4 all u cool goffic mcr fans out, there, that is a tribute! specially for raven I love you girl!)imo noto okayo!”

And then the roses turned into a huge black flame floating in the middle of the air. And it was black.

Pictured: Ebony Raven and “a huge black flame floating in the middle of the air.”

If Ebony had accepted Hagrid, he would have turned into Harry, united with her for the second alchemical wedding, and revealed her True Self. Instead, he produces the sign of black fire. The black sun (sol niger) is one of the most ominous symbols in alchemy. Its various connotations are too complicated to explain here (see The Black Sun: The Alchemy And Art Of Darkness for a thorough review) but they are generally highly negative. “The sol niger [is] Saturn, is the shadow of the sun, the sun without justice, which is death for the living.”

Yet at times the Black Sun can be useful; suffering itself becomes a catalyst for transformation. This seems to be one of those times. Ebony is shocked into acknowledging Hagrid (“Now I knew he wasn’t a prep. “OK I believe you now'”)

Is this good enough for her to find her True Self? Going back to the text:

And then the roses turned into a huge black flame floating in the middle of the air. And it was black. Now I knew he wasn’t a prep.

“OK I believe you now wtf is Drako?”

Hairgrid rolled his eyes. I looked into the balls of flame but I could c nothing.

“U c, Enobby,” Dumblydore said, watching the two of us watching the flame. “2 c wht iz n da flmes(HAHA U REVIEWRS FLAMES GEDDIT) u mst find urslf 1st, k?”


Dumbledore tells Ebony that she needs to find herself. But it is Hagrid who retorts that he has found herself. I take this to mean she has failed to integrate with Hagrid; he remains a psychopomp figure, containing the knowledge of Ebony’s Self but unable to transmit it to her.

Nevertheless, something has been gained, because:

Anyway when I got better I went upstairs and put on a black leather minidress that was all ripped on the ends with lace on it. There was some corset stuff on the front. Then I put on black fishnets and black high-heeled boots with pictures of Billie Joe Armstrong on them. I put my hair all out around me so I looked like Samara from the Ring (if u don’t know who she iz ur a prep so fuk off!) and I put on blood-red lipstick, black eyeliner and black lip gloss.

Ebony is still dressed mostly in black, but has a tiny bit of white (the lace) and the slightest bit of red (the lipstick). She is basically back in nigredo now, with only hints of the other stages she has tried to attain.

All of this catches up with her in the total fuckup of an attempted alchemical wedding that follows. If she is actually in albedo, she should be uniting with her animus. If she is actually in rubedo, she should be uniting with God. Instead, it’s just Draco again.

Then I saw a poster saying that MCR would have a concert in Hogsmede right then. We [Ebony and Draco] looked at each other all shocked and then we went 2gether.

There is a long list of Ebony and Draco’s preparations for the concert (cf. the preparation chapters of The Chymical Wedding Of Christian Rosenkreutz, and note the part where Ebony calls Draco “Christian” at the beginning of Chapter 16).

The original chemical romance.

But the actual concert itself is a disaster:

Gerard was da sexiest guy eva! He locked even sexier den he did in pix. He had long raven blak hair n piercing blue eyes. He wuz really skinny and he had n amazing ethnic voice. We moshed 2 Helena and sum odder songz. Sudenly Gerard polled of his mask. So did the other membez. I gasped. It wasn’t Gerard at all! It was an ugly preppy man wif no nose and red eyes… Every1 ran away but me and Draco. Draco and I came. It was…….Vlodemort and da Death Deelers!

The supposed concert/date/wedding proves utterly disastrous – “My Chemical Romance” is just Voldemort wearing a mask. Draco and Ebony flee. Chapter 18 begins:

I woke up the next day in my coffin. I walked out of it and put on some black eyeliner, black eyesharrow, blood-bed lipstick and a black really low-cut leather dress that was all ripped and in stripes so you could see my belly

She is back in the coffin, dressed in all black (she tries to say the word “red”, but fails). She has lost even the hints of previous stages.

Chapters 18 – 22: Third Path

At the beginning of Chapter 18, Ebony is in her coffin, wearing all black. She immediately meets up with Draco (fourth paragraph of Chapter 18). Immediately after this, Dumbledore suddenly appears (fifth paragraph of Chapter 18). There is purification by water (ninth paragraph of Chapter 19, “I ran to the bathroom”). Hagrid suddenly apperas (tenth paragraph of Chapter 19, “Suddenly Hargrid came. He had appearated.”) Hagrid says there is a My Chemical Romance concert that night (thirteenth paragraph of Chapter 19). We have speed-retraced the entire alchemical path accomplished previously.

But this time, Ebony accepts Hagrid by recognizing him as the keeper of the secret of the alchemical wedding (“’U no who MCR r!’ I gasped.”) And so at the concert, the other half of the animus appears to Ebony in a a merciful form (“Vampire and I began 2 make out, moshing to the muzik.”) Instead of going back to her coffin alone, “we went back to our coffins frenching each other…on the gothic red bed together”. Notice that instead of being in a black coffin, they are now in a red bed, the symbol of the bridal chamber after the second alchemical wedding:

Take the fayer Roses, white and red
And joyne them well in won bed.

This ends the first traversal of the Tree of Life. Part 2 of My Immortal will continue some of the same themes, but subordinate them to a more specific purpose: a reworking of Goethe’s Faust, Part II. In the process, it will show us the completion of the third alchemical wedding and the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Chapters 22 – 39: Faust II, Act 3

For many readers, the weirdest part of My Immortal is the subplot beginning around Chapter 23, where Sybil Trelawney helps Ebony go back in time to the 1980s to seduce young Tom Riddle. Using various bizarre time machines (including Marty McFly’s Delorean) Ebony successfully goes back, woos Tom, returns with him to her own time, and has sex with him.

This is bizarre, but it’s a close parallel of Faust II, Act 3, where the Sibyl helps Faust go back in time to ancient Greece to seduce Helen of Troy. Using various bizarre time machines (including riding on the back of the centaur Chiron) Faust successfully goes back, woos Helena, returns with her to his own time, and has a child with her.

There’s actually an even more direct reference. In Chapter 38, Ebony and Tom are talking about music. Even though Ebony has previously committed to not talking about My Chemical Romance because they didn’t exist in the 1980s, she brings up MCR anyway and Tom is mysteriously familiar with them. Then Ebony says something amazing: “Lol, I totally decided not 2 comit suicide when I herd Hilena.”

In context, “Hilena” is a mispelling of “Helena”, an MCR song. But “Helena” is also Goethe’s Helen of Troy figure. I’ll refer you to The Helena Myth In Goethe’s Faust And Its Symbolism for the full treatment, but the point is that this is basically a one-sentence summary of Part II, Act 3 of Faust. It is Faust’s encounter with Helena, representing the feminine ideal, which saves him from despair and makes life worth living. The Ebony-Tom relationship in My Immortal is a close parallel to this, and here it cheekily calls out the original to anyone with ears to listen.

But the matchup is not perfect. Faust scholars identify three alchemical weddings in the book: first to Gretchen, then to Helena, then to a divine figure representing the Virgin Mary. This mirrors the traditional opus – first you unite with your unconscious, then with the anima, then with divinity. The Helena references in Faust all correspond to the second stage – Helena is Faust’s anima.

Ebony has already had an alchemical wedding with her animus in Chapter 20 – the My Chemical Romance concert where she makes out with Vampire. Looking back, there is a Helena reference there too:

Vampire and I began 2 make out, moshing to the muzik. I gapsed, looking at da band. I almost had an orgasim. Gerard was so fucking hot! He begin 2 sing ‘Helena’ and his sexah beautiful voice began 2 fill the hall.

But we should be done with these references! Ebony should be completely in the third stage by now! In Chapter 38, she attends a concert with Satan. This ought to be her third alchemical wedding: union with a divine figure. Given that she is Satanist, the appropriate divine figure is right there. Instead, they’re not only talking about Helena, they’re unconsciously re-enacting the Helena subplot from Faust. Why?

I think the last alchemical wedding never completed. She “makes out” with Vampire, but does not have sex with him. The union is only partial. Her date with Satan is a confused attempt at the second and third alchemical weddings combined, which is why she can’t decide whether to call him Tom Riddle (another animus figure – remember that canonically Harry Potter is a horcrux of Tom Riddle and they share part of the same soul) or Satan (the divine figure). So although the explicit text is a bunch of parallels to the third/final alchemical union with the divine, the symbology and the Faust metaphor are caught in the second stage.

Once again, things have gotten extremely bad for Ebony’s spiritual growth. We saw a prelude of this with the omen of the Black Sun in Chapter 12. Now things have deteriorated further. She is going to have to take the hard route: she must go through the fire.

In the middle of the concert with Satan (Chapter 38), the song suddenly becomes dissonant. James Potter tries to shoot Lucius Malfoy, but Ebony jumps in front of the bullet and dies.

Chapters 39 – 44: Faust II, Acts 4-5

Chapter 39 starts with a prelude saying that it’s written by a hacker who hates My Immortal. He cracked the real author’s password and plans to ruin the story by writing a deliberately uncharacteristic chapter. He breaks with all of the normal author’s stylistic conventions, eg by using good spelling and grammar throughout. This new chapter ends with Ebony going to Hell, staying there for all eternity, and never being able to do anything Goth ever again.

Then the original author reasserts control, apologizes for letting her account get hacked, and starts over. According to the new, canon timeline, Ebony survives her apparent death (because she was back in time, and so couldn’t really die) and returns to her own era.

Compare to the ending of Faust. Mephistopheles appears and drags Faust’s soul to Hell. But a choir of angels show up, distract him, and steal Faust’s soul away to Heaven.

The end of My Immortal also revolves around Ebony’s redemption from Hell, but via a novel plot device making use of the fourth wall. Ebony is saved not by a spiritual conflict on her own plane, but by a conflict on a higher plane – that between her Author and a hacker trying to destroy the Author’s story. When the Author wins by getting her password back, Ebony is released from Hell; her eternal damnation is retroactively cancelled. This is a sort of weird way of doing a deus ex machina, but honestly it’s less jarring than Goethe’s version.

Upon his salvation, Faust meets all the female characters from his life again, and they redeem him through the power of the Eternal Feminine. Similarly, upon her release Ebony meets all the male characters from her own life. In her case, this leads to an orgy. In Chapter 43, she has a foursome with Draco, Vampire, and Satan. Now, finally, she is consummating the final alchemical wedding, the “union of all opposites” in which she achieves an ultimate integration with all the male aspects of her personality.

Chapter 44, the last chapter of My Immortal, has no parallel in Faust. Instead of the hieros gamos between masculine and feminine completing the redemptive process and ending the Great Work, in My Immortal it only initiates the final apocalypse. All the good characters and all the evil characters show up in the Great Hall and begin to fight in a difficult-to-follow scene. Finally, Dumbledore tells Ebony she has to fulfill her destiny and kill Voldemort. In the last line, Ebony shouts “ABRA KEDABRA!!!!!!!!!!!11111” and the story ends.

What is the meaning of this final word? It partly corresponds to the Harry Potter spell avada kedavra. But the spelling is neither the Rowling version nor the traditional stage magician version.

The closest match I can find is from Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law, whose last sentence is “The ending of the words is the Word Abrahadabra” In Crowley’s commentaries, he explains that “[abrahadabra is] the Word of the Aeon, which signifieth The Great Work accomplished.”

So My Immortal ends with an occult term signifying the “ending of words” and completion of the alchemical Great Work. This suggests Ebony’s redemption was successful; she has escaped Hell, merged with the Eternal Masculine, and triumphed over Voldemort (representing death). She has created the Philosopher’s Stone and achieved the story’s namesake immortality.

But in a different commentary, Crowley also writes: “Abrahadabra is the glyph of the blending of the 5 and 6, the Rose and the Cross.”

…which suggests one last, “hidden” chapter.

The hacker subplot in Chapter 39 suggests that “the story” should be taken to include not just Ebony’s own story, but the frame story in which an author is writing My Immortal as a Harry Potter fanfiction and confronting reviewers, hackers, etc. The Ebony story ends with Ebony speaking the mystic word that unites Rose and Cross. The frame story picks up with a woman named Rose Christo appearing and identifying herself as the author. So My Immortal can be said to end with Ebony abandoning her false self (Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the dark leaden substance of the nigredo), and becoming her divine higher Self (Rose Christo, the completed union of Rose and Cross, who exists on a higher plane than Ebony).

Most of the second part of My Immortal mirrors Part II of Faust. But its ending transcends the source material. The moral of Faust is that you can be redeemed. But My Immortal actively demonstrates the redemption that Faust can only point at. It follows the progress of Ebony from a contemptible character in a terrible fanfiction, through the alchemical process of uniting Rose and Cross, to become Rose Christo, a woman who lives in the real world.

It tells us that every one of us is a Mary Sue in the bad fanfiction of our lives – the narrative created by the ego in order to maintain our illusory selfhood. And in the tradition of other great alchemical texts like The Chymical Wedding Of Christian Rosenkreutz and Faust, it gives us a blueprint for escaping that fanfiction and completing the alchemical Work of breaking into reality.

As the end of Faust puts it:

All of the transient,
Is parable, only:
The insufficient,
Here, grows to reality:
The indescribable,
Here, is done.
Woman, eternal
Beckons us on.

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Links 5/20

[Epistemic status: I haven’t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, but can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

The Movement For The Restoration Of The Ten Commandments Of God had such a strong emphasis on the Commandments that they “discouraged talking, for fear of breaking the Eigth Commandment [against bearing false witness], and on some days communication was only conducted in sign language.” Pretty impressive, although I feel like they might have departed from the Decalogue a tiny bit at the part where they murdered 530 people.

The 1960s were simpler times, when ads in kids’ magazines offered to sell you a pet monkey for $19.95. “My brother is 8, I am 9 years old…and we had $19.95 because we washed cars, we mowed lawns.” What could go wrong?

Gwern on hard to notice ways that things have improved during his lifetime (ie since the late 1980s). Some things are big technology, like the Internet and electric cars. Other things are tiny improvements in everyday objects, like self-adhesive stamps, power windows in cars, wheeled luggage, TVs you don’t have to adjust the antennae on, and computer mice you don’t have to remember to clean. Radios stopped being staticky, air travel got cheaper, showers don’t run out of hot water. Still others are vast vague improvements in whole areas of life, like cleaner air and water, or Amazon-style improved logistics. Recommended.

More sentimental cartography: a map of linguistics (h/t Copular Predicate)

In the 1500s, small forces of Europeans took over large chunks of the world, most famously Cortes and Pizarro in the Americans. But what about Portuguese conquerer Afonso de Albuquerque? In 1506 – just eight years after the first European ships rounded Africa and made it to the Indian ocean at all – he and the Portugese king made a plan to conquer enough Asian coastline to control trade on the Indian Ocean. Over the next seven years, they did exactly this, taking over choice ports like Hormuz (Iran), Goa (India), and Malacca (Malaysia). Unlike the Spanish conquistadors, who had the advantage of using guns while facing Stone Age empires, Afonso generally faced enemies as advanced (and sometimes more advanced) than himself. How did he do it? Daniel Kokotajlo on Less Wrong writes about the lessons from Afonso and the other conquistadors.

The McLibel Case – activists Helen Steel and David Morris distributed anti-McDonalds pamphlets in the UK. McDonalds sued them for libel, starting a case that would cast international attention on the UK’s unusually strict and freedom-of-speech-threatening libel laws. My favorite part of this article is about a proposed settlement: “Steel and Morris secretly recorded the meeting, in which McDonald’s said the pair could criticise McDonald’s privately to friends but must cease talking to the media or distributing leaflets. Steel and Morris wrote a letter in response saying they would agree to the terms if McDonald’s ceased advertising its products and instead only recommended the restaurant privately to friends.”

538 on which states have produced the most presidential nominees. Did you know eight nominees have come from the western US, and all of them were Republicans? Why should that be?

“At this point it’s been pretty conclusively established that the ocean is weird, but one of weirder marine phenomena I’ve encountered is the sea monk or sea bishop, an animal that was sighted of the coast of Poland in 1531, washed up on Danish shores in the late 1540s and went the 16th century equivalent of viral.” Even if you don’t read this one, at least look at the pictures!

Update: new meta-analysis out of Stanford reviews 35 studies and claims that Alcoholics Anonymous is the most effective path to abstinence, and “was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence”. Read this in the context of my previous article Alcoholics Anonymous: Much More Than You Wanted To Know. Overall I am glad to have some evidence to use against the Internet people who always say “science has debunked Alcoholics Anonymous”, but I’m not convinced it’s the right solution for everyone, or necessarily better than any other equally-structured programs. I may have more to say when I’ve read the study in more detail.

This Twitter thread combines a discussion of Bay Area zoning policy with one of the best puns I have ever seen (the Bay won’t let someone rezone something, and this gets described as “an unrezonable decision”).

Marvel introduces two new social-justice-themed superheroes, Snowflake and Safespace (also, they’re black and nonbinary). The writer swears he is not making fun of anyone and actually thinks this is a good idea.

The burned house horizon is the area in Europe where people from 7000 BC to 2000 BC often deliberately burned their own houses down for no apparent reason. Contains modern Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, etc. The “Cucuteni-Trypillian culture” built the largest cities in history up to that date, then burned them down every 75 years or so, consistently, for centuries. “Whether the houses were set on fire in a ritualistic way all together before abandoning the settlement, or each house was destroyed at the end of its life (e.g. before building a new one) it is still a matter of debate…some scholars have theorized that the buildings were burned ritually, regularly and deliberately in order to mark the end of the “life” of the house. The terms ‘domicide’ and ‘domithanasia’ have been coined to refer to this practice.” Also, “although there have been some attempts to try to replicate the results of these ancient settlement burnings, no modern experiment has yet managed to successfully reproduce the conditions that would leave behind the type of evidence that is found in these burned Neolithic sites, had the structures burned under normal conditions”

This is several Weird Venezuelan Happenings ago now, but hopefully you didn’t miss the time last month when a Venezuelan warship attacked an unarmed cruise ship for unclear reasons, but managed to sink itself in the process instead. See also this mock Wikipedia infographic about the battle.

I stumbled across this 2012 Siddhartha Mukherjee piece on depression recently. Even though it’s eight years old, it does a better job than most modern pop science in navigating the successes and failures of SSRIs and the serotonin hypothesis of depression more generally.

Moore’s Law is pretty great, but “in many areas, performance gains due to improvements in algorithms have vastly exceeded even the dramatic performance gains due to increased processor speed”.

The late 1980s saw the “heterosexual AIDS panic”, where people started worrying AIDS would devastate the straight community to the same degree as the gay community. At its peak, Oprah told her audience that “research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years”, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services claimed AIDS could be worse than the Black Death, which killed a third of Europeans. I came across this because Michael Fumento, who helped calm the panic and debunk the rumors, is back in the news saying coronavirus won’t be a big deal – which makes me worry he’s less a heroic lone voice of reason, and a more a guy who just really likes dismissing diseases.

Best of new Less Wrong: conflict theory vs. mistake theory as different strategies for general non-zero-sum games

The Taiwan Junket: an unimportant assemblyman in a backwater state legislature gets asked to propose a meaningless bill about Taiwan. When the meaningless bill passes because nobody cares enough to vote against it, he gets hailed as a hero in Taiwan and offered a free trip to the country to attend a dinner in his honor. He concludes that this was a Taiwanese government propaganda effort to dazzle citizens who aren’t paying attention to details.

Best of new Less Wrong: Choosing The Zero Point. If you frame vegetarianism as a moral obligation you’re shameful for failing at, people get angry and won’t do it. If you frame it as a surprising new opportunity to do more good than you expected to be able to do before, people get excited and are more interested. What’s the general case of this?

It’s always been true that for what the state spends on public-schooling your kid, you could hire fancy private tutors with tiny class sizes (for example, in New York you could buy a $100K/year tutor to teach five kids full-time). @webdevmason points out that this is even more relevant now that reopening public schools could help spread a deadly pandemic.

Silly rules improve the capacity of agents to learn stable enforcement and compliance behaviors claims that arbitrary rules (like eg Jewish ritual law) play a useful role by spreading information about which of your neighbors comply with taboos and how often violations get punished. They present a toy model that shows that rules against eating poisonous berries work better when coupled with an arbitrary pointless rule whose violation has no real consequences.

Many people including me have enjoyed reading comments by no_bear_so_low (aka De Pony Sum) on the SSC subreddit. Now he’s released an online collection of his essays.

Average national IQ correlates well with GDP per capita and other measures of development. But is average national IQ really the right number to look at? “Smart fraction theory” suggests we should instead look at the range of top IQs, since the smartest people are most likely to drive national growth by inventing things or starting businesses or governing well. Now Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson (names you may recognize!) have given the hypothesis its most complete test so far, and found that yes, IQ at the 95th percentile correlates better with national development than at the 50th percentile. But I am a little skeptical of their results, because 95th-%-IQ correlates at about 0.97 with 50th-%-IQ, so any signal from the difference would be very tiny and probably swamped by other features. Also, usually when 50th and 95th are really different, it’s because the country is multiracial (eg South Africa had the highest 50th-to-95th-percentile IQ difference in the whole sample) and those countries’ policies and economies depend a lot on unique features of exactly what’s going on racially. Some more commentary here.

Related: the above study shows Kazakhstan as having among the highest IQs in the world. This was surprising enough to me that I looked it up, and although they are middle-of-the-road by most measures, one study found they have an extraordinary number of super-high-achievers on standardized tests, beating out usual titans like Finland, Switzerland, Israel, and the US. They could be using the Chinese strategy (only let your smartest students take the test in order to look good). But also, the USSR also stuck its space program and several other science megaprojects in Kazakhstan, and a lot of the scientists stayed around after the USSR broke up, so maybe there are a lot of really bright Russian kids. Also, Stalin deported a lot of Koreans there for reasons that probably made sense to him at the time, and some of them are still around too. Also, they’ve resisted Western pressure to stop having a gifted program in their education system, which probably helps a lot. So who knows, maybe the numbers are right?

Stephen Wolfram: Finally We May Have A Path To The Fundamental Theory Of Physics, And It’s Beautiful vs. r/SSC commenters: Oh God, It’s Stephen Wolfram Talking About Cellular Automata Again. See also this Scientific American article, which leans towards the second position.

Best of new Less Wrong: Discontinuous Progress In History: An Update. The first nuke was thousands of times more powerful than any preceding bomb; a graph of bomb progress would have looked like a gently sloping line that suddenly shot up a cliff in 1945. How common is this pattern? Is progress along some metric (like bomb power, or ship speed, or…) usually linear, linear with occasional cliffs, or totally random? Katja Grace investigates. Be sure to check out the section on the Shipularity, where ship sizes briefly increased so quickly that a naive best-fit would have reached infinity in 1860, produced a single utterly huge ship (SS Great Eastern) in 1858, then crashed back down again and resumed growing normally. It concludes that trends are usually continuous except in certain unusual situations, such as “when Isambard Kingdom Brunel is somehow involved”. Of obvious relevance to AI singularities, since we’re wondering whether AI capabilities will grow at some constant rate or suddenly shoot up – someone should make sure no Brunel descendant gets a job at DeepMind.

Against exaggerated criticism of Dr. Seuss – no, he didn’t cheat on his wife when she had cancer, and he (probably) didn’t (exactly) drive her to suicide.

“The common assessment is that Cuba’s achievements in lowering infant mortality and increasing longevity are among the praiseworthy outcomes of the regime—a viewpoint reinforced by studies published in US medical journals…we argue that some of the praise is unjustified. Although Cuban health statistics appear strong, they overstate the achievements because of data manipulation.” And “data manipulation” includes things like “sometimes they force abortions on unconsenting mothers because the fetus looks sickly and if it dies after birth it will ruin their infant mortality stats”. See also discussion here. Cf. eg New York Times‘s treatment of the same topic – “Cuba has the Medicare For All that many Americans dream about…we should push for American babies born in low-income families to have the same to have the same opportunities for attentive health care as [Cuban babies] will have.” [EDIT: see comments here]

Stephan Guyenet on peer review: “I see a lot of harsh criticism of the scientific peer review process, and I think some of it is deserved. But as someone who has been conducting deep evaluations of published literature outside the peer review process, I’d like to offer some perspective…” When he reviews popular science books, he finds that they’re often egregiously wrong about basic facts and nobody has noticed, so he thinks peer review is necessary to enforce a minimum standard of honesty.

Reason presents a theory of how US health care got this way, and discusses the “doctor’s cooperatives” that were handling the job pretty well before the AMA regulated them out of existence.

Related: the New York Times asks health economics experts to rank different countries’ health care systems in a bracket-style tournament. Some big surprises – 4 out of 5 experts say the US’ system is better than Singapore’s! Switzerland is the overall winner.

According to polls, trust in experts (of all types) has increased significantly over the past twenty years. But experts keep telling me it’s been going down. Guess I’ll stop trusting them! But that means trust in experts is going down, which means I should have trusted them after all. Aaah, there’s no way out! Help! [EDIT: Only true for the UK]

New paper asks MTurk users and Intro Psych students to take a survey, and includes some text in the middle of a question meant to test whether they are really paying attention. It finds that 22% of Turkers (and 64% of students) weren’t reading the question before answering. Author: “I think MTurk workers are better respondents. All of the other evidence I’ve seen suggests that, too.”

Speaking of surveys, here’s the results from r/TheMotte’s. I am obviously interested in A Ranking Of Everything, From Scott Alexander To Stalin. Yes, I am the top-ranked person on the list and beat eg George Washington. You could sort of explain that by r/themotte being a spinoff from this blog and so heavily selected for people who like me. But note that other top ten responses are things like “I believe capitalism is a better economic system than all available alternatives” and various other controversial things – users are ranking controversial things they agree with higher than obviously good stuff (“Andrew Yang” is above “religious freedom”; “I believe a baker should be allowed to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding” is above “Abraham Lincoln”). Check out also the writeup of The Modal Motte User if you want to feel uncomfortably seen.

Related: r/TheMotte survey results on the MBTI test

Reporters Without Borders has built The Uncensored Library on Minecraft, containing all the information banned by the repressive governments of the world. The idea is that repressive-state-citizens behind firewalls that prevent them from accessing traditional websites with banned terms can still play Minecraft and get the information that way. Oh, and the architecture is beautiful, exactly what you’d want for a utopian worldwide library dedicated to freedom of thought built in a virtual world with no resource constraints. If we told 1990 we had something like this, they’d think the future had turned out okay after all.

Lesbians (inhabitants of the island of Lesbos) are suing lesbians (homosexual women) in Greek court for “appropriating their national identity”.

Some discussion (based on this and this study) demonstrating that rich Democratic donors do not drag their party toward the right on economic issues.

YouTube admits boosting mainstream media channels over individuals’ videos even though users watch less of them and it makes them lose money.

LA Times on the affordable housing crisis in California. The government regulates affordable housing so heavily that it’s more expensive to build affordable housing for poor people than luxury houses for rich people, and so affordable houses mostly just never get built.

Related: a story about how Mitt Romney solved a homeless shelter budget crisis in Massachusetts. The old policy was that homeless people would stay in a homeless shelter until it was full, and then anyone else who needed shelter would get put up in a hotel at government expense. But lots of people were getting put up at hotels at government expense and it was really expensive. Romney’s new policy was that if a shelter was full and a new person showed up, the longest-time resident of the shelter could go to the hotel, and the new person would stay at the homeless shelter. The rate of new people wanting to stay at full homeless shelters plummeted.

A newly-discovered microbe can “completely stop mosquitoes from being infected by malaria”, scientists already investigating whether it can be used to help eradicate the disease.

In the 1970s, the Japanese auto industry produced noticeably better cars than the US auto industry at lower prices. How did they manage it, and how come it took the US decades to catch up? This review is the best I’ve found on the subject, but although it has lots of great history I still don’t have a good feeling for exactly what the Japanese advantage was and why it was so hard for Americans to do even when the Japanese basically handed their US competitors all their procedures on a silver platter.

DrugsAnd.Me is an exceptionally good site on recreational drugs, when they are vs. aren’t dangerous, and how to use them safely if you decide to go that route. I find myself learning new things even on drugs I am supposedly competent to prescribe to people. Did you know some people think Asians might metabolize benzodiazepines unusually slowly and should start with half the usual dose?

The Scunthorpe Problem is when innocuous words trigger censorship or spam filters because they contain a suspect string – for example, the English town of Scunthorpe sometimes gets censored because it contains “cunt” (also the English town of Lightwater, because it contains “twat”). Some of these are really funny – apparently it’s hard to discuss socialism on some sites because the substring “cialis” makes the filter think it’s an erectile dysfunction ad.

John Alexander Dowie, legendary charlatan faith healer and messianic prophet, got several thousand of his followers to move to his new commune of Zion, Illinois, a town described as “”a carefully-devised large-scale platform for securities fraud”. He is most famous for getting into a Messiah-duel with contemporary Muslim Messiah-claimant Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the still-extant Ahmadiyya movement. Ahmad challenged Dowie to a contest where they would each pray to outlive the other; whoever survived longest was the real Messiah. Dowie died a year before Ahmad, so I guess the Muslims win this one. Also, check out his outfit. Stylish!

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Coronalinks 5/18/20: When All You Have Is A Hammer, Everything Starts Looking Like A Dance

It is the sixty-first day of shelter-in-place. Anti-lockdown protesters have stormed your state capitol, chanting Nazi, Communist, ISIS, and pro-Jeffrey Epstein slogans to help you figure out they’re the bad guys. Inside, the Governor has just finished announcing his 37 step plan to reopen the state over the next ten years. You kind of feel like he should be a little more proactive, but the protesters outside have just unfurled a Khmer Rouge flag, so you hold your tongue.

Meanwhile, a band of renegade economists, tech billionaires, and MIT professors has just announced a bold disruptive Manhattan-Project-style moonshot: send a team of researchers to the swamps of Florida, where legends speak of a Fountain of Youth whose water can cure any malady. But disaster strikes when Florida’s governor announces that exploration is not an essential activity, and threatens to release the quarantine enforcement lions. The nation looks to the White House to solve the growing conflict, but President Trump is too busy evangelizing his latest coronavirus cure: eating those little packets of silica gel in food that say DO NOT EAT. As the Western States Pact and the Eastern Bloc inch closer to war, all that the rest of us can do is strive to stay as well-informed as possible, trying to make sense out of an increasingly nonsensical situation. So:

“Jail Isn’t Real”, I Assure Myself As I Close My Eyes And Drive To The Hair Salon

Here are some CDC graphs that use cell phone data to measure percent of people leaving home over time (source, h/t Kelsey):

On this measure, official government stay-at-home orders didn’t seem to affect the percent of people staying at home, even the tiniest bit.

Facebook is tracking something similar – see their terrible and hard-to-use website here. Here are the data from California:

Can you tell what day a statewide lockdown order was issued? (click here and check the date of the article for answer).

If comparing times doesn’t impress you, we can also compare places. Sweden has attracted international attention for its refusal to shut down business – restaurants and bars there are open as usual. And Nashville has attracted attention as a center of growing anti-lockdown protests by people who think its shelter-in-place order is too strict. But cell phone data finds that citizens of Stockholm and Nashville “have nearly the exact same adjustment in driving, walking, and transit use”.

What’s going on here? On the one hand, lockdowns are poorly enforced and we’ve all seen pictures of people going to the beach unmolested. On the other hand, surely fewer people are going to work, since the offices are all closed? Surely fewer people are going shopping, since the malls are all closed? What about all those pictures of empty freeways during rush hour?

The best answer I can come up with is that most people are risk-averse and started staying at home before the official lockdown. A few risk-tolerant people didn’t, but they are disobeying the lockdown as much as they can anyway. And the cases where risk-tolerant people can’t disobey the lockdown aren’t numerous enough to show up in aggregated cell phone data.

I find this answer pretty unsatisfying, so maybe I’m just misunderstanding what the cell phone tracking data are trying to show, or how much I should expect from them. This might also be a good time to review the ongoing debate about whether reality drives straight lines on graphs, or straight lines on graphs drive reality.


Our World In Data deserves some kind of prize. I think they already have won some prizes, but they deserve better ones. Possibly a Nobel, or a knighthood, or beatification. They give you any information you want, from any country you want, and display it however you want. If you’re trying to figure things out about the coronavirus and not using Our World In Data’s tools and graphs, you’re missing out.

Here’s coronavirus cases per capita across countries, by days after the number of cases per capita in that country passed one in a million. There’s some debate over what we gain/lose by adjusting/not-adjusting for per capita, but I think this is probably the best measure of how good a job different countries are doing at containing the infection:

And here’s coronavirus deaths, by the same measure:

And to save you the trouble of having to divide the first graph by the second graph, case fatality rates:

And since all of these numbers are confounded by testing rates, here’s tests per thousand people:

You’ll hear a lot of bad takes about where America ranks relative to other countries. Ignore them and look at these four graphs. America has one of the highest infection rates of any developed country, trailing only Spain. But it has one of the lowest mortality rates of any developed country, beaten only by Germany, Denmark, and a few other of the usual high performers. It’s right in the middle in terms of numbers of tests, beating eg Netherlands and Sweden, but trailing Germany and Denmark (though it may have an “advantage” on testing since so many people are infected).

Why is US mortality rate so low? The rate could be artificially low it we were unusually good at testing, but we aren’t. It might mean our health care system is unusually good, but that doesn’t seem like us either. I haven’t heard anyone claim that our standards for reporting a death as COVID-19 are stricter than anyone else’s, and our uncategorized excess mortality doesn’t seem much different from everyone else’s. I notice that all highest-mortality-rate countries are European, and that less-developed countries tend to be lower. Maybe it’s something about density? Maybe Europe got a different strain of the virus than everyone else? I only see a few people talking about this (Kevin Drum continues his 100% success rate of having gotten to interesting topics before I did, but see aso here and here), but nobody seems to have much in the way of a theory.

[edit: bpodgursky points out that European populations are, on average, much older than the US]

How effective has lockdown been at controlling the spread of the virus? Three countries have made the news for unusually weak/nonexistent lockdowns – Sweden, the Netherlands, and Japan. All have chosen to keep most of their economy open in the name of “herd immunity”, although they’ve banned very large gatherings like concerts and sports games. If we accept Denmark, Germany, and South Korea as “matched controls” that have made more aggressive efforts to contain the disease, it’s hard to see much of a difference. Sweden’s doing worse than Denmark, but not as much worse as we might have expected. Netherlands is marginally worse than Germany, and Japan marginally worse than South Korea – but it all seems within chance variation. If we’d chosen to use Belgium as a control for the Netherlands (I didn’t because it’s recording mortality statistics in an odd way), Belgium would have looked worse. Countries like Spain and the UK which responded pretty aggressively have more cases than a lot of countries that are barely doing anything at all.

This seems to match the conclusion from the last section: government policy isn’t mattering as much as we think. We thought South Korea and Taiwan were doing well because their governments were so brilliant and competent, but Japan’s government kept denying the problem existed in order to preserve their shot at holding the Olympics, and they seem to be doing equally well.

Switzerland is another weird case. It’s a loose confederation of linguistically French, Germany, and Italian regions. Remember that France and Italy have been devastated by the virus, and Germany has mostly gotten off unscathed. The same is true of Swiss regions; French- and Italian-speaking cantons have been devastated, while their German-speaking neighbors wonder what all the fuss is about. The Swiss government swears that this has nothing to do with policy. From the linked article:

Talking to Swiss media outlet Le Temps on Thursday, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said the efforts to combat the virus were largely uniform across Switzerland – meaning other situational factors were at play.

The measures were decided at a federal level when the epidemic was already advanced in different ways in different regions,” a FOPH spokesperson said. “This has nothing to do with a difference in the extent to which different cantons have taken action.

This isn’t to say government policy doesn’t matter – just that it adds or subtracts a relatively small modifier on top of a much wider variation.

What’s going on? Various hypotheses – BCG vaccinations, smoking rates, genetics, different viral strains – have come and gone, mostly unconvincingly. Another hypothesis – time – does a little better. Countries with different levels of connection to Wuhan and different luck in terms of superspreader events had their epidemics start a month or two earlier or later. Later countries had the benefit of warmer weather and a more aware population who were already taking social distancing measures on their own regardless of what the government told them (national education level might play into this too). Then lockdown strength added a little more or less on top of this.

This explains a little. But it doesn’t explain NYC vs. the rest of the US, or Japan vs. the rest of the world. Something’s still missing here.


It’s becoming increasingly clear that a big (maybe the biggest) risk factor for coronavirus transmission is speaking. Singing is even worse. The louder you speak or sing, the worse it gets.

Some confirmed early superspreader events were choirs. A lot of others were churches, where everyone gets together and sings hymns full-blast. This person’s explanation for the surprisingly low rate of subway-mediated transmission in Japan is that nobody talks on a Japanese subway.

All this makes sense. Coronavirus has mostly droplet transmission. There are three ways to get droplets: coughing, sneezing, or talking/singing. You do one of those about a thousand times more often than either of the others.

I appreciate how much pressure there is on governors to open up churches, but they should be very careful about this, unless churchgoers can promise to stay uncharacteristically silent. I realize how bad it will look to say that golfing and rock concerts and orgies are allowed but churches aren’t. Still, governors should swallow their pride and stand firm.

(Or they could just troll people. I understand Muslims pray quietly facing the ground, so how about ordering that mosques are allowed to reopen but churches aren’t? Then sit back and watch the fireworks.)

An extremely crackpot theory – could the missing cultural vulnerability factor be how loud and spittle-filled people’s speech is? When I think of a country where people talk very loudly to each other without much personal space, Italy is on the top of my list. Then comes New York City, which muscles its way in even though it isn’t even a country. When I think of countries where everyone talks really quietly and far away from each other, I think of Japan, South Korea, and all those other Asian countries that have mysteriously escaped infection.

Are there counterexamples? I Googled “loudest cultures”, and got people talking about Australians, Africans, and Cantonese Chinese. All those places have done pretty well – though they’re all pretty warm right now, which is a confounding factor. Without being able to find some kind of official data about conversational volume, I’m not sure there’s much I can do with this hypothesis right now.

[EDIT: Commenters point to Georgians and Germans as people who speak loudly yet have avoided coronavirus epidemics]

Love In The Time Of Coronavirus

One of my housemates lives two blocks away from her boyfriend, and hasn’t hugged him in three months. A friend lives a town over from his parents, and hasn’t been able to visit them since March.

Meanwhile, government offices and the media are all talking about how to get hair salons to reopen as quickly as possible, and making detailed lists about what kind of golf courses are or aren’t okay. The governor of California has a four phase plan that discusses exactly what criteria need to be fulfilled before we can have fitness centers, swimming pools, and rock concerts – but not a word about when you can hug your loved ones.

Probably the government just assumes everyone is already breaking those rules and there’s no point in worrying about them. I think this assumption generally holds. My patients are mostly law-abiding upper-class liberals who think of the lockdown protesters in Michigan as basically death cultists – and almost all of them casually let slip that they’ve gone over to their parents’ for dinner, or visited their partner, or even had small gatherings with close friends. The cell phone tracking data is equally pessimistic about the lockdowns reaching too far into the private sphere.

But some people are genuinely law-abiding. Fewer all the time, now that they’ve spent months shut off from everyone they love, while watching everyone else go to the beach with their buddies and face zero repercussions. But the government should acknowledge that these people exist and try to support them. Give the slightest acknowledgment that in between declaring marijuana dispensaries an essential activity and saying that even though nobody else is allowed to work Elon Musk can reopen his Tesla factory because he’s famous, someone is also making a plan for when you can see a friend again. Even something like “once we reach Phase 2 of the reopening, you may visit one person outside your household per week” would ease a lot of people’s misery. Even if this isn’t the best idea from a epidemiological standpoint, they should do it anyway, because otherwise people will visit people outside their household and lose all respect for the law in general.

Information Wet Markets

At last, coronavirus prediction markets have arrived. Check out and start investing, unless you live in the United States which is an authoritarian Nazi communist Luddite hellhole and bans you from contributing. Some highlights:

“What percent of the global population will be estimated to have contracted COVID-19 by the end of 2020?” – LESS THAN ONE PERCENT is at 11%, BETWEEN ONE AND THREE PERCENT at 18%, BETWEEN THREE AND FIVE at 39%, and GREATER THAN FIVE at 32%.

“Will hydroxychloroquine be approved as a treatment for COVID-19 by the FDA by October 1 2020?” – YES has 32%, NO has 68%.

And “Will a vaccine be approved before the end of 2020” – almost exactly split, 48% YES, 52% NO.

If you’re too chicken to bet real money, or you live in a fascist antiintellectual statist kakistocracy like the US, you can go to Metaculus, which continues their great work soliciting and aggregating predictions made with fake Internet points.

“When will a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate that has demonstrated an efficacy rate ≥75% in a n≥500 RCT be administered to 10M people?” – median guess, October 10, 2021

“When will the Dow Jones set a new all-time record high after the coronavirus crash of February 2020?” – median guess, December 24, 2021.

“When will Disneyland reopen?” – median guess, August 29, 2020

“Will it be reported that Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020?” – median guess, 25%

There’s also a section on the total number of worldwide coronavirus cases in each quarter of 2020. Q1 (January 1 to April 1) saw about a million worldwide. Today we’re at 4.6 million. Metaculus thinks that by July 1, we’ll be at 7.5 million. By October 1, 9.8 million. By year’s end, 10.9 million. Except that I got those by adding results from different quarters together, and an alternative question that just asks that directly gets 16.2 million. Come on, people! Do some arbitrage! It’s almost like you’re not sufficiently devoted to winning fake Internet points!

Wash Your Hands!

Weird Sun Twitter does handwashing timing mnemonics:

When All You Have Is A Hammer, Everything Starts Looking Like A Dance

Everyone is hoping for a definitive solution to coronavirus. A vaccine, or a good antiviral, or a test + trace regimen so well-coordinated that it stops the virus in its tracks.

Suppose that after X years, we realize there is no definitive solution. We are faced with the choice of continuing restrictions forever, or lifting the restrictions, letting lots of people die, and getting herd immunity the hard way. What then?

If we lift the restrictions, the same number of people will die as if we had never instituted any restrictions at all, and also we will have wasted X years. We will have gone X years with millions of people poor and unemployed, millions of others locked in their houses and unable to have fun – and it won’t have saved a single life.

If there’s a 50% chance of a definitive solution in one year, is it worth staying locked down until then? What about a 25% chance in five years? 10% chance in ten years? If there is never a definitive solution, are we willing to stay locked down forever?

Also: if a lockdown lasts a long time, what’s the average R0 during that phase? One possibility is that it’s less than 1, in which case the virus will “die out” locally (although it probably won’t go extinct smallpox-style – too much opportunity for other countries to reinfect us). Another possibility is that it’s more than 1, in which case lockdown isn’t working and we get continued exponential growth ending in lots of deaths and eventual herd immunity.

Is there a possibility where R0 is exactly 1? Seems unlikely – one is a pretty specific number. On the other hand, it’s been weirdly close to one in the US, and worldwide, for the past month or two. You could imagine an unfortunate control system, where every time the case count goes down, people stop worrying and go out and have fun, and every time the case count goes up, people freak out and stay indoors, and overall the new case count always hovers at the same rate. I’ve never heard of this happening, but this is a novel situation.

If that were true, right now we’re on track to gain herd immunity in 30 years. This would be another worst-of-all-worlds scenario where we have all the negatives of a long lockdown, but everyone gets infected anyway.

Sing, O Muse, Of Arbit-Rage

There’s a morbid joke about the news, which goes something like:

10,000 Africans in a famine =
1,000 Chinese in an earthquake =
100 Europeans in a plane crash =
10 Americans in a terrorist attack =
1 pretty white girl getting kidnapped

(if you want to go a different direction, you can add “= 0.1 black people murdered by cops”)

Coronavirus has killed about 100,000 Americans so far. How bad is that compared to other things?

Well, on the one hand, it’s about 15% as many Americans as die from heart attacks each year. If 15% more people died from heart attacks in the US next year, that would suck, but most people wouldn’t care that much. If some scientist has a plan to make heart attacks 15% less deadly, then sure, fund the scientist, but you probably wouldn’t want to shut down the entire US economy to fund them. It would just be a marginally good thing.

On the other hand, it’s also about the same number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War plus the Korean War plus 9/11 plus every school shooting ever. How much effort would you exert to prevent the Vietnam War plus the Korean War plus 9/11 plus every school shooting ever? Probably quite a lot!

Maybe part of this is that heart attack victims are generally (though not always!) older than 9/11 victims, so the cost in DALYs is lower. But the bigger problem is that there’s no arbitrage in the market for lives. Some normal good, like Toyota Camrys, sells for about the same price everywhere. There might be minor variations based on how far you go from a Toyota factory or something, but overall you wouldn’t expect the same Camry to sell for ten times as much in one city as another. Someone would arbitrage – buy the Toyotas in the cheap city and sell them in the expensive one! But the same reasoning fails when it applies to lives. Life has no single value denominated in dollars, attention, or outrage. So when we search for metaphors to tell us how bad 100,000 deaths from coronavirus are, our conclusion depends entirely on what metaphor we use. “It’s like 15% of heart attacks” sounds not-so-bad, and “it starts with the Vietnam War and gets worse from there” sounds awful, even though they’re the same number. There’s no way to fix this without somehow making all our intuitions collide against each other and equalize, which sounds really hard.

Suppose you reopened the economy tomorrow. You tried as hard as you could to put profits above people, squeezed every extra dollar out of the world regardless of human cost. And then you put a 1% tax on all that economic activity, and donated it to effective charity. Would that save more people than a strict lockdown? If a lockdown costs $5 trillion, then the 1% tax would make $50 billion. That’s about how much the Gates Foundation has spent, and they’ve saved about ten million lives. Ten million is higher than anyone expects US coronavirus deaths to be, so as far as I can tell this is a good deal.

On the other hand, the US spent about $5 trillion on the Iraq and Afghan wars. Even optimistically assuming this helped prevent some terrorism, it’s a no-brainer to say we should have accepted the cost in terrorist attacks and spent it on stricter COVID lockdowns instead.

Is spending resources on the coronavirus lockdown a good idea? A good idea compared to what? Compared to using resources efficiently, goodness no, not at all. Compared to putting the resources in a giant pile and setting them on fire, yes, definitely. Compared to usual practice? Usual practice basically involves alternating betwen the two previous options inconsistently; the answer depends on how long we spend in each category. At this point, we are too incompetent for questions about our preferences to even make sense.


The Marginal Revolution folks and the Mercatus Center are doing really amazing work to try to use economics to coordinate the pandemic response. Here’s a report by Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp about how the government should use purchase guarantees to boost production of essential medical equipment.

Patrick McKenzie of Kalzumeus, a Westerner in Japan, talks about his work trying to get them to realize the severity of the virus and take some response. Written on April 21, when Japan’s situation was at its worst and it seemed like he had presciently ferreted out an undercover epidemic. Since then, Japan has gone back to mysteriously defying gravity, so I’m not sure how to think about this now.

Mark Andreessen made waves with an article arguing that the coronavirus shows America needs to learn how to build things again. I also appreciated Ezra Klein’s response, which was that America already knows how to build things but is blocked by government dysfunction (I doubt Andreesen disagrees with this framing). Klein highlights the term “vetocracy” for all the features of modern society which give us a bias toward inaction. Clearly true and important, although a fuller treatment (which I hope to give!) would have to talk about the advantages vs. disadvantages of bias for action vs. inaction (the very end of this post can perhaps be interpreted as a paean to vetocracy). See also Mark Lutter: Build Institutions, Not Apps.

Related to the bat discussion from last post – a new paper finds that viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian hosts – in other words, despite how it looks, bats don’t spread disproportionately more viruses to humans than any other animal – there are just a lot of bats. But see also this contradictory past study.

Earlier I asked whether some savvy early coronavirus investors had dealt a blow to the efficient market hypothesis. Now that the dust has cleared, I agree with this post saying the EMH still looks pretty good – although sometimes it moves in mysterious ways. Also in me-being-wrong news, evidence continues to come in about whether smoking is a risk factor for coronavirus, protective against it, or all the studies are biased and we have no idea. Something in this space will probably end up on my Mistakes page one day, but I’m going to wait until I can be absolutely sure I know what.

Everyone expected prisons and homeless shelters to be devastated by coronavirus, since they had lots of people together in close quarters and little ability to escape. Although these institutions have not had great times, they seem to have weathered the storm better than a lot of people would have predicted, mostly due to a high rate of asymptomatic infections. Why?

There was a lot of talk a few weeks about about Eastern European success at avoiding the coronavirus. Then Russia and Belarus’ case numbers exploded; both are now doing as bad as any Western European country. Poland, Romania, Czechia, and others continue to be oddly quiet. I suspect random variation – Russia and Belarus looked good until they weren’t – but I guess we’ll find out soon.

This article is kind of critical of Dominic Cummings, but the criticism is that he inappropriately pressured scientific bodies to order a UK lockdown ASAP, instead of letting the scientists take however long it took to evaluate the evidence in a proper scientific way. I like due process and checks-and-balances as much as the next liberal, but I also think you should be allowed to break the rules in an emergency and then let the people affected by your choice decide whether they want to show you mercy based on time proving you right, or punish you to the full extent of the law based on time proving you wrong. In this case he was right and deserves to be celebrated.

Some studies of remdesevir, not very encouraging. Hydroxychloroquine is basically dead in the water at this point, sorry Donald.

Some people are worried that coronavirus might be overblown and doctors are just classifying random other stuff as coronavirus deaths. The best antidote to this claim is this look at excess mortality over the average for this time of year worldwide.

You’ve probably already read this, but the story about how Trump’s premature praise for hydroxychloroquine caused some supporters to overdose on hydroxychloroquine-containing fishtank cleaner got a lot more complicated – they were actually both anti-Trump Democrats, and the woman is now under investigation for murdering her husband and inventing the hydroxychloroquine story to cover it up. This seems like one of those things which is probably a metaphor for life.

There’s been some worry about coronavirus reinfection – maybe people who have already gotten it aren’t immune and can get it again? A recent Korean study tried to put those fears to rest, showing that they were mostly testing errors. Professor Shane Crotty says he has studied the immunology of coronavirus and come to the same conclusion a- after infection, the immune system is able to create antibodies to it which prevent further infection for a while. Two data points don’t prove anything, but this is how things work with most viruses, so the burden of proof is on anyone who thinks COVID-19 is different.

Are coronavirus victims so old and sick they would just die from something else soon anyway? Two studies were recently reported as saying they would have lived at least ten more years, but read Scoop dissecting them in the comments section here.

A few weeks ago people were talking about the “iceberg hypothesis” – maybe detected coronavirus cases are “just the tip of the iceberg”, and there have been so many asymptomatic people that we’re nearing herd immunity already. Recent studies haven’t been kind to this proposal. Both France and Spain have about 5% seroprevalence, which means official counts are only off by a factor of ten, about what we already expected. It also means true mortality rate is still about 1%, also what we already expected (and high enough to result in tens of thousands of deaths before anyone gets herd immunity). No icebergs here. A Santa Clara study seemed to show 2% seroprevalence, which actually was much higher than expected and would be consistent with the iceberg theory, but Andrew Gelman is very much not impressed. Greg Cochran gives the hypothesis a postmortem here, and also is not impressed with claims that we might be able to naturally and easily achieve herd immunity before about ~70% of people are infected.

Elon Musk has reopened Tesla’s Bay Area factory. Although the rest of California is gradually reopening, the Bay Area is playing it extra careful and has asked everyone to stay home until at least June 1. Except, apparently, Elon Musk, who declared the factory was reopening regardless of what anyone said, and that “if anyone is arrested I ask only that it be me”. For some reason, the county did not arrest him, and now it seems to have retroactively legitimized Musk’s action. I like Elon Musk and I support the right to civil disobedience, but the government should absolutely have arrested him. They wouldn’t necessarily have to give him twenty years to life or anything, just arrest him enough to make it clear that there are laws and you get punished if you break them. [EDIT: see here for discussion of why he wasn’t arrested]

Nate Silver crunches the evidence and finds that (contra what I wrote last time) there is no evidence that voting by mail gives one party an advantage. So how come Democrats are so excited about it and Republicans so anxious to prevent it? Do they know something Silver doesn’t know? Or are they really and truly just concerned about their principles, with no ulterior motive?

The latest from EA on best ways to donate to the fight against coronavirus. Summary of the summary: Fast Grants and Development Media International. Fast Grants has a minimum donation of $10,000 (they are smart people and I assume there is a reason for this); some people were previously trying to pool their donations to reach this amount but I don’t know where the latest active pools are.

Coronavirus has killed 90,000 Americans so far. Donald Trump tried to put this in context by saying the seasonal flu sometimes kills 60,000 people a year. There are a lot of problems with this comparison, but one I didn’t realize is that coronavirus death toll only counts confirmed cases, whereas flu death toll counts estimated cases, ie a guess as to how many cases we would find if we had perfect detection. The number of confirmed flu deaths – a fair comparison to the 90,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths – is about 10,000 yearly (and remember the coronavirus hasn’t been around a whole year, or even a whole flu season). The article also is not convinced that the 60,000 flu death statistic is a fair attempt at estimating reality as opposed to a made up number that signals how much the CDC wants us to worry about the flu, and the author suggests the CDC officially lower the flu death toll in order to signal that we want people to worry less about it compared to coronavirus (how many simulacrum levels are you on? You are like a little baby, watch this…)

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Open Thread 154

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. New sidebar ad for Substack, a platform for bloggers and blog readers (some of you may be in that category!) Bloggers have options to monetize their work, readers have options to find the best blog posts on a variety of topics. I would probably be a more effective shill for them if I switched to their platform, but I am Old and Set In My Ways.

2. And another new ad for, a “a free and open source developer tool that allows users to write apps for Android, iOS, and more” using a Visual Basic-like programming language. My contact there says that “it’s been around for many years and very popular in some parts of the world but not very well known in the US so I think getting some eyeballs on this project would be helpful for it.”

3. I have heard your pleas for mercy and commuted EchoChaos and HeelBearCub’s bans to four months only.

4. Slight update on the Book Review Contest: many people expressed a wish to read all the entries, not just the finalists. I’ll probably make all the .txt files available in an archive or something for download. So by sending me your review, you are by default giving me permission to make it public however I want, whether it’s a finalist or not, unless you specifically ask me not to do that.

5. By this point you probably won’t be surprised to hear that there’s another virtual SSC meetup on May 24th. Guest speaker this time is economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Case Against Education, Open Borders, and many excellent blog posts.

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Studies On Slack


Imagine a distant planet full of eyeless animals. Evolving eyes is hard: they need to evolve Eye Part 1, then Eye Part 2, then Eye Part 3, in that order. Each of these requires a separate series of rare mutations.

Here on Earth, scientists believe each of these mutations must have had its own benefits – in the land of the blind, the man with only Eye Part 1 is king. But on this hypothetical alien planet, there is no such luck. You need all three Eye Parts or they’re useless. Worse, each Eye Part is metabolically costly; the animal needs to eat 1% more food per Eye Part it has. An animal with a full eye would be much more fit than anything else around, but an animal with only one or two Eye Parts will be at a small disadvantage.

So these animals will only evolve eyes in conditions of relatively weak evolutionary pressure. In a world of intense and perfect competition, where the fittest animal always survives to reproduce and the least fit always dies, the animal with Eye Part 1 will always die – it’s less fit than its fully-eyeless peers. The weaker the competition, and the more randomness dominates over survival-of-the-fittest, the more likely an animal with Eye Part 1 can survive and reproduce long enough to eventually produce a descendant with Eye Part 2, and so on.

There are lots of ways to decrease evolutionary pressure. Maybe natural disasters often decimate the population, dozens of generations are spent recolonizing empty land, and during this period there’s more than enough for everyone and nobody has to compete. Maybe there are frequent whalefalls, and any animal nearby has hit the evolutionary jackpot and will have thousands of descendants. Maybe the population is isolated in little islands and mountain valleys, and one gene or another can reach fixation in a population totally by chance. It doesn’t matter exactly how it happens, it matters that evolutionary pressure is low.

The branch of evolutionary science that deals with this kind of situation is called “adaptive fitness landscapes”. Landscapes really are a great metaphor – consider somewhere like this:

You pour out a bucket of water. Water “flows downhill”, so it’s tempting to say something like “water wants to be at the lowest point possible”. But that’s not quite right. The lowest point possible is the pit, and water won’t go there. It will just sit in the little puddle forever, because it would have to go up the tiny little hillock in order to get to the pit, and water can’t flow uphill. Using normal human logic, we feel tempted to say something like “Come on! The hillock is so tiny, and that pit is so deep, just make a single little exception to your ‘always flow downhill’ policy and you could do so much better for yourself!” But water stubbornly refuses to listen.

Under conditions of perfectly intense competition, evolution works the same way. We imagine a multidimensional evolutionary “landscape” where lower ground represents higher fitness. In this perfectly intense competition, organisms can go from lower to higher fitness, but never vice versa. As with water, the tiniest hillock will leave their potential forever unrealized.

Under more relaxed competition, evolution only tends probabilistically to flow downhill. Every so often, it will flow uphill; the smaller the hillock, the more likely evolution will surmount it. Given enough time, it’s guaranteed to reach the deepest pit and mostly stay there.

Take a moment to be properly amazed by this. It sounds like something out of the Tao Te Ching. An animal with eyes has very high evolutionary fitness. It will win at all its evolutionary competitions. So in order to produce the highest-fitness animal, we need to – select for fitness less hard? In order to produce an animal that wins competitions, we need to stop optimizing for winning competitions?

This doesn’t mean that less competition is always good. An evolutionary environment with no competition won’t evolve eyes either; a few individuals might randomly drift into having eyes, but they won’t catch on. In order to optimize the species as much as possible as fast as possible, you need the right balance, somewhere in the middle between total competition and total absence of competition.

In the esoteric teachings, total competition is called Moloch, and total absence of competition is called Slack. Slack (thanks to Zvi Mowshowitz for the term and concept) gets short shrift. If you think of it as “some people try to win competitions, other people don’t care about winning competitions and slack off and go to the beach”, you’re misunderstanding it. Think of slack as a paradox – the Taoist art of winning competitions by not trying too hard at them. Moloch and Slack are opposites and complements, like yin and yang. Neither is stronger than the other, but their interplay creates the ten thousand things.


Before we discuss slack further, a digression on group selection.

Some people would expect this discussion to be quick, since group selection doesn’t exist. These people understand it as evolution acting for the good of a species. It’s a tempting way to think, because evolution usually eventually makes species stronger and more fit, and sometimes we colloquially round that off to evolution targeting a species’ greater good. But inevitably we find evolution is awful and does absolutely nothing of the sort.

Imagine an alien planet that gets hit with a solar flare once an eon, killing all unshielded animals. Sometimes unshielded animals spontaneously mutate to shielded, and vice versa. Shielded animals are completely immune to solar flares, but have 1% higher metabolic costs. What happens? If you predicted “magnetic shielding reaches fixation and all animals get it”, you’ve fallen into the group selection trap. The unshielded animals outcompete the shielded ones during the long inter-flare period, driving their population down to zero (though a few new shielded ones arise every generation through spontaneous mutations). When the flare comes, only the few spontaneous mutants survive. They breed a new entirely-shielded population, until a few unshielded animals arise through spontaneous mutation. The unshielded outcompete the shielded ones again, and by the time of the next solar flare, the population is 100% unshielded again and they all die. If the animals are lucky, there will always be enough spontaneously-mutated shielded animals to create a post-flare breeding population; if they are unlucky, the flare will hit at a time with unusually few such mutants, and the species will go extinct.

An Evolution Czar concerned with the good of the species would just declare that all animals should be shielded and solve the problem. In the absence of such a Czar, these animals will just keep dying in solar-flare-induced mass extinctions forever, even though there is an easy solution with only 1% metabolic cost.

A less dramatic version of the same problem happens here on Earth. Every so often predators (let’s say foxes) reproduce too quickly and outstrip the available supply of prey (let’s say rabbits). There is a brief period of starvation as foxes can’t find any more rabbits and die en masse. This usually ends with a boom-bust cycle: after most foxes die, the rabbits (who reproduce very quickly and are now free of predation) have a population boom; now there are rabbits everywhere. Eventually the foxes catch up, eat all the new rabbits, and the cycle repeats again. It’s a waste of resources for foxkind to spend so much of time and its energy breeding a huge population of foxes that will inevitably collapse a generation later; an Evolution Czar concerned with the common good would have foxes limit their breeding at a sustainable level. But since individual foxes that breed excessively are more likely to have their genes represented in the next generation than foxes that breed at a sustainable level, we end up with foxes that breed excessively, and the cycle continues.

(but humans are too smart to fall for this one, right?)

Some scientists tried to create group selection under laboratory conditions. They divided some insects into subpopulations, then killed off any subpopulation whose numbers got too high, and “promoted” any subpopulation that kept its numbers low to better conditions. They hoped the insects would evolve to naturally limit their family size in order to keep their subpopulation alive. Instead, the insects became cannibals: they ate other insects’ children so they could have more of their own without the total population going up. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense; an insect with the behavioral program “have many children, and also kill other insects’ children” will have its genes better represented in the next generation than an insect with the program “have few children”.

But sometimes evolution appears to solve group selection problems. What about multicellular life? Stick some cells together in a resource-plentiful environment, and they’ll naturally do the evolutionary competition thing of eating resources as quickly as possible to churn out as many copies of themselves as possible. If you were expecting these cells to form a unitary organism where individual cells do things like become heart cells and just stay in place beating rhythmically, you would call the expected normal behavior “cancer” and be against it. Your opposition would be on firm group selectionist grounds: if any cell becomes cancer, it and its descendants will eventually overwhelm everything, and the organism (including all cells within it, including the cancer cells) will die. So for the good of the group, none of the cells should become cancerous.

The first step in evolution’s solution is giving all cells the same genome; this mostly eliminates the need to compete to give their genes to the next generation. But this solution isn’t perfect; cells can get mutations in the normal course of dividing and doing bodily functions. So it employs a host of other tricks: genetic programs telling cells to self-destruct if they get too cancer-adjacent, an immune system that hunts down and destroys cancer cells, or growing old and dying (this last one isn’t usually thought of as a “trick”, but it absolutely is: if you arrange for a cell line to lose a little information during each mitosis, so that it degrades to the point of gobbledygook after X divisions, this means cancer cells that divide constantly will die very quickly, but normal cells dividing on an approved schedules will last for decades).

Why can evolution “develop tricks” to prevent cancer, but not to prevent foxes from overbreeding, or aliens from losing their solar flare shields? Group selection works when the group itself has a shared genetic code (or other analogous ruleset) that can evolve. It doesn’t work if you expect it to directly change the genetic code of each individual to cooperate more.

When we think of cancer, we are at risk of conflating two genetic codes: the shared genetic code of the multicellular organism, and the genetic code of each cell within the organism. Usually (when there are no mutations in cell divisions) these are the same. Once individual cells within the organism start mutating, they become different. Evolution will select for cancer in changes to individual cells’ genomes over an organism’s lifetime, but select against it in changes to the overarching genome over the lifetime of the species (ie you should expect all the genes you inherited from your parents to be selected against cancer, and all the mutations in individual cells you’ve gotten since then to be selected for cancer).

The fox population has no equivalent of the overarching genome; there is no set of rules that govern the behavior of every fox. So foxes can’t undergo group selection to prevent overpopulation (there are some more complicated dynamics that might still be able to rescue the foxes in some situations, but they’re not relevant to the simple model we’re looking at).

In other words, group selection can happen in a two-layer hierarchy of nested evolutionary systems when the outer system (eg multicellular humans) includes rules that the inner system (eg human cells) have to follow, and where the fitness of the evolving-entities in the outer system depends on some characteristics of the evolving-entities in the inner system (eg humans are higher-fitness if their cells do not become cancerous). The evolution of the outer layer includes evolution over rulesets, and eventually evolves good strong rulesets that tell the inner-layer evolving entities how to behave, which can include group selection (eg humans evolve a genetic code that includes a rule “individual cells inside of me should not get cancer” and mechanisms for enforcing this rule).

You can find these kinds of two-layer evolutionary systems everywhere. For example, “cultural evolution” is a two-layer evolutionary system. In the hypothetical state of nature, there’s unrestricted competition – people steal from and murder each other, and only the strongest survive. After they form groups, the groups compete with each other, and groups that develop rulesets that prevent theft and murder (eg legal codes, religions, mores) tend to win those competitions. Once again, the outer layer (competition between cultures) evolves groups that successfully constrains the inner layer (competition between individuals). Species don’t have a czar who restrains internal competition in the interest of keeping the group strong, but some human cultures do (eg Russia).

Or what about market economics? The outer layer is companies, the inner layer is individuals. Maybe the individuals are workers – each worker would selfishly be best off if they spent the day watching YouTube videos and pushed the hard work onto someone else. Or maybe they’re executives – each individual executive would selfishly be best off if they spent their energy on office politics, trying to flatter and network with whoever was most likely to promote them. But if all the employees loaf off and all the executives focus on office politics, the company won’t make products, and competitors will eat their lunch. So someone – maybe the founder/CEO – comes up with a ruleset to incentivize good work, probably some kind of performance review system where people who do good work get promoted and people who do bad work get fired. The outer-layer competition between companies will select for corporations with the best rulesets; over time, companies’ internal politics should get better at promoting the kind of cooperation necessary to succeed.

How do these systems replicate multicellular life’s success without being literal entities with literal DNA having literal sex? They all involve a shared ruleset and a way of punishing rulebreakers which make it in each individual’s short-term interest to follow the ruleset that leads to long-term success. Countries can do that (follow the law or we’ll jail you), companies can do that (follow our policies or we’ll fire you), even multicellular life can sort of do that (don’t become cancer, or immune cells will kill you). When there’s nothing like that (like the overly-fast-breeding foxes) evolution fails at group selection problems. When there is something like that, it has a chance. When there’s something like that, and the thing like that is itself evolving (either because it’s encoded in literal DNA, or because it’s encoded in things like company policies that determine whether a company goes out of business or becomes a model for others), then it can reach a point where it solves group selection problems very effectively.

In the esoteric teachings, the inner layer of two-layer evolutionary systems is represented by the Goddess of Cancer, and outer layer by the Goddess of Everything Else. In each part of the poem, the Goddess of Cancer orders the evolving-entities to compete, but the Goddess of Everything Else recasts it as a two-layer competition where cooperation on the internal layer helps win the competition on the external layer. He who has ears to hear, let him listen.


Why the digression? Because slack is a group selection problem. A species that gave itself slack in its evolutionary competition would do better than one that didn’t – for example, the eyeless aliens would evolve eyes and get a big fitness boost. But no individual can unilaterally choose to compete less intensely; if it did, it would be outcompeted and die. So one-layer evolution will fail at this problem the same way it fails all group selection problems, but two-layer systems will have a chance to escape the trap.

The multicellular life example above is a special case where you want 100% coordination and 0% competition. I framed the other examples the same way – countries do best when their citizens avoid all competition and work together for the common good, companies do best when their executives avoid self-aggrandizing office politics and focus on product quality. But as we saw above, some systems do best somewhere in the middle, where there’s some competition but also some slack.

For example, consider a researcher facing their own version of the eyeless aliens’ dilemma. They can keep going with business as normal – publishing trendy but ultimately useless papers that nobody will remember in ten years. Or they can work on Research Program Part 1, which might lead to Research Program Part 2, which might lead to Research Program Part 3, which might lead to a ground-breaking insight. If their jobs are up for review every year, and a year from now the business-as-normal researcher will have five trendy papers, and the groundbreaking-insight researcher will be halfway through Research Program Part 1, then the business-as-normal researcher will outcompete the groundbreaking-insight researcher; as the saying goes, “publish or perish”. Without slack, no researcher can unilaterally escape the system; their best option will always be to continue business as usual.

But group selection makes the situation less hopeless. Universities have long time-horizons and good incentives; they want to get famous for producing excellent research. Universities have rulesets that bind their individual researchers, for example “after a while good researchers get tenure”. And since universities compete with each other, each is incentivized to come up with the ruleset that maximizes long-term researcher productivity. So if tenure really does work better than constant vicious competition, then (absent the usual culprits like resistance-to-change, weird signaling equilibria, politics, etc) we should expect universities to converge on a tenure system in order to produce the best work. In fact, we should expect universities to evolve a really impressive ruleset for optimizing researcher incentives, just as impressive as the clever mechanisms the human body uses to prevent cancer (since this seems a bit optimistic, I assume the usual culprits are not absent).

The same is true for grant-writing; naively you would want some competition to make sure that only the best grant proposals get funded, but too much competition seems to stifle original research, so much so that some funders are throwing out the whole process and selecting grants by lottery, and others are running grants you can apply for in a half-hour and hear back about two days later. If there’s a feedback mechanism – if these different rulesets produce different-quality research, and grant programs that produce higher-quality research are more likely to get funded in the future – then the rulesets for grants will gradually evolve, and the competition for grants will take place in an environment with whatever the right evolutionary parameters for evolving good research are.

I don’t want to say these things will definitely happen – you can read Inadequate Equilibria for an idea of why not. But they might. The evolutionary dynamics which would normally prevent them can be overcome. Two-layer evolutionary systems can produce their own slack, if having slack would be a good idea.


That was a lot of paragraphs, and a lot of them started with “imagine a hypothetical situation where…”. Let’s look deeper into cases where an understanding of slack can inform how we think about real-world phenomena. Seven examples:

1. Monopolies. Not the kind that survive off overregulation and patents, the kind that survive by being big enough to crush competitors. These are predators that exploit low-slack environments. If Boeing has a monopoly on building passenger planes, and is exploiting that by making shoddy products and overcharging consumers, then that means anyone else who built a giant airplane factory could make better products at a lower price, capture the whole airplane market, and become a zillionaire. Why don’t they? Slack. In terms of those adaptive fitness landscapes, in between your current position (average Joe) and a much better position at the bottom of a deep pit (you own a giant airplane factory and are a zillionaire), there’s a very big hill you have to climb – the part where you build Giant Airplane Factory Part 1, Giant Airplane Factory Part 2, etc. At each point in this hill, you are worse off than somebody who was not building an as-yet-unprofitable giant airplane factory. If you have infinite slack (maybe you are Jeff Bezos, have unlimited money, and will never go bankrupt no matter how much time and cost it takes before you start earning profits) you’re fine. If you have more limited slack, your slack will run out and you’ll be outcompeted before you make it to the greater-fitness deep pit.

Real monopolies are more complicated than this, because Boeing can shape up and cut prices when you’re halfway to building your giant airplane factory, thus removing your incentive. Or they can do actually shady stuff. But none of this would matter if you already had your giant airplane factory fully built and ready to go – at worst, you and Boeing would then be in a fair fight. Everything Boeing does to try to prevent you from building that factory is exploiting your slacklessness and trying to increase the height of that hill you have to climb before the really deep pit.

(Peter Thiel inverts the landscape metaphor and calls the hill a “moat”, but he’s getting at the same concept).

2. Tariffs. Same story. Here’s the way I understand the history of the international auto industry – anyone who knows more can correct me if I’m wrong. Automobiles were invented in the early 20th century. Several Western countries developed homegrown auto industries more or less simultaneously, with the most impressive being Henry Ford’s work on mass production in the US. Post-WWII Japan realized that its own auto industry would never be able to compete with more established Western companies, so it placed high tariffs on foreign cars, giving local companies like Nissan and Toyota a chance to get their act together. These companies, especially Toyota, invented a new form of auto production which was actually much more efficient than the usual American methods, and were eventually able to hold their own. They started exporting cars to the US; although American tariffs put them at a disadvantage, they were so much better than the American cars of the time that consumers preferred them anyway. After decades of losing out, the American companies adopted a more Japanese ethos, and were eventually able to compete on a level playing field again.

This is a story of things gone surprisingly right – Americans and Japanese alike were able to get excellent inexpensive cars. Two things had to happen for it to work. First, Japan had to have high enough tariffs to give their companies some slack – to let them develop their own homegrown methods from scratch without being immediately outcompeted by temporarily-superior American competitors. Second, America had to have low enough tariffs that eventually-superior Japanese companies could outcompete American automakers, and Japan’s fitness-improving innovations could spread.

From the perspective of a Toyota manager, this is analogous to the eyeless alien story. You start with some good-enough standard (blind animals, American car companies). You want to evolve a superior end product (eye-having animals, Toyota). The intermediate steps (an animal with only Eye Part 1, a kind of crappy car company that stumbles over itself trying out new things) are less fit than the good-enough standard. Only when the inferior intermediate steps are protected from competition (through evolutionary randomness, through tariffs) can the superior end product come into existence. But you want to keep enough competition that the superior end product can use its superiority to spread (there is enough evolutionary competition that having eyes reaches fixation, there is enough free trade that Americans preferentially buy Toyota and US car companies have to adopt its policies).

From the perspective of an economic historian, maybe it’s a group selection story. The various stakeholders in the US auto industry – Ford, GM, suppliers, the government, labor, customers – competed with each other in a certain way and struck some compromise. The various stakeholders in the Japanese auto industry did the same. For some reason the American compromise worked worse than the Japanese one – I’ve heard stories about how US companies were more willing to defraud consumers for short-term profit, how US labor unions were more willing to demand concessions even at the cost of company efficiency, how regulators and executives were in bed with each other to the detriment of the product, etc. Every US interest group was acting in its own short-term self-interest, but the Japanese industry-as-a-whole outcompeted the American one and the Americans had to adjust.

3. Monopolies, Part II. Traditionally, monopolies have been among the most successful R&D centers. The most famous example is Xerox; it had a monopoly on photocopiers for a few decades before losing an anti-trust suit in the late 1970s; during that period, its PARC R&D program invented “laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, graphical user interface (GUI) and desktop paradigm, object-oriented programming, [and] the mouse”. The second most famous example is Bell Labs, which invented “radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the photovoltaic cell, the charge-coupled device, information theory, the Unix operating system, and the programming languages B, C, C++, and S” before the government broke up its parent company AT&T. Google seems to be trying something similar, though it’s too soon to judge their outcomes.

These successes make sense. Research and development is a long-term gamble. Devoting more money to R&D decreases your near-term profits, but (hopefully) increases your future profits. Freed from competition, monopolies have limitless slack, and can afford to invest in projects that won’t pay off for ten or twenty years. This is part of Peter Thiel’s defense of monopolies in Zero To One.

An administrator tasked with advancing technology might be tempted to encourage monopolies in order to get more research done. But monopolies can also be stagnant and resistant to change; it’s probably not a coincidence that Xerox wasn’t the first company to bring the personal computer to market, and ended up irrelevant to the computing revolution. Like the eyeless aliens, who will not evolve in conditions of perfect competition or perfect lack of competition, probably all you can do here is strike a balance. Some Communist countries tried the extreme solution – one state-supported monopoly per industry – and it failed the test of group selection. I don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether countries with strong antitrust eventually outcompete those with weaker antitrust or vice versa.

4. Strategy Games. I like the strategy game Civilization, where you play as a group of primitives setting out to found a empire. You build cities and infrastructure, research technologies, and fight wars. Your world is filled with several (usually 2 to 7) other civilizations trying to do the same.

Just like in the real world, civilizations must decide between Guns and Butter. The Civ version of Guns is called the Axe Rush. You immediately devote all your research to discovering how to make really good axes, all your industry to manufacturing those axes, and all your population into wielding those axes. Then you go and hack everyone else to pieces while they’re still futzing about trying to invent pottery or something.

The Civ version of Butter is called Build. You devote all your research, industry, and populace to laying the foundations of a balanced economy and culture. You invent pottery and weaving and stuff like that. Soon you have a thriving trade network and a strong philosophical tradition. Eventually you can field larger and more advanced armies than your neighbors, and leverage the advantage into even more prosperity, or into military conquest.

Consider a very simple scenario: a map of Eurasia with two civilizations, Rome and China.

If both choose Axe Rush, then whoever Axe Rushes better wins.

If both choose Build, then whoever Builds better wins.

What if Rome chooses Axe Rush, and China chooses Build?

Then it depends on their distance! If it’s a very small map and they start very close together, Rome will probably overwhelm the Chinese before Build starts paying off. But if it’s a very big map, by the time Roman Axemen trek all the way to China, China will have Built high walls, discovered longbows and other defensive technologies, and generally become too strong for axes to defeat. Then they can crush the Romans – who are still just axe-wielding primitives – at their leisure.

Consider a more complicated scenario. You have a map of Earth. The Old World contains Rome and China. The New World contains Aztecs. Rome and China are very close to each other. Now what happens?

Rome and China spend the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages hacking each other to bits. Aztecs spend those Ages building cities, researching technologies, and building unique Wonders of the World that provide powerful bonuses. In 1492, they discover Galleons and start crossing the ocean. The powerful and advanced Aztec empire crushes the exhausted axe-wielding Romans and Chinese.

This is another story about slack. The Aztecs had it – they were under no competitive pressure to do things that paid off next turn. The Romans and Chinese didn’t – they had to be at the top of their game every single turn, or their neighbor would conquer them. If there was an option that made you 10% weaker next turn in exchange for making you 100% stronger ten turns down the line, the Aztecs could take it without a second thought; the Romans and Chinese would probably have to pass.

Okay, more complicated Civilization scenario. This time there are two Old World civs, Rome and China, and two New World civs, Aztecs and Inca. The map is stretched a little bit so that all four civilizations have the same amount of natural territory. All four players understand the map layout and can communicate with each other. What happens?

Now it’s a group selection problem. A skillful Rome player will private message the China player and explain all of this to her. She’ll remind him that if one hemisphere spends the whole Stone Age fighting, and the other spends it building, the builders will win. She might tell him that she knows the Aztec and Inca players, they’re smart, and they’re going to be discussing the same considerations. So it would benefit both Rome and China to sign a peace treaty dividing the Old World in two, stick to their own side, and Build. If both sides cooperate, they’ll both Build strong empires capable of matching the New World players. If one side cooperates and the other defects, it will easily steamroll over its unprepared opponent and conquer the whole Old World. If both sides defect, they’ll hack each other to death with axes and be easy prey for the New Worlders.

This might be true in Civilization games, but real-world civilizations are more complicated. Orson Welles said:

In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

So maybe a little bit of internal conflict is good, to keep you honest. Too much conflict, and you tear yourselves apart and are easy prey for outsiders. Too little conflict, and you invent the cuckoo clock and nothing else. The continent that conquers the world will have enough pressure that its people want to innovate, and enough slack that they’re able to.

This is total ungrounded amateur historical speculation, but when I hear that I think of the Classical world. We can imagine it as divided into a certain number of “theaters of civilization” – Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, India, Scythia, etc. Each theater had its own rules governing average state size, the rules of engagement between states, how often bigger states conquered smaller states, how often ideas spread between states of the same size, etc. Some of those theaters were intensely competitive: Egypt was a nice straight line, very suited to centralized rule. Others had more slack: it was really hard to take over all of Greece; even the Spartans didn’t manage. Each theater conducted its own “evolution” in its own way – Egypt was ruled by a single Pharaoh without much competition, Scythia was constant warfare of all against all, Greece was isolated city-states that fought each other sometimes but also had enough slack to develop philosophy and science. Each of those systems did their own thing for a while, until finally one of them produced something perfect: 4th century BC Macedonia. Then it went out and conquered everything.

If Welles is right, the point isn’t to find the ruleset that promotes 100% cooperation. It’s to find the ruleset that promotes an evolutionary system that makes your group the strongest. Usually this involves some amount of competition – in order to select for stronger organisms – but also some amount of slack – to let organisms develop complicated strategies that can make them stronger. Despite the earlier description, this isn’t necessarily a slider between 0% competition and 100% competition. It could be much more complicated – maybe alternating high-slack vs. low-slack periods, or many semi-isolated populations with a small chance of interaction each generation, or alternation between periods of isolation and periods of churning.

In a full two-layer evolution, you would let the systems evolve until they reached the best parameters. Here we can’t do that – Greece has however many mountains it has; its success does not cause the rest of the world to grow more mountains. Still, we randomly started with enough different groups that we got to learn something interesting.

(I can’t emphasize enough how ungrounded this historical speculation is. Please don’t try to evolve Alexander the Great in your basement and then get angry at me when it doesn’t work)

5. The Long-Term Stock Exchange. Actually, all stock exchanges are about slack. Imagine you are a brilliant inventor who, given $10 million and ten years, could invent fusion power. But in fact you have $10 and need work tomorrow or you will starve. Given those constraints, maybe you could start, I don’t know, a lemonade stand.

You’re in the same position as the animal trying to evolve an eye – you could create something very high-utility, if only you had enough slack to make it happen. But by default, the inventor working on fusion power starves to death tomorrow (or at least makes less money than his counterpart who ran the lemonade stand), the same way the animal who evolves Eye Part 1 gets outcompeted by other animals who didn’t and dies out.

You need slack. In the evolution example, animals usually stumble across slack randomly. You too might stumble across slack randomly – maybe it so happens that you are independently wealthy, or won the lottery, or something.

More likely, you use the investment system. You ask rich people to give you $10 million for ten years so you can invent fusion; once you do, you’ll make trillions of dollars and share some of it with them.

This is a great system. There’s no evolutionary equivalent. An animal can’t pitch Darwin on its three-step plan to evolve eyes and get free food and mating opportunities to make it happen. Wall Street is a giant multi-trillion dollar time machine funneling future profits back into the past, and that gives people the slack they need to make the future profits happen at all.

But the Long-Term Stock Exchange is especially about slack. They are a new exchange (approved by the SEC last year) which has complicated rules about who can list with them. Investors will get extra clout by agreeing to hold stocks for a long time; executives will get incentivized to do well in the far future instead of at the next quarterly earnings report. It’s making a deliberate choice to give companies more slack than the regular system and see what they do with it. I don’t know enough about investing to have an opinion, except that I appreciate the experiment. Presumably its companies will do better/worse than companies on the regular stock exchange, that will cause companies to flock toward/away from it, and we’ll learn that its new ruleset is better/worse at evolving good companies through competition than the regular stock exchange’s ruleset.

6. That Time Ayn Rand Destroyed Sears. Or at least that’s how Michael Rozworski and Leigh Phillips describe Eddie Lampert’s corporate reorganization in How Ayn Rand Destroyed Sears, which I recommend. Lampert was a Sears CEO who figured – since free-market competitive economies outcompete top-down economies, shouldn’t free-market competitive companies outcompete top-down companies? He reorganized Sears as a set of competing departments that traded with each other on normal free-market principles; if the Product Department wanted its products marketed, it would have to pay the Marketing Department. This worked really badly, and was one of the main contributors to Sears’ implosion.

I don’t have a great understanding of exactly why Lampert’s Sears lost to other companies even though capitalist economies beat socialist ones; Rozworski and Phillips’ People’s Republic Of Wal-Mart, which looks into this question, is somewhere on my reading list. But even without complete understanding, we can use group selection to evolve the right parameters. Imagine an economy with several businesses. One is a straw-man communist collective, where every worker gets paid the same regardless of output and there are no promotions (0% competition, 100% cooperation). Another is Lampert’s Sears (100% competition, 0% cooperation). Others are normal businesses, where employees mostly work together for the good of the company but also compete for promotions (X% competition, Y% cooperation). Presumably the normal business outcompetes both Lampert and the commies, and we sigh with relief and continue having normal businesses. And if some of the normal businesses outcompete others, we’ve learned something about the best values of X and Y.

7. Ideas. These are in constant evolutionary competition – this is the insight behind memetics. The memetic equivalent of slack is inferential range, aka “willingness to entertain and explore ideas before deciding that they are wrong”.

Inferential distance is the number of steps it takes to make someone understand and accept a certain idea. Sometimes inferential distances can be very far apart. Imagine trying to convince a 12th century monk that there was no historical Exodus from Egypt. You’re in the middle of going over archaeological evidence when he objects that the Bible says there was. You respond that the Bible is false and there’s no God. He says that doesn’t make sense, how would life have originated? You say it evolved from single-celled organisms. He asks how evolution, which seems to be a change in animals’ accidents, could ever affect their essences and change them into an entirely new species. You say that the whole scholastic worldview is wrong, there’s no such thing as accidents and essences, it’s just atoms and empty space. He asks how you ground morality if not in a striving to approximate the ideal embodied by your essence, you say…well, it doesn’t matter what you say, because you were trying to convince him that some very specific people didn’t leave Egypt one time, and now you’ve got to ground morality.

Another way of thinking about this is that there are two self-consistent equilibria. There’s your equilibrium, (no Exodus, atheism, evolution, atomism, moral nonrealism), and the monk’s equilibrium (yes Exodus, theism, creationism, scholasticism, teleology), and before you can make the monk budge on any of those points, you have to convince him of all of them.

So the question becomes – how much patience does this monk have? If you tell him there’s no God, does he say “I look forward to the several years of careful study of your scientific and philosophical theories that it will take for that statement not to seem obviously wrong and contradicted by every other feature of the world”? Or does he say “KILL THE UNBELIEVER”? This is inferential range.

Aristotle supposedly said that the mark of an educated man is to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. Inferential range explains why. The monk certainly shouldn’t immediately accept your claim, when he has countless pieces of evidence for the existence of God, from the spectacular faith healings he has witnessed (“look, there’s this thing called psychosomatic illness, and it’s really susceptible to this other thing called the placebo effect…”) to Constantine’s victory at the Mulvian Bridge despite being heavily outnumbered (“look, I’m not a classical scholar, but some people are just really good generals and get lucky, and sometimes it happens the day after they have weird dreams, I think there’s enough good evidence the other way that this is not the sort of thing you should center your worldview around”). But if he’s willing to entertain your claim long enough to hear your arguments one by one, eventually he can reach the same self-consistent equilibrium you’re at and judge for himself.

Nowadays we don’t burn people at the stake. But we do make fun of them, or flame them, or block them, or wander off, or otherwise not listen with an open mind to ideas that strike us at first as stupid. This is another case where we have to balance competition vs. slack. With perfect competition, the monk instantly rejects our “no Exodus” idea as less true (less memetically fit) than its competitors, and it has no chance to grow on him. With zero competition, the monk doesn’t believe anything at all, or spends hours patiently listening to someone explain their world-is-flat theory. Good epistemics require a balance between being willing to choose better ideas over worse ones, and open-mindedly hearing the worse ones out in case they grow on you.

(Thomas Kuhn points out that early versions of the heliocentric model were much worse than the geocentric model, that astronomers only kept working on them out of a sort of weird curiosity, and that it took decades before they could clearly hold their own against geocentrism in a debate).

Different people strike a different balance in this space, and those different people succeed or fail based on their own epistemic ruleset. Someone who’s completely closed-minded and dogmatic probably won’t succeed in business, or science, or the military, or any other career (except maybe politics). But someone who’s so pathologically open-minded that they listen to everything and refuse to prioritize what is or isn’t worth their time will also fail. We take notice of who succeeds or fails and change our behavior accordingly.

Maybe there’s even a third layer of selection; maybe different communities are more or less willing to tolerate open-minded vs. close-minded people. The Slate Star Codex community has really different epistemic norms from the Catholic Church or Infowars listeners; these are evolutionary parameters that determine which ideas are more memetically fit. If our epistemics make us more likely to converge on useful (not necessarily true!) ideas, we will succeed and our epistemic norms will catch on. Francis Bacon was just some guy with really good epistemic norms, and now everybody who wants to be taken seriously has to use his norms instead of whatever they were doing before. Come up with the right evolutionary parameters, and that could be you!

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